As the U.S. grapples with the use of correct gender pronouns and ensuring people can access the bathroom of their choosing, in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, homosexuals face being completely outlawed.

In May, the Obama administration issued guidance to ensure transgender students could access the bathroom of their choosing, and as of August, 18 states in the country had bans on discrimination in public toilets based on gender. Last month, U.S. health organization Planned Parenthood released a guideline on “Gender Pronoun Dos and Don’ts,” which showed an actor practicing using the gender-neutral noun “they” when referring to an individual: “Alex is my friend. They like sports. I love playing video games with them. We went to high school together.”


Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch drew attention to news that on the other side of the world a hardline Islamist group had led police to raid a gathering of men in an apartment in Jakarta, alleging the men were having a “gay sex party.”

Notwithstanding human rights abuses of varying gravity occur simultaneously across the world or the presumed role for the U.S to be a beacon for liberal values, the deteriorating circumstances facing the LGBT community in Indonesia should be a chief concern for LGBT rights campaigners everywhere right now.

“We’ve never had this much tension before,” Indonesian human rights lawyer Ricky Gunawan told The News Lens International on the phone from Jakarta this morning.

He is referring to the current situation where an increasingly powerful religious majority is pushing mainstream society to further marginalize and potentially criminalize the LGBT minority. In the past, groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (known as FPI) – which took police to the apartment earlier this week – have raided nightclubs and there have been reports of numerous isolated attacks on members of the LGBT community.

The key difference now, Gunawan says, is that support for FPI's activities is gaining “significant momentum” across the Islam majority in Indonesia.

President Joko Widodo, popularly known as “Jokowi,” in October provided some direction for the country saying that he opposed criminal sanctions on LGBT people. However, Gunawan notes that when the United Nations last month voted on keeping an independent expert used as a safeguard to oversee protections against LGBT violence and discrimination, Indonesia followed a group of countries from Africa and four others in Asia – Singapore, Malaysia, China and North Korea – to vote against the move. This, he says, reflects the opinion of the Indonesian government on the issue.

After a wave of anti-LGBT sentiment swept through the country earlier this year, there has been a host of regressive measures – banning dating apps used by the gay community and the use of LGBT-themed “stickers” by messaging platforms among them. An annual film festival for the LGBT community was still held around mid year, but publicity for the event was scaled back and smaller screenings held. And in October, two men were arrested in Indonesia for posting a photo of themselves kissing on Facebook.

Outside of the threat of violence, the overriding concern is a looming decision from the country’s Constitutional Court. The court has for months been considering a petition to criminalize 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.

Gunawan has been closely involved in the case. He and other lawyers have worked hard to present experts to dispel anti-LGBT arguments – including that homosexuals suffer from a contagious mental illness.

Still, he says he is “worried” about the outcome, several of the judges, he says, have shown tendencies towards “conservatism” during the proceedings.

In Indonesia right now, it seems conservatism is becoming a synonym for extremism. Last month, thousands of Islamists took the streets in Jakarta demanding that Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama be charged with blaspheming Islam.

The protests against Ahok are “very intense,” Gunawan says, and Islamic groups, including FPI, have “gained significant momentum.”

After the raid on the apartment earlier in the week, Our Voice, a group supporting gay rights, told Reuters that police should have detained the members of FPI for breach of privacy.

Gunawan understates the likelihood of that happening in the current climate by saying such a move “would be difficult.”

Under the circumstances, he says, the police “played a good role” in detaining, but refusing to charge the men. The “arrest” of the men, he says, was something of a compromise, appeasing the powerful FPI while not actually punishing the men in the apartment who had, of course, not broken any law.

Looking ahead, the LGBT community will be holding its breath for further signs of persecution from FPI.

As Gunawan says, in the past similar raids did not have public support, but, “this year it is different.”

A member of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) holds up posters protesting against films screened at the Q! Film Festival during a protest in front of GoetheHaus in Jakarta September 28, 2010. The words on the top of the posters read as "Disgusting Gay Scene". REUTERS/Dadang Tri

Editor: Olivia Yang