Protests from hard-line Islamic groups led to the cancellation of the 4th regional Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA) conference scheduled to be held last Friday in Surabaya, East Java. That day, hard-liners gate-crashed the hotel where some of the participants were staying and demanded they leave the city by Sunday.
The Jakarta Post interviewed Hartoyo, the general secretary of Our Voice — a local organization seeking to educate and empower homosexual and bisexual males — about the plight of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) in the predominantly Muslim country.
Question: How do you feel about the cancellation of the conference?
Answer: I am baffled as to how the organizers of the conference, who requested a permit and have the right to convene in-line with the democratic principles that we believe in, could be denied their right to the freedom of speech.
Q: Why did the police take no action against the radical groups when law enforcers are supposed to uphold the law?
A: Nevertheless, the incident has also increased our awareness. Most of the country’s gay or transgender organizations are still focusing their activities on the problem of HIV and campaigning for the use of condoms. But now, after these repressive actions, we realize that we have to focus on the issue of human rights.
It feels like we are turning back the clock to 1996 and 1997, when pro-human rights organizations were repressed and banned from holding meetings by the military. These days, our colleagues from human rights organizations are virtually free to hold meetings everywhere, but we are apparently still deprived of that right.
Q: It seems that you are implying that LGBTs, especially gays, are not particularly discriminated against in Indonesia.
A: I am trying to see the case fairly. LGBTs are not considered criminals here, unlike in Malaysia, for example, where homosexuals are subjected to legal sanctions, but there is no support or acceptance either. It is as though we are invisible.
Nevertheless, our LGBT friends often feel there is no strong pressure against them. They feel that is OK. For instance, people love figures such as (celebrity) Olga Lidya, with his “graceful” ways.
But then again, it is different when the movement ventures into the political sphere. It’s quite a dilemma, actually.
Except for those hard-core religious groups, they are actually a minority.
I believe Indonesians in general are tolerant. Even if they do not approve of homosexuality, they are not the kind of people who would force their opinion upon others.
When I talk to people from outside Indonesia, they are usually shocked, they say things like, “how can you be so daring to live in a country with the largest Muslim population?” But in fact, I, for example, am quite popular in my hometown and most people there respect me.
Q: So what do you think is the most effective method to raise people’s awareness about LGBTs?
A: We usually hold discussions, especially on the Internet and there has been many online activities recently. We also have a radio program.
The global fight for LGBT rights is quite big these days, and this can definitely influence Indonesia in a positive way. LGBTs are now seen as vulnerable minorities whose rights should be protected.
We are now seeing an increasing awareness about the plight of vulnerable groups. There is a gradual shift in the focus of the LGBT movement, from particular issues to universal ones.
Even though change might not come soon, I believe that in 50, or perhaps 100 years from now, the next generations will reap the benefits.
Q: Have you heard from your friends about the situation in Surabaya during and after the raid?
A: Yes, they said it was chaotic, everyone was running around. Some of them stayed in their relatives’ houses along with as many as six friends. Some of the participants’ whereabouts remains unknown.
I had a feeling that it was going to be cancelled so I didn’t go, but one of Our Voice’s members did.