Recently the Andalas University in Padang, West Sumatra uploaded a message on their website to exhort candidates who had passed the entrance examination to pay the fees, provide their bio data and to register again. At the time of registration they must bring a form stating that they are not LGBT (bebas LGBT). Helpfully, that form could be directly downloaded from the site. On the form the candidate student has to declare that s/he does not belong to a LGBT organisation or community. The candidate further agrees that if it becomes known that s/he after all does belong to the LGBT community s/he accepts a sanction and agrees to be expelled from the university. The undersigned also states that the declaration is signed without any pressure.
Moreover, the candidate has to give her/his telephone number and that of her/his parents. This is in line with a common understanding in Indonesia that the parents are somehow to blame for the sexual orientation of their children. Their upbringing has failed, either because the father did not provide a manly enough role model (in the case of a sissy boy – remarkably the attraction girls may feel for other girls is never attributed to some deficiency in the mother figure), or because Islamic values were not satisfactorily imposed or because the ‘illness’ had not been adequately beaten out of them. This view of homosexuality exists side by side with other ‘explanations’ of homosexuality, that it is either an illness, a crime, a sin or all of these factors combined, and can easily spread from ‘infectious’ gays or lesbians.
A controversy arose on social media, and the Padang Legal Aid Institute wrote a sharp open letter (dated 29 April 2017) protesting against this violation of the right to education of LGBT people. The requirement has since been removed from the website. This does not mean, however, that LGBT students or the wider LGBT community in Padang or in West Sumatra are safe. On February 15 the vice governor of Western Sumatra, Nasrul Abit, had declared that LGBT people don’t belong in West Sumatra and that they should leave the province. There is no space in the Minangkabau for LGBT people, he asserted. Therefore all legal protection for LGBT people must be lifted. So far, he added, only one district in the province has a regional regulation that strictly prohibits this ‘social illness’, namely the city of Padangpanjang (No. 9/2010). He recommended that such regulations be adopted all over the province.
This is not an isolated example of homophobia in a country that was once known for its relative tolerance of transpeople, such as the waria (transwomen, often working as hairdressers or sex workers) or transgender healers. For a long time LGBT people were more or less tolerated, as long as they kept under the radar. However their growing visibility has exposed them to stigma, hatred and violence. Since the fall of the military dictator Suharto in 1998 two contradictory trends can be noted. On the one hand the patient preaching of members of salafist groups erupted to the open and conservative Muslim parties and militias gained more prominence. On the other hand human, women’s and in their wake sexual rights activists who had long been suppressed by Suharto’s ‘New Order’ government also came into public view. Gradually these diverse groups of rights activists have come to understand that human rights are inseparable. Hence the support of Padang’s human rights lawyers for the LGBT community in their city.
Hardliner Muslim groups, however, have come to dominate public discourse and the streets. The result is what Nursyahbani Katjasungkana and I call a ‘creeping criminalisation’ of LGBT people and their communities in a report we wrote for OutRight Action International.
Hundreds of discriminatory regional regulations have been promulgated which contain various discriminatory articles for LGBT people, such as in Padangpanjang. Even when these regulations violate articles in the national Constitution or in other laws, the responsible national authorities do nothing to retract discriminatory regulations By the end of 2015 the growing homophobia in the country erupted in a deluge of homophobic statements by political and religious leaders. This campaign started at universities, when several institutes for higher education wanted to ban LGBT students or to close down study groups on sexuality. In the midst of this campaign the then Minister of Culture and Education, Anies Baswedan (who was recently elected governor of DKI Jakarta, after arguably the dirtiest political campaign in the country) stated that parents and children should be aware of ‘anomalous behaviour’ of LGBT people, exhorting parents and teachers to prevent this. The Minister for Research, Technology and Higher Education, Mohammad Natsir, went even further and said that LGBT students were not allowed to enter universities. Since then websites are banned and national legislation is being prepared by various national parties - it is feared homosexuality as such may be prohibited within a short while.
The pressure on LGBT groups has since then increased. They are not allowed to get foreign funding any more. The government, usually strongly anti-communist, in this case learnt from Russian anti-LGBT legislation and from Chinese ways to control the internet. The Ford Foundation and the UNDP have been forced to stop their LGBT programmes in Indonesia and the National Intelligence Body (BIN) controls whether LGBT-friendly activities do not slip into programmes for reproductive rights for instance. With overtly homophobic militias such as the FPI (Front Pembela Islam, Islam Defenders’ Front) riding high, the future for LGBT people in Indonesia looks bleak. The state, which should defend the rights of minorities, turns a blind eye to the violations of the basic rights of their LGBT citizens. The security apparatus cannot be bothered to protect LGBT people when they are being harassed by homophobic militia. The space for civil society and in particular LGBT activists and human rights defenders in general is shrinking. Though the rector of Andalas University has deleted the form from the university website, he has received wide support via social media. With homophobia in the public space on the rise and the State condoning anti-LGBT legislation the solidarity between human, women’s and sexual rights defenders is the only defence strategy left.