JAKARTA – She has come out to her own religiously conservative family. Her sister, a graduate of an Islamic college, also accepts her for who she is. A few months back, she thought their neighbours did as well, along with her fellow students in her university, where she was active in various campus organizations that fight for gender and minority rights.
But then on a gray afternoon last September, photos of Mentari (not her real name) before and after she became transgender started circulating on social media, with at least 20 accounts sharing these on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. She soon became the subject of attacks and harassment online; some posts called for her blood, others labelled her as mad or being “an inhabitant of hell”, and many more accused her of spreading diseases. Then came posts that included her personal information, such as her address, telephone numbers, her parents’ names, school records, and her partners.
It didn’t take long before an angry mob armed with wooden sticks, machetes, and spears surrounded Mentari’s family residence, looking for her. Fortunately, she and her family had already fled the day before, having heard of threats that there were people out to harm – even kill – them.
This is the world’s most populous Muslim-dominated nation, but for quite some time Indonesia had been known for its tolerance of practices and beliefs outside of Islam. And while that has not necessarily meant non-heterosexuals have had it easy here, Indonesia’s LGBT community had been left relatively in peace – until two years ago. That was when what is now sometimes called the ‘anti-LGBT panic’ began, and it has been escalating since, partly because of the speedy spread of disinformation through social media.
Nearly half of Indonesia’s 265 million people are on the Internet, with about 130 million active on social media. That means a social-media penetration rate of about 49 percent, which in Southeast Asia has Indonesia ranking 7th among 11 countries (from highest to lowest). It is, however, among the five countries in the region whose annual social-media growth rates are now in double digits, with Indonesia posting an increase of 23 percent, according to the global media company We Are Social.
Creating targets for politics
For sure, social media have been instrumental in helping people keep connected and expand their social networks, as well as be up to date on information that they are interested in. But social media’s ability to spread content fast and in a wide range can also be used for campaigns with malicious intent and which deliberately disseminate false information.
These have included those with political agendas aimed at gaining or sustaining power for a particular party or individual. In an article published in 2017 in the online journal New Mandala that is hosted by the Australian National University, digital media and political specialist Aim Sinpeng writes that in Southeast Asia, cyberspace “has evolved into a space for contestation over power and control between the state and its societal opponents.”
“As electoral contestation increases in some countries, feuding elites have sought to win the hearts and minds of the ever more engaged and wired citizenry through old tactics of divide and conquer, exploiting deep-seated ethnic, religious and racial cleavages,” she adds. “Social networking sites like Facebook have made it all too easy to spread hate speech and misinformation—further entrenching divisions in society, and inviting yet more state-led censorship.”
Some observers have said that this is precisely what has been happening to Indonesia especially in the runup to elections. Riding on the growing religious and ethnic conservatism in this country, politicians have targeted minorities such as Chinese-Indonesians, Christians, and LGBTs. It was no coincidence, observers say, that the ‘anti-LGBT panic’ began in 2016, a year before local elections were held, maintained momentum in time for the regional polls in 2017, and is now surging again, ahead of the 2019 national elections. One result is an increase in attacks against LGBTs in and outside cyberspace. Another is a state clampdown on almost anything perceived to be connected to LGBTs, including online apps and websites.
Government officials were in fact among those pinpointed of having triggered the ‘panic of 2016’. By most accounts, it was the call of Research, Technology, and Higher Education Minister Mohamad Nasir for a ban on LGBT organizations in universities that first went viral online. These were followed by Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu describing the LGBT movement as a “proxy war” and a “threat” and then Administrative Reform Minister Yuddy Chrisnandi saying that LGBTs should be banned from civil service. People’s Consultative Assembly Chairperson Zulkifli Hasan also said that homosexuality is against Indonesian culture. Even Vice President Jusuf Kalla decided to step in, saying that the United Nations Development Programme should not fund LGBT projects in Indonesia.
To make matters worse, Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the influential Ulama Council (better known by its Indonesian acronym MUI), spoke up to say that the body had issued a fatwa calling for the criminalization of LGBT activities. According to Amin, “homosexuality, whether lesbian or gay, and sodomy are legally haram (forbidden) and a form of crime”. (Amin is now poised to join the 2019 elections as current President Joko Widodo’s running mate.)
