A decision by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court to hear a petition to make it illegal for homosexuals to engage in sexual activities has been seen as a major step backwards for many who support human rights and, in particular, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights in the country.

“The proposed criminal sanctions before the Constitutional Court are not only a threat to LGBT people, but to all Indonesians,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) director LGBT rights Graeme Reid said in August.

The case could lead to the criminalization of all consensual adult sexual relationships outside of marriage as adultery, and expand the definition of pedophilia to encompass sexual relations between consenting adults in any same-sex relations.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of 12 academics in July and the hearings are continuing. One of Indonesia’s leading LGBT rights advocates, who has been closely following the proceedings, remains unsure what the outcome will likely be.

Yuli Rustinawati is the founder and chairperson of Arus Pelangi, a federation of LGBT organizations across Indonesia. While many expert witnesses have spoken in support of the LGBT community during the court hearings, Rustinawati says that among the judges hearing the case, several are understood to hold conservative Islamic views.

She told The News Lens International from Jakarta that she remains unable to make a prediction as to what the court’s decision is likely to be.

The case, however, is just one example of a broader strategy against the LGBT community in the predominantly Muslim country.

“Many people, organizations and individuals also try to criminalize [LGBT],” she says.

An upcoming report from OutRight Action International is expected to draw attention to the fact that local authorities across at least eight of Indonesia’s 34 provinces already use or are drafting vague by-laws to criminalize or regulate LGBT activities.

Rustinawati is also wary that further anti-LGBT regulations could be used to win votes in Indonesia’s local body elections next year.

The fear is well-founded. Earlier this year, when anti-LGBT hysteria reached its zenith, several Indonesian politicians revealed their propensity to jump on the populist bandwagon. HRW in August released a report documenting the numerous instances of high profile politicians making derogatory and inflammatory remarks against homosexuals.

While many politicians are understood to be sympathetic toward the LGBT community, they, like many in society, have been reluctant to speak against the influence of religion or in support of LGBT rights.

Rustinawati says there has been a broader shift towards religious conservatism across Indonesia.

Another Jakarta-based human rights activist described the change underway in Indonesia as a more subtle move from a society that upholds “religious freedom” to one that has “religious harmony.” He also pointed to the ever-expanding influence of Islamic groups in politics via groups like Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which respectively boast tens of millions of members.

Rustinawati says that the wave of anti-LGBT vitriol, which swept through Indonesia earlier this year, has calmed down.

But it left its mark. Besides the spate of violent protest aimed at the LGBT community earlier in the year, there have also been lingering repercussions.

For example, public sentiment was such in February that popular mobile phone messaging application Line pulled a suite of LGBT-related "stickers" — stickers are widely used in instant messaging instead of text. These are not expected to be made available again in the Line store in Indonesia soon.

In addition to its ongoing advocacy work, Arus Pelangi continues to monitor violence against people in the LGBT community across the archipelago.

Rustinawati says transgender men and women are most at risk. While discrimination against LGBT supporters is widespread, transgender people may be easier to physically identify.

“There is still so much hatred within the society about how they see the transgender people,” she says.

The group also tries to work with local media — conservative religious media played a key role in exacerbating the flow of contempt towards LGBT supporters earlier in the year — to provide accurate information.

Some publications have since improved their reporting on LGBT-related issues, Rustinawati says, “but some have not,” in particular the “religious media.”

“Some media keep spraying hate through the news,” she says. In particular, they continue to connect issues like prostitution and drug trafficking to the LGBT community.

In May, New York-based OutRight Action acknowledged the work of Arus Pelangi, awarding the group the prestigious Felipa De Sousa award. The award also drew praise from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and U.S. Special Envoy for LGBT Human Rights Randy Berry.

Upon receiving the award to a standing ovation, Rustinawati noted the “difficult year” the LGBT community had faced in Indonesia, but said her group was not dissuaded from the challenge.

“We’re not tired, we have not lost hope, and we are not giving up,” she said.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole