In January, Bandung Mayor Yana Mulyana said his administration is drafting an “academic script” to support a planned regional bylaw criminalizing LGBTQ+ behavior and communities in the West Java capital. Citing “the people’s aspirations” and the wishes of the Bandung City Council, the mayor said he felt an anti-LGBT regional bylaw is required to protect the city’s religious and cultural norms.
Similar proposed legislations have been sprouting across Indonesia in recent years. Ahead of the general elections in 2024 where jobs like Yana’s are contingent on the people’s votes, attacking LGBTQ+ communities is sadly an easy way to score electoral points.
Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, has a complex relationship with LGBTQ+ rights. While homosexuality is not illegal under the national law, regional governments have the authority to enact bylaws criminalizing LGBTQ+ communities and behavior.
Regional identity politics
Aceh, being the only province with special autonomy to enforce sharia law, is a long-time serial offender of LGBTQ+ rights. Religious authorities have been known to cane gay men in public for the crime of having consensual sex, while LGBTQ+ individuals face significant challenges, including limited access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities, due to the discrimination and stigma they face.
Though other regions are not nearly as barbaric, the systematic denial of rights and state-sponsored discrimination towards LGBTQ+ individuals persist elsewhere, such as in West Sumatra.
In 2018, one year before the 2019 elections, the regency of Padang Pariaman passed a bylaw that subjected men and women who engage in same-sex relations to a fine of IDR1 million (US$65). The bylaw emboldened other West Sumatra cities and the provincial government to consider their own anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
Though the legislation was hotly discussed at the provincial level throughout 2019, they seemingly stopped without the bylaw being passed after the public had cast their votes.
Now, ahead of the 2024 elections, discrimination towards LGBTQ+ individuals is being perpetuated by politicians who do not even necessarily identify as conservative.
In January 2023, Medan Mayor Bobby Nasution, who is the son-in-law of President Joko Widodo, declared his city to be “anti-LGBT” after seeing the supposed affront of men spending New Year’s Eve with other men. His statement emboldened true conservative politicians in the City Council to call for an anti-LGBTQ+ regional bylaw — though one has not yet come to pass.
The city of Medan no longer welcomes sexual minorities (this country’s constitution notwithstanding) according to its mayor Bobby Nasution, who declared the North Sumatra capital “anti-LGBT.” Read more.
January 3, 2023
Further south, religious leaders in the Riau capital of Pekanbaru are praising the city’s administration for its plans to pass anti-LGBT legislation, which has the full support of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the highest clerical body in the nation.
On the outskirts of Jakarta, the city of Bogor passed a bylaw in 2021 to “prevent and handle deviant sexual behaviors”. Mayor Bima Arya maintained that the bylaw does not violate citizens’ privacy despite the very real threat of increased persecution, by either the state or homophobic civilians, towards minority sexual groups. That said, there has been no record of criminal prosecution for “deviant sexual behavior” in Bogor since the law’s passing.
Calls for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have been sounded recently in West Java’s Garut Regency, which is aiming to expand on its “anti-immorality” bylaw from 2015; and the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar.
Indonesia’s revised Criminal Code (KUHP), which passed at the end of 2022 but may take up to three years to be implemented, may further consolidate the legal standing of these discriminatory bylaws. In addition to making same-sex relations all but illegal under its articles on adultery, the Human Rights Watch noted that the code also contains a provision mandating the government to “recognize ‘any living law’ in the country, which is likely to be interpreted to extend formal legality to hundreds of Sharia regulations imposed by local officials in areas across the country. Many of these regulations discriminate against women and girls, such as curfews for females, female genital mutilation, and mandatory hijab dress codes. Many of these regulations also discriminate against LGBT people.”
Further, the provision in the new KUHP could encourage more politicians to adopt the anti-LGBTQ+ playbook, be it for 2024 or future elections.
‘Politicians are racing to show their virtuous faces’
On the frontlines in the fight against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation are activists like Dede Oetomo, who founded GAYa NUSANTARA, the country’s oldest LGBT rights group.
“Politicians and ulemas create this fear [around LGBTQ+ people] so the people feel ‘protected’ by them. In the end, the people obey them, and they become susceptible to control and manipulation by those in power,” Dede told Coconuts Jakarta.
“They can use the LGBT issue to distract the masses from real issues like corruption, climate crisis and environmental destruction, nepotism, oligarchies, and so on.”
On March 6, The Alliance of Indonesian Independent Journalists (AJI), the Union of Journalists for Diversity (SEJUK) and LGBTQ+ rights advocacy group Arus Pelangi warned that the media’s discriminatory coverage of sexual minorities are amplifying the voices of anti-LGBTQ+ politicians, which has the potential to increase the risk of persecution and violence against members of the minority.
Indonesian media’s discriminatory coverage of LGBT issues endangers minority ahead of 2024 elections, group warns
Based on an analysis of news stories from this year, they found that politicians are increasingly using anti-LGBT rhetoric to gain voter support, which is then amplified by the media. Read more.
March 6, 2023
The groups concluded from their analysis that there is a growing desire to politicize LGBTQ+ identity in the run-up to the 2024 election and that political parties are encouraging politicians to drum up support by voicing anti-LGBT sentiments.
“The mass media must be extra careful about these patterns of being used for identity politics ahead of 2024,” said AJI Secretary General Ika Ningtyas.
Dede says it’s likely that the recent rise in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is linked to the upcoming election year, but he fears that the impact may be felt beyond 2024, in that these regional bylaws may serve as the stepping stones towards a nationwide criminalization of sexual minorities and identities.
“Politicians are racing to show their virtuous faces, and nearly helpless LGBT individuals are their targets,” Dede said.
That’s not to say activists have not had victories in knocking back plans for anti-LGBT legislation.
“We had small successes in Ternate, Ambon, and Kupang. There, the political elites appear to be more open towards rational discussions and they have a conscience. We might [have success] in Gorontalo and Maumere, too,” he said.
So what’s stopping Indonesia from criminalizing LGBTQ+ behavior and individuals?
“On the national stage, we are spreading the message of diversity through media and literacy. And the country is also being hounded [over its anti-LGBTQ+ stances] on the international front,” Dede said.
“The struggle is a long one, and it requires patience and a revolutionary spirit. We are hoping that the youth have not been poisoned by narrow morality values and Machiavellian politics.”
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