The dark side of LGBT awareness in Indonesia
Writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies
Since 2016, minorities of gender and sexuality — “LGBT” (lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people) — have become among main targets by a conservative backlash. While in the past decade the community suffered violent attacks from religious vigilante groups, now the attack comes through criminalization efforts and greater surveillance and control. Last year, the Islamic group Family Love Alliance, AILA, demanded the Constitutional Court to include consensual homosexual relationships and practices into the Criminal Code, and lawmakers have planned to ban “LGBT-related content” through amendment of the 2002 Broadcasting Law.
Despite arguably being the most contentious bill with more than four-year-long debates, the House of Representatives has no hesitance to cleanse public space from LGBT-related contents. As The Jakarta Post reported, article 61 of the draft amendment explicitly includes “LGBT behavior” as one of the 12 criteria of broadcasting contents to be prohibited. Further, article 140 also stipulates that all movies, dramas, and advertisements should be screened by the censorship agency to get rid of the LGBT-related contents. Despite the ambiguous definition of what constitutes “LGBT behavior”, lawmakers agreed that it is dangerous to children and against the “Indonesian culture”.
Such a move is clearly a violation of human rights and freedom of expression, and it also shows how the term LGBT has been politicized.
This process has led to shifts of the local gender and sexuality landscape. In the past decade, the entertainment industry was no stranger to the appearance of men with feminine mannerism— for example, the late comedian Tessy of the Srimulat group, the actor Aming, and late TV presenters Tata Dado and Olga Syahputra.
Their regular appearances did not provoke efforts to criminalize or even conflate it with the term LGBT. However, the anti-LGBT vitriol last year has relatively contributed to and changed this “unspeakable tolerance” as “LGBT behavior”. In this case, comedy shows featuring men and women behaving like the opposite gender will be banned from the air.
It appears that since 2016 the term LGBT has entered common parlance through the moral panic created by conservative groups, mass media, officials, politicians and religious organizations. They conflate LGBT with “Western intervention”, “pedophilia”, “proxy wars”, “HIV infections”, “sex parties and pornography”, “transactional sex” and even more surprisingly, “overconsumption of instant noodles”. These extreme framings of LGBT in media reports have offered fertile ground to justify and spread fear and moral panic of sexual minorities.
The sudden popularization of the LGBT term has transformed the meaning. As such, it does not strictly refer to an acronym of a variety of gender and/or sexual identities, but instead is now being used as a single category to address a person with non-normative gender and/or sexual identity. I was quite perplexed when my friends labeled me LGBT, instead of a gay or homosexual man as before. Given this, in addition to such a bizarre understanding, the term “LGBT behavior” mostly targets men and women with non-normative gender expressions, particularly men with feminine mannerism. Through these extreme media reports, those LGBT individuals perceivably carry moral threats.
So how has this political transformation of the “LGBT” term actually changed the local landscape?
Firstly, this LGBT-ization has increasingly pushed back the local terms, formerly in commonly use in Indonesians’ everyday life. In A Coincidence of Desires, a book published in 2007, the professor Tom Boellstorff describes that the Indonesian colloquial terms banci and bencong, for instance, were used to denote “effeminate men”, which distinguished them from waria (wanita-pria/female-male). The latter originates in government dictates in 1978, through the efforts of Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin to assist these groups.
Boellstorff writes as waria is difficult to be translated into English, the more appropriate translation would be “male transvestite”, as they usually see themselves as men and remain as men in some way. Some waria have said they believe they were born with a female soul. Therefore, there are multiple differences between banci, bencong, and waria. An effeminate man can be called bencong, but not waria. Some waria dressed in female attire might be offended if addressed as banci. Now these complex terms and their nuances are all lumped altogether into the single LGBT category.
Secondly, globalization and popularization of LGBT rights and identities, including the push to same-sex marriage, has also significantly contributed to a new fear in Indonesia. Lawmaker Supiadin Aries Saputra of NasDem party argued, “If people personally want to have a different sexual orientation, it’s up to them. But they should not make it into a formal statement or organization”.
This statement highlights how the adoption of this discourse for recognition of sexual minorities by local LGBT activists has led to a conservative backlash at the local levels. Now sexuality has been made transparent and attached to citizenship rights claims, including recognition, which is deemed foreign in Indonesian society where sex is considered taboo. As the LGBT identity is increasingly visible, LGBT politicization has found its anchor.
Indonesian LGBT activism has allegedly been conflated with public homosexual propaganda and efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. Thus, it is no exaggeration that such increased visibilityof identity and activism have pushed further marginalization of those identities into policies. If beforehand those non-normative genders and sexualities were not relatively popular and not perceived as threats, nowadays they have incited hostility and moral panic.
The fact that the term LGBT sounds foreign will be exploited by conservative groups to consolidate their political positions. I have just met some young Indonesian scholars in Canberra who similarly asserted that the LGBT term is easily conflated with foreign threats and hence, malleably associated with multiple negative meanings.
Is there any other way to move away from these labels and adopt a more local terminology? Is there also any other strategic way to shift from sexual identity politics, which do not work well in the Indonesian context? These are the next crucial questions that we, including Indonesian LGBT activists, must carefully reflect on and answer.
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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