In Indonesia, Change Doesn’t Start at Home

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
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Attitudes in Indonesia aren't terribly liberal to begin with. One survey has found that gay, lesbian and transgendered Indonesian were the most hated group in the country.

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When he first entered law school at the University of Indonesia, Yohan Misero assumed he would graduate and be a lawyer who, as so often is the case here, negotiates payouts to police and judges on behalf of his clients.

But then, he took on an internship that “changed his life”, he said. In 2013, as he was entering his fourth year of law school he assisted in a case that sought to help a 50-something British woman avoid the death penalty. She had been nabbed for trafficking about 2kg of methamphetamine in her underpants and bra through the airport in Surabaya.

As Yohan dove into the details of the woman’s case he was struck by her candor: her poverty, the details of her sexuality (she was gay), her vulnerability in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.

“I thought: ‘This is a person. She needed help. She’s trapped,’” said Yohan, who is now practicing for the human rights and legal aid outfit, called LBH Masyarakat.

“She was opening her heart. That’s when people usually tell the truth. Everyone makes mistakes.”

His efforts paid off. The woman avoided capital punishment and is serving a 14-year sentence. It was a rare win for a country that can frown on those who go against the grain. For a big country that wears its diversity as a badge of pride, Indonesia can be intolerant. It’s an inconsistency that I don’t pretend to understand. So, when 25-year-old free-thinking Yohan, who took six years to complete a four-year degree, asserted that much of his generation is like him I was thrilled.

But then I ran this by Andreas Harsono, Human Rights Watch’s Jakarta researcher, and had my buzz killed off fast. He flicked me a series of links via WhatsApp on the hardening of attitudes among Muslim Indonesians toward minorities. This trend is helped in no small part by religious instruction in schools. The upshot? A whole new generation of Indonesians is growing up with dimmer views of groups considered antithetical to Islam.

Attitudes aren’t terribly liberal to begin with. In August the Wahid Foundation released a survey of more than 1500 Indonesians aged 17 and up. It found that gay, lesbian and transgendered Indonesians were the most hated group in the country: 26%. At 17% their revulsion of lesbians and gays eclipsed that of communists a group so mistrusted Suharto was able to seize power in 1965 in part because he promised to rid Indonesia of them.

This conservatism though is bulldozing the dense, overgrown and colorful elements of Indonesian culture into a gray Wahabist parking lot. Just last week police canceled a parade of transgendered Waria and the gender-neutral Bissu in South Sulawesi owing to a complaint by conservatives that it violated religious values. But Bissu feature in local traditions. Their intersex identity is thought to give them mystic heft. They are a sort of messenger between Earth and the invisible world. The Bugis people of Sulawesi traditionally call on Bissu to officiate at weddings. But for Islamic thugs this just wouldn’t do and so asked the police to shut it down at one point detaining 600 attendees in a hall.

“It’s hard to appear controversial here,” Yohan allows.

Undaunted Yohan presses on. At LBH Masyarakat he is helping lift the block on gay social networking and hook up apps such as Grindr and Blued – Indonesia’s first such ban – that was levied in September.

Yohan reckons that widely available English language content – from music to reality TV may already broadening views among his countrymen.

“Just watching the Kardashians is opening people’s eyes to the rest of the world,” Yohan enthused.

“My generation will be in the middle of this war between conservatism and openness.”

But frustratingly Yohan does what so many young Indonesians do: keep details of their life and their views from their family. With the exception of my boyfriend, among my Indonesian gay friends, not one is out to his parents.

Yohan worries his own parents, in Balikbapan in Kalimantan (Borneo) will disapprove of his work.

“I don’t go into too much detail with them.”

And so it goes.

Editor: Edward White

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