The government has consistently attempted to paint homosexuality as irreconcilable with Indonesian culture. Photo by Flickr user Phil Davis.

What a pop star can teach us about being Indonesian

It has been almost two weeks since the US Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage but the debate in Indonesia has only just begun. While Indonesian proponents of marriage equality highlighted their Facebook profile pictures with rainbow filters, opponents came up with the standard straight pride slogans: “You are here because your parents were straight,” and so on. Observing these arguments, I realised that when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, we Indonesians have not moved past the same old debates. The arguments still coalesce around a binary between natural vis-à-vis unnatural, and the “authenticity” of Indonesian culture, as if homosexuality is a western invention.


In fact, homosexuality is neither legal nor illegal in Indonesia. The state has largely maintained this neutral stance, aside from a few exceptions, such as the 2008 Anti-Pornography Law, which classifies homosexuality as a deviant behaviour, and local regulations that have sought to equate homosexuality with prostitution. Yet while the government has appeared reluctant to outlaw homosexuality outright, it has consistently attempted to paint homosexuality as irreconcilable with Indonesian culture.


The Minister of Religious Affairs, Lukman Hakim, last week said that Indonesia could not accept same-sex marriage – a statement interpreted by many more conservative Indonesians as suggesting the state would not accept the existence of LGBT individuals. Saleh Partaonan Daulay, the head of Commission VIII in the House of Representatives, shared the same view, stating that same-sex marriage could “disturb social order”. Even the commissioners of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) have been unable to reach consensus on the issue. While Hafid Abbas, the head of the body, urged the government to be more supportive of LGBT Indonesians, another commissioner, Maneger Nasution, described homosexuality as a deviant sexual practice.


Under Soeharto’s New Order, anything that conflicted with the state ideology was considered foreign and a threat to Indonesian moral values and culture. The current generation is living with the legacy of this idea. We were educated to think that culture is fixed, that differences are threatening and alien, never mind the multiple interactions across cultures now possible in a globalised world. The democratic era has also provided more space for religious fundamentalism, which was strongly suppressed by the military regime. The dogmatic interpretations of religion presented by fundamentalist groups reinforce this idea of a static, unchanging culture.


This got me thinking about what actually makes us feel Indonesian. Ideas of “Indonesian-ness” continue to be bound by state ideology, religion, and “(eastern) culture”. In this globalized era, with so many opportunities for communication and interaction, how is it possible that these three factors continue to define what it means to be Indonesian?


Pop star Sherina Munaf can provide some answers. When the former child musician tweeted her support for the US Supreme Court decision (below), she was mocked and bullied by Indonesian netizens.



One “hater” even started a petition to ban her from the entertainment industry. Most of the negative tweets accused Sherina of being immoral, a liberal, or a traitor to her religion. The Twitter profile of one of the bullies clearly mentioned that she (the bully) was also a fan of Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato. Does she know both are pro-gay rights? The reality is that these Twitter bullies do not really care if Swift or Lovato support LGBT rights. Because Swift and Lovato are not Indonesians. But as Sherina is Indonesian, they feel hurt and disappointed. For them, Sherina has moved beyond the boundaries of “Indonesian-ness.”


National identity is imagined. With ideas of national identity inherited from the New Order, Indonesian-ness is maintained through the exclusion of elements deemed threatening. A rigid distinction between the west and east is reinforced and all the examples of interaction, dialogue and change are ignored. In defining our identity in this way, we buy into this idea of an “authentic Indonesian-ness”, which largely goes unquestioned. Few have bothered to read about the vast and rich history of sexual and gender diversity in the country, such the bissu (transgender shamans) of Bugis culture in Sulawesi, or homosexual practices in the warok-gemblak tradition in East Java. Our Indonesian-ness is ahistorical.


Same-sex marriage might be impossible in Indonesia in the near future but small changes are taking place. More and more LGBT individuals are visible in the media and public spaces. Although same-sex marriage makes for an intriguing debate, advocating for LGBT rights in Indonesia will be more successful when done through the discourse of anti-violence and discrimination. Most Indonesians would agree that all citizens must be free from violence and discrimination in accessing their basic rights. In Indonesia, however, such rights do not include the right to get married. As LGBT Indonesians, we still have a long way to go.


Hendri Yulius is the author of “Coming Out.”



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