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Political Homophobia and Global LGBT Rights in Indonesia

Excerpts from Behind Political Homophobia: Global LGBT Rights and the Rise of Anti-LGBT in Indonesia, Hendri Yulius.

Some governments perceive male-male desire as a threat to the state, and implement policies to suppress or even impose bans on homosexuality. Academics call this “political homophobia”.

Please read the article below. These excerpts are from “Behind Political Homophobia: Global LGBT Rights and the Rise of Anti-LGBT in Indonesia,” which is written by Hendri Yulius of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung South Asia. The author argues that political homophobia is complex in Indonesia because some government offices are actually offering services to LGBT people despite the negative sentiments of the government toward LGBT people.

In recent years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (henceforth LGBT) issues have become a source of great divide among nations and countries. While a number of Western countries such as The Netherlands, Canada, and Spain, to name a few, have recognized same-sex marriage, several other countries have also made legal steps to acknowledge the non-binary gender category that is often dubbed as the “third gender”. In addition, there have been a series of actions to recognize, establish, and mainstream human rights standards to protect LGBT people. In 2006, a meeting for international human rights in Yogyakarta, Indonesia resulted in the creation of the Yogyakarta Principles which became a major legal instrument for LGBT movements. A similar historical move was then also followed by the United Nations in mandating the appointment of an independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.
These developments have further helped to spread the globalization of discourse on LGBT rights into many parts of the world, including the Southeast Asia region. Two years ago, Vietnam finally lifted the ban on same-sex marriage, allowing many same-sex couples to plan for wedding ceremonies[1]. By the end of last year, the LGBT anti-discrimination bill reached the Philippines’ Senate plenary for the very first time in 17 years[2]. …. Despite progress, some reports still reveal that stigma, discrimination, and bullying against LGBT individuals in those countries remain rampant[4].
The rise and fall of LGBT issues in Indonesia
It is abundantly clear that 2016 was a significant touchstone for LGBT Indonesians. While negative sentiment toward LGBT people from the state and religious fundamentalists has been intermittent over the past few decades, these attitudes have started to transform into a series of public denouncements since last year.
Ministers, public officials, religious organizations, and even some civil society organization representatives have made generalized and derogatory statements in public, criticizing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage and associating homosexuality with pedophilia, mental illness, and sinful and contagious behavior[6]. As a consequence, the government also requested the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other international humanitarian organizations to stop channeling financial and technical support to local LGBT organizations.
The LGBT Globalization and Political Homophobia
However, as I talked anonymously to some ministerial staff members working on health and social inclusion for minorities to explore the impact of the anti-LGBT vitriol in 2016, I unearthed some surprising facts. Far from total denial toward the existence of LGBT people, these ministerial offices are actually still working for gay men, men having sex with men, and transgender people through supporting shelters for warias, sensitizing health workers to provide non-discriminatory health services to men having sex with men (henceforth MSM)[21] and gay men, and providing livelihood skills for warias to eradicate this stigma. Many warias are still stigmatized as sex workers and public nuisances. Compared to their gay and lesbian counterparts, many of them come from a poor socio-economic background, exacerbated with the structural impediments to enter the workforce and higher education, just because of their non-normative gender expression.
According to my key informant, the program his office implemented trains warias to be good hairdressers or to have other livelihood skills. This program gradually eradicates the stigma of being waria in her surroundings. For example, a waria begins to be known as “Anita, a good hairdresser”, instead of her waria identity. He also argued that their sexual practices would not be problematic as long as it was practiced in private spaces[22].
This discussion brought me forward to the cultural concept of “achievement” [prestasi] that resonates strongly with Indonesian society. Contribution to society at large remains a valuable asset to influence people’s perceptions of an individual. Boellstorff (2007) argues that prestasi, which can come in the form of personal achievement or contribution to society, could help the public to change its negative prejudice against LGBT people. By succeeding in one’s career or contributing positively to people around that person, this would help to loosen the association of being gay and the myth of gay sexual promiscuity. Taking advantage of prestasi potentially serves as an entry point for gradually obtaining social acceptance. Differing significantly from Western gay discourse, which overemphasizes sexual identity, this Indonesian model places a greater significance on the achievements and contributions to society, rather than “coming out as LGBT”[23].
Similarly, since HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are quite prevalent among MSM and gay men, one of the ministerial offices still works on sensitizing health providers to gender and sexuality-related information, or what she referred to as “SOGI” (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) training. My key informants told me that this program was really useful to equip the health workers with adequate knowledge on MSM and gay men’s health issues. In addition, it also reduces the stigma against homosexuals among healthcare providers.
These discrepancies between the state’s public denouncement and the real practice of some ministerial offices reveal the complexity of political homophobia[24]. The state is always about both representation and practices. Both can be either coherent or contradictory. In this case, political homophobia actually operates primarily at the representational level. The idea of ideal/common citizens or what the state apparatus refers to as the “public” has been envisaged through normative attributes— heterosexual, religious, moral-oriented, and reproductive. The widespread anti-LGBT pressure from various elements of civil society and religious groups confirm these persisting ideas; citizens demand that the state fulfill and endorse these normative ideals.
In other words, the state’s representation of political homophobia here aims to cater to the “normative public” upon which the state relies and from which the state derives its power and legitimacy. At a practical level, although the state is still working for these non-normative groups, it frames the practices in a “non-liberal” way—it is about access, health, and poverty reduction, and does not coincide with liberal identity politics. Nevertheless, it is should be noted as well that State comprises of multiple institutions that might be contradictory with each other. While particular State institutions might work for gay or transgender people, the other institutions might commit the opposite actions. For example, the recent arrests of gay participants in the alleged ‘gay sex party’ in Surabaya and Jakarta were actually carried out by police. Alongside the international media hysteria on the issue, it should be noticed that the criminalization in these cases is actually deployed through the anti-pornography law and the information and electronic transaction law[25]. It is not through their homosexuality per se that the outlawing process occurs, but through other practices – the possession of pornographic materials and the transactions occurring before the participants joined those gay sex parties. (END)

