Indonesia is a long way from achieving the openness and tolerance of the United States and Europe toward people of diverse sexualities, experts and activists say.
But a National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) statement calling for more protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is a step in the right direction, they say, adding that civil society groups should push the government to end discrimination and violence.
Heru Susetyo, a human rights expert at the University of Indonesia, told the Jakarta Globe that community leaders needed to engage in public debate on LGBT issues.
“There should be more people speaking out, especially political leaders and powerful individuals whose influence is immense, like [US President] Barack Obama, because it will help to change the perception of the masses,” he said.
Todung Mulya Lubis, a human rights activist and lawyer, said that when influential people fight against an established practice, other people will follow.
“A long history of opposition to this group has been embedded in our minds and it will take a long time to change our mindset. There has always been deep antipathy toward these groups, and rejection. There is an understanding but it’s not yet openly expressed,” he said.
Indonesians are strongly opposed to LGBT rights, research shows. Last month’s “Global Divide on Homosexuality” study by the Pew Research Center surveyed more than 37,000 people in 39 countries.
It found Indonesians were overwhelming opposed to homosexuality, with 93 percent saying that gay people should not be accepted.
“Acceptance of homosexuality is particularly widespread in countries where religion is less central in people’s lives. These are also among the richest countries in the world,” Pew said in its summary of the findings. “In contrast, in poorer countries with high levels of religiosity, few believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.” Muslim countries were found to be overwhelmingly opposed to homosexuality.
Gay rights as human rights?
Opposition to LGBT rights exits even inside Komnas HAM, with members of the commission divided on whether to discuss LGBT as part of human rights issues.
Some members say LGBT people are abnormal, need medication or should be “cured” by religious guidance, meaning medical experts and clerics rather than the human rights commission have responsibility for the issue.
Others say the LGBT people, like all citizens, have the right to choose their sexual orientation without any institution, including the state, interfering.
After heated debates, Komnas HAM settled on a compromise, calling for more protection for LGBT people without deciding if they would discuss it as a human rights issues.
“I think the Komnas HAM’s decision is a good start. Indonesia needs people like Obama, who openly expresses his support for LGBT people, and there has already been same-sex marriage legalization in several countries. It greatly helps to change the perception of the citizens and public,” Todung said.
“We are not yet at that stage and it’s impossible to hope for such a thing in the near future. There should be more people speaking out. Advocacy groups should be out to defend them; tolerance should be practiced openly,” he added.
Heru said that LGBT people are marginalized in Indonesia, susceptible to becoming victims of violence or sexual assault and also discriminated against in the workforce.
He compared Indonesia to Thailand, where transgender status is more socially accepted in urban areas and beyond.
In Thailand, he said, transgender people work in many industries and can climb the corporate ladder because people are accommodating. But in Indonesia, transgender people typically only work as buskers, shampoo boys or prostitutes.
“Among Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], we are not the worst nor the best; we are somewhere in between. We are not excessively open and welcoming but we do not forbid LGBT people from existing [openly], as compared to the Philippines or Thailand, which are more open,” Heru said.
Influence of Islam
Komnas HAM’s position was welcomed by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), an Islamic group strongly opposed to LGBT issues being categorized as human rights matters.
MUI leader Amidhan Shaberah said all citizens should be protected by the law.
“Every human being should be protected, no matter what their sexual orientation is, and it is already in Indonesian law — we all agree to support the implementation of the law,” Amidhan told the Globe.
Amidhan said the government should protect the right of every citizen, including the rights of education and employment, adding that any discrimination that breaches those rights should be stopped, including for LGBT people.
Hartoyo, secretary general of OurVoice, a civil society movement advocating LGBT rights, said the protection of LGBT people from discrimination is urgent in Indonesia, where discrimination is rife.
“We need to see more concrete steps from the government regarding LGBT rights. If the government wanted to provide protection in a concrete way, then we should have a concrete program for that, and I’m still looking what the program is,” he said.
Muhammad Nur Khoiron, deputy chairman of Komnas HAM responsible for the protection of minority rights, said the commission was discussing with LGBT rights organizations their policy preferences.
“Discussion of the protection of LGBT people from violence and discrimination became an important agenda item at our plenary meeting, following the increasing number of cases of social discrimination and physical abuse against the groups reported to the commission,” he said.
Nur Khoiron said commission recently learned of physical abuse against transgender people in North Sulawesi.
“We receive many reports of abuse and discrimination across Indonesia. We will check every report and compile them. We know there is a lot of sexual orientation discrimination out there, and the result of the plenary meeting to protect the LGBT community is the umbrella ruling for the work of all of the sub-commissions with Komnas HAM,” he said.
Nur Khoiron said Komnas HAM planned to compile a report on sexual orientation discrimination, along with reports on discrimination against other vulnerable groups including disabled people, to inform its recommendations to the government.
Komnas HAM’s position suggests it is still some time from getting involved in a discussion that has raged in many foreign countries — gay marriage.
The cause is strongly opposed in Indonesia, OurVoice’s Hartoyo acknowledged. “We actually support same-sex marriage as an essential right, but we know that it’s too early to discuss it in Indonesia.”