Anti-gay actions in Indonesia threaten a fragile community

Anti-gay actions in Indonesia threaten a fragile community

First, a senior Indonesian government minister called for a ban on gay groups on university campuses. Another official pressured smartphone instant-messaging services to drop gay- and lesbian-themed emoticons, prompting one company to comply.

Then, the nation's broadcast regulator and its child welfare agency teamed up to urge an end to programming "advocating" gay and related concerns, in part because of an ostensible rash of cross-dressing among boys.

The sudden onslaught of anti-gay speech and of recommendations aimed at chipping away at the already fragile social standing of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country has caught most human rights activists here by surprise. "It has been one thing after another," Dede Oetomo, a veteran gay rights activist, said on Monday. "At first, I thought it was just a storm in a teacup. But the teacup is getting bigger."

The storm began brewing three weeks ago, when Muhammad Nasir, the minister of research, technology and higher education, was quoted in the domestic news media as saying that a counseling group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people on the campus of the University of Indonesia threatened the "values and morals" of college students.

That same week, Ridwan Kamil, the mayor of the country's third-largest city, Bandung, was quoted by the local news media as calling for a ban on gay and related content on social media. Shortly after, Islamic vigilantes attacked boardinghouses in Bandung in search of gays and lesbians.

Last week, in response to pressure from the Communications Ministry, the smartphone messaging app Line agreed to remove a group of emojis for sale on its online store. The images included cartoons of cross-dressers applying makeup and of muscular men wearing skimpy towels. Another messaging app, WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, offers gay-themed emojis for free, albeit less colourful ones.

Finally, late last week, the National Commission for Child Protection said it fully supported a ban on gay-oriented content on the nation's airwaves.

According to the local news media, a spokeswoman for the agency said that transgender comedians had "brainwashed" some boys to be effeminate.

The administration of President Joko Widodo has been slow to address the hostile speech, despite homosexuality not being illegal in Indonesia.

Luhut Pandjaitan, a former Suharto-era general and now a powerful senior minister as coordinator of political, legal and security affairs, said gays and lesbians deserved equal protection under the law. At the same time, he suggested that they might need psychological and religious counselling.

It is unclear whether the recent statements would lead to new restrictions.

Even so, the national atmosphere regarding gay rights may be growing more highly charged.

Mr Oetomo, the veteran activist, said that a party in Surabaya this month organised around encouraging attendees to be tested for HIV was halted by the local police for not having the proper permits.

Human rights campaigners say the situation is all the more surprising because of how modest activists' requests are relative to movements in Western countries.

"They aren't advocating for same-sex marriage, for example," said Kyle Knight, a researcher on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights at Human Rights Watch in New York, which is calling on Mr Joko's administration to mount a fuller defence of the community.

"What they seek is fundamental: security and freedom of assembly," he said. "Suggesting that LGBT students don't have the right to gather or that they need religious instruction or otherwise indicates a brittle understanding of diversity."

Anti-gay attacks are not new in Indonesia.

A gay film festival in Jakarta, the capital, has been a frequent target for vigilantes.

Last year, the country's leading Islamic clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council, urged legislation requiring caning or even the death penalty for anyone convicted of engaging in homosexual acts.

The reasons for the recent surge in animosity are unclear. Coming elections may be one. Next year, the governorship of Jakarta is up for grabs.

The incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, is popular thanks to public perceptions of his work tackling the city's traffic problems and corruption. But as a Christian and an ethnic Chinese, he may be vulnerable. Mr Kamil, the Bandung mayor, is seen as a potential challenger.

The latest round of homophobia may also be traced to the terrorist attack last month in the capital that left eight people dead. Activists suggest that the focus on gay people could be helping deflect any backlash against conservative Islam for the attack.

On social media, the response by some to the efforts to restrict gay-themed content has been disbelief.

One person noted that, as Indonesia considered a ban on emoticons, the rest of the world was contemplating the fabric of space and time after the confirmation of gravitational waves.

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