A week after two men were arrested in Indonesia for posting a photo of themselves kissing on Facebook, a local human rights advocate says criminalization of homosexuals is "snowballing" across the archipelago.

Two men were arrested in the city of Manado, central Sulawesi, on Oct. 11, after police received complaints about a Facebook post showing the couple kissing in bed, Agence France-Presse reported. By Oct. 14, the couple was not in police custody but the pair could still face jail time if police pursue charges under the country’s strict anti-pornography laws. The photo of the men – a 22-year-old university student and 24-year-old office worker – reportedly “went viral” after it was posted on Facebook on Oct. 9.

The arrests come as Indonesia’s Constitutional Court hears a petition to make it illegal for homosexuals to engage in sexual activities, and follows a move by the Youth and Sports Ministry to ban LGBT community members from becoming national youth ambassadors.

The anti-LGBT stance “is spreading in all [Indonesia’s] major islands,” says Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this year, anti-LGBT comments by government officials led to a spate of vitriol against the LGBT community. Commentators have since criticized state officials, militant Islamists and mainstream religious organizations for taking part. HRW in August released a report highlighting the organization’s concern with the increased marginalization faced by the LGBT community.

Jakarta-based Harsono believes the risks facing the LGBT community has worsened since the report was released, and that the international community needs to consider the threat posed as Indonesia becomes increasingly religiously conservative.

“That should be a concern of a lot of people, because this is the largest pre-dominantly Muslim country in the world,” Harsono told The News Lens International today. “If Indonesia is becoming a manifest to the world, this is going to be a big problem.”


Impact of Aceh

Some commentators have suggested that the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. last June may have been a catalyst for the increased marginalization of the Indonesian gay community.

Harsono says it is important to look back to October 2014, when the parliament in Indonesia's Aceh Province passed a bill criminalizing homosexuality. Under Indonesian law, a provincial bylaw needs a year to be socialized before it can be implemented, and within that period a bylaw can be canceled by the central government. But Jakarta did not heed calls from Acehnese and other Indonesia organizations and the bylaw became official in October 2015.

“That very night, just one hour after it was legal, the Sharia police arrested two young, 18- and 19-year-olds, for being lesbian,” Harsono says. “Anti-women, anti-LGBT and anti-religious minorities – they all started from Aceh,” he says.

This year alone, Harsono says, he knows of 20 transgender people who have fled Aceh, and efforts to criminalize LGBT activities have been “snowballing.”

He says the reach of Islam is now seen in many sectors of society, including “judiciary, parliament, media, bureaucracy, military, police.”

In another sign that religious conservatism was starting to have an impact on the broader population, in February popular mobile phone messaging application Line pulled a suite of LGBT-related "stickers” from the service in Indonesia.

The Constitutional Court lawsuit was filed by a group of 12 academics in July. If it is successful, the definition of pedophilia would be expanded to encompass sexual relations between consenting adults in any same-sex relations.

Harsono says that he will not be surprised if the judges side with the academics.

“I’ve seen the comments by the judges,” he says. “One of the nine judges says our country is based on Islam.”

Harsono points to surveys from a local journalism research and training organization that have shown a strong bias towards Islam, and he suggests this has played a role in shaping the current social media environment – where, as the Manado case shows, there is widespread animosity towards the LGBT community.

Looking ahead, despite ongoing efforts by activists and some moderate Islamic groups, Harsono predicts the LGBT community will face a higher risk of violence.

“I think it is going to be worse,” he says.

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