JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Gays are a contagion, declares the banner in bold red and black lettering that hangs on the sidewalk of a bustling neighborhood in the Indonesian capital close to embassies, luxury hotels and the homes of some of the country’s leaders.
Erected by an ultra-conservative Islamic group, it’s the latest manifestation of a virulent campaign of denigration against gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities that has entered the mainstream and is testing Indonesia’s image for moderation.
Echoing venomous headlines in conservative newspapers, government officials and leaders in areas from psychiatry to religion also have heaped condemnation on homosexuality. The defense minister even said gays and lesbians were a more serious threat to national security than nuclear war.
The fevered atmosphere began emerging in late 2015 when top academics attacked gay support groups at universities. By February it had become an onslaught. Pressure from Islamic hardliners forced the closure of an Islamic boarding school for transgender students in Yogyakarta last month.
“Everyone in society is reading the propaganda of hate,” said Augustine, a veteran lesbian activist who goes by one name. “They forget LGBT are human.”
She said that for several weeks, she has received phone calls late at night or before dawn from men who threaten to kill her if she does not close the advocacy organization she works for.
Augustine said she has not felt so abused over her sexual orientation since she fled her own father’s anti-gay violence in the late 1990s.
Indonesia’s human rights commission has deplored the outpouring of hatred, but President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has been silent. He was elected on a platform that included human rights and respect for diversity as a top priority.
Kyle Knight, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said it feels like the cause of equality has been set back by a generation. Bigoted officials “actually do ruin people’s lives,” he said.
Among the startling announcements from officials, the minister for technology, research and higher education said LGBT people should not be welcome on university campuses. Harking back to medical theories discredited decades ago, the head of the psychiatry association called homosexuality a mental condition that could be treated, earning a rebuke from professional associations abroad.
Smartphone messaging app Line pulled stickers showing same-sex couples from its Indonesian emoji store in a response to a quixotic order from officials to stop the spread of gay and transgender imagery.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, which is the world’s most populous Muslim nation and embraces both democracy and moderate Islam. Some of the archipelago’s ethnic groups have centuries-old traditions of same-sex love.
Transgender women, known as waria, are familiar to many people and extended tolerance by the majority. Some of the stickers abruptly censored by Line were created with the help of waria, whose slang has been widely adopted in popular culture.
But daily life is lived under an uneasy status quo that tolerates LGBT people as long as they are not too visible. Activism has largely focused on areas such as preventing the spread of HIV and reducing social isolation rather than pushing for specific rights such as anti-discrimination measures. Violence has forced some gay people to flee Aceh, a Sumatran province that practices a form of Shariah law and canes people for behavior such as adultery, gambling and drinking alcohol.