Before 2016, the term ‘LGBT’ was rarely used in Indonesia. But early that year, comments by a senior Indonesian politician prompted a dramatic shift toward public anti-LGBT discourse. Since then, LGBT has become an increasingly common way to refer to a range of gender or sexually diverse people in media and popular discussions.
While on the surface it is the same term that has been used internationally since the 1980s, like all words borrowed from one language into another, it has taken on different connotations and local resonances in Indonesia.
A close look at how the Indonesian term LGBT (italicised to show it is not necessarily the same as LGBT(QI+) in English) has been recently used to frame queer issues in mainstream Indonesian media helps make sense of how its meaning and function have shifted and how the underlying assumptions it evokes can be used to shape public perceptions.
I looked at all articles tagged LGBT over the past 12 months in four mainstream online Indonesian language news outlets: CNN Indonesia (14 articles), Kompas (10 articles), Republika (19 articles, including nine op-eds submitted by people outside the organisation) and Tempo (31 articles), focusing on those dealing with topics directly related to Indonesia. (International LGBTQI+ issues are often framed very differently.) Kompas (which has historic roots in a long-disbanded Catholic political party), CNN Indonesia and Tempo present as politically independent. Republika is explicitly aimed at the Muslim community.
In these articles, the meaning attached to the term LGBT in the Indonesian media can be seen from a number of perspectives. It should be noted that of the 74 pieces collected, 10 predominantly cite from sympathetic sources who advocate for queer rights and an additional six balance negative and positive representations of queer issues, leaving 58 (78%) which are predominately negative in tone.
LGBT represented as antithetical to Indonesian society and religion
Several sensationalist anti-queer themes and metaphors in the these articles are similar to those already in play at least since the escalation of negative rhetoric in 2016. In particular, LGBT is framed as antithetical to Indonesian society, contrary to the state ideology, Pancasila, and a foreign imposition. In the context of such a ‘threat’, a key metaphor is that queer people and their aspirations are an enemy (musuh) against which society must wage war (memarangi).
LGBT is also represented as antithetical to religion, an argument that is presented as universally true, when in fact they represent an understanding based on the Indonesian state-sanctioned doctrines of the officially recognised religions. Not only are queer people accepted in many religious communities internationally, this is also the case in Indonesia, albeit on a very small scale.
Looking more closely at how the media deploy the term LGBT offers further insight.
The use of LGBT as an adjective
As with the English use of LGBT(QI+), in Indonesian, LGBT is often used as an adjective, such as with the terms LGBT community (komunitas LGBT), LGBT group (kelompok LGBT), LGBT organisation (organisasi LGBT), LGBT couple (pasangan LGBT) and LGBT rights (hak-hak LGBT). These phrases are generally neutral and may even be used in a positive light.
However, many other recurring phrases highlight the themes of threat, deviance and otherness. Terms like LGBT behaviour (perilaku LGBT), LGBT values (nilai-nilai LGBT) and LGBT practices (praktik LGBT) all suggest a unified purpose that defines a monolithic group set apart from wider society. Such practices are explicitly or implicitly presented negatively.
• LGBT behaviour is deviant behaviour that must receive harsh penalties. (Op-ed by Siti Komariah from Tulungagung, Republika)
• [writing about her daughter’s teacher in Norway] Although they never explicitly spread [like a contagion] LGBTQ values to the students, many times during class they said that everyone can love anyone. (Op-ed by Savitri Icha Khairunnisa, overseas Indonesian living in Norway, Republika)
Frequent juxtaposition with terms like problem (permasalahan), matter (soal), issue (isu) and danger (bahaya) also reinforce negative connotations of the term LGBT.
Another metaphor that recurs in the data is one of sickness. This is seen in the previous quote where LGBT values can be “spread” (menularkan). Similar collocations are LGBT virus (virus LGBT), LGBT disease (penyakit LGBT), and LGBT sufferers (penderita LGBT):
• Only the system of Islam is able to stop the spread of the LGBT virus with the enforcement of its set of laws and regulations for life. (Op-ed by Ummu Saad from Indramayu, Republika)
The use of LGBT as a noun
In English, “LGBT(QI+)” is used overwhelmingly as an adjective and almost never as a noun. In contrast, from the 382 occurrences of LGBT in the Indonesian data I collected, it is used as a noun in more than one third of cases (36%) and as an adjective in the remaining cases.
