Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Feminists and LGBT

Published: Nov 24, 2023
Can they work together? Religious objections make it hard

Julia Suryakusuma

Logically, feminist and LGBT movements in Indonesia should be allies as they have much in common. Both fight for gender and sexual equality, and face a common enemy, patriarchy. Both are considered Western imports and greatly disturb religious conservatives who view them as toxic and incompatible with Indonesian values.

In 2016 several high ranking government officials, from Vice President Jusuf Kalla to Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil, spewed out inflammatory, hate-filled statements against LGBT. Against feminists, there was the rise of the Indonesia without Feminists movement (Indonesia Tanpa Feminis), just before the general and presidential elections of April 2019. Both anti-LGBT and anti-feminist sentiments have grown even stronger since then.

So given the common threats they face, LGBT and feminist groups in Indonesia should form a synergistic alliance. Yet their relationship is by no means straightforward. The reason: deeply entrenched ethnic, religious, race and inter-group relations in Indonesian society, or what we call SARA (suku, ras, agama dan antar golongan).


A little history will clarify why this is so. Indonesia’s first gay rights organisation can be said to be Lambda Indonesia (LI). It was founded by Dédé Oetomo and flourished between 1982 and 1986. However, interestingly, Ali Sadikin, the unconventional but popular governor of Jakarta from 1966-1977, well before that had facilitated the formation of the Jakarta Association of Transgender Women (Himpunan Wadam Djakarta, HIWAD).

Other LGBT groups soon followed: Persaudaraan Gay Yogyakarta (PGY), 1985, renamed Indonesian Gay Society (IGY) in 1988; GAYa NUSANTARA in 1987, Suara Kita (2010, legally in 2013), Perlesin (1980s) short for Persatuan Lesbian Indonesia (Indonesian Lesbian Union), Srikandi Sejati (for transgender women, 1998), and Ardhanary Institute (2005). There were many others in the regions.

Feminist organisations also have a rich history. Between 1980 and 1998, women’s organisations fell into two groups: those that supported government programs in their Women in Development (WID) endeavours, and those that fought for gender equality. The latter included Kalyanamitra (1985), Solidaritas Perempuan (1990), LBH-APIK (Legal Aid Foundation, Indonesian Women's Association for Justice) (1995), Jurnal Perempuan (1995), and others.

It was at the beginning of the Reform Era that the Indonesian feminist movement really rose to prominence, starting with Voice of Concerned Mothers (Suara Ibu Peduli). This was followed on 18 May 1998 by the founding of the Indonesian Women’s Coalition for Justice and Democracy - Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia untuk Keadilan dan Demokrasi (KPI). KPI soon became the biggest feminist NGO in Indonesia. Its organisational structure extends from the national to the village level. As such it serves as the primary case study for this article.

KPI held a congress between 14-17 December 1998 to win recognition and a mandate from women all over Indonesia. No less than 500 women participated, from 25 provinces, including East Timor. The congress elected a Secretary General and coordinator of the National Presidium. It produced a set of statutes, a work program, and 15 presidiums representing various interest groups. Sector 15 was for lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals (LBT). This was the first time a feminist organisation had included the LBT movement in its ranks.

Not a human right

However, the move was not uncontested, even within the KPI leadership. Religiously inclined members had no trouble with women’s activism but did not see being LBT as a human right.

Mike Verawati, the fifth secretary general of KPI (2020-2025), told me that in the election for the third secretary general in 2009, one of the candidates used LBT to wage a negative campaign against rivals. Several branches in the regions preferred to support a non-LBT candidate. They felt a candidate supportive of LBT would hinder the work of KPI. Warnings were issued to stop this negative campaigning, but it continued, nonetheless. As a result, some LBT interest group members withdrew from KPI. Among them was Sri Agustine, who went on to found Ardhanary Institute in 2005.

Between 2009-2020, the KPI LBT group was in a state of vacuum. Activities still took place in West Sumatra, South Sulawesi, North Sulawesi, Kupang and Central Java, but organisationally they were weak. According to Mike, so far two branch administrators have left KPI because they did not accept LGBT.

Mike recalls that when she was organising in East Java, KPI was supported by GAYa NUSANTARA, led by Dédé Oetomo. Besides funding, they also provided a two week training course on gender and sexuality. 'This is what gives me my strongest motivation to fight for LGBT rights', she says.

Feminist organisations and publications like Magdelene provide spaces for issues related to gender, religion and sexuality to be openly discussed / FB Magdelene

Open support for LGBT as part of their feminist struggle comes much more easily to secular feminist organisations such as Jurnal Perempuan, Magdalene and LBH-APIK (Legal Aid Foundation, Indonesian Women's Association for Justice). But an organisation like the Indonesian Women Ulema’s Congress (Kongres Ulama Perempuan Indonesia, KUPI), which held its first congress in 2017, feels it has to be extremely cautious. Many of its members also belong to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia (and perhaps the world) at an estimated 95 million.

In Indonesia, 93 percent of the population believe that religion (read: Islam) is an important part of their life. Caution among feminist organisations about the extremely strong prejudice against LGBT within Indonesia is understandable. Actually, there are progressive religious scholars such as Professor Musdah Mulia, Arif Nuh Safri, Masthuriyah Sa’dan, and others. There are queer Muslim activists such as Amar Alfikar and Fikri Ahmad Abdillah (both transmen). NU groups such as the Gusdurians in East Java do dare to defend LGBT with LGBT-friendly religious interpretations. But the dominant interpretation within Islam remains conservative and intolerant.

In the context of the coming presidential elections in 2024, identity politics and SARA will most likely rear their ugly heads in the most vile way, against both feminists and the LGBT community. Will this make them wake up to the common threat against them, or on the contrary, cause them to turn against each other even more?

Julia Suryakusuma (jsuryakusuma@gmail.com) is a columnist, public intellectual, feminist activist, LGBT ally and author of State Ibuism (1988, 2011, 2021) and Julia’s Jihad (2013).

Inside Indonesia 154: Oct-Dec 2023

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