A raised motorway snakes away from my building through treetops, toward a volcano that looms like Brigadoon when the haze clears. During peak periods—which is to say most of the day—the motorway resembles horizontal fly paper marooning passing vehicles. I work from home, and in my less than generous moods the scene affords me some sense of schadenfreude.
Piercing my reverie though are police sirens, rarely atop marked police cars rushing to an emergency, but on blacked out Toyota Land Cruisers and other flashy models whose well-connected owners simply don’t want to wait with everyone else. Blue lights flashing in the grille and the relentless wailing, gurgling, and honking works. People let them through.
So if the mere suggestion of authority can save one entitled douchebag from Jakarta traffic, imagine the clout involved when authority is explicitly used by gun carrying police against the vulnerable few.
May 2017 saw such bullying by police, this time against men having sex with each other. Homosexuality is legal in Indonesia. But a gay sex party in Surabaya, a private Jakarta apartment containing an amorous young couple, and a gay sauna in Jakarta were each invaded by police. Leaving aside quite why Indonesian policemen are so obsessed with gay sex, the harassment was another reminder of the impunity the powerful here enjoy. What I didn’t fully appreciate, until that month, was the fatalism of their victims.
This fatalism, though, is of a weaponised variety. It goes beyond the helpless, shoulder shrugging ‘what-can-I-do’ sort. Instead it conspires with its aggressors by compelling victims to actively refuse help and even buying in to the corruption that underpins all this injustice.
In the case of 20 year old Habibi and 23 year old Taufik in Aceh, we can understand their reaction. A month after they were beaten in front of hundreds of the cheering faithful—the latter recording the beating on their smart phones—they have refused contact from groups offering support. Only one gay rights activist, with his own awful story of abuse, is known to be in touch. He’s asked to remain anonymous.
Of the 141 men that police rounded up wearing nothing but bath towels at a gay sauna in Jakarta in mid May, 15 faced charges, mostly on the vague offence of facilitating pornography. These charges seem likely to sink without a trace. The men are negotiating bribes, according to people I’ve communicated with who are familiar with the case. The going rate is Rp75 million (US$5,600) for each man.
‘You think it’s a bad idea?’ I messaged my source via WhatsApp.
‘The families didn’t want to see the case continue, which is valid,’ he said.
‘It’s bad in the sense that the police won’t drop the case legally, which means anytime they want to investigate it again, it’s possible.’
Donald Trump might sum this up in a tweet easily: ‘Pay 5Gs each & still on the hook. Unfair!’
So is this just a gay thing? Do taboos on sex play an outsized role making the LGBT community easy pickings? No.
I caught up with Bedjo Untung. Now 69 years old, Pak Bedjo heads YPKP 65, which is thought to be the country’s biggest group representing the victims of the anti-communist purges that started in 1965. Nobody knows for sure how big the group is. The victims don’t want to sign up for fear they will be targeted all over again.
Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people died in the bloodletting that brought Suharto to power. Many like Pak Bedjo were tortured, imprisoned for years, only then to be denied work in government or their pensions when they were released. Bedjo, a teacher by training, has made ends meet tutoring English and teaching piano. I first met him in February last year while reporting on a story for the New York Times. It was around then that Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, suggested the government would be open to investigating allegations of mass graves that date back to the time of the massacres. Widodo invited groups like Pak Bedjo’s to come forward with their evidence.
And then the government cooled on the idea.
‘We sent evidence on 132 mass graves containing 12,999 bodies,’ Bedjo told me, sipping his fruit tea.
‘We haven’t heard anything back from the government. Now what was it you wanted to talk to me about?’
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat as the sheer, asymmetric absurdity of equating my plight with his crashed down on me. In front of me, picking away at a tuna puff, was the face of the survivor of one of the late 20th century’s worst atrocities. Hope, tenacity, bravery—all were etched into the wrinkles around his grey blue eyes and topped off with a powerful shock of silver hair. By comparison, all I had were 150 poofs wanting to get it on in rented rooms.
I eased into my question by floating a potentially insulting notion as a question that could belong to just about anyone, really, certainly not just me.