Social media turn vicious
Such statements by authority figures could only have been taken by some people as tacit permission to target and try to rid Indonesia of the now-demonized LGBTs. Anti-LGBT posts began to proliferate online, with some accusing members of the community of being disease carriers, while others called LGBTs “deviants” and “paedophiles”. There were posts encouraging people to attack LGBTs. Icon of the Jakarta-based rights organization Arus Pelangi says that there was even an “invitation to kill” LGBTs that circulated in social media.
LGBTs were harassed online and hounded offline. Doxing or the practice of uploading private data of individuals or organizations online became a popular way of identifying LGBTs and their family and friends and exposing them to possible abuse.
Aribowo of the Indonesian Anti-Slander Society or Mafindo confesses to being overwhelmed by the disinformation about LGBTs. One of the major tasks of Mafindo is to fact check; Aribowo says that this is hard to do with anti-LGBT attacks that play on fears and perception. One example is the claim that a deadly earthquake and tsunami that struck Palu, a coastal city northeast of Jakarta, in September 2018 and took more than 1,500 lives were punishments because many people there are LGBT. Aribowo says that facts have little chance of winning over such a claim.
Psychologist Laras Sekarasih of the University of Indonesia explains that when people are told of information that conforms with what they want to believe, there is often weak or no desire to check whether it is true or not. There is also a tendency for them to reject other views that may run contrary to the information that had been presented.
As a result of all these, rights activists say, nine out of 10 LGBTs in Indonesia today are likely to have been attacked or subjected to some form of abuse. Data from LGBT-rights group Arus Pelangi also indicate that attacks against LGBTs have increased sharply in the last three years. According to Icon, Arus Pelangi recorded some 110 cases of either violence or discrimination against LGBTs from 2013 to 2015. But between January and March of 2016 alone, the figure rose to 142. In 2017, says Icon, Arus Pelangi recorded at least 973 cases of maltreatment of LGBTs.
Past inclusion, present exclusion
Ironically, Sri Agustine, Ardhanary Institute researcher and author of the book Existence of Calalai, says that gender diversity has been part of traditional Indonesian society for hundreds of years. For example, she says, local literature in South Sulawesi reveals that among the Bugis people, at least five genders are recognized: uruane (male), makunrai (female), calalai (women who look like men), calabai (men who look like women), and bissu (a combination of all sexes). Sri Agustine says that these genders are still accepted there even though the community has turned predominantly Muslim.
Indonesian arts also include the tradition of the gandrung lanang (male dancer), which developed during the 16th century. The gandrung lanang dances like a woman in performances meant only for the enjoyment of royalty. Even today art that is tolerant of gender diversity can be found across Indonesia, particularly in the cities of Banyuwangi, Cilacap, and Banyumas (Lengger) in West Java Province (Ketuk Tilu) and in Central Java Province (Tayub), as well as on the island of Sumatra, such as in the provinces of Aceh (Seudati) and Jambi (Bebancian).
More well known among contemporary Indonesians, however, are the waria, or those who are biologically men but who believe they have feminine souls. One of Indonesia’s most popular celebrities in fact is a waria: singer and actress Dorce Gamalama.
And yet there are Indonesians like Rita Soebagio who believe that LGBTs have to be seen as “our siblings who are sick”. Rita is the founder of the Family Love Alliance (AILA), which among other things has tried to lobby for premarital sex and same-sex relationships to be declared illegal and punishable by jail terms. The attempt has been thwarted by the courts, but AILA is now holding discussions with legislators on the same matter. According to Rita, this is to protect the younger generation from “LGBT influence”.
“We want to help them, want to protect the next generation, not to punish them,” she says, adding that AILA moves not with hatred, but with affection.
“It takes healing measures to return them to nature as heterosexuals,” says Rita. She says that there are already “100 LGBTs” who have sought help from AILA and asked “to be healed”.
She says that she has formed a cyberforce to “protect the younger generation from being exposed to LGBT” and educate the public about “the dangers of LGBT”. Says Rita: “We are promoting anti-LGBT campaigns on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We have to build public awareness about the danger of LGBT as the spreader of HIV/AIDS virus and deviant acts.” This is even as, at the very least, official data have persistently shown unsafe heterosexual sex as the primary cause of HIV infection in Indonesia.
So far, AILA has the strongest presence on Facebook among the social-media platforms. Its official Facebook page has about 16,000 followers. Rita says that as an organization that strives to “protect Indonesian families from LGBT”, AILA continues to strengthen the abilities of its cyberforces to monitor and report LGBT campaigns to the government and the police. In addition, AILA has been collaborating with the Indonesian Psychiatric Association, which has stated publicly that homosexuality and bisexuality are “psychological problems” while people who are transgender have “mental disorders”. Rita says that the collaboration is in the form of multidisciplinary research “to deal with LGBT campaigns online and offline”. AILA also routinely holds discussions, workshops, and seminars on the “dangers of LGBT” in universities.
