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Jakarta Post

Of coming out and acceptance: LGBT youth seek peace in conservative Indonesia

  • Ramadani Saputra
    Ramadani Saputra

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, June 15, 2020   /   05:21 pm
Of coming out and acceptance: LGBT youth seek peace in conservative Indonesia Who needs a hug?: A passerby hugs an activist campaigning for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community during Car Free Day in Jakarta on June 16, 2019. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

For the past five years, Abi – not his real name – has had three distinct recurring dreams that have almost cost him his sleep.

All three are related to his sexual orientation, which he has been hiding from his family for many years.

“I have had some dreams in which I came out to them,” he said in a recent interview with The Jakarta Post.

“In one dream, I got beaten up by my dad. In another dream, I got disowned and had to leave the house with nothing but the clothes on my back.

“In another, they sent me to a pesantren [Islamic boarding school],” said the young man, who is currently studying for a master’s degree at a university in West Java.

At 24, the pressure has piled on for Abi to get married. The fact that his father did so at that age was just another reason for his parents to push him toward the marriage institution.

“That’s why I really hated turning 24. Between them pushing me to be in a relationship and get married soon and me being the way I am, it’s just so stressful,” he said.

Like many others who identify as queer in largely conservative Indonesia, Abi still feels that he cannot fully express his true self to many people.

The fear of being rejected by family members or society at large has prevented many in the LGBT community from publicly revealing their sexual orientation.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by Jakarta-based pollster Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, 87.6 percent of over 1,200 respondents from the general public consider the LGBT community a threat, while 81.5 percent of those surveyed say it is prohibited by religion.

Read also: LGBT people viewed negatively, but accepted as Indonesian citizens

Thirty-two-year-old Mike – also not his real name – knows very well about suppressing his sexual identity.

Growing up not liking “boys’ stuff” like sports and cars, he said he had had to consciously alter the way he walked and talked to avoid getting bullied, like he was in middle school.

“I suffered a ‘this is just a phase’ moment throughout my college life and my early twenties,” the Jakarta-based freelance writer told the Post recently.

Although Mike jokingly considers himself a “late bloomer” who only truly realized he was gay at 25, he says he found peace with himself after embracing his truth.

“When I was dating a guy, I felt I belonged to myself for the first time. I didn’t feel like I was weird or odd anymore and it just felt right. Then and there I made peace with [myself] and never looked back,” he said.

Fortunately, almost two-thirds of respondents in the 2018 SMRC survey said that even members of the LGBT community have the right to live as citizens of Indonesia.

Mike can also count himself as one of the lucky ones, because he was able to come out and be accepted by his family, albeit after a continuous process of explaining the prejudice that envelops the LGBT community.

Identifying as a member of the LGBT community is not illegal in Indonesia, but law and regulations don’t protect the minority from facing discrimination and hate crimes.

Human Rights Watch Indonesia says that anti-LGBT rhetoric in the country has gradually increased since 2016, with the nongovernment organization’s senior researcher Andreas Harsono pointing to a government-driven “moral panic” that has “manufactured fear and violence” against the LGBT community.

Read also: Indonesian LGBT community pins hopes on youth for better, more tolerant future

The stigma is further exacerbated by the Indonesian Psychiatrists Association (PDSKJI), which still considers homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexualism a mental disorder that can be cured through proper treatment.

AFP reported last month that some LGBT people in Indonesia still suffer from the experience of being forced to undergo exorcism, a similar practice to the conversion therapy that is falsely believed to cure gay people.

Recent cases of persecution have also prolonged the list of injustices aimed at the LGBT community. The murder of a transgender woman named Mira in Jakarta, a social assistance prank against transwomen in Bandung, West Java, and the arrest of a same-sex couple in South Sulawesi have served as signposts for Indonesian society’s level of tolerance.

Read also: Recent cases of persecution set back LGBT rights advocacy

The stigma has inevitably prevented Abi and other LGBT people in the country from coming out publicly and revealing their true selves – all for the sake of safety.

For the LGBT community, as many members, experts and advocates have demonstrated, coming out and being accepted by the people closest to them can boost their self-confidence and empower them to fully accept themselves.

Abi came out only to his closest friends in 2016 and insists he feels a measure of relief just knowing that he can express himself. “I am so tired of pretending,” he said.

Like Abi, Kartika felt that close friends could provide more of a safe space to talk about their hidden identities, unlike family. The 26-year-old, who also asked to keep her identity secret, felt that coming out to the family was not always necessary as long as they don’t insist on her getting married.

However, she still struggles with remaining closeted in certain environments like the workplace.

“It sucks when you tell other people that you are simply single or that you have to change the pronouns to ‘him’, ‘his’ or ‘he’ when talking about your girlfriend, just to avoid something bad from happening,” Kartika said.