Scapegoats in an election cycle: LGBTQI in Indonesia

Indonesia’s LGBTQI communities are awash with fear, insecurity and anger. Over the past three years, a series of raids against and arrests of LGBTQI people have been conducted throughout the country by police and vigilante groups and the populist electioneering cycle currently taking place is only worsening this situation.

One of the most confronting anti-queer raids to date took place on 21 May last year in Jakarta, at the men’s-only Atlantis Gym & Spa. On a Sunday night, 141 men, including foreigners and staff, were arrested in a police raid. Patrons at the spa were stripped naked and sent by bus to a police station in North Jakarta.

Photographs and videos of the event went viral, and were distributed by some of Indonesia’s more irreputable newspapers and online media. Images of the victims were widely shared, including those displaying faces and naked bodies. The humiliation and degradation of the men arrested served to reinforce the prejudice of public opinion – to ‘give evidence’ to a stereotype of gay men as sex-obsessed and depraved.

The Atlantis raid was justified by the Indonesian authorities through their citing of the suspicion of sex work taking place, and this being in violation of the 2008 Bill on Pornography. However, although the Bill on Pornography is inherently oppressive legislation, it does not in fact prohibit gay sex work. A few days after the raid, police released 126 of its victims who’d been found not guilty of any crimes. Others, however, were sentenced to more than two years in prison.

Arus Pelangi (AP) is a sexuality and minority-rights organisation currently working in Indonesia. It reports that from January–March 2016, there were 142 cases of arrest, assault, discrimination, expulsion and hate speech against LGBTQI people. Meanwhile, the New York Southeast Asia Network has reported that more than 300 Indonesians were arrested in 2017 for alleged ‘LGBT-associated behaviour’, with countless others intimidated and harassed.

Yuli Rustinawati, an AP activist, has stated that ‘hate speech … expressed by the majority of the state apparatus … makes [it legitimate] for intolerant organizations and groups to commit violence.’ AP research has found that 89.3 per cent of LGBTQI individuals have experienced violence in Indonesia.

The phenomenon of non-addressed or tacitly encouraged violence against LGBTQI people by the Indonesian state, as evidenced so painfully by the events at Atlantis, is a symptom of growing intolerance and prejudice against LGBTQI communities in Indonesia. In 2016, the Wahid Foundation and Indonesian Survey Institute produced research on Muslim opinion in Indonesia (nearly 90 per cent of Indonesians identify as Muslim). Within this research, 38.4 per cent of respondents said that they felt intolerance towards other religious groups. This number increased to 49 per cent in relation to particular identity groups. The most disliked groups in this survey were LGBTQI people, communists, and Jewish and Chinese people (even where the latter are Muslim).

The authorities’ capitulation to, and encouragement of, rising prejudice was born out in the closing of the Al-Fatah waria pesantren in Bantul in Yogyakarta in February 2016. ‘Waria’ is clumsily translated as transgender woman, or transvestite, in English, but it is a term with its own cultural meaning and history. A pesantren is an Islamic boarding school. There was no justification provided for the closure of this school. Authorities closed it in response to pressure from vigilante organisations. This pesantren had existed openly since 2008 and had become a space for waria to study Islam.

Only two days after the raid of Atlantis, on 23 May 2017, two men were publicly caned eighty-three times each in Aceh. This sentence was handed down by the Syariah Court of Kota Banda Aceh. Both men were arrested and sentenced after being held captive by a vigilante group that had broken into their houses on the suspicion that they were having sex.

On a public stage, the victims in Aceh were displayed dressed in white whilst a masked man struck each of them in turn with a rattan cane. They groaned in pain and embarrassment while Banda Aceh residents crowded in to watch, including children. Cheers, screams and exclamations came from the crowd and the punishment was treated a spectacle. The event itself was recorded by the audience and footage quickly spread on social media. The men, with the initials MT (aged twenty-four) and MH (aged twenty), were the first gay couple to be caned in Aceh – a province with special autonomous status and a sharia-based criminal code (Qanun Jinayat). Aceh, known as the ‘Veranda of Mecca’, punishes those caught having homosexual sex with a maximum sentence of 100 lashes, a fine of one kilo of gold, or 100 months’ gaol. Adultery in Aceh also carries a punishment of 100 lashes with a cane.


There are local elections in Indonesia in 2018, and general elections in 2019. Within this election cycle, and this political culture built on conservatism and prejudice, LGBTQI people are being used as a rallying point. A majority-Muslim population means wide support for political parties that are based on, or affiliated with, Islam, and conservative aspects of the religion are being capitalised upon by the political class. Many government officials and politicians are joining in on condemnation of LGBTQI people and they’re seeking support from anti-LGBTQI groups.

