Human rights activists fight gender repression in Indonesia

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“We want leaders who are willing to stand up and declare LGBT rights are human rights”: Activists in Jakarta on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, 17 May

As Indonesia’s parliamentary and presidential elections approach and political campaigning gathers force, attention turns to human rights and the question of whether the nation will continue to make progress from its rocky track record.

The past two decades have seen Indonesia undergo increasing democratisation but human rights abuses are still a concern in many areas, including discrimination towards minorities.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Indonesia have long borne the brunt of repression in society, including lack of acknowledgement or legal protection, especially in parts of the country governed by Sharia law where same-sex relationships are illegal.

But the movement for recognition of LGBT rights is gathering momentum and activist groups are increasingly making their voices heard.

“The movement in Indonesia strives for formal recognition of LGBT people by the state,” says Anna Arifin, head of the program division at Arus Pelangi, one of the main LGBT rights organisations in Indonesia.

“We want leaders who are willing to stand up and declare LGBT rights are human rights, and turn that statement into a policy. For example, through a specific anti-discrimination bill,” says Ms Arifin.

“This is the level of bravery we need from our future leader.”

Indo protestWhile same-sex relations are not criminalised in Indonesia, with the exception of Aceh province, same-sex couples do not have any of the legal protections available to heterosexual couples.

Aceh province practises Islamic Sharia law and enforces regulations that criminalise LGBT activity, with harsh penalties including imprisonment and caning for those found breaking the law.

Most of Indonesia’s population is Muslim, and their traditions do not encourage LGBT activity or expression.

“Indonesia’s constitution states a firm position against discrimination on any grounds, and yet the public still often sees homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality as a sin,” Ms Arifin says.

“Your life as an LGBT person in Indonesia really depends on your bargaining position as an individual. In my work at Arus Pelangi, I have seen many cases of people who experience violence, abuse and even killings motivated by discrimination.”

Abuse and violence towards LGBT people are common, as found by Arus Pelangi’s 2013 research in three major Indonesian cities: Jakarta, Yojakarta and Makassar. The statistics are chilling: 89 per cent of LGBT people have experienced some form of violence; 46 per cent have experienced physical violence; 45 per cent sexual violence; and 79 per cent experienced psychological abuse.

Problems of discrimination can be complex, especially when they occur in families or close relationships. “Violence occurs in the public and private domains, and in the private domain the main actors are family and friends,” Ms Arifin says. “Sadly, many people come seeking help with situations involving their family and friends.”

Bullying is widespread, especially among teenagers and young people, who experience high levels of psychological distress; 17 per cent have attempted suicide, 16 per cent of those more than once.

Organisations like Arus Pelangi are seeking to raise awareness and acceptance of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression — the “SOGIE” movement — and creating a more inclusive Indonesia, politically and socially.

But SOGIE activism has its perils. “Our biggest challenge in terms of building a movement comes from the opposing conservative group, which uses the name of religion to justify acts of violence. So they often threaten or attack our events,” says Ms Arifin.

Indo protest2Being an activist is hazardous, explains Yuli Rustinawati, one of the Arus Pelangi founders who started the organisation in 2006. “I’ve received threats many times. By fax, SMS, email … it’s not direct, but it’s still threatening. Sometimes I feel insecure.”

Ms Rustinawati had been working as a legal aid volunteer and started the organisation with a few of her colleagues, because at the time “there were no LGBT organisations working on advocacy, or in LGBT case work”. The first hurdle was gaining recognition for the movement as a legitimate human rights cause.

“The first two years were very hard for us,” she says. “Many people were against us — [saying] it’s against the religion, etc.

“When you are LGBT and you are working on LGBT rights, the stigma is doubled. If you are not LGBT, but you are working on LGBT rights, it is still dangerous.”

Increased awareness of LGBT issues helped raise the profile of Arus Pelangi in subsequent years, especially with the controversy around the 2007 draft pornography bill. “Everyone was talking about this and it was really good for us. There were massive demonstrations in the big cities. This helped us [different activist groups] get to know each other and form a coalition.”

But the threat of violent opposition to Arus Pelangi’s work from conservative and extremist groups remains a constant problem. “Our issue is different to other issues and it’s very dangerous. When we started, we were not included as human rights defenders, so we did not have protection.”

Since 2008, Arus Pelangi has worked with Protection International, an organisation dedicated to protecting human rights defenders around the world.

“In 2009, they put out a manual for LGBT human rights defenders. We worked together and translated this manual to Bahasa Indonesia, and started training for activists. We have training on how to protect yourself, inside your house, outside, in your office”.

Reporting any personal or online threats to members of the organisation is part of “standard operating procedure” she says.

Ms Rustinawati comes from a religious family and believes religion and SOGIE can coexist. “Religion is between you and your God. It has nothing to do with other people.

“I believe in the next life. If you are good with other people, then you will be all right. Being different is not wrong.”

Social and political advocacy is a major part of Ms Rustinawati’s work with Arus Pelangi, but she believes acceptance of SOGIE in Indonesia starts from within.

“Coming out sometimes is important, but it is more important to know yourself, give freedom to yourself and don’t judge yourself — accept yourself as who you are.”



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