Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

AIDS as an ‘entry point’ for LGBT rights discourse

Published: Dec 01, 2019

Sylvia Tidey

In early 2016 Komnas HAM (Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights) found itself in hot water. A few weeks earlier, it had published a press release condemning disparaging comments made by several high-ranking officials against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Indonesians. The press release itself was relatively mild: it merely reminded people of the state’s recognition of LGBT persons and urged for more protection of them.

In spite of this, the press release provoked an immediate and harsh backlash. The hashtag #TolakLGBT (#RejectLGBT) started to trend on Twitter, along with posts declaring ‘LGBT itu PENYAKIT bukan hak asazi’ (LGBT is a DISEASE not a human right) and ‘LGBT bukan HAM’ (LGBT is not a human right). In response to this blowback, Komnas HAM swiftly issued a statement reassuring the Indonesian public that the commission did not approve of the legalisation of same-sex marriages.

This controversy is not the first time the topic of LGBT rights has proved problematic. Ten years earlier, a group of international human rights experts met in Indonesia to propose a set of principles that came to be known as the Yogyakarta Principles. These were meant to help the UN move towards the protection of sexual orientation and gender identity under human rights law. While Indonesia hosted the meeting that resulted in these groundbreaking principles, the Indonesian government never ratified the UN declaration they resulted in. On the contrary, it signed a statement opposing it.

AIDS as an entry point

Ironically, while equating ‘LGBT’ with ‘disease’ and connecting LGBT persons with AIDS fuelled the condemnation of LGBT rights that erupted on Twitter, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has actually opened up an avenue for claiming certain rights for LGBT Indonesians. When HIV infection levels were on the rise throughout the 1990s, the Indonesian government was initially reluctant to address the epidemic, partly because it considered the disease to mainly affect people deemed undeserving of care. Once it became clear that HIV also affected members of what epidemiologists call the ‘general population’, including ‘innocent’ mothers and their babies, the government became more interested in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

By this time, Suharto had stepped down from power and Indonesia had become more receptive of international funding and NGO activity. As a result, international funding from organisations such as the Global Fund, AusAID, and USAID helped finance countless local and national-level organisations focused on providing HIV-related prevention and care services under the general umbrella of the right to health. This emphasis on a right to health opened up life-saving opportunities for previously ignored key populations, included GWL (gay, waria and lelaki seks lelaki – gay men, trans women and men who have sex with men) Indonesians.

Not every human rights group expresses unequivocal support for the ways in which GWL Indonesians have been able to benefit from new attention and funding for HIV-related matters. For example, a spokesperson for the Jakarta-based LGBT advocacy organisation Suara Kita (Our Voice) pointed out the limitations that the focus on HIV and health poses on the possibilities for achieving more expansive political rights:

In my opinion it is just such a medical approach.… I do not fault anyone for focusing on health issues; this is not a criticism of the movement for health rights. What I mean is that it can also be a political movement.… They can talk about health budgets for waria and gay men, but also about social welfare, about acquiring skills, about access to the workplace. They ought to use the issue of AIDS as an ‘entry point’ for discussions about more strategic matters with policy makers and legislature.

The spokesperson does not object to the focus on HIV and other health-related issues, but rather they wish the focus would also be on non-health related rights.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights

Not all people who are active in LGBT activism and HIV prevention and care in Indonesia take the dim view that that the HIV angle closes off possibilities for claiming more expansive rights. Take, for example, GWL-INA (Jaringan GAYa Warna Lentera), a prominent national organisation for GWL (in the original sense of the term) that acts as an umbrella organisation for many local GWL and LGBT organisations. It’s program directors have been working to expand their original narrow focus on HIV to one that involves sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

SRHR as specific rights made their way onto the human rights map after the landmark 1994 UN International Conference of Population and Development in Cairo. Casting a critical eye on the male-centric underpinnings of global population and development policies, the issue of SRHR has spurred a wide variety of life promoting activities aimed mainly at women and children, including activities many people and countries view as morally sensitive, such as the promotion of condom use. Against the backdrop of increased worldwide recognition of LGBT rights and visibility, LGBT-related issues have also started to be included as a part of SRHR in recent years.

