Indonesia: The dark side of LGBT awareness

Since 2016, minorities of gender and sexuality — “LGBT” (lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people) — have become among main targets by a conservative backlash. While in the past decade the community suffered violent attacks from religious vigilante groups, now the attack comes through criminalization efforts and greater surveillance and control. Last year, the Islamic group Family Love Alliance, AILA, demanded the Constitutional Court to include consensual homosexual relationships and practices into the Criminal Code, and lawmakers have planned to ban “LGBT-related content” through amendment of the 2002 Broadcasting Law.

Despite arguably being the most contentious bill with more than four-year-long debates, the House of Representatives has no hesitance to cleanse public space from LGBT-related contents. As The Jakarta Post reported, article 61 of the draft amendment explicitly includes “LGBT behavior” as one of the 12   criteria of broadcasting contents to be prohibited. Further,  article 140 also stipulates that all movies, dramas, and advertisements should be screened by the censorship agency to get rid of the LGBT-related contents. Despite the ambiguous definition of what constitutes “LGBT behavior”, lawmakers agreed that it is dangerous to children and against the “Indonesian culture”.

Such a move is clearly a violation of human rights and freedom of expression, and it also shows how the term LGBT has been politicized.

This process has led to shifts of the local gender and sexuality landscape. In the past decade, the entertainment industry was no stranger to the appearance of men with feminine mannerism— for example, the late comedian Tessy of the Srimulat group, the actor Aming, and late TV presenters Tata Dado and Olga Syahputra.

Their regular appearances did not provoke efforts to criminalize or even conflate it with the term LGBT. However, the anti-LGBT vitriol last year has relatively contributed to and changed this “unspeakable tolerance” as “LGBT behavior”. In this case, comedy shows featuring men and women behaving like the opposite gender will be banned from the air. 

It appears that since 2016 the term LGBT has entered common parlance through the moral panic created by conservative groups, mass media, officials, politicians and religious organizations. They conflate LGBT with “Western intervention”, “pedophilia”, “proxy wars”, “HIV infections”, “sex parties and pornography”, “transactional sex” and even more surprisingly, “overconsumption of instant noodles”. These extreme framings of LGBT in media reports have offered fertile ground to justify and spread fear and moral panic of sexual minorities.

The sudden popularization of the LGBT term has transformed the meaning. As such, it does not strictly refer to an acronym of a variety of gender and/or sexual identities, but instead is now being used as a single category to address a person with non-normative gender and/or sexual identity. I was quite perplexed when my friends labeled me LGBT, instead of a gay or homosexual man as before. Given this, in addition to such a bizarre understanding, the term “LGBT behavior” mostly targets men and women with non-normative gender expressions, particularly men with feminine mannerism. Through these extreme media reports, those LGBT individuals perceivably carry moral threats.

So how has this political transformation of the “LGBT” term actually changed the local landscape?

Firstly, this LGBT-ization has increasingly pushed back the local terms, formerly in commonly use  in Indonesians’ everyday life. In A Coincidence of Desires, a book published in 2007, the professor Tom Boellstorff describes that the Indonesian colloquial  terms banci and bencong, for instance, were used to denote “effeminate men”, which distinguished them from waria (wanita-pria/female-male). The latter originates in government dictates in 1978, through the efforts of Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin to assist these groups. Read more via the Jakarta Post