As the world’s largest Muslim majority nation, Indonesia has long been on the road to embrace tolerance – particularly tolerance of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The Jakarta Post’s Arghea Desafti Hapsari explores how employers are accommodating LGBT employees.
Arvi (not his real name), a 25-year-old media relations executive for one of the country’s largest cigarette producers, walked into the men’s room at his office in Central Jakarta.
After he washed his hands and groomed his hair, a colleague walked in, stared and said: “You look fabulously beautiful.”
Although Arvi has always been openly gay to people at his office, he has to bear the brunt of remarks that poke fun at his sexual orientation.
“I’m sure that my colleagues are open-minded about homosexuality, but still there are times when they make these surly comments,” he said, adding the comments, though obviously made with no ill intention, irritated him at some point.
Ienes Angela has spent more than a year working for an organization focusing on people with HIV/AIDS.
The 37-year-old transgender person said she still suffered discrimination on a daily basis.
“I have no problem with my colleagues as they are mostly gay. But there are people in my office building who chafe at my appearance as I walk past them, although I’ve tried to act tough,” she said.
Traditional mores that discriminate against LGBT people and a lack of legal protection have exposed Jakarta’s sexual minorities to prejudice and sexual harassment at the workplace.
Despite increasing inclusiveness and recognition of gays — notwithstanding offenses perpetrated by small groups of Islamic radicals — the pleas made by LGBT people for equal treatment have largely gone ignored.
The LGBT community are forced to cope with discrimination such as those experienced by Arvi and Ienes — and also challenges in finding work as civil servants, Indonesian Military members, police officers and athletes.
It is mostly due to such impediments, the community is most visible in the private sector, such as in the mass media, public relations, entertainment, beauty and the creative industry.
Irwan Hidayana, an expert on gender and sexuality from the University of Indonesia, said sexual minorities faced an uphill battle when it came to ensuring their rights were respected.
“Indonesia still has a long way to go. We have laws on human rights but not a single law on [LGBT rights],” he said.
“What’s more troubling is that some bylaws even criminalize homosexuality.”
Indonesia’s criminal code does not prohibit homosexual relations between consenting adults. But
the 1945 Constitution does not explicitly protect sexual identity rights.
The country also has no law governing same-sex marriages, civil unions, domestic partnerships or the adoption of children by gays.
Protection from sexual harassment by members of the same sex is also not covered under Indonesian law.
The absence of such a legal framework has led to the denial of regular benefits to LGBT employees, such as income tax cuts, shared health insurance or retirement benefits.
“There are already some countries which legally recognize homosexual cohabitation. Therefore a homosexual life partner of a worker is entitled to all the standard benefits,” Irwan said.
It was important for companies to treat LGBT employees like other employees, Irwan added.
But Arvi and Ienes do not care much about employment benefits for the time being.
“If I can have an enjoyable working atmosphere, with colleagues who respect me for what I am and what I can achieve, then it’s all fine by me,” Arvi said.
“I don’t have a life partner anyway, and I don’t intend to marry anyone soon.”
Irwan said the weak legal framework protecting gays had led companies to address the rights of LGBT employees in regulations or codes of conduct in a lackluster manner.
Few companies have regulations governing discrimination against LGBT employees.
Arvi’s company has a regulation that encourages workers to report verbal or physical sexual harassment regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Arvi did just that. He reported his colleague’s sexual comments and eventually the abuse stopped.
According to the Women’s Empowerment and Children Protection Ministry, there are at least three million LGBTs in Indonesia, most of whom keep their sexual orientation secret out of fear of public persecution.
Jerry Winata, 27, is among a few white-collar LGBT workers who came out of the closet, a move that eventually granted him a benefit.
“I was once hired by an affluent advertising company in Jakarta because its client had specifically asked for a gay to work on a project developing campaign materials targeting MSM,” he said, referring to men who have sex with men.
“One of the executives for the company knew about my sexual orientation and asked me to apply for the position.”
Jerry now works for the local office of an international financial institution. Every now and then, he said, one of his colleagues would joke about his sexuality.
“I just take it lightly. They don’t mean any harm,” he said.
Jerry and Arvi share the same idea when it comes to being open about their sexuality.
As Jerry put it: “I will not lie to people but I will not advertise it nor go around proclaiming my gayness. I don’t let the gay thing define me.”
Leny, 34, a human resources worker for an oil service company in South Jakarta, said joking of any kind about her sexuality was unacceptable.
For years, she has been tight-lipped about being a lesbian for fear that people might talk behind her back, or worse, confront her directly.
“My worst fear is to have an uncomfortable working environment,” she said.
She said she was also worried that coming out in the workplace might cost her a promotion if her employer was homophobic.
According to Irwan, lesbians were more reserved and discreet when it came to expressing their sexuality.
“It has much to do with the gender roles. Females are raised to believe that they should never express their sexual desires,” said Irwan.
“This is, of course, different from men, who are used to expressing their desires. It’s a social construction. It’s even more rigid for lesbians although there are more lesbian groups and communities today.”