Backstage of a crisis: LGBT under threat

This week, Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report detailing the impacts of Indonesia’s recent anti-LGBT backlash.


Jumat, 12 Agus 2016 15:58 WIB


Nicole Curby

The transgender cabaret show in Yogyakarta has been performing twice a week for at least five years.

The transgender cabaret show in Yogyakarta has been performing twice a week for at least five years. (Photo: Ania Anderst)

In February this year, the Indonesian defence minister compared LGBT, or lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender, people to a nuclear threat.

It was just one amongst a torrent of anti-LGBT comments that engulfed Indonesian media in the first few months of this year, in the most widespread outpouring of homophobia the country has seen to date.

This week, Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report detailing the impacts of Indonesia’s recent anti-LGBT backlash.

Nicole Curby has this story from Jakarta.

The crowd is going wild as a Beyoncé impersonator takes to the stage in a silver sequined leotard.

An audience member is pulled on to the stage and fake breasts are wobbled in his face

It’s a full house here at Oyot Godhong Café, in Yogyakarta.

Here’s one of the performers I met backstage.

“My name is Miss Sarita Karma Sutra, I perform in Reminton Cabaret Show. We perform every Friday and Saturday at 7pm … Please come, come, because you can see my costume. Sometimes like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Jessie J, Shakira.”

After the show, the audience rush to take photographs with the glamorous performers.

But transgender women – or waria - are not always greeted with so much enthusiasm in Yogyakarta.

In February this year, hardline Islamic groups threatened the longstanding Islamic boarding school for waria, forcing it to close down.

Kyle Knight is a researcher with Human Rights Watch, and produced an in-depth report into the upsurge in anti-LGBT vitriol that has swept through Indonesia this year.

“We saw the police failing to protect LGBT people when they were attacked by militant Islamist groups. We saw activists who had to burn their files and shut down their offices and stop conducting all of their activities.”

Knight continued, “and perhaps the most heartbreaking part was interviewing people who their entire lives had never experienced abuse or harassment from neighbours and family members, but all of a sudden because the media coverage was so negative, and because this social sanction for abuse was coming from the highest levels of government, people who had previously been allies or at least accepted their LGBT friends and neighbors and family members, all of a sudden were turning on them.”

The recent Human Rights Watch Report calls the local harassment, institutional discrimination and random violence faced by LGBT groups in recent months, a crisis.

Read the full report here  

Until recently, LGBT Indonesians have largely lived with a mix of tolerance and quiet stigma, according to Dédé Oetomo, an academic who has been an LGBT activist in Indonesia since 1987.

“I’m not going to deny there’s violence, especially for transwomen, in the streets, in the parks, in the neighborhoods. But,” continued Oetomo, “once you’re past that, once you’ve actually proved useful - also for gays and lesbians in the family- usually once you’ve proved useful, you’re accepted. With a grudge. So, as has been said over the years, it’s possible to live as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, whatever. You may not want to tell too many people…”

But says Dédé Oetomo, with increasing visibility in recent times, LGBT groups have also faced greater danger.

In many parts of Indonesia LGBT people no longer able to gather in groups, for fear of being attacked.

Activists and those providing support services, including HIV/AIDS assistance have been among the most affected, says Kyle Knight from Human Rights Watch.

“They’re scared. They’ve taken measures to protect themselves, which include destroying files, which include not holding events, include not advertising their address, being extremely skeptical of new people they meet who are trying to access their services,” explains Knight.

“And this is where it’s scary. This is where they have been curtailed by this crisis, and they’re taking protective measures, which means their outreach is not as wide as it used to be,” says Knight.

Under Indonesian law, gay sex is not criminalized.

However, according to advocacy group Arus Pelangi, some local governments have enforced laws that seriously target and impinge on the fundamental rights of LGBT people.

And now there is an attempt to outlaw gay sex at a national level, with a hearing currently underway at the Constitutional Court.

But at his Surabaya-based organization Gaya Nusantara, seasoned activist Dédé Oetomo says volunteers keep trickling in, as LGBT people show resilience despite the attacks leveled at them.

“It’s amazing how in the increasingly homophobic and trans-phobic environment, people keep coming out,” Oetomo said.

“And what is encouraging is that -not in droves- but every month or so there’s always one or two young people -could be LGBT people themselves or allies- come up and say we would like to volunteer, we would like to be interns.”

 In the meantime, events like the Reminton Cabaret Show in Yogyakarta suggest that LGBT Indonesia won’t just disappear, even though life is becoming more difficult.

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