The Indonesian noun LGBT often means queer person:
• What if an LGBT comes into a house of worship, into a church? Should we refuse them? (Bernhard, Executive Director, Depok City Centre for the Study of Law and Politics and city council member, Tempo)
• Draft Regional Family Protection Law to Require LGBTs Be Rehabilitated. (Headline, Tempo)
But LGBT can also refer to LGBTQI+ people as a group:
• The head of the regional office of the [political group] Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Husni Thamrin, speaking to [news agency] Antara, claimed that as many as 8,000 people are part of LGBT in Riau. (Republika)
In other cases, the Indonesian word LGBT refers to an action, here cast as similar to adultery:
• Zulkarnain [Deputy Secretary General of the Indonesian Ulama Council] then corrected his statement and admitted there was no article that legalised adultery and LGBT in the proposed regional law. (CNN Indonesia)
And in a number of other contexts LGBT seems to refer to a psychological or physical condition:
• Psychology has shown that LGBT is not a disability. (Gabriel Eel of the Indonesian Organisation for Social Change, Tempo)
• Binsa [a fictional army soldier in a cartoon] added that LGBT can be caused by hereditary or environmental factors or childhood trauma. (CNN Indonesia)
The variation in meaning of the word LGBT in these relatively clear cases means that in other circumstances it can be become difficult to determine what exactly a speaker or author intends.
Ambiguity of reference can at times be quite menacing. For example, when there are calls to control (mengendali), reject (menolak) or forbid (melarang) LGBT, is it actions or human beings that are targeted?
• Yes, from the beginning our attitude has been clear that we reject LGBT. (Hidayat Nur Wahid, Deputy Speaker of the Indonesian legislature, Republika)
In this climate of indeterminacy, when Nasrul Abit, Deputy Governor of West Sumatra, declares that “narcotics and LGBT are greater threats to West Sumatera than radicalism” (Republika), it is not difficult hear the accusation directed at individual people rather than actions or attitudes.
But such negative and dehumanising connotations do not go uncontested. In one of the articles citing LGBT-positive attitudes, Friends of Depok City community group representative Antarini Arna asks: “What do they mean by anti-LGBT? Because all those inside LGBT are human beings” (Tempo).
LGBT and its definitions in mainstream media
The term LGBT has a foreign origin and is a relatively new addition to the Indonesian lexicon. Often we cannot be sure exactly what a speaker or writer intends when they use the term and we can be even less sure how readers interpret it. The variation and indeterminacy in meaning and function of LGBT is part of what makes it powerful in evoking a sense of uncertain foreboding and danger.
And while LGBT has taken on a life of its own in the Indonesian lexicon, it retains a sense of foreignness. This combination of vagueness and foreignness is probably one of the reasons LGBT – rather than an indigenous term – has come to be used. It can evoke a sense of something elusive and threatening, simultaneously from within and from outside Indonesia.
As scholars such as Intan Paramditha and Sharyn Graham Davies, among others, have noted, the motif of LGBT threat in Indonesia echoes the threat of communism that was used by the New Order government of Soeharto to consolidate and maintain power. Fear of communism continues to be used by some political and religious figures for similar political purposes today. With both communism and LGBT, an enemy is constructed that is amorphous and not fully understood. They are both presented as foreign, anti-religion, anti-Indonesia and corrupting.
The anti-LGBT uproar in Indonesia has been seen as a reaction against the expansion of LGBTQI+ rights internationally and the prospect of greater visibility and acceptance within Indonesia. Like the spectre of communism, it has also been used as a tool to distract from political machinations and to mobilise voters. And as with the anti-communist push in Indonesia, the anti-LGBT offensive is not just rhetorical but has real-world consequences for human lives.
This is an abridged version of a longer article originally published on Melbourne Asia Review.
Michael Ewing would like to thank Maya Costa-Pinto, Claire Maree and Helen Pausacker for valuable feedback on this article. This work is part of a larger project funded by the Indonesia Democracy Hallmark Research Initiative.