How hetero- and homo-nationalisms are colliding in debates about LGBT rights. 

In recent decades the Indonesian government’s negative attitude towards the LGBT community has been sporadic.

However, since early this year it has become more frequent and possibly more intense — with various government representatives making a series of public and hostile statements against homosexuality and the Indonesian LGBT movement. They associated LGBT people with paedophilia, sexual deviance, and mental illness.

Under the guise of Western hegemony, moral corruption, and child protection, an Islamic pro-family group, Aliansi Cinta Keluarga [Family Love Alliance, AILA] has even taken legal steps to outlaw LGBT and extra-marital sex. They are urging the Constitutional Court to review and revise the current Criminal Code.

And earlier this month, following allegations of misuse of gay networking applications for child prostitution, including Grindr and Blued, the Ministry of Communication moved ahead with plans to block them because they violate pornography and child protection laws.

In mid-August, responding to the release of a Human Rights Watch Report on Indonesia’s anti-LGBT vitriol, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s spokesperson, Johan Budi asserted that there is no room for the proliferation of the LGBT movement in the country.

Although pro-democracy activists might argue that his statements violated freedom of assembly protected by the Constitution, Budi added that the state had been committed to protecting its citizens’ rights regardless of their sexual orientations.

These inconsistencies between the protection of individual rights and the castration of political rights highlights the impact that the globalisation of LGBT rights and marriage equality discourse has had on Indonesia.

The globalisation of sexual identity politics and related rights has condensed varieties of same-sex or non-normative sexual desires and practices into one category — ‘LGBT’. This consequently sees the emergence and universalisation of LGBT identities. And when sexualities become identities, they are imbued and entangled with citizenship rights, which in turn gave birth to the notion of ‘sexual rights and citizenship’.

LGBT is now not only a sexual or gender identity category but also suffused with citizenship rights, including marriage. Unexpectedly, this sexual citizenship model has become increasingly universalised.

The legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US last year has further conflated broader LGBT rights and movements in Indonesia with the demand for same-sex marriage. Opponents of LGBT people claim that same-sex marriage will dismantle heterosexual family principles that coalesce around traditional gender norms.

Moral panics behind this accusation are not only invoked by repulsive imageries of same-sex couples having sex but also fear of attacks against existing gender norms framed through the images of young people choosing their genders freely.

Beyond the fears of the LGBT movement see the legalization of same-sex marriage, nationalism also fuels anti-LGBT hysteria. Looking at post-colonial Indonesian history, nationalism is often articulated in binary logics between ‘us’ and ‘them’, where foreign and outside forces are seen as threats to the nation-state.

Since Western countries, particularly the US, are now championing LGBT rights as human rights, the association of LGBT rights with Western schemes to destroy Indonesian culture are aggressively perpetuated and strengthened. For example, in the wake of rumours that international organisations were supporting LGBT organisations, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu claimed that the LGBT movement was part of a proxy war to conquer Indonesia. It was seen as a foreign intervention undermining national sovereignty.

This consequently offers fertile ground for the re-articulation of hetero-sexualised nationalism—in which non-heterosexuality is perceived as ‘un-Indonesian’. On the other hand, the tremendous overemphasis on nationalism has not been inseparable from globalised LGBT rights championed by Western nations.

Responding to the recent anti-LGBT rhetoric, US State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau criticised the Indonesian government for its negative attitudes toward LGBT Indonesians. She suggested Indonesia should uphold diversity, as well as tolerance, and respect international rights and standards of equal treatment. To borrow Jasbir K Puar’s concept of homo-nationalism, LGBT rights have become embedded in Western standards of modernity.

But deploying LGBT rights models as a primary way to achieve modernity and equality ignores the fact that acceptance can also come in multiple forms – it is not solely hinged on a ‘rights-based approach’. It also ignores the various local sexual practices and desires that cannot simply be neatly placed into the LGBT category.

While state prejudices injure the political freedom of LGBT people, it might also signal that Indonesia has not yet come to terms with the idea of sexualities as identities, not to mention sexual identities that bear particular rights.

As argued by Budi, it appears what the state condemns is public movements that seek to legitimatise non-normative sexual identities alongside distinct rights. These ‘fears’ have are exacerbated when LGBT people and non-normative sexuality movements are linked to same-sex marriage, and when same-sex marriage is hailed as ‘progress’ by Western countries.

In Indonesia, talking about sex is still deemed taboo. Sex has not always been acknowledged as a form of identity. Further, linking sexual desires/practices to identities, which subsequently entail citizenship rights, are still strange concepts.

Placing it in the context of globalised sexual politics, these dynamics reflect the tensions between the global and the national in a post-colonial country. In contrast to the global, which tends to universalise, the national, imbued with its post-colonial injuries, is constantly longing to re-craft and reimagine its lost authenticity.

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.