In Indonesia the State has shown its fierce opposition to homosexuality. But at the same time, they have helped move LGBT identities from the margins to the mainstream, writes Hendri Yulius.

In 2016, the Indonesian government’s stance on homosexuality became clear.

Various government representatives and officials made a series of derogatory public statements against homosexuality, associating it with pedophilia, mental illness, and sexual deviance. In their eyes, same-sex relations or practices were dangerous and twisted.

What makes the recent anti-homosexual vitriol different from before is the increasingly popular use of the term LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender).

This includes not only political elites, but the media, which has also made previously unfamiliar LGBT denominations a part of daily conversations, encapsulating these diverse non-normative sexualities and gender expressions into a solidified category.

Gay, lesbi, and waria in New Order Indonesia (1966- 1998)
Before the use of LGBT, Indonesians involved in same-sex relationships or practices began to identify themselves as ‘gay’ and ‘lesbi/lesbian’ in the late 1970s when media coverage on the topic began.

A story about the marriage of two women — Jossie and Bonnie in April 1981– started extensive coverage and discussions on homosexuality from different angles, including psychoanalysis to figure out the cause of homosexuality. The adaptation of the terms gay and lesbian emerged from the global flows of identity politics and international sexual rights organisations.

These terms also circulated among  same-sex social networks, allowing Indonesian homosexuals to join a clear identity category. The first gay organisation was Lambda Indonesia, established in 1982 to connect gay men across the archipelago and increase self-confidence and social acceptance by disseminating positive information about homosexuality. Interestingly, the inclusion of ‘Indonesia’ in the organisation’s name highlighted the Indonesian-ness of gay Indonesians, who faced different experiences from their Western counterparts. Its approach was non-confrontational, focusing on education, publication, and network building.

The term waria, (wanita-pria/ female-male) often frivolously translated as male-to-female transgender, has a different history – and one in which the  Indonesian State plays a significant role.

In 1972, the Jakarta Mayor Ali Sadikin invented the term wadam (wanita Adam/female-Adam) to signify men with feminine mannerisms that were said to possess a female soul. He established the first wadam organisation, Himpunan Wadam Jakarta (The Association of Jakarta Wadam) to legitimise their rights. However, in 1978 wadam was replaced by waria because of protests from Muslim clerics complaining of the inappropriateness in using a prophet’s name, Adam.

While the terms gay and lesbian  circulated widely through media and social networks, waria as an identity was formalised by the State, which in doing so officially recognised gender non-conformity. However, instead of formal acknowledgement for homosexuality, the State has long condemned the practice, refusing to legitimise same-sex relationships and/or homosexual identity.. Government and public officials continue to see homosexuality as something that goes against Indonesian culture and religion.

Circulation of LGBT terms during reformasi (1998- present)
The collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime in 1998 brought democratisation to the forefront of Indonesian politics. As a consequence, human rights discourses proliferated in many emerging LGBT organisations.

Transnational connections with LGBT activists and organisations overseas and an influx of foreign funding also contributed to the circulation of LGBT terms in Indonesia, and created a sense of solidarity with international LGBT movements. At the same time, previously suppressed Islamic politics also burgeoned, with Islamic-based organisations successfully infiltrating  politics landscapes and using decentralisation to make Shariah based laws.

At a national level, the Pornography Bill (No.44/2008) was introduced. It listed ‘deviant sexual intercourse’, including ‘necrophilia, bestiality, oral sex, anal sex, lesbian, and homosexuals’, as pornographic content. At the local level, some local regulations (peraturan daerah/perda) also criminalised homosexual practices, conflating them with prostitution.

On the other hand, in 2008 the Department of Social Affairs (Departemen Sosial) issued a guidebook of social services for waria, which classifies the group as part of the country’s recognised diversity. But this position changed shortly after.

In 2012 the Ministry of Social Affairs classified gay, lesbian, and waria as parts of minority groups with social problems, along with street children, the homeless, and people with disability. It associates these sexual minorities with social problems on the basis of their ‘sexual deviance’.

Hence, the Ministry provides and expands social services to these groups in the forms of social rehabilitation, protection, and empowerment. Although sexual aversion therapy was considered in 2016, it has never been implemented. Today, waria or gender non-conforming gay men continue to be arrested alongside female sex workers by local public order officers, and sent to assessment camps for ‘creating a  public nuisance’.

The absence of the LGBT term in all of these policies signals that both local and national political systems were not familiar with the terminology. Interestingly, the proliferation of sexuality discourses in policies signifies the State’s gradual awareness of non-normative sexualities, and its efforts to capture and regulate them.

In addition, after increased pushes for marriage equality in the US and the greater visibility of LGBT movements supported by foreign funding, the State has become aware of the term and associates LGBT activism with same-sex marriage. Equally important, the term LGBT was also recently introduced into popular debate by an Islamic pro-family group, The Family Love Alliance. In a court hearing, they took legal steps to revise the existing Criminal Code to criminalise homosexuality and introduce the term LGBT and even ‘Queer’ in the hearing.

Combined with media reports and portrayals of the debates and controversies, the LGBT term is now prominent in daily vernacular. People no longer address me as a ‘gay’, but as ‘LGBT’. LGBT is treated not as an acronym, but rather a singular category to address people with non-normative genders and sexualities. The 2016 Ministry of Youth and Sports’ Creative Youth Ambassador Selection even required participants to submit a medical certificate stating that they are not involved in ‘LGBT’.

These dynamics show that while the State has not criminalised or even used the term LGBT in their policies, the term itself has moved  from the margins to the mainstream. The term has become popular and dominates current national discourse. Through these forces, the State may come to know and care about non-normative genders and sexualities.

On the other hand, proponents of LGBT rights also popularise the terms. The fact that same-sex practices and non-normative gender identities/expressions were common in some ethnic groups indeed provides justification to ‘normalise’ LGBT Indonesians.

However, the recent development those same-sex practices are also started to be labeled ‘LGBT’, while actually those carried different subjectivities from the contemporary sexual identities. A media outlet, for example, refers to those cultural-specific practices as ‘LGBT culture and tradition’ (tradisi dan budaya LGBT). Despite the positive intentions, it runs a risk of ‘LGBT-isation’, symbolically consuming local indigenous practices and conflating it with (‘Westernised’) modern identities.

The flipside is also that since reformasi the Indonesian State has increasingly bowed to conservative religious powers and notions that the majority of Indonesians share similar stances with. The cultural war in the name of LGBT will continue to be waged. The world will be observing just how Indonesia positions itself within the forces of globalisation around LGBT rights.

Hendri Yulius obtained his Master’s in public policy from the National University of Singapore, and is the author of Coming Out. He is currently pursuing his Masters by Research in Gender and Cultural Studies at The University of Sydney.

Further reading

Blackwood, Evelyn. (2010). Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Boellstorff, Tom. (2005). The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Departemen Sosial RI. (2008). Pedoman Umum Pelayanan Sosial Waria. Jakarta: Direktorat Jenderal Pelayanan dan Rehabilitasi Sosial.

__________. (2007). A Coincidence of Desires. Durham: Duke University Press.

Oetomo, Dede. (1982). Charting Gay Politics in Indonesia. Ithaca (unpublished).

_________. (2001). Memberi Suara pada Yang Bisu. Yogyakarta: Pustaka Marwa.