Human Rights and Public Health Impacts of Indonesia’s Anti-LGBT Moral Panic
On May 21, 2017, police in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, raided the Atlantis gym and sauna, arresting 141 people, most of whom were gay or bisexual men. Ten were ultimately prosecuted under Indonesia’s pornography law. The Atlantis was not just a “gay club,” but a public health outreach center—a well-known hub for HIV education, testing, and counseling among men who have sex with men (MSM).
In the media, the raid was just the latest “anti-LGBT incident.” Since early 2016, many senior government officials had made that four-letter acronym a toxic symbol, the focus of an unprecedented rhetorical attack on Indonesian sexual and gender minorities. Officials used the letters to signal a group of societal outsiders; some even construed the visibility of “LGBT” as threat to the Indonesian nation itself.
There were at least six similar raids on private spaces in 2017, and more in early 2018. Each followed a pattern: vigilantism against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people provided social sanction for abusive police action; vague and discriminatory provisions in the law empowered authorities to violate the privacy rights of people presumed to be LGBT; the venues raided were places where LGBT Indonesians believed they could gather safely and privately, to learn about health issues, make friends, and build community. All told, police in Indonesia apprehended at least 300 LGBT people in 2017 alone because of their sexual orientation and gender identity—a spike from previous years and the highest such number ever recorded in Indonesia. The pattern of these raids suggests a systematic crackdown on LGBT rights, and their impact portends a public health crisis.
This report—based largely on 48 in-depth interviews in Java, Kalimantan, and Sumatra in 2017 with victims and witnesses, health workers, and activists—updates a Human Rights Watch report from August 2016 that documented the sharp rise in anti-LGBT attacks and rhetoric that began in January of that year. It provides an account of major incidents between November 2016 and March 2018 and examines the far-reaching impact of this anti-LGBT “moral panic” on the lives of sexual and gender minorities and the serious consequences for public health in the country.
While Indonesia has made inroads on the spread of HIV in a number of areas, HIV rates among MSM have increased five-fold since 2007, according to government and UNAIDS data. And while the majority of new HIV infections in Indonesia occur through heterosexual transmission, one-third of new infections occur in MSM. In major urban centers such as Denpasar in Bali and Jakarta, the MSM epidemic is even more prevalent with nearly one in three MSM infected with HIV. One particularly troubling aspect of the anti-LGBT panic, detailed below, is that public health outreach to such populations has become far more difficult, making wider spread of the disease more likely.
As noted above, conditions in Indonesia today can be traced to a nationwide anti-LGBT “moral panic” that began in early 2016. Over the course of several weeks in January and February 2016, anti-LGBT statements ranging from the absurd to the apocalyptic echoed through Indonesia’s media: at a maternal health seminar, a mayor warned young mothers off instant noodles—their time and attention, he said, should be given instead to nutritious cooking and teaching their children how not to be gay. The National Child Protection Commission issued a decree against “gay propaganda” and called for censorship. The national professional association for psychiatrists proclaimed same-sex sexual orientation and transgender identities as “mental illnesses.” The Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, called for criminal penalties for LGBT behavior and activism, and forced “rehabilitation” for LGBT people. And perhaps most perniciously, Indonesia’s minister of defense labeled LGBT rights activism a proxy war on the nation led by outsiders:
It’s dangerous as we can’t see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed—now the [LGBT] community is demanding more freedom, it really is a threat…. In a nuclear war, if a bomb is dropped over Jakarta, Semarang will not be affected—but in a proxy war, everything we know could disappear in an instant—it’s dangerous.
Veteran Indonesia expert Professor Edward Aspinall observed that Indonesia’s anti-LGBT crisis, “[is] one of those issues in this age of very rapid electronic media and social media where it really just spiraled to become this major moral panic to engulf the country.”
That outpouring of intolerance sparked new legislative proposals—by independent groups as well as lawmakers—to censor LGBT content in the media, end “LGBT campaigning” (without defining it), and criminalize adult consensual same-sex conduct. One of the most high-profile efforts in this regard took place at the Constitutional Court. In July 2016, petitioners led by the Family Love Alliance, an anti-LGBT coalition based in the city of Bogor, petitioned the Constitutional Court to effectively amend clauses in Indonesia’s criminal code on adultery, rape, and sex with a minor to criminalize all sex outside of marriage and all sex between persons of the same sex, regardless of age. While the petition failed, the battle has now moved into the house of representatives with similar proposals put forward by various parties. The government representative on the parliamentary task force on revising the criminal code has expressed opposition to outright criminalization of same-sex conduct. However, sex outside of marriage remains a criminal offense in the draft, and the speaker of the house of representatives has stated publicly that, “We must not fear or succumb to outside pressure and threats that banning LGBT practices will decrease foreign tourism. What we must prioritize is the safety of nation’s future, particularly the safety of our youth from influences that go against norms, culture and religion.”
The anti-LGBT moral panic simultaneously spilled over from government institutions into wider society. In January 2018, the Twitter feed of the Indonesian air force went on a bizarre and hateful anti-LGBT screed. The air force has failed to publicly provide any details about the incident or to confirm or deny its support for such discriminatory invective. There were also social media protests and threats of boycotts against Starbucks in Indonesia for its CEO’s 2013 statement in support of same-sex marriage, and Unilever for its distribution of a rainbow ice cream product.
