Sexual minorities striving for equality in Indonesia

August 09, 2012

By FUSAKO GO/ Correspondent

JAKARTA--They get dolled up in makeup, skirts and headscarves every Sunday evening. But there is no mistaking the fact that the 20 or so people congregating were all born male.

The weekly gatherings at a private residence in Yogyakarta, central Java, offer the select group an opportunity to express their sexual identity without fear of arousing religious intolerance in the world's largest Muslim nation.

Transgenders, along with lesbians, gays and bisexuals, battle prejudice on a daily basis in Indonesia.

The workshop on the teachings of the Koran is organized by Mariani, a 53-year-old hairdresser who is transgender, for men who live as women.

"Like all other people, we are human," said Mariani, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name. "We have the right to religion."

And therein lies a problem for a minority who wish to worship but may encounter hostility when visiting a mosque.

"Men and women pray separately, and we cannot fit in either place," Mariani said. "I pray with women, but some pray among men in the back row."

One of Mariani's friends was ridiculed as a "fag" by a child at a mosque. "I felt sad," Mariani said.

The workshop starts after 5 p.m. at Mariani’s home in a back street of Yogyakarta, an ancient capital renowned as a center of Javanese fine art and culture.

Members spend the evening reading the Koran, offering prayers and eating. The sessions last until morning. When they pray, some don "peci," a cap for men, over their long hair, while others put on "mukena," a veil for women.

Mariani, who prefers to be referred to as a woman, said her workshop sessions seem to be tolerated in the community.

"We have introduced ourselves to local Islamic elders," Mariani said. "I think we have been accepted as pious believers."

Murtejo, 35, is one of three Islamic leaders who teach at the workshop. He emphasizes the importance of embracing "a variety of people" and co-existing with them.

"I am ultra-progressive among Islamic leaders," Murtejo said with a smile, adding that when Muslims die and go to paradise, it does not matter whether one is a man or a woman.

Activists estimate that Indonesia has 4 million to 6 million lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders, collectively known as LGBT. They are considered taboo, largely because Islam prohibits same-sex relationships.

Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims.

The radical Islamic Defenders Front took affront at the antics of U.S. diva Lady Gaga and successfully lobbied for the cancellation of her recent concert here, saying the "Born This Way" singer, known for her flamboyant outfits, would put on an obscene show.

Lola Amaria, 34, co-produced "Sanubari Jakarta" (Jakarta Deep Down), an omnibus of 10 short films about LGBT relationships.

"The minorities appealing their presence should help to enhance tolerance in society," said Lola, who also directed one of the vignettes. "LGBT communities are a reality in Jakarta. I want people to face up to it and accept it."

The movie premiered in April and has only been shown to small groups.

About 100 people gathered for a screening at the University of Indonesia in late May.

Viewers giggled and grinned in embarrassment at scenes that portrayed seriously and comically a gay couple struggling with pressure from society and a lesbian forced to marry a man.

A female student said she thinks same-sex marriages can eventually be authorized. But a male student was not so sure, saying Islam does not recognize homosexuality.

Hartoyo, chairman of OurVoice Indonesia, a gay rights group in Jakarta, has spent years fighting discrimination.

The 36-year-old said he was bullied as a "banci" (fag) during his childhood. He went on to study at a university in Aceh, a religious stronghold in the northern part of Sumatra Island.

After becoming a veterinarian, he was roughed up by passers-by while out with his boyfriend.

Hartoyo recently took issue with a judge at a popular audition TV program who ridiculed a male applicant as "poofy like a woman."

The TV station offered an informal apology after Hartoyo sent a protest letter to Indonesia's Broadcasting Commission (KPI), which monitors broadcasting principles.

"I want a formal apology," Hartoyo said. "The scene was not edited out because there is a sense of discrimination within the TV station."

Hartoyo stays in contact with fellow activists through Facebook and other social networking services. But hackers have effectively forced his website to close, and he sometimes receives anonymous harassing messages on his cellphone.

"I intend to continue putting up a fight," he said. "I won't give in to pressure."

* * *

GAY RIGHTS PIONEER SEES RAY OF HOPE

Attitudes toward sexual minorities are changing in Indonesia, particularly among young people, according to Dede Oetomo, a leading advocate of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Dede, 58, a sociologist at Airlangga University in Surabaya on Java Island, came out as gay in the 1970s and helped pioneer LGBT movements in Indonesia.

Excerpts from a recent interview follow:

Question: What change do you see in people’s consciousness?

Answer: People have combined their personal values with religion since Suharto's regime ended (in 1998).

The LGBT in Islamic society has been established as a solid genre in films, theater and literature. In particular, I think changes are real among teens and those in their 20s.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently supported same-sex marriages. It was encouraging.

Q: Is Indonesia different from Middle Eastern countries?

A: Indonesians are Asians. We do not like harsh language or rude behavior that hurts other people.

On Java Island, there is a long history of Hinduism and Buddhism before Islam was introduced. Indonesia is a multicultural country. It is originally tolerant and flexible.

Q: What needs to be done for sexual minorities to be more accepted?

A: Indonesia has about 80 LGBT organizations. But we have to reach out to a larger audience, without being self-satisfied.

We will also have to make efforts to change politics. There are gay politicians who have not come out. It is important to ask them to protect the human rights of sexual minorities.

By FUSAKO GO/ Correspondent
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Transgenders gather at a workshop on the teachings of the Koran in Yogyakarta. (Muhamad Surya)

Transgenders gather at a workshop on the teachings of the Koran in Yogyakarta. (Muhamad Surya)

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  • Transgenders gather at a workshop on the teachings of the Koran in Yogyakarta. (Muhamad Surya)
  • A scene from movie “Sanubari Jakarta” (Provided by Kresna Duta Foundation)
  • Dede Oetomo (The Asahi Shimbun)

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