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Indonesian Women's March: When women and LGBT people unite

  • Hendri Yulius
    Hendri Yulius

    Writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies

Jakarta | Wed, March 8, 2017 | 10:08 am
Indonesian Women's March: When women and LGBT people unite 2006 Miss Transgender Indonesia Merlyn Sopjan (left) expressed her enthusiasm during "Women's March Jakarta 2017" on March 4. (JP/Ni Nyoman Wira)

A crowd mostly wearing pink outfits assembled in front of the Sarinah Plaza on the morning of March 4. Young and old, men, women, transgenders and people with disability then walked together to the National Monument yelling, “Women move forward! They can’t be stopped! Women unite! They can’t be defeated!” Banners highlighting gender issues were raised up, rainbow color flags and decorations waving in the air, representing Indonesian LGBT communities.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Indonesia’s Women March was not only about women rights. One of the organizers, Kate Walton, asserted that the march aimed to address current politics that ignore the rights of marginalized groups, including LGBT, people with disability, and indigenous people.

As I talked to a transgender woman activist I began to notice the importance of exploring the relations between LGBT activisms and women’s movements in Indonesia.

The year 2016 was a bleak year for Indonesian LGBT. Various officials, politicians, and religious organizations publicly denounced Indonesian LGBT through derogatory statements conflating consented same-sex relationship with pedophilia, mental illness, and sexual deviance.

Further, while in the past years religious vigilante groups, particularly the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), were the actors behind the raids and attacks against queer activism, it does not help that the government stated that there is no place for LGBT movements in the country. International organizations were asked to stop working on the issue and channeling supports to local LGBT organizations.

To juggle in this hostile landscape, LGBT activism is   therefore forced to build tactical moves to ensure the movement’s survival, while still generating incremental changes.

Merging with the women’s movements is one of the tactics. The history of Indonesian lesbian activism demonstrates that the lesbian (and transgender) movement can be the bridge to link the LGBT and women’s movements, which share similar objectives —to address stigma and discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality.

While the first homosexual organization in Indonesia is a gay organization, Lambda Indonesia, there were also a number of small lesbian organizations or networks in the 1980s and 1990s, such as SAPHO, Perlesin (Persatuan Lesbian Indonesia orAssociation of Indonesian Lesbians), and Chandra Kirana.

According to LGBT activist RR Sri Agustine, in December 1998 lesbian issues were discussed for the first time in the Women’s Congress in Yogyakarta, the event which gave birth to the Indonesian Womens’ Coalition (Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia). There were 15 priority issues identified by the movements, including the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues that were then labeled as “Sector 15”.

The globalization of LGBT rights discourse in the 2000s has contributed to the changing landscape of the Indonesian sexual minorities movements. The term LGBT rights emerged, strengthened by the conception of the Yogyakarta Principles in 2006 and other international human rights discourses.

Simply put, the Yogyakarta Principles developed by international human rights experts outline a set of human rights standards on sexual orientation and gender identity.

 Increased application of the term LGBT rights and shared solidarity emboldened activists to consolidate the movements. In 2010, not long after the raid against the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) Conference in Surabaya, activists for the very first time formed the Indonesian LGBTIQ Forum that tried to consolidate the diverse sexual and gender identities.

However, the forum staggered due to internal politics among the organizations involved. Further, it is difficult for LGBT activists to obtain permit for their events just because of their identities.

The presence of a platform between LGBT Indonesians and the government is pivotal. The National Commission on Anti-Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) openly acknowledges lesbian and waria [inadequately translated as transgender women] as “social women” [perempuan sosial].

Its annual reports on violence against women incorporate violence cases against lesbian, bisexual, and transgenderwomen. These moves help LGBT activisms to escalate and sustain interactions with the state through Komnas Perempuan.  

Since 2016 there have been legal efforts to outlaw homosexuality through the revision of the Penal Code, which does not penalize consented homosexual relationship. An Islamic pro-family group, the Family Love Alliance (Aliansi Cinta Keluarga/ AILA) is at the forefront of this attempt.

The AILA representatives are mostly women positioning themselves as “mothers” that aim to protect family, children, and the young generation’s moral fiber. Due to long-term state  glorification of motherhood, mother figures have been imbued with moral superiority, central to Indonesian society. When mothers protest, there is something big at stake. By presenting themselves as mothers, AILA is appealing and attractive to the public.

To respond, LGBT activism must also have adaptive and strategic counteracts. Given the unfortunate fact that many Indonesians still do not fully understand what LGBT is and thus condemn it as abnormality, it might be counterproductive to present LGBT individuals, for example in the hearing of the judicial review that would outlaw extramarital and homosexuality.

 In addition to placing the activists in peril, the presence of non-LGBT individuals, activists, and experts to defend LGBT people showcases that there are people that accept and their sexuality is not “contagious”. It was good to see Komnas Perempuan  last year appearing in the judicial review hearing to challenge the conservative initiatives demanding the state to infiltrate private spheres.

In the end, far from being fixed and rigidly structured, social movements always evolve at particular times and at particular places. Their tactics, strategies, and developments are consequently contingent, demonstrating dynamic interactions between the larger sociopolitical terrains and actors involved.

 The actors here refer to not merely only human beings, but also to non-human entities, such as culture, technology, and social media. I see social movements as open-ended struggles that always attune to changes. So are the LGBT and women’s movements in Indonesia that have now become the spearhead of preserving the country’s diversity.


The writer, who obtained his Master’s in public policy from the National University of Singapore, is the writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies. He is currently pursuing his Masters by Research in Gender and Cultural Studies in The University of Sydney. See other writings by Hendri Yulius here.


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