The Indonesian Government is currently seeking to amend Indonesia’s criminal code, or the RKUHP. A bill to amend the code was introduced to parliament in February this year. The proposed amendments have been the object of debate, and protest, and not just from the LGBTQI community. The amendments would create ‘moral crimes’ in the RKUHP, and if passed, would outlaw extramarital and homosexual sex. Under the changes, these charges would respectively carry maximum prison sentences of five years and twelve years.

In January this year, on the national talk show METROTV, political analyst Burhanuddin Muhtadi expressed his concerns about the bill:

‘This is part of … politicians’ effort to exploit populism … The substance is not (directly) about LGBT (people), but to [use them] as a political commodity. LGBT, according to the survey, is the most hated group of people. If politicians sell the issue in order to raise the vote ahead of the 2019 election, that’s what I’m worried about. Their rights are guaranteed by the constitution to live without persecution.’

On 27 January this year in Aceh, or more precisely in Aceh Utara, police raided beauty salons and arrested twelve warias working there. After their arrests, the warias’ hair was shaved, they were forced to wear men’s clothes and were ‘disciplined’ in order to be trained to behave as ‘real men.’

Following these arrests, the Bupati of Aceh Besar, Mawardi Ali, issued a statement prohibiting salons from employing waria. The restriction is a violation of the economic rights of waria in Aceh. Waria face tremendous challenges and have very limited access to employment. They generally face extreme stigma and discrimination, and are often only able to find work as hairdressers and makeup artists at salons, or as street performers or sex workers. In Aceh, the only option that waria have is to work at the salons. If there’s no more space for LGBTQI people in Indonesia, then this is especially so for waria in Aceh.

The waves of anti-LGBTQI sentiment have been contagious. Homophobic vigilante groups are confident to take discriminatory laws into their own hands across Java and Sumatra. Their violence and intolerance threaten Indonesia’s actual strong culture of diversity. And Indonesia has been aggressively branding itself internationally as a pluralist nation; a country of more than 17,000 islands and more than 260 million people, with huge ethnic, religious, racial, linguistic and cultural diversity.

The question is, in a country that increasingly labels human rights principles and LGBTQI struggles as symptomatic of Western imperialism, can diversity of sexuality also be recognised?

Of course, parallel to all of this, corruption cases are still punctuating Indonesian politics. One of the largest scandals is the e-ID card scheme, with an estimated Rp 2.3 trillion involved (almost AUD $215 million) – a mega-corruption case that has implicated key people from the legislative and executive branches.

Firdhan Aria Wijaya, a researcher who focuses on gender and sexuality studies, has argued that in this context, LGBTQI people are being used as a political diversion. ‘We can not prove it because we are not inside (of the political process). [But] sexual affairs are always easy to (scapegoat).’ Of the changes to the RKUHP, Aria Wijaya says, ‘Actually (they’re) not a sexual minority issue, but everyone’s issue.’

Articles creating moral crimes in the RKUHP, or ‘crimes without victims’, are a threat to everyone. In Indonesia, marriage must be registered with the Office for Religious Affairs. As official and legal evidence, every married couple is given a Buku Nikah (a marriage book). Marriages that cannot be proven with legal documents would be considered adultery, and face punishment. This article would especially target not just LGBTQI groups, but also women, victims of rape, children, minority faiths, Indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups.

The rejection of the RKUHP amendments by a cross-section of political groups is an opportunity for the LGBTQI movement to consolidate its political support. We need to strengthen the line. But of course, the support of activists in other countries, and the LGBTQI movement globally, is also important, because as we know, what’s happening in Indonesia can happen anywhere.


‘Let’s build solidarity and share the burden and support each other. Let’s take a stand by not putting out anger but moving with a quiet strategy,’ said Lini Zurlia, a queer feminist activist. What she means by ‘quiet strategy’ is closely linked to the need to build solidarity and intersectionality across the democratic movement in Indonesia. It’s difficult, but not impossible.

The protest movement against the RKUHP amendments is growing and has culminated in action on the streets, and in the widely shared petition #TolakRKUHP (#RejectRKUHP). ‘We just want the same rights to be able to live as citizens of Indonesia,’ shouted Mama Yuli, a waria community leader, during her speech at a protest attended by hundreds of other activists in front of the National Parliament in Jakarta in February. LGBTQI people in Indonesia are marginalised, but we are not alone.


Image: Manfred Sommer – Indonesia / flickr

Nurdiyansah Dalidjo

Nurdiyansah Dalidjo is a travel writer and cultural activist who seeks to memorialise the role of spices in fuelling the revolution in Indonesia. He is currently based in Jakarta, and spends his time exploring colonial histories through food and textiles.

More by Nurdiyansah Dalidjo ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *