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Jakarta Post

In conservative Indonesia, this gay activist braves social curbs to help the marginalized

  • Norman Harsono
    Norman Harsono

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, August 25, 2020   /   02:14 pm
In conservative Indonesia, this gay activist braves social curbs to help the marginalized Children celebrate an early Independence Day with new books and stationary in Rusun Bidara Cina, a poor neighborhood in East Jakarta, on Aug. 15. The books and stationary were bought using the proceeds of an auction led by gay activist Hartoyo and women rights campaigners Endah Agustiana and Ezki Suyanto. (Courtesy of/Dapur Umum Rusun Bidara Cina)

Gay activist Hartoyo has had to overcome both physical and virtual curbs on his movement so that he may continue to feed the urban poor, persecuted members of the LGBT community as well as women and children – population groups that are the worst affected by the pandemic.

The 43-year-old founder of rights advocacy group Suara Kita was used to financing aid programs through the in-house SriKendes boutique, which sells original, traditional motif clothing that can fetch Rp 50 million to Rp 60 million (US$3,400 to $4,080) every month, mostly during exhibitions.

Read also: Hartoyo: Coming out for his rights

But when Jakarta entered a de facto lockdown in April, the exhibitions stopped, and Hartoyo began tinkering with Facebook, setting up a namesake "Har Toyo" account. He eventually settled on a new fundraising model: auctioning pre-loved clothes, handbags and shoes on Facebook Live.

“Store sales dropped drastically – maybe now around Rp 15 million to Rp 20 million – but we managed to find a new market by selling online,” Hartoyo told The Jakarta Post by phone on Aug. 14.

But then there were the online woes. Users began reporting his account, leading to two Facebook suspensions: one on July 23 and another on Aug. 8. The first suspension lasted a day and the second, around half an hour.

One Facebook Indonesia representative told Hartoyo that his account was suspended over his use of the word bencong, an Indonesian slur for “queer”. For Hartoyo, saying bencong meant reclaiming the word from its pejorative beginnings, but for the Facebook algorithms, it was hate speech.

“In these cases, we allow the content to remain on Facebook but require people to clearly indicate their intent,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Post on Aug. 19.

“Where the intention is unclear, we may remove the content.”

Facebook, whose headquarters is openly supportive of the LGBT community, had committed to ensuring the continuity of the Har Toyo account, Hartoyo said.

SriKendes is a unique small business in Indonesia, a country ranked globally among the least tolerant to homosexuality, despite a mediocre improvement in attitude, according to a Pew Research Center study released in 2020.

The study of 34 countries found that 80 percent of Indonesian respondents thought homosexuality should not be accepted, compared to only 37 percent in India, 24 percent in the Philippines and 53 percent in South Korea.

Read also: Survey on acceptance in Indonesia gives hopes to LGBT community

Hartoyo (left) and Ririn Sefsani (middle) dance on-camera during a live auction from Jakarta on Aug. 6. The auction raised Rp 17.4 million to help an 11-year-old disabled rape victim.Hartoyo (left) and Ririn Sefsani (middle) dance on-camera during a live auction from Jakarta on Aug. 6. The auction raised Rp 17.4 million to help an 11-year-old disabled rape victim. (Courtesy of/Pundi Perempuan)

Hartoyo and his regular co-host Audi, an auburn-haired transwoman, have a distinct campy, sarcastic humor that attracts thousands of viewers to each multi-hour auction.

They secure roughly Rp 10 million for each bidding session, with a record sale of Rp 17 million. Most of the funds go to running open kitchens in East and South Jakarta and to distributing hundreds of meals for out-of-work waria (transwomen) in western Indonesia.

A smaller portion goes to covering Suara Kita’s operational costs, which include maintaining channels to receive cash transfers, cash donations and secondhand clothes for resale.

SriKendes itself has its own namesake Facebook account, where another transwoman hosts weekly live streams to sell the store's products. The page attracts fewer views than Har Toyo but all proceeds still go to Suara Kita.

“[Hartoyo and his colleagues] touch on very sensitive and painful issues but still build support by sharing joy, by poking fun at taboo and feudal issues,” said human rights campaigner Ririn Sefsani, who participated in some of the live auctions.

“The products are being sold transparently, with good service and a rather crazy selling method,” said Ririn, who works for Jakarta-based NGO Kemitraan (Partnership for Governance Reform).

Ririn and Hartoyo raised Rp 17.4 million from a live auction in early August to help an 11-year-old disabled rape victim. The proceeds are slated to fund the impoverished girl's recovery, education and family expenses, among other things.

Ririn noted in an email that Hartoyo’s fundraising strategy, albeit quite successful, was only suitable for specialized fundraising non-profits as it was often time-consuming and laborious.

SriKendes’ struggle with the large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) and social media bullies only adds to the challenges of running an openly LGBT-friendly business in the country.

A company as big as Gojek, one of only two tech decacorns in Southeast Asia, was attacked by the #UninstallGoJek smear campaign in late 2018 after an executive expressed support for the LGBT community.

Read also: #UninstallGojek trends after executive shows support for LGBT community

A viewer once canceled donating a handbag after learning of Hartoyo’s LGBT activism. The woman, a self-described Christian studying theology, texted Hartoyo, saying she “does not support their sexual orientation but, personally, I support them in prayer”.

“It is a life choice but, I am sorry, I cannot support this community. I’m very sorry,” she wrote in a text message shared with the Post.

The Har Toyo account is also being monitored by the openly anti-LGBT and Islamist Family Love Alliance (AILA), an organization that heavily lobbies lawmakers to outlaw premarital sex through a Criminal Code revision.

Read also: COMMENTARY: Why AILA is a bigger threat to freedom than the FPI

AILA’s monitoring became evident after self-proclaimed AILA member Diana Widyasari, using the Facebook account "Sri Daryani", posted on Aug. 11 a critique of Har Toyo, in which he criticized an anti-LGBT webinar hosted by the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB). The webinar has been taken down by YouTube.