Q&A: Dede Oetomo on the LGBT panic


Tim Mann is the editor of Indonesia at Melbourne

Dede Oetomo founded Indonesias first gay rights organisation, Lambda Indonesia, in the early 1980s. Photo by I Ketut Purba Widnyana.
Dede Oetomo founded Indonesia’s first gay rights organisation, Lambda Indonesia, in the early 1980s. Photo by I Ketut Purba Widnyana.


Indonesia has witnessed a sustained attack on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community over the past two months. Even waria (Indonesian transwomen), who have historically been accepted (under certain conditions), have been targeted. What do you think is behind the current panic?
It has just exploded. It could have been triggered by anyone, there is no particular reason why Muhammad Nasir, the minister of higher education, research and technology, was the one who started it. Some people believe the whole thing has been planned, but I am not so sure. I think we have been building up to this for a while. If we look back to the 1980s and 1990s there were only a few examples of gay people in the public sphere in Indonesia. Two lesbians married in Jakarta in 1981 and I came out right after that and was in a magazine every month. Then in about the mid-2000s, we started to see more news from overseas. Elton John got married, Ricky Martin came out. I suspect, quietly in their living rooms, conservative families were becoming anxious. There were earlier indications of this, for example in anti-same sex marriage statements from former Nahdlatul Ulama head Hasyim Muzadi, members of the national legislature, and the former Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali.


It is important to note that in this instance, the panic is not being driven solely by conservative Islam. I agree with Ariel Heryanto’s analysis that it relates to old New Order ideas being disturbed. The heteronormative template – Julia Suryakusuma would call it State Ibuism – that was so vigorously promoted by the New Order is being disrupted. It also relates to the appearance of order that is so crucial in high Javanese society. Challenges to this order are perceived as threatening. People already know that things are in a mess, but when the mess starts to want legitimacy, when it starts to organise, that’s when they get really frightened.


This lesbian wedding was covered in Tempo magazine in 1981. This would probably never happen now, even in a liberal magazine like Tempo, considering the scandal that erupted last year when photos emerged of a gay wedding in Bali.
There was no hoo-ha at the time. There was one long article in Tempo, and then it was picked up by Majalah Liberty in Surabaya and another couple of media outlets. There was no condemnation. But there are a number of important differences between this and the recent wedding in Bali. The wedding in Jakarta was between two Indonesian women, while the wedding in Bali was between an Indonesian and a foreigner, an American. And the Balinese wedding occurred right after the US Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. Of course neither wedding was a legal event but the one in Bali happened at a time when the conservatives were becoming increasingly anxious.


This is not to say that these weddings no longer occur. I know of a lesbian wedding in Lawang, East Java, which was presided over by a scholar from one of the local Islamic universities. He said that according to his interpretation of Islamic law, two women could marry and it was his role to simply facilitate the process, they didn’t necessarily even need a celebrant. I also know a protestant minister who has blessed at least one lesbian wedding in Bali.


To what extent have advances in the west contributed to the situation Indonesia is facing now?
When the Netherlands legalised same-sex marriage in 2001, the reaction of most Indonesians was: “Oh well, it’s just one country”. Belgium and Spain followed, but most people didn’t notice. These developments were covered in media like Tempo and Kompas, but only briefly. The US Supreme Court decision certainly has contributed to the current panic, as it did in many other countries.


But civil society organisations in Indonesia have also played a role. I was one of the authors of the Indonesia report for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported “Being LGBT in Asia” program, which has been a particular target of conservative groups. We reported – and I don’t believe we were overstating things – that there were 119 LGBT organisations in this country. It is difficult to know how many there are exactly, because even though these organisations are registered with the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, most do not use words like “gay” in their titles. It is not only about wanting to hide from view. Attorneys, who help with the registration process, might, for example, be unwilling to help for personal reasons or if they are afraid of being reprimanded by their colleagues. In any case, conservatives were deeply concerned by the figure of 119, and, in particular, by the realisation that LGBT groups were organising.


We have seen some incredibly ill-informed and incorrect statements by public officials. The idea that homosexuality is a disease appears firmly lodged in the Indonesian consciousness.
Knowledge about sexuality in Indonesia is just amazingly low. It is incredible that this is a country where just about everyone talks about sex but pretends that they’re not talking about it. Just look at how often stories about sex appear in local media. If you read some of these stories, for example about young people being caught in the act, the tone of the news is terrible, we seem so bothered by sexuality.


