The present day political situation for the safety and visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in Indonesia can be attributed to high-profile statements made by government officials looking to silence groups of queer and gender variant students at university campuses across the Muslim-majority country. The Indonesian LGBTI movement as a whole, however, can be traced back to 1998 when student activists like Yuli Rustinawati used knowledge and skills obtained from volunteer opportunities, and ties to local legal aid institutions, to establish the guiding principles of today’s organized presence fighting for the rights of sexual minorities.
Yuli’s organization, Arus Pelangi, was formed in 2006 by a group of activists that identified a need for legal counseling in support of LGBTI people. But in today’s heightened state of affairs for the safety of LGBTI people, Yuli finds herself using the organization’s platform to remind Indonesia and the international community of the history behind her community and its advocacy efforts to combat harmful stereotypes and repair the recent damage caused by the national government.
Yuli’s own LGBTI activism dates back to the 1990s, but the transgender community in Indonesia actually found its beginnings in 1969 through government sponsored programs that used trans individuals for cultural and entertainment purposes. Today’s transgender community and the larger LGBTI movement has no such support, with organizations like Arus Pelangi relying on funding sources with no ties to the national government.
Arus Pelangi works within a framework of four main pillars: advocacy, campaigns, education, and organization. Their efforts today are largely focused in advocacy work at the community and state levels. Arus Pelangi also acts as an open umbrella organization that includes allied members, partner organizations from across the country, and honorary members that act as a bridge between parliament and the LGBTI community.
Despite the dramatic increase in negative attention from both Indonesian and global media outlets, Yuli says that LGBTI human rights defenders still feel relatively safe because “they have the right to association,” even though it is still hard for organizations like Arus Pelangi to gain legal registration with the government.
Discussions around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity do not usually occur in public spaces throughout present day Indonesia, says Yuli. This is because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” doctrine that is reinforced time and time again by the Islamic community. The Ulema Council, which is the top Muslim clerical body in Indonesia, issued a written statement in 2005 that declared all Muslims should be morally opposed to the lifestyle of gay and lesbian people, and then later issued a similar statement specifically targeting the transgender community.
Yuli says that statements from the Muslim clerical body receive little attention from the general population but are picked up by media outlets looking for a story. Media coverage on these statements prompted fear among LGBTI people, and the media began to question Arus Pelangi with very vague and sensational language.
“When America ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, some people in Indonesia began to talk about it,” says Yuli, who dealt with many media inquires as a result of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in the United States. “But this doesn’t really connect with the movement here because marriage equality is not really the priority for us.”
Media attention carried into the beginning of 2016 when the Indonesian LGBTI community became the target of vitriolic rhetoric from government officials.
The community in Indonesia must also deal with a call to arms from an Islamic community that continues to push for state-sanctioned rehabilitation and punishment of LGBTI people, and the shuttering of organizations working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“There is a lack of understanding about sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression within the media, government, and Islamic institutions,” says Yuli, who has to deal with all three entities on a daily basis.
To make matters worse, the Indonesian Child Protection Commission released falsely corroborated statements that claimed LGBTI people and activists were involved in using child pornography as tools for propaganda. “We are against the child pornography,” says Yuli, “but I think these remarks came about because of the lack of understanding about our work for the LGBTI community.”
The statements from the Child Protection Commission prompted the Minister of Information to call for the shutdown of Arus Pelangi’s and other LGBTI organization’s websites. But Yuli says that “you will actually see none of what the government says is on there. It’s prejudice because they never open our website to see what we actually do, and there is no legitimate reason why they want to block our website.”
To counter government actions and hostile societal views, Arus Pelangi has opened up a hotline that is already increasing communication between and within the LGBTI community across the country. Yuli says that the hotline allows LGBTI people to receive expedient help in times of actual or perceived danger.
Yuli and her team have also opened up a temporary safe house where LGBTI people and human rights defenders can find refuge during their time of need.
“Despite the deteriorating situation over the past three or four months, Arus Pelangi has a great understanding of the impact of our work over the last 10 years,” says Yuli. “We know damage has been done but we are not going backwards. We are still on the frontlines fighting for our rights.”
You can help Arus Pelangi keep their safe house open through the end of the year and operate other emergency support services by donating to our campaign and sharing it with people who care about global LGBTI equality.
Contributed by Bryan Molk - May 9, 2016