By Jamison Liang
In recent months, Indonesia has witnessed demonstrations against two conferences aiming to discuss the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The first occurred in response to the fourth regional meeting of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), scheduled to take place in Surabaya, East Java on 26-28 March 2010 and supported by Indonesia's leading LGBT organisation, GAYa NUSANTARA. A month later in Depok, West Java, a workshop on transgender issues sponsored by the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) found itself in the same predicament.
In both of these incidents, the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), an Islamist organisation with a record of violent tactics, led the choir of critics against LGBT citizens. In both cases, the attacks on the conferences prompted their cancellation. In their protests, FPI and its supporters denounced LGBT sexualities and genders as not belonging in Indonesia and contravening Islamic morals and beliefs.
A disturbing feature of both events was the inability or unwillingness of police to prevent detractors from disrupting the meetings or to ensure the safety of conference participants, even though one of the meetings was endorsed by the Indonesian government. As such, these events reveal the growing influence of Islamist parties in Indonesia and the challenges facing Indonesian LGBT rights activists.
An international meeting goes awry
ILGA, a major global network of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist organisations, selected Surabaya-based GAYa NUSANTARA to host the fourth conference of its Asian branch. ILGA has a history of successfully organising workshops on gender, sexuality and activism in the Asian region. It had previously held meetings in Mumbai (2002), Cebu (2005), and Chiang Mai (2008), all with little to no backlash from local communities. With ILGA looking to bring its meeting to Indonesia for the first time, GAYa NUSANTARA emerged as a leading candidate for organising the 2010 gathering, billed with the slogan 'LGBT Asia Moving Forward'.
Controversy arose early in the week of the conference when media outlets began reporting that gays and lesbians from around the world would be descending upon Surabaya for the three-day event at the Mercure Hotel. In response, FPI and its supporters approached the Mercure management, strongly encouraging them to withdraw from the ILGA conference or face demonstrations. Mercure agreed to the request, backing out of its contract with ILGA and thereby forcing the ILGA board to identify a new site with only a few days to spare. The board quickly settled on the Oval Hotel and secured an agreement from hotel management to use its conference rooms.
However, another obstacle remained: the Surabaya police had decided to not grant a recommendation for the event. According to GAYa NUSANTARA staff, South Surabaya police (Polres) initially agreed to issue a recommendation, but were instructed not to do so by the higher Surabaya City Police (Polwiltabes) after the headquarters received several calls from the United Madura Forum (Formabes), the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) - a collection of conservative Muslim organisations. For Polwiltabes, the conference represented a threat to security and society's orderliness (kamtibmas), and for this reason the recommendation could be withheld.
On 24 March, two days before the conference was scheduled to begin, The Jakarta Globe quoted a police officer who claimed '[The police] will not issue the permit due to security reasons. If it is allowed to be held, many parties will stage protests.' This decision brought criticisms from human rights advocates, including members of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, the National Human Rights Commission, and the Surabaya branch of The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) who, when interviewed by The Jakarta Post, noted that 'Religious groups have prevented [ILGA] to gather, against the guarantee of the Constitution.'
That same afternoon ILGA received a call from a man who claimed to work for the police and was willing to issue the recommendation letter - for a price of Rp.15 million. After negotiation, both parties agreed to Rp.5 million, and ILGA, who perhaps naively trusted the caller, wired the money to his bank account. Upon arrival at the police station, however, there was no officer by the caller's name, and certainly no recommendation.
Coping with threats
On 25 March, the day before the conference was planned to commence, rumours had spread that Oval was the new site, prompting a new wave of threats from Islamist groups like FPI and condemnation from conservative Muslims, including MUI. Abdussomad Bukhori, head of East Java MUI, told The Jakarta Post that MUI would 'make strenuous efforts to call off the event because it would likely spark social unrest and waves of protests'. Similarly, Mohammad Dhofir, a representative of the Bangkalan branch of FPI, explained to Jawa Pos that foreign participants must be removed from the country and that FPI would escort them to the airport. In response, the ILGA board announced to the media that the conference was officially cancelled due to security reasons. In turn, FPI bullied ILGA into an agreement that it would not hold a press conference later on, thus allowing FPI to dominate the media coverage of the event.
Later that night the directors of ILGA and GAYa NUSANTARA called an emergency meeting with all attendees in order to review incoming threats and respond to concerns from participants. After much deliberation, it was agreed that the following day ILGA would not use Oval's conference rooms, but that participants would attempt to hold small talks in individual hotel rooms - activities that required no police permit because they could be considered private conversations between hotel guests. It was decided that participants would take this course of action only if protests remained peaceful.