Rita says with conviction: “We are all in jihad, struggling to overcome LGBT attacks.”
Just who is under attack?
In all probability, however, it is the LGBTs who have been feeling that they are under constant attack. Just recently, the Jakarta Post reported that several waria were being forced out of the boarding house they had been staying in for years in East Jakarta, not by their landlord but by their neighbours. One of the waria said that they had been accused of prostitution while their landlord, who was trying to defend them, was called “an atheist” and “disgusting”.
Police crackdowns on people suspected of “immoral behaviour” have also increased. Last February, a couple of women described as “lesbians” in news items were arrested by police due to a neighbour’s report. A month earlier, a dozen transgenders were arrested in Aceh – and then had their photos of being tortured by authorities uploaded and shared in social media. Recounts Naila Rizqi Zakiah of the Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat) that eventually helped the transgenders: “Some people urinated on them. I could not stand hearing about it. I cried.”
According to Teguh (Imam) Affandi of another LGBT-rights organization, SuaraKita, LGBT witch hunts are being carried out not only by the police, but also by local ultraconservative groups. More often than not, the trigger is something posted on social media that went viral. Says Teguh: “Communities, police, and religious leaders in other areas begin to react by combing their places. Discrimination and criminalization of the LGBT community continue to expand from online to offline and conversely affect each other.”
Teguh says that there have been LGBT students who decided to quit school because of the rising cases of bullying and abuse. Students have also become worried about religious teachers who condemn homosexuality. Teguh reports as well that since 2016, the demand for online counselling from SuaraKita has increased significantly, with most queries arising from the death penalty related to the MUI fatwa.
Comments the LBH’s Naila: “We have not seen any serious effort from the government to handle the hate speech that attacks LGBT groups. Pressure from religious groups seem to have made authorities ignore reports from LGBT groups. So the victims of hate speech and online harassment are now choosing to remain silent.”
Transgender Mami Yuli, meanwhile, says that the safehouse she founded specifically for waria is feeling a financial pinch after a drop in donations. A minor local celebrity, Mami Yuli is a popular pick as speaker in government and school events; the exposure helps attract money for the safehouse, which she says “helps 10 to 20 people every day”. But now, she says, “out of the 100-million rupiah (about US$7,000) target, only 12 million (US$826) has been collected”.
“Online fundraising has been disrupted because of the issues about LGBTs,” Mami Yuli says. She also notes that the modest sums from the government that the safehouse used to get stopped coming in 2016. Mami Yuli believes that the sudden disappearance of the financial aid from the government was because of the high sentiment against LGBTs online and offline. She comments, “State officials, legislative members, police, and politicians are now hostile to us, let alone ordinary people.”
No signal means safety
As for Mentari, the student transgender who almost became a victim of a lynch mob, life has yet to return to normal. She was almost expelled from her university after her private information was exposed online, and then was asked to leave the student organization that had used to protect her. She has also had to endure hate speech and harassment in cyberspace.
“They said I did not deserve to wear a hijab (headscarf),” says the 24-year-old. “(They said) hell is where I have to be.”
Still traumatized, Mentari has become afraid to talk while in the midst of a crowd. Although it is her second time meeting this writer in one of Jakarta’s malls, she is visibly fidgety and uncomfortable. After arriving at the meeting place, she sits for several minutes with her head down. Then she starts to cry. “I can’t talk here,” she says.
She opens up a bit after moving to a more private area. She says that she eventually found out that those who are responsible for spreading her before-and-after photos on social-media were her former friends from an Islamic high school. She doesn’t say, though, why they did that.
She is about to graduate from university, but Mentari says that she has been told not to apply in all the government agencies in the area where she used to live. She is now earning some money by being a motorcycle-taxi driver. According to Mentari, she and her family have moved – to a remote area with poor signal.
“I deliberately chose a place where the signal is poor,” she says. “I just want to feel safe.”
Suwandi is a writer and editor at Jambipro.com, an online portal based in Jambi, Indonesia. This story was published/produced under the Southeast Asian Press Alliance 2018 Journalism Fellowship Program, supported by a grant from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
This story has been published/produced within the context of a Grant received for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (seapa.org) Fellowship programme for 2018-2019 from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of OHCHR. Read here for the full story in Bahasa.