Threats, violence, hope : what it’s like to be a gay activist in Indonesia


Kathmandu (Pahichan) May 31 – In 1982, Dédé Oetomo established Lambda Indonesia, the first ever LGBT organisation in Indonesia. Witnessing increasing public discussion on LGBT issues, Oetomo and his colleagues set up a newsletter where LGBT+ Indonesians could write in for advice, and were soon receiving up to 40 letters per week. While Lambda was shut down in 1984, Oetomo continued his activism, establishing GAYa NUSANTARA, an organisation focused on sexual health and sexuality education, in 1987. 

Despite having over 30 years of activism under his belt, nothing had really prepared Oetomo for the ‘unprecedented attack’ on LGBT+ people over the past two years, which has forced Oetomo and his colleagues to fundamentally change the way they work.

“To be gay or lesbian or transgender in Indonesia is already dangerous,” Oetomo explains. “So, I guess if you manage to start some kind of LGBT life, you sort of prepare. You at least prepare that there are dangers and you got to be careful.”

“But, this is unprecedented. This is new for us,” he continues, describing the worsening situation: “Although you know from 2010 there have been attacks on film festivals, on conferences, what’s happening now does overwhelm us.”

The attacks on LGBT people in Indonesia worsened at the start of 2016, when the Minister for Higher Education – Muhammad Nasir Djamil – denounced the Support Group and Resource Center on Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Indonesia and stated that he forbade the existence of LGBT-oriented groups at universities.

This intervention created a cascade of violence, with growing calls for homosexuality to be criminalised, and an increase of threats, vitriol and violent attacks on LGBT people and events by state commissions, militant Islamists, and mainstream religious organisations. The Indonesian Psychiatrists Association even relisted homosexuality as a mental disorder, while the fundamentalist group The Islamic Jihadist Front forced the closure of an Islamic boarding school and mosque for transgender women in Yogyakarta.

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This year, the violence has escalated even further. In recent months there have been police raids of gay parties in Surabaya and Jakarta, with over 150 men arrested in total. Last week two men were publicly caned in the province of Aceh for having gay sex.

For an organisation like GAYa NUSANTARA this has meant moving from being a well-established public group to one that suddenly has to work underground in order to protect itself and its members.

Oetomo explains the measures they go to in order to keep their events safe. “We have no announcement, no banners, we only publish pictures afterwards, we don’t even mention the name of the programme and – at least in east Java – we use a front, we collaborate with more acceptable organisations, which are not LGBT,” he says, explaining that they often work with an interfaith organisation and have them be the “face” of the programme.

“We sort of don’t show ourselves, even on our letterhead the postal address of our office is not there. It’s not on our website,” he says. “The national networks cannot publish contacts of activists, which actually does bother them. Yeah, so that’s new.”

Even with these precautions, GAYa NUSANTARA has faced threats from radical groups, having to cancel events dues to fears of violence.

“Last year we had two events cancelled at the request of the police. One was actually supposed to be a party,” he says. “ It was at the end of an HIV testing campaign, which officially was a national programme from the Ministry of Health, and we had to stop it.”

The second event, Oetomo says, was a film screening, cancelled because the organisation mentioned “one of our allies from the Muslim group we work with, and he’s been singled out by the hardliners as somebody who is not acceptable”.

This ‘singling out’ of activists is something that is also new. Oetomo spoke about one activist who travelled to Aceh during the recent public canings. This activist was named by vigilante groups, with threats that they would be executed if found. Oetomo has also faced this attention.

“Two weeks ago I was supposed to give a talk on gender and sexual diversity on a campus somewhere in east Java,” he explains. “A group called The Islamic Army of Jember caught wind of it. It was easy enough, because there were, you know, my pictures, on Twitter and everything, because the organiser would like people to register for the talk. So, this is unprecedented. They didn’t usually look for somebody. They actually single out people, although my talk happened, and my friend who they were looking for is now safe in Jakarta.”

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Human Rights Watch have released a statement denouncing the treatment of the men, stating that the police continue to violate the rights and privacy of LGBTQI people in Indonesia.

Once focused on increasing education and advocacy, GAYa NUSANTARA is now focusing its energy on protecting those under attack.

“We cannot change the law, we cannot just ask the police to release those guys,” Oetomo says of the Aceh case. “But at least we make sure that police know that we are on it.” Referencing incidents in Surabaya and Jakarta, he says that “the results are they are okay, no torture, they were actually saved by police from bullying by the other detainees,” adding “with our police, once they know that human rights lawyers are on a case, they’re very careful.”

This focus on protection is being met with a new longer-term goal to reverse this anti-LGBT+ trend, one focused largely on younger generations.

“We’ve our changed our vision,” Oetomo explains, “It’s a longer term vision now. The longer vision is building the foundation. There’s a lot of younger activists now, you know, in their 20s, 30s, and we see them as, you know, we educate them to be effective human rights defenders, and some of them may run for office and politics.”

It is in these activists that Oetomo still finds hope.

“You know, I think the positive side of this from our side as activists is that we don’t sit quietly,” he says, noting that after a gym in Jakarta was raided at 8pm, lawyers were at the police station before midnight. He adds: “Amazingly in Aceh, the eve of the floggings, activists still met secretly, to actually strategise what to do after.”

“Our activists still do outreach, very carefully. Ordinary life is still going,” he says.

It is this careful activism, and this ordinary life, that will hopefully be the vanguard against an era of unprecedented attacks.

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