Tom Boellstorff on LBTQ Rights in Indonesia

Tom Boellstorff, is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on digital culture, disability, globalization, nationalism, and sexuality. A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his research has been supported by a range of sources including the National Science Foundation. He is author of The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (2005), A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia (2007), and Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (second edition 2015). He is a co-author of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (2012) and coeditor of Data, Now Bigger and Better! (2015). His articles have appeared in American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Annual Review of Anthropology, Games and Culture, International Journal of Communication, Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Ethnos, GLQ, and Media, Culture, and Society.

Sabrina Hartono CMC'21 interviewed Jamil Anderlini on March 5, 2019.

Awareness of LGBT rights have spread to other parts of the world, including Indonesia. However, unlike most Western countries, it seems that the LGBT community in Indonesia is met with more opposition than embrace. What are some of the notable features of the current situation of LGBT people in Indonesia?

The anti-LGBT sentiments and phenomena happening in Indonesia have parallels elsewhere. From Russia, Poland, and Hungary to Brazil, many countries around the world are not supporting LGBT community rights. Homosexuality has not historically been illegal in Indonesia, as Indonesia was a Dutch colony and the Dutch legal code did not include clauses on the matter. This differs from the British legal system, which historically included anti-homosexuality clauses. Southeast Asian countries neighboring Indonesia that were British colonies, like Malaysia and Singapore, have thus historically had more laws against LGBT communities. One thing that has happened is that in Indonesia, LGBT Indonesians have in the last decade become a convenient scapegoat for different political groups seeking power. It is not that LGBT Indonesians are doing anything different in the last few years. Indeed, the LGBT movement in Indonesia is still quite small, relatively speaking; the recent anti-LGBT incidents are not simply in response to the LGBT movement.

Much of the anti-LGBT rhetoric in Indonesia is attributed to increasing levels of Islamic piety throughout the country and greater attention is being paid to fundamentalist voices. How have other countries reconciled the clash with accepting queer communities despite religious groups in their countries?

Part of the issue is that a majority of Indonesian lesbians and gays are Muslim. But as happens around the world, there is debate regarding who gets to define a religion. Many faith communities are very tolerant and that can include Islamic communities. There has been a movement in Indonesia by fundamentalist groups claiming that Islam requires one kind of view about homosexuality, but that has not been the case historically.

From a legal perspective Indonesia is not secular. It does not have one official religion but it does have a number of recognized religions. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Indonesians (nearly 90%) practice Islam. However, of course there is a lot of variation within Islam. In terms of more official rhetoric, the first of the five core national principles (the Pancasila) set forth by Sukarno, Indonesia’s first President, was “Tuhan yang Maha Esa”, the belief in one God, but they did not specify which God. During the drafting of the Indonesian Declaration of Independence back in 1945, there was “the Jakarta Charter” drafted by one of the parties who were attempting to integrate Islam into the law and constitution. After much debate, the founding fathers of Indonesia modified the charter by 1949 so that it did not contain a preamble phrase that would exclude non-Muslims. One broader point is that Islam is a very diverse religion; being Muslim does not necessarily mean being anti-LGBT.

In early 2018, Indonesian lawmakers have drafted laws criminalizing sex outside of marriage and homosexual sex, which includes the possible prosecution of same-sex relations. How will this legal enforcement of anti-LGBT sentiments affect the Indonesian community? Will Indonesia become a dangerous country for LGBT people to live in?

The law could have significant consequences. Legal enforcement is not necessarily the main concern; the Indonesian government is not always consistent with regard to law enforcement. A broader danger if same-sex relations are criminalized, some vigilante groups might use this as a justification to take the law into their own hands. This point that law can have important consequences even when not enforced is well-known: for instance, in the United States and Europe where anti-sodomy or anti-homosexual laws that had not been prosecuted for decades could still have a powerful effect to silence people. So the law is definitely a significant thing and it would be very bad if those anti-LGBT laws were passed and upheld.

Such laws would conflict with Indonesia’s human rights laws. Indonesian transgender persons, for instance warias and tombois, are particularly in danger as they are often easier to identify, and in some cases they have modified their bodies in ways that are not easy to hide. Lesbians or gays who look normatively female or male are able to hide more easily, though this is obviously not good since it means they have to hide themselves.