[1] See John Boudreau and Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen. (2015). Gay weddings planned as Vietnam marriage law is repealed,

[2] See Camille Allemia. (2016). After 17 years, LGBT anti-discrimination bill up for Senate debate,

[4] See the UNDP’s Being LGBT in Asia – Thailand, Vietnam, The Phillipines’ Country Reports (2014),

[6] See Hendri Yulius. (2016). Double standards: the defining of homosexuality as pornographic in Indonesia,; Hendri Yulius. (2016). LGBT goes to campus: What’s the big deal?,

[21] This term refers to “men who have sex with other men, but do not label themselves as gay”. It is commonly used in public health, particularly HIV and other STD-related discourses.

[22] As I argued in The War on Homosexuality, the idea of “sexual rights” is still foreign to Indonesian society. Further, “The globalization of sexual identity politics and related rights has condensed varieties of same-sex or non-normative sexual desires and practices into one category — ‘LGBT’. This consequently sees the emergence and universalization of LGBT identities. And when sexualities become identities, they are imbued and entangled with citizenship rights, which in turn gave birth to the notion of sexual rights and citizenship”.

[23] See Hendri Yulius. (2016). Overcoming the catch-22: reflection of the current anti-LGBT hysteria in Indonesia,

[24] In The emergence of political homophobia in Indonesia: masculinity and national belonging (2004),

Tom Boellstorff argued that political homophobia (and/or homophobic violence) is seen as “the properly masculine response to these events [which] indicates how the nation may be gaining a new masculinist cast. In the new Indonesia, male–male desire can increasingly be construed as a threat to normative masculinity, and thus to the nation itself”. However, in this article, I reveal that political homophobia is more complex that just restoring masculinist ideas to the nation.

[25] See Hendri Yulius. (2017). Moral Panic and the Reinvention of LGBT.

The full article is available on:

© Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia
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