For the program directors at GWL-INA, the expansion to SRHR is a strategic one that allows them to address topics such as gender and sexuality that are of great interest to their audience in ways that do not directly relate to health or HIV. They also recognise the kind of criticism voiced above about the limitations of a focus on health. In response to such critiques, however, the program directors emphasise just how difficult it is to convince the government of the importance of attending to topics outside of HIV for GWL Indonesians. In such circumstances, drawing on SRHR and the way it weaves together health, rights, sexuality and reproduction facilitates a move away from a mere focus on health:

Director 1: If we’re talking health, people are more into it. Because in my experience, when we talked with the minister of religious affairs in 2010, when we talked about rights and sexual diversity – Oh! The resistance is like, wow!

Director 2: We have to talk like: ‘Oh, just imagine that there are pregnant women blablabla, who maybe have husbands who sleep around, lalala.’ That’s all it takes!

Director 1: When we bring up HIV and AIDS issues, they open the door. Okay, we’ll talk about sexual and reproductive health. There are still many controversies, but at least they already opened the door and we can have a discussion.

In contrast to claims that GWL or LGBT organisations are unwilling to use ‘AIDS as an entry point,’ GWL-INA’s directors, here, show that they are quite willing to deploy HIV and AIDS in order to ‘open the door’ to non-health related topics. What they also indicate, however, is that this door does not (yet) open up to a wide range of possibilities for addressing topics not plausibly related to ‘pregnant women blablabla.’

Brondong manis

A particularly successful example of GWL-INA’s strategic use of SRHR to move away from a stringent, all-encompassing focus on health is their Brondong Manis initiative. Translated literally, brondong manis means ‘sweet popcorn’. In everyday gay and waria parlance, brondong manis are desirable, ‘tasty,’ young men. GWL-INA used this denominator as the name for a website that caters specifically to young GWL Indonesians.

Brondongmanis.com offers a wide range of topics to any GWL visitor. Prominent links to brondongmanis.com’s Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter, as well as the usage of short videos, and the cool mix of proper Indonesian with slang (#gueberani initiative) and English (‘Guyssssss’) plug the site into the everyday lives of on-the-go, smartphone owning, social media using young Indonesians. Health forms just one of the various sections of the website, and even here video clips on HIV (‘My HIV isn’t the end of my life’ or ‘ARVs during Ramadan’) are interspersed with stories of straight men trying anal sex for the first time and videos on whether or not to wear high heels. Other sections of the website include Love (‘How important is trust?’, ‘Dating a twink vs a daddy’), Fun (‘Who is your favourite pornstar?’, ‘Get to know more about poppers’), Sosial (‘7 reasons transgenders are normal’, ‘Top 5 gay heroes in history’) and Psychology (‘Bullying: between what and why’, ‘10 reasons gays are normal’).

Brondongmanis.com thus achieves some of the hopes GWL-INA’s directors expressed with regards to moving GWL-INA away from a strict focus on health to the wider topics of gender and sexuality in a playful and appealing manner.

AIDS as a dead end?

Yet, there are other ways in which HIV/AIDS can seem less of an ‘entry point’ or ‘door opener’ to more expansive rights, than a dead end in pursuit of such goals. While SRHR widens a restrictive focus on health to also include sexuality and this leads to the unfair prioritising of LGBT Indonesians who are thought to pose a threat to the health and wellbeing of innocent women and their babies, that is sexually active gay men, waria and LSL (men who have sex with men).

This means that old waria and gay men, who are less sexually active but in great need of care, especially if they have no family to fall back on, are left out. Also, as a lesbian LGBT activist from Manado points out, organisations such as GLW-INA do not include lesbians (nor trans men). GWL, as she explains, invokes the international HIV industry’s concerns with public health rather than the inclusivity and emphasis on community that a term such as LGBT engenders. Can AIDS serve as an entry point to achieving civil and political rights for all LGBT Indonesians and, if so, will the employment of SRHR help or prevent a path forward?

Sylvia Tidey (st3fx@virginia.edu) is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia.

Inside Indonesia 138: Oct-Dec 2019

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