A report by Human Rights Watch released in 2016 has found that the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities in the world’s largest Muslim democracy is fueling a public health crisis and contributing to the spread of HIV in the country. What are the health and social consequences of homophobia in Indonesia?

Stigmatized people find it more difficult to gain access to information and resources for HIV- or other disease-related prevention and protection. This is the case for drug users, sex workers, and LGBT people too. These people can be afraid to get access to condoms, lubricant, clean needles, and information. Thus, their risk of contracting diseases transmitted sexually and via drug use can increase. Denying LGBT people access to such resources is short-sighted because no one lives in a bubble—LGBT Indonesians are part of Indonesian society more generally.

Earlier in 2019, Indonesian officials blocked an Instagram account featuring a comic strip with gay Muslim characters, further threatening to block the entire social media platform in the country because of an uproar over the comic’s content. How significant is the role of media in cultivating popular attitudes toward the LGBT community?

The media is very important. Until a few years ago, in Indonesia LGBT persons appeared in the media only when television shows or movies had LGBT characters. The only real exception was that a few LGBT groups published informal magazines, but these usually circulated only to a limited audience, rarely more than 300 people or so. With the rise of the internet in Indonesia, particularly since smartphones have become so common, we see much greater propagation of both pro- and anti-LGBT information and attitudes. The Instagram comic strip and human rights groups that are examples of parties trying to propagate tolerance. There are also anti-LGBT groups that are propagating intolerance and often misinformation. However, the problem of extremists using digital media to spread misinformation and intolerance is another example of a global issue.

Suara Kita, an organization that fights for transgender rights in Indonesia and Gaya Nusantara, a gay rights group in Indonesia established almost 30 years ago, have said that their activities have been hindered by the once-tolerant, now changing socio-political climate. How effective are NGOs or activist groups in advocating for understanding and embrace toward the queer community in Indonesia?

NGOs can be very effective if they have resources. The problem is that these groups are relatively small and often depend on international funding, due to a lack of support from within Indonesia. Some international support for pro-LGBT groups exists but it requires English skills, and such support often takes the form of one- or two-year grants, which works against sustainability. Grassroots movements supporting the LGBT community definitely have the capability to be influential, but the question is the extent of this influence. Ideally, we would want multiple forces coming together to resolve this issue, including government and international organizations. It is not fair to place the burden of responsibility solely on local NGOs

Are Indonesia’s younger generations less susceptible to anti-LGBT rhetoric and more tolerant of queer communities?  

It’s hard to say. To my knowledge, there has not been substantial research that shows one way or another.

Looking forward to the upcoming Indonesian presidential election or beyond, what is the future looking like for the LGBT community in Indonesia?

The future is hard to predict. It’s dangerous and frightening that some groups are continuing to use the LGBT community as a political scapegoat. But there are also progressive, tolerant Indonesians, some of whom have been taking a stand against intolerance, and others who are more concerned to speak out. These dynamics are not unique to Indonesia: in the United States and elsewhere, we see cases where anti-LGBT groups not in the majority, but gain a disproportionate amount of media attention. That is why it can make a difference for people to stand up against anti-LGBT words and deed.

So as a closing thought, as I’ve emphasized several times in this interview, many of the dynamics in Indonesia right now reflect situations elsewhere. It is important not to frame this as a problem with Islam, especially because anti-Muslim persists. Islam is a very diverse religion, and anti-LGBT rhetoric can be found amongst Christians, Hindus, or any other religion. One way to think about the current anti-LGBT rhetoric in Indonesia is as part of a debate that has been ongoing since the fall of Suharto in 1998, a debate about how the nation moves forward in what is known as the reformation era. How will Indonesia live by its national motto of “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”, unity in diversity?


Sabrina Hartono CMC '21Student Journalist
Featured Image: “Transgender sex workers in Jakarta, Indonesia are another target group for HIV/AIDS campaigns,” by Josh Estey. Courtesy of Flickr via Flickr2Commons.
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