‘Is it fair to equate the struggle for LGBT rights with the survivors of the 1965 purges?’ I squeaked.
To my immense relief he said yes.
‘The LGBT community faces the same troubles. The difference is the level of violence. But it’s still the majority making a minority afraid.’
I rolled out my observation that LGBT victims refuse help and wondered whether he’s noticed the same among his group. Yes, he said: only a fraction of the survivors—maybe 2,000—have applied for medical and mental health care the government made available to political prisoners in 2006. This money, Bedjo assured me, was no trivial thing. It covered the Rp13 million (US$9,800 it cost to have his gall bladder removed.
‘They say “I don’t want to cause trouble.” And I say “but this your money.”’ Pak Bedjo explains.
Fatalism, I asked?
At this Bedjo wasn’t sure, but he wouldn’t refute me either.
‘We are worried that we will be attacked again. For us the government thinks we are communists and we want to destroy the country.’
For a middle class white guy like me, who came out to his mum on the back porch of her split ranch bungalow outside Belleville, Ontario 20 years ago this month, this notion of victims seemingly abetting their aggressors is a far horizon. On that sunny morning in June, I had the wind on my back. Serious and silly stuff made that conversation easier. It had been nearly been 20 years since Stonewall. It was the time of Will and Grace. Muddled baby steps like civil unions and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’—which now just seem quaint—suggested that at least Western society was willing to take on the conversation about gay rights.
It may be hard to remember now in a time when a tweeter-in-chief is the leader of the free world, and when murderous nut jobs wreak havoc in London, but hope was in bloom then. When I look back on that time, on that early summer day in my mother’s garden, I caught a glimpse of the arc of history bending toward justice.
‘You’re not mad?’ I asked my mum incredulously after having dropped the G-Bomb.
‘Why? It’s like being mad at the rain. It just is,’ she replied.
Absolution received. Emotions released. I don’t remember much after that.
Had I been a young gay man in Indonesia, just how brave would I have been? Or would I be fatalistic about my fate? In Canada I had Madonna, George Michael, Ab Fab. I also had the rule of law and secularism on my side. Still, I waited until I was 27 and living in Japan before I came out.
Still, I like to think that I would do something. I like to think that if it had been me who faced a public caning for having sex with my boyfriend, or was thrown in jail wearing nothing but a bath towel for 12 hours because I was watching male strippers, I would pack up and move to Sydney, or at least Bali, while thrusting a middle finger in the air to the world.
But that sense of self-confidence comes from trust, says Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. After listening to my rant, Andreas calmly and methodically tells me such a reaction comes from trust in oneself and in one’s social networks. These two things are sorely missing here, especially in the case of the Aceh couple.
‘Their trust has been broken,’ Andreas explains of the young guys in Aceh.
But why wouldn’t they accept help? Why not pick up and go?
People have proven dangerous, especially strangers. Best to stay away, Andreas says. ‘Why are you asking me this?’
Like many journalists here, Andreas is someone to go to for an explanation when Indonesians are treating each other badly. I call Andreas a lot.
‘They’ve also had their trust in secularism broken,’ he says. ‘They may believe that what’s happened to them is somehow deserved. The beating, perversely, may bring them back to God. They may have found peace from that.’
And there it was, the answer that everyone could see except for liberated white middle class gay me. When awful stuff happens I don’t tend to think I have it coming—helped in no small part by where, and when, I came from. When fate was dealing out demographics, I came out with a strong hand. Maybe not a flush, but definitely a full house. So on this, I was out of step. I was that black Land Cruiser pushing my way through a snarled mess of complex familial relationships, with cross currents of religion, employment and ethnicity, demanding answers. I was a bit of a douchebag.
So what’s the answer, I asked Yuli Rustinawati of the LGBT rights group Arus Pelangi. Arus Pelangi is one of the groups that reaches out to victims of LGBT violence with support for counseling and even relocation within Indonesia and abroad.
‘We have to be ready for when people need us. When they are ready to jump we are ready for them,’ Yuli says.
‘For most people if they become a victim they just want to hide. We will begin seeing change when people say my victimhood ends with me.’