Moral panic and the reinvention of LGBT

Author

Hendri Yulius is a researcher and writer. He is the author of a number of books, including Coming Out, now available at Gramedia. He holds a master's degree from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

While heterosexuals also do “indecent” things, in Indonesia, homosexuals are much more likely to be prosecuted for them. Photo by Flickr user karendesuyo.

 

On 30 April, Indonesian police raided a “gay sex party” in Surabaya and arrested 14 men. Police forced the men to undergo HIV tests, explicitly violating their rights to privacy. Five were found to be HIV-positive. Police confiscated condoms, mobile phones, and a flash drive containing porn videos, stating that eight of the men would be charged under the 2008 Pornography Law for providing and showing pornographic materials. Further, the two men accused of organising the event also face charges of violating the Information and Electronic Transactions Law, which prohibits distribution of materials that violate “decency” (kesusilaan).

 

This is not the first legal incident since the national meltdown over lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Indonesians began in 2016. In November that year, after receiving a tip-off from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious vigilante group, police broke up a similar party in a Kalibata City apartments in South Jakarta, arrested 13 men, and confiscated condoms, anti-retroviral pills, and mobile phones. The men were eventually freed because they had not violated any laws.

 

It is important to remember that homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, except in the autonomous province of Aceh. In early April, almost two years after Aceh began implementing its Shari’a Criminal Code (Qanun Jinayat) a group of unidentified vigilantes invaded a house to arrest two men for allegedly having homosexual relations. After being beaten, the men were detained in a shari’a police facility. On 17 May, they were each sentenced to each receive 85 lashes with the cane. It is the first conviction under the articles of the Qanun Jinayat that prohibit same-sex relations.

 

2016 was a pivotal year for LGBT issues in Indonesia. Numerous derogatory statements by conservatives and public figures have meant that this term, once in circulation only among small urban networks, has now entered common parlance. These public statements irresponsibly associated the term LGBT with “proxy wars”, sexual abuse of children, and even, absurdly, the over-consumption of instant noodles. Instead of an acronym standing for multiple gender and sexual identities, “LGBT” is now used as a single derogatory category to address individuals with non-normative gender and/or sexuality. It is used to target individuals with gender expression that does not correspond to existing social norms — for example, men with feminine mannerisms — and also homosexual men or gay people.

 

Given the confusion about the term, it is not surprising that efforts are being made to pin down LGBT individuals and make them visible in public through these extreme cases. The production and publication of dramatic episodes (like the recent arrests) is necessary to produce and perpetuate this idea of a moral panic, and to serve a justification for the wars against LGBT people to continue.

 

LGBT – particularly its association with gayness – has now become more emotionally powerful, making the dangers and threats imagined by the opponents of LGBT groups seemingly concrete. Raids on “sex parties”, and the voyeuristic media reports that follow, align gay men and the term LGBT with insatiability or promiscuity, sex parties, transactional sex, circulation of pornographic materials, and HIV infections. Media reports exacerbate the panic through the use of extremely moralistic language, deploying terms like maksiat (immorality) to signify homosexual practice. Further, the disclosure in media reports of the relatively young ages and professional backgrounds of the men also contributes to a widespread concern that “LGBT” has now successfully infiltrated the “young generation”.

 

These framings of male homosexuality serve as reference points to justify moral panic and spreading fear of LGBT and homosexuality. This not only makes homosexual subjects “present” in the public sphere and concsiousness, but also generate and perpetuate the “extreme” meanings now attached to them.

 

As mentioned, homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, except in Aceh, but as the Jakarta and Surabaya cases show, the loose and unclear definition of indecency (kesusilaan) and pornography (pornografi) in laws like the Pornography and the Information and Electronic Transactions Laws can easily be deployed to outlaw homosexual encounters. And as always, while heterosexuals also do “indecent” things – from sexting, to transactional sex and public displays of affection – homosexuals are much more likely to be prosecuted for them. This is the price they seem to have to pay for living in increasingly heteronormative Indonesia.