The entire state machinery of Indonesia seems to be grinding the nation’s queer population between its cogs, and how.
Though stifling of queer voices on campuses has been going on for a while now, Minister of higher education, Muhammad Nasir, delivered a pretty bad blow in January this year, when he announced that he would ban all LGBT+ support networks on campuses, because they went against society’s morals and values. A few short weeks later, on 23rd February, there was a nasty clash between state police and LGBT+ rights demonstrators in Yogyakarta. The two incidents form just the head and shoulders of a much larger plot to bulldoze not just the equal rights movement, but the very existence of people who will not be straitjacketed by strict social codes.
But this sort of blanket rejection of the reality of queer lives seems to be shared between many countries of South Asia and Asia-Pacific.
The irony, in these countries, is their rush to match their economic growth with the developed nations of the world, and foreboding reluctance to do the same with human rights. There also seems to be a convenient amnesia when it comes to their pre-colonial history of fluid gender and sexualities, much of which exists even today. Like the Hijras in South Asia, the boy-wives of Sudan, male-love during Iran’s Qajar period, or the two-spirit people among Native Americans, Indonesia also has several communities that do not fit imported binaries of straight male/straight female. For example, the Bugis of South Sulawesi recognize three sexes and five genders.
But the pluralities of identities in most, if not all, of these regions has been constantly undermined by the real ‘western import’ – the gender binary. The refusal to acknowledge this plurality has fed into yet another state tactic, of cutting funding to LGBT+ community programs. The more you keep people in the dark, the easier it is to dictate terms to them, right?
By February, the government got social messaging app Line (which has a 30 million strong national user-base) to drop any queer-themed emojis, then went after Facebook and WhatsApp too. And as of March 3, there has been a major clamp down on broadcasting any LGBT+ related content anywhere.
While so many of us clamour for better representation in our favourite TV series and films, for Indonesia, the fund-cut and media control will presents a more sinister threat of erasure than, say, having a one-dimensional gay character on a sitcom.
Erasure, when orchestrated by the state like this, will literally turn the clock back on the equal rights movement by many decades, decades which have been spent on issue of sexual violence, health access for gay men affected by HIV/AIDS, legal and medical aid for trans persons, and the right to be a served a damn cake regardless of your orientation! But it also opens up the floodgates regarding hate-crimes.
There is always a tendency to imagine security in the form of geographical boundaries, tanks and khaki uniforms, but what Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu doesn’t realize is that likening queer people to ‘nuclear war,’ and participating in unnecessary fear mongering, jeopardizes the security of many, many Indonesian nationals. In times of war, extra precautions have to be taken. Today, a sizeable chunk of Indonesia’s population finds itself the target of such a war, having to establish hotlines and safe-houses.
As gay rights activist Dede Oetomo has said, “It has been one thing after another,” and one can only imagine the stress and fear these series of events must have caused to anyone on the side of human rights.