I recently read a transcript of a discussion between Commission I of the national legislature (DPR), which oversees security and foreign affairs, and the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI). It was clear that they had never read anything about sexuality. There is a script in their minds that says: “You are going to recruit our innocent boys and girls to be gays or lesbians, or to be transgender.” I had to learn about sexuality because I was gay. I had to come out, I had to save myself, and so I read. I was a nerdy gay. Unfortunately, most Indonesians do not read much. Unless you have a problem – or even if you do have a problem – you are not likely to go to go to the books. People are just as likely to go to a dukun (traditional healer) or religious leader.


The media certainly hasn’t helped. The more civilised media, like Kompas, Tempo, and The Jakarta Post, try to explain but my experience talking with journalists, even from these organisations, is that most of them don’t get it. One of my former students, Febriana Firdaus, who writes for Rappler, has published some great work over the past couple of months. She really gets it.


Discrimination is often described as invisible power. Apart from a couple of exceptions, state officials have come out strongly against the LGBT community. What impact do you think these statements from public officials (“visible power”) will have on discrimination?
We have already seen a few casualties. The first incident was the so-called “sweeping” for lesbians in Bandung by the FPI. The waria pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Yogyakarta has also been closed but it was an icon, an obvious target. BBC, Al Jazeera, everybody had covered it. They’re my friends and the pesantren was of deep significance because it was the only one. But it was small – there were only about 20 members. My organisation, Gaya Nusantara, was also involved in an HIV testing campaign party that had to be cancelled. The police were careful, and suggested we postpone the event until the controversy died down. Unfortunately the program cycle didn’t allow this, so we were a victim there. But because of all the media attention, there was a surge in the number of people getting tested. The clinics involved in the program said hundreds more people were tested than in regular weeks. As an old activist, I’ve seen these things before and I certainly don’t welcome them. They’re annoying and they make life difficult, but there are usually some positives in the long run.


On the issue of discrimination, a couple of weeks after this scandal broke, I was in Jakarta. I met some regular fun-loving gay guys and mentioned the minister’s statement. They had no idea! There are still guys and lesbian women and some transwomen who don’t know what’s going on.


Is that a sign of the movement being poorly organised, that they are not politically engaged?
Well, yes. I would estimate that there are only about 2,000 politically engaged LGBT activists in Indonesia. But even if you use a conservative estimate of about 3 per cent of the Indonesian population, that should give you more than 7 million LGBT people in the country. Many of them simply don’t care. Especially now with dating apps, they can still get their sex. They can do it undercover.


The Indonesian LGBT movement has for decades used the example of the bissu in South Sulawesi or the warok-gemblakan tradition in East Java to demonstrate that non-normative sexualities have always been present in the archipelago. Do you think that this is a useful strategy? Why are these messages not getting through now?
This was a good strategy in the 1980s and early 1990s because the powers that be claimed that they were the true traditionalists, guardians of high culture (kebudayaan adiluhung). We were able to expose their ignorance by saying, “What tradition?”, and show that Indonesia is rich in traditions that do not follow rigid understandings of gender. There are also Dayak groups, for example, that have trans-priestesses. But it is true that highlighting these traditions appears to be less effective now. Although waria have historically been acceptable to most Indonesians, it is important to remember that Indonesian Muslims with a more orthodox understanding of their faith have always been bothered by them, and sought to repress them.


Vice President Jusuf Kalla has requested UNDP not fund any LGBT organisations in Indonesia. Many see this as a strategy designed to weaken the movement.
The government has tried this in the past, attempting to weaken human rights organisations like the Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) and Elsam by restricting their access to funds. I have heard that some of the major donors have been summoned by the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) and the State Secretariat. Honestly, we have been a bit disappointed by the likes of UNDP, USAID, and Ford Foundation. In the 1990s, when the Indonesian government refused to accept aid money from the Netherlands, Dutch nongovernmental organisations Oxfam Novib and Hivos set up companies that would allow them to channel funds to Indonesian organisations. I don’t see any of the donors doing that now.


Do you feel that part of the reason this panic has snowballed and continued for so long is that there has been so little leadership from President Joko Widodo?
It is certainly part of the problem. Although Jokowi has not made any statements in public, I heard from a number of people that he called Muhammad Nasir and Anies Baswedan [the minister of education and culture] after their statements. He apparently said, in a very Javanese way of course: “I am not happy with these statements that are against my Nawa Cita.” If you look at the Nawa Cita, his nine-point priority agenda, sexual orientation is there. It is quite progressive. I was recently at a US Black History Month event, and one of the speakers pointed out that even with a black man in the White House, they still had Ferguson. Unfortunately we can’t always expect the president to be able to stop things, it is a democracy.