As a precautionary measure, ILGA and GAYa NUSANTARA established surveillance and evacuation teams in case protests became violent. The organisations had the support of some progressive Muslims, namely university students, who agreed to monitor activities at nearby mosques, and so provide forewarning to those back at Oval of any demonstration plans. There was a great fear that after Friday afternoon prayer protestors would rally support and raid the hotel. Such an incident was not out of the question given FPI's history of mounting violent attacks on nightclubs, minority religious groups and other targets.
Friday marked the eruption of the controversy. The first series of talks began in individual hotel rooms at nine o'clock, but within two hours the surveillance team had alerted those at Oval that various conservative groups were planning to stage a demonstration in the afternoon. Local media sources confirmed that not only FPI, Formabes, HTI and MUI, but also the Indonesian Muslim Students' Action Front (KAMMI), the Islamic Student Union of Airlangga University, Al-Irsyad, and the Islamic Community Forum (FUI) were condemning ILGA and preparing to join the protests. This represented an amalgamation of conservative and extremist Muslim organisations, most of which had a history of street protest and sometimes violent vigilante activity.
In turn, the ILGA board immediately cancelled the workshops and advised participants to return home or stay away from the Oval Hotel until protests subsided. As expected, dozens of FPI supporters soon arrived, walking into the hotel lobby and demanding to speak with Oval managers and ILGA directors. Surprisingly, the Surabaya police arrived to monitor the situation and stood guard at the front entrance. In the meantime, on the other side of town FPI and FUI supporters vandalised GAYa NUSANTARA's office, padlocking its doors shut and spray painting on the wall the message that 'Gays and lesbians are moral terrorists'.
In an attempt to placate demonstrators, GAYa NUSANTARA enlisted the help of Banser, Nahdlatul Ulama's youth security force, who they contacted through their liaison, the Center for Marginalised Communities Studies (CMARs). GAYa NUSANTARA agreed to Banser's request of Rp.3 million to cover transportation costs, and so 15 members of Banser arrived at the Oval Hotel in order to convince demonstrators to go home. This strategy worked, though only temporarily.
Tensions increased after sundown, when the police departed from the Oval and protesters, principally from Formabes, proceeded to 'sweep' the hotel, searching for ILGA participants on each floor. Attendees rushed into their hotel rooms, where they locked the doors, turned off the lights and their telephones, and sat in silence for over a half-hour, hoping to go undetected. At this point, some of the international delegates were evacuated by their respective embassies and, once the raid had ended, most participants decided either to leave Surabaya or transfer to other hotels. Moreover, in a desperate attempt to halt Formabes from harassing participants, ILGA paid Formabes Rp.1.5 million and agreed to their demand that they be given the list of all conference attendees. These concessions proved ineffective as protesters returned to the hotel on Saturday morning, though by this time almost everyone associated with ILGA had already left.
A second attack
On Friday 30 April 2010 the West Java branch of FPI staged a similar attack on a conference. The training, held at the Bumi Wiayata Hotel in Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta focused exclusively on transgender rights and was sponsored by the Indonesian Transgender Communication Forum (FKWI) and the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM). Despite the presence of Komnas HAM, which is a national governmental institution, the Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) of Depok objected to the program, claiming the organisers had not gained permission from the local Depok Municipal Government. Without police protection, FPI members raided the workshop room, banging on the door and shouting 'God is great!' before entering and allegedly verbally assaulting attendees and breaking glasses.
FPI members defended their actions by arguing that the event was not a training activity, as organisers claimed, but rather a drag show competition. Members of FPI told The Jakarta Post that Islam did not have a place for 'those who intentionally exchange their given gender' and that the raid was necessary to bring participants 'back to the right path.' It is also not surprising that Depok officials wished to dissolve the conference considering that the city is governed by Nur Mahmudi Ismail, an Islamist politician from the Prosperous Justice Party, PKS. A Waria (Transgender) Human Rights Ambassador Contest was planned in the evening, and did take place, but it was ordered to stop early by the Satpol PP.
Although the Commissioner of Komnas HAM, Hesti Armiwulan, contended that disallowing the program was illegal, the Human Rights Commission subsequently moved the training to its headquarters in Jakarta, where the remaining workshops were completed without incident.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of both conferences was that the police were either unwilling or unable to guarantee the safety of participants. In each instance police officers cited security risks as a reason to withhold permits, effectively bowing to FPI threats. Yet according to national law all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and to organise. This applies as much as to LGBT citizens as to any other, especially given that neither homosexuality nor transgenderism are illegal in Indonesia. To allow Islamist activists who threaten violence to assemble but prevent LGBT individuals from holding a peaceful event indicates an uneven application of the law.
