A Happy Warrior in a Faltering Battle for Indonesian Gay Rights

Surabaya, Indonesia — After the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year, a leading Indonesian television station held a prime-time debate about whether this Muslim-majority democracy should do the same.

On one side of the stage stood a conservative Muslim theologian and a member of Parliament, both of whom strongly rejected the idea that gay marriage was compatible with Islam and Indonesian culture.

On the other side stood Dede Oetomo, the founder of Gaya Nusantara, the country’s longest-standing gay rights organization, and widely considered the godfather of Indonesia’s gay rights movement. Along with Yuli Rustinawati, a fellow activist, Mr. Oetomo, plump, unimposing and dressed in a bright orange batik shirt, cheerfully made the case that gay Indonesians deserved the same rights and protections as other Indonesian citizens.

Mr. Oetomo said he agreed with his opponents that socially conservative Indonesia was not yet ready for same-sex marriage, but that was no reason to dismiss the prospect: “The law can change,” he said. “The culture certainly can change.”

One year on, the debate that day already feels like something out of a different era. Since January, when Indonesia’s minister of higher education called for banning openly gay university students, Indonesia’s already chilly climate surrounding gays has turned outright hostile.

Television content deemed by the government to promote homosexuality — which activists say would almost certainly include last year’s debate on gay marriage — has been banned. The defense minister called the gay rights movement a “proxy war” waged by the West to weaken Indonesia and more dangerous than a nuclear bomb. Conservative politicians are campaigning to amend the criminal code, which is up for its five-year review, to criminalize same-sex relations.

“Putin is clapping his hands right now, saying, ‘The Muslims are imitating me,’” Mr. Oetomo, 62, said of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, a proponent of a conservative agenda.

——“The law can change. The culture certainly can change.”
Dede Oetomo, Gay Rights Activist In Indonesia——

Mr. Oetomo has been something of an outsider all his life. He was born into a Chinese-Indonesian family in Pasuruan, a cosmopolitan sugar-refining town in East Java, in 1953, just four years after Indonesia won its independence from the Dutch.

“My grandmother always said, ‘You’re Chinese and you should learn to speak Chinese,’” Mr. Oetomo said, laughing. “But she told me that in Dutch.”

It was an era of great tumult in Indonesian history. His parents, whose schooling had been interrupted by the Japanese occupation of Java during World War II, stressed the importance of education to their son, whom they called their “little professor.” His father, a left-leaning nationalist and strong supporter of Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, bought him his first English-language book when he was 10, as well as Chinese and Soviet comic books exalting the proletariat.

But Mr. Oetomo’s youth took a dark turn in 1965, when Suharto, the virulently anti-Communist general, began to seize power and started purging suspected Communists and Sukarno supporters. Though Mr. Oetomo’s father avoided arrest, life remained difficult for the family. The Suharto government associated Chinese with Communism, and for three decades banned the teaching of Chinese languages as well as Chinese festivals and religious practice. Mr. Oetomo grew up being taunted for his Chinese heritage.

As a young man, Mr. Oetomo slowly realized he was a member of another minority, and embarked on a reading binge to understand his homosexuality. “The more I read, the more I realized nothing was wrong,” he said.

His multicultural background and facility with languages led him in 1978 to Cornell University for graduate studies in linguistics. It was a liberating transition from Java in a number of ways.

For the first time, he could honor his grandmother’s wishes and study Chinese. And it was liberating in another way, too: He could finally pursue his romantic life and take part in gay rights activism. “When I got to Cornell, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’” Mr. Oetomo said of the opportunities on offer.

While there, he struck up a friendship with Benedict Anderson, an eminent scholar of Indonesia and nationalism, who encouraged Mr. Oetomo’s academic interest in the diverse sexual customs of the Indonesian archipelago, and would later write the introduction to Mr. Oetomo’s first book on Indonesian sexuality, “Giving Voice to the Voiceless.”

At Cornell, Mr. Oetomo began publishing anonymous personal essays in Indonesian magazines where he expressed pride in his sexuality. He went on to found Lambda, Indonesia’s first gay rights organization, and after returning to Indonesia in 1984 began devoting much of his time to gay rights activism. “I got the idea from the U.S. that we should organize,” he said.

In 1987, Mr. Oetomo transformed Lambda into a new organization, Gaya Nusantara, which published a magazine that documented Indonesian ethnicities’ rich sexual diversity, such as the Bugis of Sulawesi, whose culture recognized five genders. Mr. Oetomo speaks excitedly of discovering annals showing that one of the most important kings of Majapahit, a major Javanese kingdom, sometimes wore women’s clothing to court. “I discovered that one myself,” he said. “We have a rich tradition!”

Through the years, the Indonesian government, uncomfortable with the subject and unwilling to grant rights to gay couples, grudgingly tolerated Mr. Oetomo’s activism. Every Sunday the house he shared with his partner in Surabaya, a large city in East Java, would turn into a community space, with workshops focused on H.I.V. prevention and other issues of concern.

In 1999, after Indonesia’s transition to democracy, Mr. Oetomo began the first of several runs for Parliament and other public office on the ticket of a small left-wing party. Not surprisingly, he lost each time. As Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch and a longtime friend, said, “In Indonesia three things are considered political suicide: being Communist, being Chinese and being gay. Dede is at least two and a half of them.”

Still, the campaigns, as well as a later unsuccessful one to join Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, established him as the country’s best-known advocate for gay rights. “He has this stubborn mentality,” Mr. Harsono said. “He’s always lost but never gives up.”

But now, with Islamist political parties pushing forward with a plan to criminalize same-sex relations, it often seems as though Mr. Oetomo’s life’s work in gay rights is about to be undone. This month Human Rights Watch released a report saying the rights of Indonesia’s sexual and gender minorities are under “unprecedented attack.”

Lini Zurlia, a 27-year-old gay rights activist in Jakarta, affectionately refers to Mr. Oetomo as “Oma,” the Dutch word for grandmother, as does the rest of the youngest generation of activists. She said her generation’s challenge was simply to pick up where he left off. “What Dede accomplished, what Dede struggled for, that’s what we have to carry on,” Ms. Zurlia said.

And far from despairing, Mr. Oetomo sees this latest stage as part of the give and take of a young democracy struggling to balance progressive democratic values with conservative religious ones. “I already have all the tools I need,” he said, citing the amicus brief he is submitting to the Supreme Court on behalf of gay rights.

For him this remains a time full of possibility, in which the controversy over gay rights may lead to broader exposure and acceptance. “I still go about my life as an openly gay man. I still have a rainbow flag on my car,” he said. “I still believe most Indonesians are actually nice to other people.”

by Jon Emont
Source – The New York Times