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Virulent anti-gay remarks test Indonesia’s moderate image

Many activists believe conservatives in Indonesia’s ruling circles are unnerved by incremental liberalization in neighboring Southeast Asian countries and the advance of gay rights in Western nations, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in favor of same-sex marriage.

Some misunderstand homosexuality as being a disease or cultural trend and fear the idea of an Indonesian gay movement, said Dede Oetomo, who founded Indonesia’s first gay-rights groups in the early 1980s.

A U.N. report in 2014 on the status of gay rights in Asia that estimated Indonesia has more than 100 LGBT groups was probably also unsettling to some a country where ignorance about sexuality is widespread, he said.

“They are afraid LGBT will recruit their children,” said Oetomo.

Some government ministers have grudgingly spoken out against the anti-gay onslaught, saying LBGT Indonesians have the same rights as anyone else.

“We have to treat them as citizens of Indonesia,” said Luhut Pandjaitan, coordinating minister of legal, political and security affairs. “This is something naturally happening. I don’t think we can stop this one. But to contain, we can do it to some extent.”

He said he prays daily that none of his grandchildren are gay because “nobody wants to be like that.”

Groups that represent foreign businesses in Indonesia hope the current controversy will blow over, like previous episodes of social panic about alcohol and prostitution.

Despite being one of biggest economies in the developing world, Indonesia lags behind neighbors such as Singapore and Thailand in attracting foreign investment. If the anti-gay hysteria mounts or produces legal measures at the national level, it could add to perceptions of the country as unpredictable and deter some foreign executives from working in the country.

Oetomo said there are signs the level of hysteria is abating. Republika, a hardline newspaper, has toned down its attacks after activists met with its editors.

Though activists say the onslaught was frightening and wiped away years of progress, in the longer run it may galvanize more activism and be a catalyst for overcoming social isolation.

“LGBT has become a household word,” Oetomo said. “It’s going to be long haul, but in an ironic way, we could thank the bigots.”

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