In a Semarang court in Central Java, a prosecutor groped a transgender woman charged with running away as well as having sex with a teenage girl, and said: “You have breasts, you’re a woman”.
Before the trial, the teenage girl’s family had beaten the transgender woman.
The court sentenced her to five years in prison. Soka Handinah Katjasungkana from the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice (LBH APIK) Semarang, who advised her in her last trial, said that despite the transgender woman’s obvious violation of the children’s protection law, she had been discriminated against because of her sexual orientation.
In the country’s rural areas, parents continue to encourage their teenage daughters to marry young. But, because the charged person had defied cultural and religious norms by having same-sex relations, she was reported to the police by the girl’s parents. “Compare that to teenage girls being wed off to middle-aged men as their second or third wives,” Handinah said.
In Indonesia, where heterosexual relationships are considered the norm, discrimination and violence against people with different sexual orientations and gender identities is widespread.
However, a movement to bring equal rights irrespective of sexual orientation and gender identity by researchers and activists in Asia is gaining ground.
Handinah presented the convicted transgender’s case study at an International Policy Dialogue on sexuality last week in Yogyakarta. The three-day workshop, held at Gadjah Mada University’s Center for Population and Policy Studies (CPPS), and attended by 45 researchers and activists from India, Brazil, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, Syria, Egypt, and the Philippines, discussed issues under the theme “Bridging the gap between sexuality research and advocacy for sexual rights”.
Organized by an Asian research network for women/gender studies, Kartini Asia, and the Amsterdam-based SEPHIS (The South-South exchange program for research on the history of development), it was the first international meeting to discuss sexuality, including the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual (LGBT) individuals, after the failed International Gay and Lesbian Association conference held in March in Surabaya that was stopped by hard-line religious groups.
In the opening speech, Muhadjir Darwin, the head of CPPS, set the tone for the rest of the conference: “[Human] sexuality is not a dichotomy, either black or white, male or female. It’s created. God created diversity. It is against humanity, against human rights, and against god’s will to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said.
Muhadjir’s statement was still a far cry from the mainstream view in Indonesian society, Asia and around the world. According to a 2010 ILGA study, it is a crime to be gay in 76 countries.
Last year, Indonesia’s westernmost province Aceh released a bylaw criminalizing homosexuality and stipulating adulterers should be stoned to death. The controversial pornography law also criminalizes homosexuality.
But while intimidation and discrimination against LGBT still exists in Indonesia, it is also the place where the first international principles on the application of International Human Rights Law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, the Yogyakarta principles, were signed.
Outlined in Yogyakarta, the principles were drawn up at a meeting between the International Commission of Jurists and human rights experts from around the world at Gadjah Mada University in November 2006. The first principle states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Human beings of all sexual orientations and gender identities are entitled to the full enjoyment of all human rights.”
In its third decade, Indonesia’s LGBT advocacy movement has come a long way since the 1980s when gay men, transgender and lesbian women networked exclusively through the first and — at that time — only gay magazine, GAYa Nusantara. Since then, more LGBT rights groups have emerged — such as Arus Pelangi and Ardhanary Institute — and fought for the right of sexual orientation to be acknowledged as part of Indonesia’s universal human rights.
But as the LGBT movement seeks more space in the public arena, hard-line minority groups are showing resistance through violence and intimidation, instilling public fear, said Soe Tjen Marching, the founder of two publications on sexuality.
Legal practitioners advocating sexual rights have warned that LGBT groups’ increasing advocacy work might end up being counterproductive for the LGBT movement, suggesting they should focus on winning people’s hearts first.
Ratna Batara Munti, who headed the Network of the Pro-Women’s National Legislation Program (JKP3) — an association of various NGOs, including the Women’s Health Foundation (YKP) and LBH Apik — explained that while the association was fighting for universal access to reproductive health care in the revised Health Law, a book titled Indahnya Perkawinan Sesama Jenis (The Beauty of Same Sex Marriage) was released.
Legislators shocked by the contents of the book felt compelled to push through Article 72 in the revised Health Law, stating that “Everyone has the right to a healthy and safe reproductive and sexual life, free from force and/or violence, with his or her lawful spouse”. In other words, the Health Law they passed only protects legally married couples, according to Ratna.
“Legal advocacy runs the risk of being counterproductive. There should be more advocacy work at the socio-cultural level. [Starting with] the space they [LGBT] have, in which they can work, socialize, and in some cases have relationships without being harassed — let these spaces be wider first,” Handinah said.
To address this gap at the socio-cultural level — and widen the public’s openness to different sexual orientations and gender identities, Soe Tjen runs two publications: Bhineka, a free magazine on pluralism issues and Jurnal Gandrung, a journal on critical sexuality studies.
Jurnal Gandrung, the first journal on sexuality in Indonesia, launched its first edition in June. The journal’s first essay, written by progressive Islam scholar Siti Musdah Mulia, focuses on Islam and homosexuality, calling for a reinterpretation of Islam’s understanding of homosexuality.
Kartini Asia coordinator and human rights activist Nursyahbani Katjasungkana also pointed out that the issue of sexual rights was not limited to discrimination against LGBTs. The problems with violence against women stems from the issue of sexuality as well, she said.
There is a need to link research findings and activism, Nursyahbani went on. Many studies on sexuality can be used by advocacy groups, but the problems disseminating research findings to advocacy groups hamper the exchange.
For example, bringing together researchers from different countries could create an exchange and dialogue on sexual rights issues in their respective countries.