By Dewi Kurniawati
It doesn’t take much to notice “Echa,” a transvestite who lives in Banda Aceh. With his masculine figure and flamboyant make-up, he instantly draws attention.
And so does the fact that he is wearing a short dress with a plunging neckline to one of the city’s popular coffee houses instead of a headscarf and other conservative Muslim attire. Of course, Echa is a man so he poses a dilemma for the morality police.
His baritone laugh echoed through the coffee shop when a reporter asked about the absence of a headscarf. “The Shariah Police are confused about what they want to do with me. I am enjoying my freedom,” he said.
That freedom has to be struggled for daily, however. Echa is the executive director of Violet Grey, a nongovernmental organization that provides assistance to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents of Aceh.
In a country where homosexuality is taboo and where many Indonesians still refuse to acknowledge gay people, it’s especially challenging for an organization such as Violet Grey to operate in Aceh, which is allowed to implement partial Shariah law.
Continuously living in the shadows, gays, lesbians, and cross-dressers are seen as a disgrace to the province’s self-proclaimed “religious society.” Not surprisingly they suffer frequent discrimination and often abusive treatment.
“We were born as Muslim, as Acehnese. Is it true that we are not part of Islam?” asked “Toni,” a gay activist and member of Violet Grey.
“In Aceh, the implementation of Shariah touches on symbols such as headscarves or changing street names to Arabic letters without really addressing people’s desires of prosperity and justice. I think we are in the process of Talibanization.”
Toni grew into his homosexual identity when he was studying at an Islamic boarding school at the age of 14. “I thought by studying in a pesantren [Islamic boarding school] , it would cure my homosexuality.”
He was wrong. “In an Islamic boarding school, where life is segregated by gender, I met my first love,” he said, laughing.
Toni added that when Islamic boarding schools separate boys from girls as a way to prevent promiscuity, it actually enables some boys to discover their homosexual identity.
“Because of this segregation, aside from finding our sexual orientation, we were also sexually abused by our classmates, seniors and even teachers,” Toni said.
“That is why the rape of boys is not considered a huge issue compared to [the rape of] girls here in Aceh.”
Shariah, which is obsessed with keeping unmarried men and women apart, at first ignored homosexuality here.
The province’s Qanun, a local Islamic bylaw implemented in 2003, forbids illicit sexual relations between men and women.
Homosexuality was not mentioned, so the gay community actually found a safe haven within the bylaw.
However, homosexuality was specifically addressed in a contentious revised provincial bylaw, or Qanun Jinayat, that was passed by the provincial legislature in October 2009.
The bylaw, which Governor Irwandi Yusuf has refused to sign and officials in Jakarta have asked to be withdrawn, would punish homosexuals with 100 cane lashes.
The bylaw also says adulterers should be stoned to death.
“I hope the Qanun Jinayat will never be implemented, because that means there is no more room for us,” said “Faishal,” another member of Violet Grey.
Whatever the law says, Violet Grey claims that homosexuals and transsexuals have been repeatedly harassed and intimidated by Shariah police officers.
In one infamous case in 2007, a local gay man named Hartoyo was abused by Shariah Police officers after a raid on his house, sparking widespread public anger.
Hartoyo and his partner were told to strip naked and then were beaten by police officers. They were released two days later after being instructed to sign a statement agreeing to stop homosexual behavior.
Hartoyo reported the incident to the National Commission for Human Rights.
“The case was closed and the police officers who tortured him only got minor punishments,” Echa said. In the wake of that case, Aceh’s gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transexuals are finding it harder to gain basic rights.
“Most transsexuals work in beauty salons, but even there, the Shariah police wouldn’t allow them to touch women because we are considered men,” Echa said.
Marzuki Abdullah, head of the provincial Shariah Police force, said that homosexuality is forbidden in Aceh, despite the absence of a local bylaw.
“We don’t want to see transvestites standing on the street,” Marzuki said.
“We consider them men, and they should dress accordingly.”
There are currently 6,300 Shariah Police officers patrolling Aceh’s towns and villages on the lookout for “immorality,” which keeps the gay and lesbian community hiding in the shadows.
However, the members of Violet Grey haven’t lost their resolve.
“We just want to be acknowledged as human beings. We are Acehnese and we are also Muslim, so please respect our basic rights,” Echa pleaded.
Toni added: “We were born Acehnese and we love Aceh. We won’t leave just because of the Shariah Law.”