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LGBT In Indonesia Targeted By Islamists And Government

After the Indonesian defense minister compared LGBT people to a nuclear threat, Islamists targeted a gay community that used to be widely tolerated.

Police take down a demonstrator at a gay rights rally in Yogyakarta in February
Police take down a demonstrator at a gay rights rally in Yogyakarta in February
Nicole Curby

YOGYAKARTA — A Beyoncé impersonator in a silver sequined leotard takes the stage at the packed Oyot Godhong Café in this Indonesian city. One audience member is pulled onto the stage and fake breasts are wobbled in his face. The crowd goes wild.

Backstage, one of the performers introduces herself. "My name is Miss Sarita Karma Sutra," she says. A regular performer at the Reminton Cabaret Show, she is proud of her versality. "Sometimes I dress like Lady Gaga. Sometimes like Rihanna, Jessie J, Shakira."

After the show, the audience rushes to take photographs of themselves with the singers. But transgender women — or waria — as they're known here in Indonesia, aren't always greeted with such enthusiasm. In February, hardline Islamist groups threatened a longstanding Islamic boarding school for waria, forcing it to close down.

Kyle Knight, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), produced an in-depth report on the surge in anti-LGBT vitriol that has swept through Indonesia this past year.

"We saw the police failing to protect LGBT people when they were attacked by militant Islamist groups," he says. "We saw activists who had to burn their files and shut down their offices."

Even more "heartbreaking," says Knight, is that people who'd never experienced abuse or harassment from neighbors and family members suddenly found themselves under attack. "Because the media coverage was so negative and because this social sanction for abuse was coming from the highest levels of government, people who had previously been allies or at least accepted their LGBT friends and neighbors and family members, all of a sudden were turning on them," he explains.

The HRW report said LGBT groups faced local harassment, institutional discrimination and random violence in recent months and called it a "crisis'.

Until recently, LGBT Indonesians have largely been received with a mix of tolerance and quiet stigma, according to Dédé Oetomo, an academic who has been an LGBT activist in Indonesia since 1987.

"I'm not going to deny there's violence, especially for trans women — in the streets, in the parks, in the neighborhoods," he says. "But once you're past that, once you've actually proved useful, you're accepted, albeit begrudgingly. As it's been said over the years, it is possible to live as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, whatever. But you may not want to tell too many people…"

But as their visibility has grown over time, LGBT groups have also faced greater dangers. In many parts of Indonesia, LGBT people no longer able to gather in groups for fear of being attacked.

Activists and those providing support services, including HIV/AIDS assistance, have been among the most affected, says Knight. "They're scared. They've taken measures to protect themselves, by destroying files, for example, or not holding events, being extremely skeptical of new people they meet," he explains. "And this is where it's scary."

Under Indonesian law, gay sex is not criminalized. And yet, some local governments have enforced laws that target and impinge on the fundamental rights of LGBT people, according to the advocacy group Arus Pelangi.

Now there is an attempt to outlaw gay sex at a national level, with a hearing currently underway at the Constitutional Court.

But Oetomo says that LGBT people show resilience despite the attacks leveled at them, adding that volunteers keep joining the Surabaya-based organization Gaya Nusantara. "It's amazing how in the increasingly homophobic and trans-phobic environment, people keep coming out," the activist says.

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