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Confronting the Backlash – Dede Oetomo, Indonesia

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Indonesia moves quickly and slowly at the same time. The anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex backlash currently underway in the country has grown quickly since its start last January. Daily headlines feature the latest bigoted statements by government officials, moves to intimidate local LGBTI communities or proposals by religious political parties to make certain sexual orientations and gender identities illegal. At the same time established democratic institutions slow the legislative process and offer time for pro-LGBTI forces to educate and empower communities in an organized response.


Dédé Oetomo understands this dynamic better than most LGBTI activists in Indonesia. In 1987 he founded the health education and advocacy group, GAYA NUSANTARA in Surabaya, a city of three million in East Java Province. Since that time Dédé has seen dozens of other organizations start and grow under Indonesia’s liberal human rights statutes, and the establishment of a world-class HIV/AIDS health care and education infrastructure. According to Dédé, these successes, along with the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, are the likely causes for the sudden concern of social conservative and religious forces in Indonesia.

“When the United States sneezes, the world shakes,” Dédé says. “The (U.S.) Supreme Court decision shocked conservative politicians. When marriage equality passed in the Netherlands or Ireland, no one paid attention.” Shortly after this shock, December elections produced losses for religious parties across much of the country. Dédé notes, “The religious parties are very corrupt, with two Ministers for Religious Affairs currently in prison.”

It seems the LGBTI community is a convenient scapegoat to distract from political failure and build fearful public support for future elections. How much longer this tactic can be effective is a real question. In the meantime, groups like GAYA NUSANATARA try to create a space for LGBTI Indonesians. “There is no sex education in public schools, but in GAYA NUSANTARA sexuality discussion groups Muslim students will often talk of ‘queering God’ before and after prayer breaks in the organization’s prayer room.”

Overall though, the targeting of LGBTI people has real daily consequences for individual Indonesians.

“Over the past few weeks, we have seen police crackdowns at the ‘gathering place’, a public park in Surabaya, where gay men and male sex workers have socialized for years. At the same time, muggings and other physical crimes have increased as criminals feel empowered by the harsh public rhetoric. Even our HIV/AIDS testing and education efforts are threatened as healthcare workers become afraid to work in established locations,” he said. Police have also increased their demands to see identification documents of those in the gathering place. Many who meet there lack an official family card, the basis for issuance of IDs, as they have run away from abusive situations in their hometowns.

International civil society organizations and foreign governments have been working through diplomatic channels to encourage President Joko Widodo, who was elected in 2014, to end his long silence on the LGBTI backlash. “I voted for him, but he’s not Barack Obama,” says Dédé. “He used to hang with LGBTI people when he was mayor of Surakarta, but he relies on his self-made man biography rather than individual human rights as the best way to achieve equality.” In early February, the U.S. Ambassador hosted a gathering of activists to brainstorm strategies to combat the possible anti-LGBTI propaganda law that could reach Parliament next year. Also in early February, Randy Berry, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons held a series of low-profile meetings in Jakarta.

While high-level efforts offer hope on the horizon, the situation for LGBTI people in Aceh and West Java provinces becomes more dangerous. Violent Islamist movements inspired by Islamic State are growing in these areas and activists are attempting to set up a safe house network to provide protection for targeted individuals forced to evacuate these areas. Dédé notes “The need is urgent in these areas, but funds for the program are very limited.”

During this time of uncertainty Dédé and GAYA NUSANTARA continue to work locally, nationally and across the Asia-Pacific region to defend the health and human rights of LGBTI people. Whether Indonesia continues to make global headlines as a place of increasing repression of its LGBTI communities depends on their efforts.

Reposted from: Alturi.com, 31 March 2016

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