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LGBT Indonesians Reel From Violence As Court Considers Making Gay Sex Illegal

"There is no room in Indonesia for the proliferation of the LGBT movement,” a presidential spokesman reportedly said in response to a new report from Human Rights Watch.

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In mid-February a group of men in Medan, Indonesia, entered the home of a lesbian couple and threatened the women with rape. A uniformed police officer accompanying the men watched on.

Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

“[The men] shouted ‘Your pussy has never had a dick so that’s why you can be like this,’ and ‘The Americans are paying you to behave like this – to sin against Islam and Indonesia'," an activist told Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The police officer stood by as the men tried to enter the rented room shared by the two women. Two activists barred their way.

"If you don’t let us in the room, we will force our way in and rape you," one of the men threatened.

After more insults and threats, the men eventually left. But, an activist told Human Rights Watch, the couple were advised not to report the incident to police – for fear of retaliation.

“The police were clearly already spying on us if they came with that group to a private room, so there wasn’t much we could expect," they said.

"How can we report the police to the police?”

In a new report, Human Rights Watch has found that a series of anti-LGBT comments from government officials triggered an unprecedented wave of violence and harassment against LGBT Indonesians from early 2016.

Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

The report, released on Thursday, slams Indonesian state officials and institutions for their silence over the ongoing "campaign of hate".

"Rights of citizens like going to school and getting an ID card are protected, but there is no room in Indonesia for the proliferation of the LGBT movement,” presidential spokesman Johan Budi told AFP in response to the HRW report.

Kyle Knight, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the past six months had laid bare the extent of the government's prejudices.

“The anti-LGBT rhetoric also exposed the government’s unwillingness to stand between a marginalised minority and its attackers – a most basic failure to protect," he said.

The rhetorical war was sparked on 24 January, when government minister Mohammad Nasir said he wanted to ban LGBT organisations from universities. It quickly grew out of control.

Decrees against "gay propaganda" were issued and the Indonesian Psychiatric Association claimed being gay was a mental illness. Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, called for the criminalisation of "LGBT behaviours" and for "forced rehabilitation".

LGBT activists were startled. The community, which had previously existed amid a quiet combination of tolerance and prejudice, was thrown into unwanted, and dangerous, prominence.

"We already predicted that some day there will be a blow-up about this," leading activist Yuli Rustinawati told BuzzFeed News. "We did not realise it would be so fast, and so bad."

Waria, Indonesian transgender women, at a boarding school.
Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

Waria, Indonesian transgender women, at a boarding school.

Rustinawati is the founder and chair of LGBT advocacy group Arus Pelangi. She said the wave of violence has led the group, established in 2006, to withdraw activists from the Aceh region and shift premises for fear of being followed.

"It is from one thing to another to another. We don’t have time to breathe," she said.

Arus Pelangi recorded 142 incidents of anti-LGBT violence in the first three months of the year, including hate speech, assaults, arrests, and the prevention of free, public assembly.

The Human Rights Watch report outlines many instances of violence, harassment, and repression against LGBT Indonesians.

In South Sulawesi on 15 February, a group of waria (Indonesian transgender women) had stones thrown at them, were hit with batons, and were threatened with swords by a group of men.

On 18 February, a boarding school for waria was forced to close after pressure from a fundamentalist group, the Islamic Jihadist Front.

Many people reported that the increased anti-LGBT rhetoric led to actual harassment in their everyday lives.

“Even now when I walk down the street, people yell ‘LGBT, LGBT’," a lesbian woman told Human Rights Watch. "They don’t even know what the acronym means, they just see it in the media and know they should harass people who look different."

The current wave of anti-LGBT sentiment has led to a push in Indonesia's Constitutional Court to criminalise consensual gay sex.

Pro-LGBT activists protest on 23 February 2016 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

Pro-LGBT activists protest on 23 February 2016 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Long-term Indonesian LGBT activist Dédé Oetomo, of the group Gaya Nusantara, told BuzzFeed News the court should not have the power to make such laws.

"They will have to say no, [they] are not the parliament, the parliament is the one that actually changes the article," he said. "The Constitutional Court can only say it is constitutional or not.

"It’s technically weak, but you never know."

Oetomo said the bench was relatively conservative, and he feared a decision against the LGBT community.

The next hearing in the Constitutional Court is on 23 August.

Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Lane Sainty at

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