LGBT communities use social media to organise despite threats of violence
Rikky Muchammad Fajar and Alexandra Crosby
Indonesian LGBT activists participate in a regional network called Camp Sambel
In May 2012, Indonesian social networking media were flooded with statements in support of the Muslim Canadian author Irshad Manji, a public lesbian and campaigner for the rights of sexual minorities. Manji was in Indonesia at that time to launch her latest publication, but her scheduled appearance in Jakarta was cancelled after Islamist hardliners succeeded in pressuring the Indonesian police to shut down the event. In Yogyakarta, her launch ended when an attack by another Islamist radical group, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (Indonesian Mujahedeen Council), left a number of audience members injured.
This kind of situation is not new to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Indonesia. In 2010, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) regional congress in Surabaya was dispersed by police under pressure from local militant Islamist groups. Similarly, in 2010, the Q! Film Festival, an annual festival which showcases LGBT, HIV/AIDS and human rights films in Indonesia, was shut down when members of FPI (the Islamic Defenders Front) rallied outside the two Jakarta venues. These responses to LGBT events are supported by legal structures across the country that make it increasingly difficult for this community to be active. Members of the LGBT community are responding by using social media to work across national borders to ensure that they have space to share news, discuss issues and voice grievances.
A repressive legal context
LGBT communities in Indonesia say that discrimination against sexual minorities has increased since the introduction of the system of regional regulations (Perda) in 2001. These regulations have enabled regional governments to pass legislation outlawing homosexuality, prostitution and other ‘social ills’, and this has opened up legal grounds for violent attacks on the LGBT community and sex workers by local branches of Islamic fundamentalist organisations. One province where these types of attack have taken place is South Sulawesi, where student activists have been in ongoing conflict with the FPI for over three years. Recently, on 2 June 2012, this conflict resulted in a transgender individual being injured in an attack by FPI members.
A photo of a transvestite named Angela which was widely circulated in response to her attack in Makassar, June 2012
The online censorship of minority rights, particularly of LGBT people, has increased further after the introduction of the anti-pornography law in 2008. The use of technical filtering that targets keywords and domain names related to sexualities under the category of pornography, including terms like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’, has denied LGBT people access to a range of online information. The law has also restricted access to globally-circulating information on human rights specific to LGBT people. In February 2012, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) reported that its website had been banned by two of Indonesia’s major internet service providers, Telkomsel and IM2. In a widely circulated email, Cary Alan Johnson, IGLHRC Executive Director stated that ‘according to a spokesperson for the internet service provider IM2, the order came from the Minister of Communication and Information who banned [the website] due to its content, which they determined contains pornography’. Access to these networks is essential to Indonesian LGBT communities who are working hard to localise such information for an Indonesian audience.
The anti-pornography law also enables police to use surveillance powers to search cybercafés without prior notice. Although mobile phones are changing access trends, particularly in urban areas, cybercafés are, for many, the only way to access the internet. Since the late 1990s, they have been an important public space for Indonesians to escape the sometimes suffocating and intrusive domestic sphere. Police searches of cybercafés are often permitted without warrant since they are suspected of accommodating pornography as well as being locations where people can view, store and distribute pornographic materials. The law also spurred similar campaigns carried out by non-state actors such as FPI, creating more potential for communal conflicts.
Creating a safe space
The anti-pornography legislation draws LGBT activists into the moral fight against pornography, a terrain that makes their struggle for human rights less easily defined than for other groups. The law, in combination with mainstream media reports that portray LGBT people negatively, have led to a blurring of the boundaries between human rights abuses that limit freedom of sexual expression and vigilante efforts to protect society’s values. LGBT activists feel that they have to struggle against public opinion that associates them with sexual deviance and, at the same time, defend their basic right to live without fear of violence. Because of this slippery transformation of a political issue into a moral one, LGBT activists have to use different strategies to other activists.
LGBT activists do not prioritise mainstream media attention for their causes, and they are careful to use consistent language in their own media. For example, they often name groups and communities but not individuals and do not give addresses for meetings and events. Rather, information is circulated informally, through networks of trusted activists and sympathisers. Social media tools have enhanced the ability of LGBT activists to do this by allowing them to anonymously define their own campaigns and agendas.
Connecting with campaigns in other parts of the world is another important strategy for LGBT activists. These campaigns provide access to information and enable Indonesian LGBT activists to join broader global human rights movements. These links are often maintained through new social media which allows activists to side step the prejudices evident in more traditional media forms. One example is the LGBT news portal, OurVoice, which uses social media to increase public awareness about LGBT rights. It does so by covering stories that are largely absent in mainstream media. These stories are published at OurVoice, where they often receive extensive commentary and are shared through Twitter and Facebook. This kind of online engagement with the stories means that even if the OurVoice site suffers a cyber-attack, the story has already travelled far beyond the legal framework of Indonesia.
OurVoice website – connecting LGBT activists in Indonesia with supporters around the world
OurVoice maintains that strong networks within Indonesia and across the region will ensure that the voices of Indonesian LGBT communities are heard. Recently, as part of a regional network event facilitated by EngageMedia called Camp Sambel, OurVoice began collaborating with Malaysian citizen journalist organisation Malaysiakini. When the first OurVoice video was uploaded to Malaysiakini’s site, the link was shared enthusiastically across social networking platforms and was viewed more than 4000 times in the first day. Such links, particularly those in common languages across national borders, are essential for building solidarity between LGBT communities in the region.
While conditions remain hostile for many minorities in Indonesia and many individuals experience and fear violence, creative use of social media to build regional and international solidarity is helping Indonesia’s LGBT community to pursue their campaign for greater protection of their rights and freedoms.
Social media tools and online spaces alone cannot solve the problem of social prejudice that so often leads to violence. These problems require research, policy and action so that everyone is ensured human rights whatever their sexual orientation. New online networks, however, can create much needed solidarity and information, both of which are required to build strong anti-discrimination campaigns and increase the safety of LGBT people.
Rikky Muchammad Fajar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an activist filmmaker based in Jakarta. He is one of the founders of the LGBT news portal ourvoice.org. He is involved in human rights campaigns in collaboration with a range of organisations including 'Indonesia Tanpa FPI' and EngageMedia.
Alexandra Crosby (email@example.com) is a writer, researcher, teacher and designer working with a wide range of groups and individuals in Indonesia and Australia. She recently submitted her PhD on the visual culture of activist communities in Java. She is project manager and communications coordinator at EngageMedia.