By Caitlin M. Foyt
ANN ARBOR – Indonesia has quite a gay past.
There are ancient murals in temples across the country depicting homosexuals and transgendered people, it’s been historically documented that gay relationships outside of a marriage were a part of daily life and that transgenders played a key role in traditional ritual.
But, mention homosexuality in Indonesia today – a country comprised of thousands of islands in the south Pacific Ocean with one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the world – and people there will either deny it exists or blame it on Western influence. “Nowadays, if you go to government officials, they’ll say, ‘That’s in the past, we’re good Muslims now.’ But, if you go out the back door, into the community, you’ll find them,” said pioneer Indonesian activist Dede Oetomo at a recent speaking engagement at the University of Michigan.
Oetomo has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to advocating for the rights of gay and lesbian Indonesians, who when his work began, were almost an invisible group in any public sense.
Oetomo, who is a Martin Luther King – Cesar Chavez – Rosa Parks Visiting Professor at the university, gave a public lecture entitled “The LGBTIQ Movement in Indonesia” on the afternoon of Sept. 22 at the school’s International Institute.
“I feel I owe the American gay movement something,” he said at his presentation’s beginning of his reasons for coming to speak and teach in Michigan.
Starting with LGBTIQ people’s place in traditional Indonesia, Oetomo moved on to explore the highlights of gay community development and organizing since the 1960s. Transgendered people were the first to publicly organize, he said. “Right around the time of the Stonewall Riots in New York, many would stage beauty pageants,” he explained. “Others were more serious and would stage plays. All through the ’60s and ’70s they would do this.”
Gays and lesbians began their movement in Indonesia in the 1980s, mostly for need of support from other people like themselves. However, communication by phone was difficult even during that time, so people wrote each other letters. “It was harder to connect to other gays and lesbians and hard to get consolation when you were coming out, being pressured to be married or you’re already married,” Oetomo said of Indonesia’s LGBT past.
The movement following 1998, however, has branched into different concerns than simply networking. Since then, gay groups have been targeted for attacks by The Front for the Defense of Islam, the headquarters of which are located in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.
“We started getting threats and attacks,” Oetomo said of the time. “Maybe we didn’t before that because we just weren’t known.”
He added later that “people against homosexuality are more vocal, but allies are condensed together with us as tools of the devil.”
Oetomo said that while heightened public awareness of LBGT people in the last 20 years has significantly helped the movement in the region, there’s a lot more work to be done.
One challenge sill facing the LGBT people of the South Pacific is that in South Sumatra, Indonesia, there is an ordinance criminalizing sexual acts. Known punishments for being found guilty of criminal sexual acts have ranged from 100 lashings to a maximum of eight years in prison.
On a more national level, activists are pulling for judicial review of the pornography law and advocacy for a third gender category in the Population Administration Bill.
Ng Chao, a PHD student from Boston University who was in town visiting friends Tuesday, said she decided to attend the lecture based on her interest in transgender studies. What she found to be especially interesting was the concept of using the cultural traditions as a means to empower transgender people, something Oetomo spoke about at length.
According to Oetomo, the affect on transgender people when they know their country’s history, they’re encouraged and it’s useful to reject the argument that the modern movement is from the west. “They can sort of provide education for the public, which is something I didn’t think about,” she said. “Through today, people can highlight sexual orientation as a major index to self identity and this can benefit people a lot by broadening the horizons of what we think of as normal.”