LGBT Indonesians on campus: too hot to handle

Although same-sex practices and gender non-conformity have always been part of Indonesian culture, universities appear unaware or unwilling to acknowledge this fact. Photo by Flickr user torbakhopper.

On the weekend, controversy over a support group for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) students at the University of Indonesia led Muhammad Nasir, the minister of research, technology and higher education, to state that he would ban LGBT Indonesians from all universities in the country (link is external). The head of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), Zulkifli Hasan, agreed with the move, commenting that LGBT sexuality was ‘at odds with Indonesian culture (link is external)’.

The University of Indonesia’s Support Group and Research Centre (SGRC-UI) is a student-led initiative that aims to offer counselling services on gender and sexuality issues for students and provide a forum for discussion of critical sexuality studies. Although it was founded by University of Indonesia students, lecturers, and alumni, the public relations unit of the university issued a formal statement on 21 January (link is external), saying that the SGRC-UI had not yet been formally approved by campus officials. This prompted accusations that the centre was promoting homosexuality and “corrupting the morals (link is external)” of Indonesian students.

What happened to SGRC-UI is unfortunately nothing new. In late 2015, the Brawijaya International Youth Forum – a two-day discussion on the rights of LGBT Indonesians and other minorities – was cancelled after organisers from Brawijaya University received threats (link is external). In December, the rector of the University of Lampung warned he would discharge any students and lecturers involved in LGBT-related activities.

Sadly, oppression in the democratic era is coming not from the state, but from other places, including universities, which should, of course, be fostering, not restricting, critical thinking. Although same-sex practices and gender non-conformity have always been part of Indonesian culture, it seems that universities do not have the slightest idea of this, or are – at best – wilfully ignorant of it.

The growing fear and moral panic around LGBT issues in Indonesia is a sign of how ill-equipped state officials are to deal with gay rights. The rapid progress in LGBT rights around the world – including, for example, the repeal of the ban on same-sex marriage in neighbouring Vietnam – has led to a backlash in countries not yet prepared to deal with the issue rationally. Brunei may soon stone gay people to death, and Aceh’s new criminal code criminalises some same-sex sexual acts. Under the auspices of morality and decency, Indonesian education institutions seem to be responding with similar closed minds.

Muhammad Nasir’s comments could easily be written off as simply another thoughtless announcement from a minister with poor discipline. But by reinforcing the distinction between LGBT sexuality and “Indonesian morals and norms” he implies that LGBT Indonesians and those who support LGBT rights are also amoral or un-Indonesian. This makes it difficult for those with moderate views to oppose such statements and further restricts the room for debate.

If the minister of research, technology and higher education enforces a ban he will violate article 28C of the 1945 Constitution, which states that every person shall have the right to self-development through the fulfilment of basic needs and the right to obtain an education. After being reminded of this fact, on Monday, the minister backtracked, tweeting that as citizens, LGBT Indonesians had the right to equal treatment under the law (link is external). Somewhat confusingly he added that this does not mean that the state legitimises the status of LGBT Indonesians, only their rights as citizens. He said the ban only applied to LGBT Indonesians who make love or show affection on campus. It was the right of every individual to become gay or lesbian, he said, as long as it didn’t interfere with academic matters.

His last few tweets were more concerning. He said: “I appeal to all universities to always provide intensive guidance to students, because the university environment is highly influential toward student psychology”. This statement reflects the mainstream view in Indonesia that non-normative sexuality is a disease, despite the fact that the second (1983) and third edition (1993) of the Ministry of Health’s “Guide to Classification and Diagnosis of Mental Illness in Indonesia” state that sexual orientation does not fulfil the criteria for sexual deviance or mental illness.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) recently released a report detailing rampant stigma, violence and discriminatory practices against students with non-conforming gender identity, expressions, or sexual orientation in the Asia-Pacific region. The impacts on students included high drop-out rates, lower academic performance, and even – in some severe cases – attempts at suicide. The minister’s comments only contribute to these tragic circumstances. Banning and stigmatisating LGBT Indonesians cannot stop them from existing; it will only force them to hide their identities and lead to worse educational outcomes and potentially serious threats to health.

The right to education is further provided for in the Higher Education Law (Law No.12/ 2012). But like most Indonesian laws it contains a number of vague definitions and principles. According to the law, higher education must be founded on “the search for scientific truth”. It must be democratic, equitable and non-discriminatory, and uphold human rights, religious values, cultural values, pluralism, and national unity and integrity. But since Indonesia is a plural society, which religious and cultural values should be upheld? Further, what if conservative understandings of religion or culture hinder the progress of discussing, or even discovering, scientific truth?

There are plenty of historical examples demonstrating how fundamentalist religious interpretations can hinder scientific progress. In ancient times, Galileo Galilei was sentenced to life imprisonment and Giordano Bruno was even burnt at the stake because their findings ran counter to church teachings. The conflicting values embedded in the 2012 Higher Education Law reflect the confusion prevailing among Indonesian education authorities. Religious values, essentially private matters, are mixed with scientific values that are supposed to support critical thinking and academic freedom.

For a minister of technology, Muhammad Nasir appears ignorant of the fact that the biggest technology corporations are supportive of LGBT rights. Google, IBM, Apple, Facebook, and Lenovo (link is external) all promote LGBT inclusion in the industry. In the 1940s, British mathematician Alan Turing invented the concept of the Universal Machine, said to be the basis for the development of modern computers. Turing was famously prosecuted and subjected to inhumane treatment for being homosexual, and eventually took his own life in 1954. Today, Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, the world’s largest information technology company, is also gay (link is external).

I don’t know if the minister is familiar with either of these men but I bet he owns an iPad or an iPhone. Perhaps he needs to watch The Imitation Game to understand that sexuality does not affect the ability to learn and advance human civilisation, which is, after all, surely what education is ultimately all about.

Source – Indonesia at Melbourne