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Jakarta Post

Homophobia from below: Everyone can be gay in Indonesia

  • Hendri Yulius
    Hendri Yulius

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

Jakarta   /   Tue, January 2, 2018   /   04:21 pm
Homophobia from below: Everyone can be gay in Indonesia Sexuality has made into the public realm through categorizations and regulations. (Shutterstock/File)

After an almost two-year intense debate and battle, the Constitutional Court finally rejected the Family Love Alliance (Aliansi Cinta Keluarga/AILA) proposal to outlaw consented sex between people of the same sex. AILA aimed to amend the Criminal Code articles that only penalize same-sex relations with minor. Eerily, this demand was also accompanied by a proposition to criminalize sex outside legal marriage.

This decision demonstrates that the state’s responses are far from uniform when it comes to LGBT issues. As I argued elsewhere, different actors came with different political stance on LGBT issues.

During the 2016 anti-LGBT hysteria, Vice President Jusuf Kalla argued that the state did not need to interfere into issues of sexuality.Then coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs Luhut Panjaitan also said LGBT people should be treated equally before the law. Even more intriguing is President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s suggestion that the police must protect LGBT from threats.

These statements show that the state is not a uniform and inherently homophobic entity. But rather, it is AILA and civil society in general that are acting as the vanguard of criminalization of LGBT.

This homophobic civil society action unfortunately continues in different forms.

Not so long after this small victory in the Constitutional Court, another homophobic action also came from the public. A netizen named Sri Mulyani on Dec. 21   uploaded on her Facebook a short video showing two men demonstrating “mutual affection” on a motorbike.

The video went viral with netizens accusing the men for being gays, leading to cyber bullying. It was later revealed   they were siblings who had not met for a long time. Furthermore, such public display of affection between men is common in the Middle-Eastern culture, which both come from. Reportedly due to stress, their mother fell ill and the brothers were traumatized to the point of refusing to leave home.

What does this false accusation reveal about the contours of the rising homophobia in Indonesia?

These surveillances are unsurprisingly recurring in recent persecution against LGBT communities. Apart from the aforementioned video, in March last year, a group of vigilantes invaded a house to arrest two men in Aceh for allegedly having same-sex relationships. Before bringing those men to the police, attempts to violently torture, insult, record the pair, and circulate the video in social media were inevitable, which then contributed to the canning of both under the sharia law for consensual sex.

Technology has been increasingly used to capture and publicly shame those labeled as LGBT or engaged in homosexual acts. In May 2017, the police arrested 141 men in a raid of an allegedly gay sauna in North Jakarta, and let the pictures of those men, alongside their personal details, distributed in social media.

These incidents and AILA’s proposal to outlaw homosexuality and extramarital sex can be thought of as “homophobia from below”, describing in which members of the public have  become the active actors in persecution against LGBT people, and even demand for state intervention into sexuality matters. This move creates impressions as if they are representative of the larger public.

Equally important, digital technology also plays an important role in enabling and shaping the “naming” and “shaming”, as the understanding of privacy and sexuality has simultaneously   been altered against the backdrop of the internationalization of LGBT identity and rights.

The ubiquitous use of technology — particularly social media — in everyday lives has enabled “action-at-a-distance” — action that affects other individuals without physical or face-to-face interaction. The online distribution of the list of gay men arrested in a  reportedly gay sauna does not only publicly “shame” them, but might also interrupt their families and professional lives.

However, this should also be understood in the changing nature of privacy and sexuality. In her 2017 book, The Right to Maim, the queer theorist Jasbir K. Puar asserts that the pervasiveness of technology has produced new relations and contradictions between private and public, in which one is prompted to expose themselves through such technology, while also wishing for privacy. We post, we expose, and we let others watch us.

As such, sexuality has made into the public realm through categorizations and regulations. This shift becomes more complex, considering the uptake of digital technology in Indonesian LGBT communities. When those gay social media was deemed providing safe space for interactions, with the increased moral panics surrounding LGBT, homophobic individuals might also commit particular “action-at-a-distance” through infiltrating those gay social spaces. Their profiles can be screenshot and disseminated easily. This action is possible to shame or punish LGBT, as being LGBT in Indonesia is still loaded with shame, viewed against the norms, and could put one at risk in their personal and professional life.

A newly emerging online local application, CELUP (Cekrek, Lapor, Upload — Capture, Report, and Upload --  has just incited an immediate concern about violation against privacy. Developed by university students, it aims to curb “indecent behavior” (tindak asusila) in public spaces, in particularly publicly displayed affections.

This is the challenge and battle in today’s Indonesian gender and sexuality politics: when LGBT identity/rights are globalized, technology becomes ubiquitous, and privacy is consequently blurred, while surveillance from ordinary people can become an “action-at-a-distance” modality to perpetuate “homophobia from below”.

This is the next battle arena, after the small victory in the Constitutional Court.


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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