It’s not easy to be openly queer in Indonesia.
The country has witnessed worsening discrimination toward LGBT individuals in recent years, wherein all elements of society appear to partake in persecuting members of the minority community for defying traditional gender roles and sexual orientation.
That, however, has not stopped Indonesian singer and songwriter Kai Mata from going public about her sexuality, a video announcement of which garnered her over 400,000 views on Twitter.
She posted her video in February of this year, when she was moved to speak up about the controversial draft of the RUU Ketahanan Keluarga (Family Resilience Bill), which included problematic articles such as forcing LGBT people into treatment to “cure” their sexual orientation or gender identity.
— Kai Mata🏳️🌈 (@kaimatamusic) February 27, 2020
“I’m still shocked that a simple statement of me just announcing that I’m LGBTQ+ and Indonesian was so noteworthy and newsworthy in Indonesia. That shows how rare it is to even be open about this,” Kai said.
“I think it is something that should be normalized and accepted.”
In Indonesia, where there’s been increasing religious conservatism, coming out to the public is indeed rare. Many queer individuals, even within their closest circles, choose to stay in the closet in order to protect themselves, in fear of being an outcast in society.
Kai, for her part, is aware that she is privileged with an accepting family and a strong support system, aspects of which motivated her to come out publicly. The 22-year-old tells Coconuts that she wants to stay in Indonesia and be openly queer here, while also hoping to increase representation and visibility of the LGBT community.
“I remember growing up and being a teenager in Jakarta, and not knowing anyone that was gay, not knowing anyone that was LGBTQ+; it was frightening to feel so isolated and vulnerable,” Kai said.
She hopes to encourage younger members of the community and make them feel less alone, while also putting a face to a group that is often easily vilified across the archipelago.
“I think it’s a lot easier to demonize us when they don’t see us as human. Yes, I’m LGBTQ, yes I have a female partner, but there are other aspects about me: I’m a human just like them, I’m complex, I cry, I watch trashy TV shows, I really love martabak. There are things that make me human just as much as they are,” Kai continued.
Kai has received overwhelming support for being outspoken, both about her sexuality and her opposition to the problematic bill draft, but she’s also been on the receiving end of continuous hatred online.
Some days, she’d receive up to 400 messages a day, some of it death threats and random people telling her to leave Indonesia, or that she should be stoned. It gets heavy, she confessed, especially because so much of it comes from fellow Indonesians.
“[They] would tell me to leave, that they don’t want me here, that they want me either kicked out, cured or killed,” Kai said.
But she carries on regardless, because she recognizes that Indonesia needs more visibility for the LGBT cause.
“I want to make sure that Indonesia knows I’m not gonna back down, my ancestors have been discriminated against throughout Indonesian history … and now they want to kick me out again or cure me or kill me because of my sexual orientation, and I’m not going to [flee],” she said, referring to her Chinese-Indonesian ancestry, another group that has faced persistent discrimination throughout the country’s history.
What keeps her going is the fact that queer Indonesians are also sending her messages of encouragement, writing and telling her how happy they are to see an Indonesian representing this part of their identity, in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I just want to make sure that people are accepted for who they are.”
Homosexuality is not a crime in Indonesia at the national level, but along with hateful rhetoric, other laws have been used by the police to prosecute members of the minority group. An example of this is the country’s vaguely worded pornography law, which has been criticized for being open to interpretation and frequently used to target the LGBT community.
With anti-LGBT sentiment being high across the country and sometimes even government-driven, it’s no wonder that Kai has taken necessary precautions to protect herself.
This includes regular consultations with a legal team over her wording on various digital platforms, because she believes that any law can be used to criminalize her if they want to.
She’s also been communicating with her audience primarily in English, as speaking in Indonesian could potentially open herself up to a lot more hate while limiting herself from the support of the international community. Kai says that some of the hateful comments she’s received aren’t just homophobic, but also racist.
Kai, who is now based in Bali, says that where she lives is also part of why she’s brave enough to do what she does, as she’d be “way too scared” to be based in Jakarta. Though Bali is recognized for being more tolerant, Kai noted that there are still deep-rooted problems on the island when it comes to accepting queerness.
“Bali does have a lot of things working in its favor to be more tolerant, but we’re not accepted. It’s ‘hush-hush,’ don’t ask, don’t tell,” she noted.
On coming out to her parents and her vision of a better Indonesia
Kai says her parents don’t know about her activism on a day-to-day basis, but she knows she wouldn’t be able to do what she does without their overarching support. She shared that she first came out to her parents after getting into a relationship with a woman.
“We had already been living together for three months, [so I told them] I’m living with this girl and she’s my girlfriend, and they said, so very sweetly: ‘As long as you’re happy, we’re happy.’ And that’s all they needed to say,” Kai said, adding that her partner joins her family on Christmas vacations now.
Her story is more of an exception rather than the rule, and it’s clear throughout her conversation with Coconuts that is part of why she considers it a responsibility to speak up for those who have been silenced in her community.
As a musician, Kai sings pride anthems and writes songs on being queer, such as in her single So Hard, which she says details the weird and ridiculous questions she’s been asked as a lesbian, including whether or not she and her partner were open to have a threesome with a man.
Looking at Indonesia today, there’s still a long road ahead before LGBT individuals receive an equal amount of respect and acceptance as any other citizen, but that is exactly why speaking up is more important than ever.
Kai is proudly Indonesian and queer, and one of her goals is to make sure that Indonesia protects all their citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“We are a country that can only be stronger if we learn to respect each other as individual humans, rather than look and tear each other down and point the finger at who’s more of an animal,” she said.
“I just want to make sure that people are accepted for who they are.”
Read more feature stories from Coconuts Bali here.
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