It Gets Worse in Indonesia

Indonesia is in the midst of a dramatic upswing in anti-LGBT discourse. It has resulted in, for example, the national broadcasting regulator ruling that men on TV are not allowed to “talk like a woman,” Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu alleging that homosexuality is a proxy war against the Indonesian nation, prominent politician Tifatul Sembiring tweeting (later deleted) hadith that condone the murder of homosexuals, and Tangerang mayor Arief R Wismansyah suggesting that instant noodles will make your baby gay. In my facebook feed, I find Indonesia acquaintances tearfully outraged at adoption by same-sex couples.

This is a big story and it deserves to be even bigger than it is. Important readings include Lester Feder describing the current anti-LGBT movement as a “moral panic,”, Ari Perdana writing (in Indonesian) on the origins of the movement, Intan Paramaditha on the LGBT panic reflecting “the anxiety regarding the idea of the nation, now experienced as wildly heterogeneous and elusive rather than cohesive,” and Farid Muttaqin’s call for Indonesian universities—whose tolerance for LGBT issues seems to have prompted the current outrage—to work ever harder to make gender and sexuality topics of public discussion and research.

There is something about the current LGBT panic in Indonesia that parallels other social and political trends that I have remarked upon recently, including re-militarization and the fear of disorder. Neither of these things are new to Indonesian politics and society, but they loom large at present. In this sense, I am particularly compelled by Intan Paramaditha’s analysis above.

Perhaps a more urgent point to convey to audiences from abroad, though, is that Indonesia’s LGBT moral panic is not, at root, an Islamic phenomenon. Conservative Islamist forces are surely homophobic (here, here, etc.), but there is also a conservative non-Islamist element in Indonesian politics which is equally ready to police free expression and gender “non-conformity.” I use scare quotes here because conformity requires a norm, and in much of Indonesia, that norm has historically not been the Dutch-imposed and New Order-reinforced Western male-female binary. See e.g. these descriptions of waria and bissu, both from Inside Indonesia.

Thus when the national broadcasting regulator holds that men talking or dressing like a woman

tidak sesuai dengan ketentuan penghormatan terhadap norma kesopanan dan kesusilaan yang berlaku dalam masyarakat

is incompatible with respecting society’s norms of propriety and decency

we are witnessing a normative claim, one that is not grounded in any particular Indonesian experience, but rather uses secular authority to create and reinforce “what Indonesians believe” about gender and sexuality.