Indonesia’s Queer Panic

Krithika Varagur

Zulfikar Fahd, an openly gay Indonesian man, received asylum in Canada last month. He fled there from Jakarta last year, citing his government’s failure to protect LGBT citizens. Representing himself without a lawyer, he produced 91 pages of evidence before the Immigration and Refugee Board in Toronto.

It is unlikely he would have had such a strong case five years ago. According to Human Rights Watch, Indonesia’s queer panic began in January 2016, when several prominent politicians, including the vice-president, issued strong anti-LGBT statements. They were reacting to queer student activism at the University of Indonesia, but the discourse rapidly took on a life of its own. Indonesians went to the polls to elect a new president today. Neither the incumbent, Joko Widodo, nor his opponent has a significant track record of supporting LGBT rights. Queer activists have been at the forefront of the voter abstention movement. Early counting suggests Widodo will serve another five years in office.

In May 2017 I witnessed the public caning of a gay couple in Aceh. It was the first time that corporal punishment had been meted out for sodomy. (But not the last.) Six months later, in Jakarta, I had coffee with one of the men who had been beaten. He was working as a cook on a cargo ship that looped around Sumatra, Batam and Java, and had docked in the capital for a week. A local gay rights activist had arranged our meeting. The man had grown out his hair and beard, and wore a baseball cap pulled low. He whispered. He said that life had been pleasantly anonymous on the ship for a while, but then one of his crew mates found a video of the caning online. ‘I don’t feel happy or sad,’ he said, staring into his plastic cup. ‘I just feel nothing.’

Aceh is the only Indonesian province ruled by shari’a, so no queer Indonesian outside that province stands to be caned. But the crackdown on LGBT rights is a national phenomenon. It includes raids on saunas and private parties in the Javanese cities of Jakarta and Surabaya; anti-LGBT lessons being added to school curriculums in West Java; and threats to make ‘being LGBT’ illegal in East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. In Bali, a transgender beauty pageant was forced to go underground after sustained attack from Islamist groups. The caning victims in Aceh were arrested after a vigilante raid by the Islamic Defenders’ Front, whose headquarters are in Jakarta. The federal Communications and Information Ministry petitioned Instagram to remove a gay Muslim comic artist's account, citing anti-pornography laws, which have been used to criminalise LGBT citizens even though homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia.

The abbreviation LGBT is widely used in Bahasa Indonesia and, especially among homophobes, is more common than other quasi-loanwords such as gay, lesbi or homoseks. Many use it without knowing what exactly LGBT stands for, which in itself helps to isolate queerness as a foreign imposition. ‘It’s discussed as a threat from the West that can “infect” anyone,’ I was told by Sandeep Nanwani, a doctor who works extensively with queer communities in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. ‘People will say that certain events “berbau LGBT”, or “smell of LGBT”.’

An education official said in February 2016 that ‘LGBT ideology is contagious, like the PKI’. He was referring to the alleged threat from the Indonesian Communist Party that was the pretext for the military-led mass murder of up to a million leftists in 1965 and 1966. Even today, five decades after it was outlawed, the threat of ‘PKI’ is revived to suppress dissidents and to drum up red scares.

Gay and lesbi Indonesians understand their social worlds in national rather than simply global terms,’ the anthropologist Tom Boellstorff wrote in The Gay Archipelago (2005). Only since the 1970s, he says, have Indonesians even been calling themselves gay and lesbi, thanks in part to Bahasa Indonesia mass media. He calls this ‘dubbing culture’: globalised English concepts overlaid on local Indonesian lived experiences.

There are pockets of queer Indonesian history, like the bissu, transvestite Bugis priests in Sulawesi, that have been cited to rebuke the idea that LGBT identities came from elsewhere. But it may also be productive to unpack the illogic of the term LGBT in Indonesia. Elizabeth Pisani, the author of Indonesia etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation (2014), has called it a ‘daft acronym’ to use here, since it groups together people who are ‘socially, culturally and politically very differently positioned in Indonesian society’.

Yet they are more united now than ever, by circumstance, as shared targets of an extended crackdown that has crippled communities still in the process of articulating themselves. There are thousands of Indonesians, from Fahd to the young men caned in Aceh, whose lives have been driven far off course in the last three years.

The gay panic seemed to come out of nowhere and is now everywhere, but it may yet fade. Last year, when Indonesia’s legislature considered actively criminalising gay sex as part of a revised Criminal Code, there was an unusually large pushback from civil society and activist groups, as well as domestic and international media. Lawmakers removed the clauses referring specifically to extramarital sex from the draft legislation, leaving only prohibitions on ‘forced sex’ and 'sex with violence’. And some activist groups use LGBT terminology themselves, such as Arus Pelangi, the Indonesian Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual And Intersexual Communities. They are contesting the anti-LGBT discourse on its own terms.