Academic journal article Borderlands

The Making and Breaking of Indonesian Muslim Queer Safe Spaces

Academic journal article Borderlands

The Making and Breaking of Indonesian Muslim Queer Safe Spaces

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since early 2016, sexual and gender minorities in Indonesia have been increasingly confronted by public controversies. Not only do they face assaults from media rhetoric often voiced by conjoined state representatives and religious conservative figures, they also have to deal with threats of physical persecution by extra-legal forces (Hegarty & Thajib 2016). As prominent Indonesian gay rights activist Dede Oetomo and others have pointed out (Human Rights Watch 2016), this is not the first time that sexual and gender minorities in the country are exposed to everyday acts of violence. Throughout the nation's modern history, people with alternative sexualities and gender expressions, such as waria (commonly translated, inadequately, as male-to-female transgender women), have been dealing with ambivalent attitudes and moral censure coming from different parts of society (Blackwood 2007; Boellstorff 2004; Thajib 2014). However, it is only after the year 2016 in which the entire group, under the acronym LGBT, is framed as a figure of national menace.

The controversy can be traced back to a Twitter message made by the Minister for Technology, Research, and Higher Education Muhammad Nasir in mid-January 2016. Upon learning from a media leak that a group of students at the University of Indonesia was initiating a Support Group and Resource Center on Sexuality (SGRC) as a part of the campus activities, Nasir called for the ban of LGBT student organizations on university campuses. This call was based on his personal concern that campus life should uphold certain standards of morality and decency. The existence of groups like SGRC, he added, does not reflect the purpose of universities to serve as spaces for an education that is beneficial for the nation and society. The minister's comments were endorsed by the university leadership, denying any connection to the group of students who had initiated the SGRC. Although Nasir rescinded his earlier comments with a series of less provocative addendums, his initial tweet effectively opened a Pandora's box releasing a deluge of strong reactions from key government and nongovernmental agencies, such as the national psychiatrists' association and local religious organizations (Human Rights Watch 2016) as well as public figures, who mainly suggested further exclusionary measures toward LGBT people. The media controversy continued to unfold in fits and starts for over a month after Nasir's tweet. Numerous print and electronic media reported a bewildering array of claims: that 'LGBT' is equal to terrorism and connected to drugs; that it weakens national masculinity, destroys morality, is contrary to the idea of the nation and its foundational principles of the state philosophy Pancasila; that it promotes 'free sex' and exacerbates the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and, finally, that 'LGBT' equates to sexual abuse of children.

Verbal intimidation, online persecution and institutional harassment notwithstanding, the initiators of SGRC continue to hold their activities in providing Indonesian LGBT youth with a peer support network. On a local online platform called Qureta, a member of SGRC with the pseudonym ER wrote a blog entry expressing his/her support on the role of SGRC as 'a safe space to learn and discuss about sexuality and gender, from sexual orientation all the way to gender disparity in everyday life." ER's statement corresponds with similar notions of safe space articulated by promoters of human rights and democracy. The rise of safe space as a political imaginary among the LGBT activist scene in Indonesia is entwined with the history of democratization in the country as it entered the so-called Reformasi era, following the demise of the authoritarian regime of former president Suharto in 1998.

Contrary to the more optimistic views that compounded Reformasi with more liberal channels for alternative sexual and gender expressions, this political process also serves witness to the unleashing of what Tom Boellstorff (2004) describes as 'political homophobia'. …

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