A new trend?
One question on the minds of LGBT rights advocates is whether the attacks in Surabaya and Depok represent a setback in their efforts. Why ILGA and FKWI? Why now?
As chronicled by Tom Boellstorff in his book, A Coincidence of Desires, attacks of this sort are relatively rare in Indonesia. The last major raid on an LGBT event occurred on 11 November 2000 - nearly ten years ago - at Wisma Hastorenggo in Kaliurang, Central Java, where 350 male-to-female transgender Indonesians gathered to commemorate World AIDS Day. However, 150 followers of the Ka'bah Youth Movement (Gerakan Pemuda Ka'bah) stormed into the ceremony, where they destroyed equipment and assaulted attendees with knives and clubs, ultimately injuring over 25 and sending three to the hospital.
A year earlier, in September 1999, a comparable confrontation occurred at the Dana Hotel in Solo, where the National Gay and Lesbian Network planned to convene for a two-day working meeting. Days before it was scheduled to begin, conservative Muslim organisations, including MUI, learned of the event and proclaimed that it should not take place because it would be 'very embarrassing' and akin to 'legalising the practice of such sexual deviations'. Detractors threatened acts of violence - burning down the hotel and killing participants - which led to the swift cancellation of the meeting. Preparations for a press conference by Congress organisers were met with equal resistance and fundamentalist groups vowed to maintain surveillance to ensure that the event did not take place elsewhere.
More recently, homophobia has gained a foothold in the legal system in some regions, with some local governments enacting bylaws that aim to reinforce moral values, often based on conservative Islamic interpretations. In 2002, South Sulawesi officials introduced an anti-prostitution bylaw that listed homosexual sex as a criminal offence. Two years later, Palembang followed suit. In 2009 in Aceh, a Qanun Jinayah on Islamic criminal law was approved by the provincial legislature. It would would have made homosexual acts punishable by caning, but it has yet to be signed by the governor, Irwandi Yusuf.
These developments and the raids in Kaliurang and Solo were in the thoughts of LGBT activists during the recent attacks in Surabaya and Depok, and the fact that such violence has reemerged after nearly ten years is alarming. Still, the majority of LGBT events in Indonesia do not encounter such conflicts. In early May 2010, just days after the raid in Depok, the waria community of Ponorogo, East Java held a very public pageant in the town square without incident. Likewise, LGBT advocacy organisations from Aceh to Bali mobilised efforts to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) on 17 May. Even Gaya Nusantara has reopened its doors in an attempt to move on from the ILGA disaster.
It is difficult to explain the sporadic nature of the attacks, but it is notable that they primarily occur in response to large, high-profile conferences - individuals are usually not targeted. More specifically, as the head of advocacy at GAYa NUSANTARA observed, Islamist parties are chiefly concerned with countering events that aim to advance LGBT rights through education and awareness; they may be less interested in harassing a lone gay man, lesbian or waria on the street.
A homophobic alliance
The controversies in Surabaya and Depok illuminate the continuing impact of violent Islamist organisations, especially the FPI, and their increasing ability to persuade conservative but more mainstream Muslims to support their efforts in protesting LGBT activism. As such alliances are formed in the name of political Islam, it becomes harder to articulate pluralistic understandings of the religion, especially those embraced by LGBT Muslims and their supporters.
ILGA, GAYa NUSANTARA and FKWI are themselves partly comprised of Muslims who identify as LGBT, and who accordingly find ways to negotiate between their religion and sexuality. Likewise, Muslims from the National Human Rights Commission and local universities backed the conferences in both Surabaya and Depok, and Banser came to support ILGA. Thus, these events were not a clash between 'Islam' and LGBT individuals, but rather between radical, outspoken Muslims and those who they deem to be immoral.
In light of the recent protests against LGBT conferences in Indonesia, it is clear that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights remain extremely controversial. Structural factors including the rise of political Islam, corruption, and uneven protection of citizenship rights stand out as obstacles to LGBT advocacy. Nonetheless, the majority of LGBT events occur in peace and, as GAYa NUSANTARA reopens its doors, activists intend to keep 'moving forward', albeit with caution.
Jamison Liang graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2009 with degrees in art history, anthropology and gender studies. He is a former intern at GAYa NUSANTARA.