Fatwas, gay sex tourism and the Indonesian LGBT underground

Even before the Indonesian Ulema Council’s (MUI) recent fatwa on “crimes of homosexuality,” the archipelago’s LGBT community has rarely been able to live without prejudice and danger shading their daily lives. Given the history of authoritarian and religious conservatism in the country, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the MUI has declared openly what was an always-present undercurrent of general sentiment before. Also unsurprising is the government’s silence on the issue.

Hatred and fear of the LGBT community runs deeply through many parts of the country, but until a recent anti-homosexuality Sharia law passed in the autonomous region of Aceh, that prejudice has lacked legal backing in Indonesia. While the fatwa is not official, there is still a real concern that the MUI’s sanction may be used to fuel acts of violence against the LGBT community, as well as to strengthen the existing prejudices that keep gay and transgender people from going to school, finding jobs, seeking medical help and being accepted in their communities.

Yet despite the country’s loud, conservative voices, there are still many nuances of Indonesia’s relationship with the LGBT community. People who identify as waria, a term that combines the Indonesian words for “woman” and “man,” appear to enjoy a limited measure of acceptance and freedom. Depending on one’s definition, “waria” could mean anyone from a professional drag queen to a transgender person, but because of their visibility in the entertainment and beauty industry, Indonesian culture tolerates them, for the most part considering them amusing oddities.

They’ve carved out a market niche for themselves as top-notch hairdressers and stylists, and a few of them host TV talk shows. There’s even a Miss Waria beauty pageant. However, for the most part, Indonesia’s waria try to keep low profiles, as they face a number of stigmas relating to being dirty, dangerous or engaged in sex work.

Beyond the entertainment, cosmetic or NGO industry, waria face many official and social barriers to safe and stable employment. Since Indonesia does not officially permit sex changes, the identity cards that all Indonesian citizens carry to show (birth-assigned) gender and religion are unavoidable giveaways, and employers are left to discriminate from there. This being the case, quite a few waria turn to sex work — or engage in it from time to time — spurred on by both discriminatory hiring practices in the formal marketplace and Indonesia’s booming gay sex tourism industry.

In Indonesia’s sex economy, all sex workers must navigate the ever-shifting balance of a trade that is illegal by law but more or less allowed by practice. On paper, sex work is a “crime against decency,” but there are regulated red light districts that operate with the grudging collaboration of community officials, who will embed health clinics and rehabilitation centers within these neighborhoods.

Sometimes, though, local officials feel pressure to clean up their town and image, and the sex workers are forced to temporarily scatter. It can be a volatile back-and-forth, as militant groups tend to carry the mantle for those who feel that the government should be doing more to enforce the letter of the law. Religious vigilante organizations like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) will raid, attack, and harass sex workers, suspected or otherwise. Already pushing for stricter, more conservative laws with respect to homosexuality, the MUI’s fatwa is yet another weapon in their hands — the FPI has already used previous fatwas issued by the MUI as justification for violence — and endangers Indonesian LGBT citizens and allies.

Rainbow map of Indonesia, via Wikimedia Commons

Rainbow map of Indonesia, via Wikimedia Commons

Although Indonesia has a history of religious pluralism — a country where you can belong to any religion, as long as it’s one of the approved six — religious militants such as the FPI are allowed to operate within the country as if that were not the case.

The government has yet to respond to the MUI’s fatwa putting all international eyes on recently-inaugurated President Joko Widodo.  Widodo was elected last year on a campaign that many compared to President Obama’s in 2008 for its liberal, people-power promises of change. However, he seems to be having an anticlimactic honeymoon in office.

Widodo is likely having a hard time shaking off the stifling influence of conservative backers who saw him through inauguration. Widodo was nominated for Indonesia’s highest office by Megawati Sukarnoputri, former president and daughter of Indonesia’s first president, who made no secret of who would really be in charge. At a campaign event last year, she publicly chastised Widodo, noting: “I made you a presidential candidate…But you should remember that you are the party’s official, with a function of implementing the party’s programs and ideology.”

In addition to avoiding a showdown with Megawati, Widodo may also be avoiding conflict with the MUI itself, especially after Indonesian Muslim groups pushed a born-in-Kenya-style smear campaign during the presidential race that claimed he was a Chinese Christian — not a Javanese Muslim — intent on destroying Islam in Indonesia.

Having been in office for less than a year, Widodo’s stance on human rights has already proven inconsistent with his campaign image. He opened his term by refusing to negotiate or reconsider waiving death penalties for the leaders of the Bali Nine, a group of drug traffickers whose case is currently being appealed on the basis of how swiftly he rejected their claims to have been rehabilitated. The UN also continues to wait on Indonesia’s long-overdue human rights report. So, whether by coercion or by choice, it seems unlikely that Widodo will offer a swift and decisive rebuke of the MUI’s incitement to violence against gays.

Instead, the best hope for Indonesia’s LGBT community is that the country’s community leaders and citizens — especially its Muslim citizens — will speak out and stand up against the MUI’s illegitimate incitement to violence. The group of clerics has set an example for immorality in their endorsement of killing gays, and the world’s largest Muslim nation deserves better leaders within their faith.

Ariana Chomitz
Ariana Chomitz is a Kenyon College graduate with a B.A. in Anthropology. A specialist in international and experiential education, she has lived, studied and taught in urban Asia. She likes talking about culture, education and the environment.

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