In perhaps the most telling indicator of how politically superficial but socially profound the anti-LGBT campaign had been, opinion data trends showed peculiar results. A 2016 opinion poll showed that 26 percent of Indonesians disliked LGBT people—making them the most disliked group in the country, overtaking the historical placeholders: communists and Jewish people. A similar poll in 2017 showed an even greater proportion of Indonesians responding negatively to questions about LGBT people. Additionally, the survey found that more Indonesians feared LGBT people than could define the acronym or the population it referred to.
A handful of senior officials have made statements or taken initial steps in support of some protections for LGBT people’s basic rights. In September 2017, in response to a request from the National Commission on Human Rights, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) announced that it had rescinded a job notice that barred LGBT applicants. However, the AGO undermined that defense of LGBT rights by suggesting homosexuality was a “mental illness.” In February 2018, national police chief Tito Karnavian ordered an investigation into a series of raids on transgender-owned beauty parlors in Aceh province, resulting in the local police apologizing. The chief who oversaw the raids was later demoted. Most importantly, in October 2016, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo publicly defended the rights and dignity of LGBT Indonesians.
These statements and actions, however, have not been followed with more systematic efforts to stop discrimination and abuse. President Jokowi, for example, has yet to take any steps to penalize government officials implicated in fomenting anti-LGBT discrimination, and his statements have not deterred senior government officials from making anti-LGBT statements or stopped police from conducting discriminatory raids on LGBT venues. In December 2017, Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin called for LGBT people to be “nurtured, not shunned.” However, Saifuddin’s tolerance came with limits: he called for “religious adherents” to “embrace and nurture” LGBT people by reacquainting them with religious teaching, while in the same statement asserting that, “there is no religion that tolerates LGBT action.”
Meanwhile, throughout 2017 police raided saunas, night clubs, hotel rooms, hair salons, and private homes on suspicion that LGBT people were inside. The raids sometimes were preceded by police surveillance of social media accounts to discover an event’s location, and at times featured officers marching unclothed detainees in front of the media, public humiliation, and moralizing presentations of condoms as evidence of illegal behavior.
The vitriolic anti-LGBT rhetoric from public officials that began in early 2016 effectively granted social sanction and political cover to violence and discrimination—carried out by both citizen vigilantes and state authorities. The unabated stream of hateful anti-LGBT messaging from government officials and institutions has also contributed to a public health crisis.
Most new HIV infections in Indonesia occur through heterosexual transmission. However, one-third of new infections occur in MSM and HIV rates in that population have spiked in recent years. Abusive and discriminatory police actions including raids on private spaces and the use of condoms as evidence of purported crimes has harmed HIV education and outreach services by instilling fear among sexual and gender minority communities who urgently need such services. Meanwhile, public health data show that HIV prevalence rates among MSM are increasing dramatically. Moreover, while the prevalence of HIV in other key affected populations (KAPs) has largely remained stable, the prevalence of HIV among MSM has increased significantly and rapidly—with 25 percent of MSM infected with HIV in 2015 compared to only 8.5 percent in 2011 and 5 percent in 2007. HIV prevalence among transgender women (waria) was reported at 22 percent in 2011 and 2015.
The Indonesian government’s failure to protect the rights of LGBT people represents a betrayal of fundamental human rights obligations. The crisis is also isolating Indonesia from its neighbors and attracting broader international opprobrium.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights in January 2018 reacted to the anti-LGBT crisis by warning Indonesia of its “blatant violation of all Indonesians’ right to privacy and their fundamental liberties.” After a February 2018 visit to Indonesia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “LGBTI Indonesians already face increasing stigma, threats and intimidation” and said: “The hateful rhetoric against this community that is being cultivated seemingly for cynical political purposes will only deepen their suffering and create unnecessary divisions.”
In July 2017, Indonesia indicated that it would reject all recommendations aimed to protect the rights of LGBT people at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the process in which every United Nations member state has its human rights record reviewed every four years. However, in September the government announced it would accept proposals to “take further steps to ensure a safe and enabling environment for all human rights defenders,” including LGBT activists. It also committed to implement the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and give priority to equality and nondiscrimination—including for LGBT people. Government health authorities have made similar pledges to eliminate human rights-based barriers to equitable access to HIV services. Given the government’s track record on this issue so far, implementation will be key.
As a first step, the police should halt all raids on private spaces, investigate those that have taken place, and punish the perpetrators and their chain of command. Police should instead be instructed to protect gatherings of sexual and gender minorities from attack by vigilantes and militant Islamist groups.
Indonesia’s laws need to be adjusted as well. The government should amend the anti-pornography law, which currently construes same-sex conduct as “deviant.” The government should make it clear to parliamentarians who propose criminalizing sex outside of marriage and same-sex conduct that such measures violate the constitution and Indonesia’s international human rights obligations.
The courage to confront the anti-LGBT moral panic should come from the highest ranks of Indonesian government. Indeed, it was President Jokowi himself who said that “the police must act” against any moves by bigoted groups or individuals to harm LGBT people or deny them their rights, and that “there should be no discrimination against anyone.” He needs to take further action on this pledge, including by immediately ordering an end to police raids that unlawfully target LGBT people, investigating the raids of 2017 and 2018, and dissolving any regional and local police units dedicated to targeting LGBT people.
Source – Human Rights Watch