May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Reformasi’s broken promises

Published: Dec 01, 2019

Dédé Oetomo

Ten years into reformasi, waria (trans women) participants in HIV/AIDS, human rights and organisational development workshops started complaining that their situation had worsened. I used to remark at how much we were able to do in terms of openly public activism as sexual minorities; something unimaginable before reformasi. Nowadays, I cannot help but concur that tolerance is in decline, as has been reported by waria and other sexual minorities (lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans people and other people of non-normative genders and sexualities).

Why have I changed my view on the status of sexual minorities in contemporary Indonesia?

First, let us return to the eve of reformasi when ominous clouds started appearing on the horizon. The year 1997 saw gay men gathering in the northern part of the square in front of the palace in Yogyakarta facing harassment by young men claiming to represent the youth wing of the United Development Party (PPP). In various locations, similar groups pushed for the closure of brothels and related businesses (in areas known as lokalisasi). This led to the increasing harassment of waria, who had long been vulnerable to such harassment in public spaces anyway.

After reformasi, the harassment extended to waria in the salons where they worked, and also to beauty pageants and shows that were popular among waria and their friends. Such events had been commonplace before reformasi, sometimes held with local government support. Gay men would organise parties in hill resorts, with guests (often including waria and their male partners) coming from all over Java and even neighbouring islands. These parties were held with the permission and protection of local governments.

The promised rainbow

At the same time, reformasi brought with it the promise of democracy and human rights. While members of sexual minority communities did not take part in the action that led to reformasi, soon enough, its hopeful discourse spread to their organisations. The more systematic inclusion of gay men, waria and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infection (STI) control programs opened the doors to better organisation of these communities with the aid of funding and technical support from health departments. Other forms of human rights activism, including women’s rights, provided opportunities for lesbians, bisexual women and transgender men to also participate.

Starting with timid baby steps right after reformasi, the mid 2000s witnessed the rise of a new generation of activists that started organising themselves in many parts of the country. From just a handful of organisations existing in the years preceding reformasi, their number has now reached almost 100, not counting the informal communities that have emerged across the archipelago. Widespread use of the internet most certainly facilitated this explosion of activity.

The movement also became more diverse. While initially organisations provided social spaces and support services, as time went by, other groups of activists started to organise around film festivals, including the Q! Film Festival (2002-2017). Some forward-looking human rights organisations like ELSAM (the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy) started discussing the rights of sexual minorities as an integral aspect of human rights. By 2012, the loose network of LGBTIQ organisations was able to organise their own human rights training in collaboration with prominent human rights trainers from national organisations. The Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) and the Commission Against Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) have also provided varying degrees and forms of support.

A few openly gay and transgender activists ran for public office at various levels, though none were elected. Individual clerics and theologians issued positive statements on non-normative genders and sexualities, and institutions such as the Jakarta Theological Seminary and the Reformed Baptist church, Gereja Komunitas Anugerah, regularly held discussions on various aspects relevant to minority genders and sexualities.

Early backlash

The increasingly visible public events, starting prior to reformasi, provoked a backlash with the first major attack occurring in November 2000. An HIV/AIDS edu-tainment event involving drag shows in Kaliurang, Yogyakarta, was attacked by around 150 men who called themselves the Anti-Vice Movement (Gerakan Anti-Maksiat). The format of the event had followed the previously acceptable hill resort parties, with the addition of HIV/AIDS education.

In subsequent years, similar attacks occurred in other places. One must note that similar attacks also targeted religious minority groups and survivors of the 1965-1966 genocide and their families. Two major attacks happened in 2010: a conference of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association Asia (ILGA) in Surabaya was attacked by a coalition of Islamist groups; and a workshop on trans issues organised by Komnas HAM in Depok was attacked by the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI). The aforementioned Q! Film Festival also had its share of harassment and attacks, starting from its very first year.


The verbal and physical hostility suddenly heightened in the beginning of 2016, triggered by reports in mainstream and social media about objections from the Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Mohamad Nasir. These statements condemned a student group at Universitas Indonesia, the Support Group and Resource Centre on Sexuality (SGRC-UI), because it had started offering services to students who were struggling with their non-normative gender or sexuality.

This time the rhetoric reached moral panic proportions. Just about every politician, as well as many religious leaders, issued statements condemning LGBT communities. The minister of defence accused these communities of waging ‘war by proxy’ and threatening the nation’s sovereignty and various members of parliament said that the LGBT presence in Indonesia was symptomatic of undesirable foreign intervention and westernisation. The UNDP and USAID-initiated program ‘Being LGBT in Asia’ was singled out as a foreign attempt to interfere with social affairs, and was even criticised by the vice president, and was eventually forced to cease operations. Government agencies such as Bappenas (the Ministry of National Development Planning) placed international funding agencies under close scrutiny and explicitly told them not to support LGBT organisations.

At any rate, this moral panic did not emerge in a vacuum but in the context of the decade-long attempt by Islamist politicians to incrementally introduce syariah-based governance. Hence, the push against LGBT is part of a broader agenda to diminish secularism, pluralism and liberalism. The LGBT issue was leveraged as low-hanging fruit in an effort to raise support for broader conservative interests.

/ Fahrul Jayadiputra Antara Foto

The struggle took place on many fronts. In regions such as Aceh, West Sumatra and West Java local governments enacted syariah-based systems of authority. In some provinces and districts this included criminalisation of same-sex relations. Aceh has imposed the harshest regulations, including severe corporal punishment such as caning. In other places punishment is not even mentioned but the rules validate conservative community groups’ harassment of different minorities, including sexual minorities. Vigilantes, neighbourhood thugs and ordinary people have been known to evict from their homes trans women who are visible and women workers in boarding houses suspected of being lesbians.

The response of the LGBT movement

Organisations have responded to the barrage of verbal and physical attacks by quickly developing strategies and programs. Public events are carried out underground, and dates, times and venues are provided only to pre-registered participants very shortly before the event. Location functions of smartphones are deactivated, and participants are asked not to post pictures and videos on social media until after the event and without revealing the location.

International human rights organisations have assisted by implementing a crisis response mechanism in collaboration with local partners within Indonesia. Emergency procedures were established in especially vulnerable provinces.

One blessing in disguise amongst all this catastrophe is that organisations became stronger, and allies came forward in a more consolidated, intersectional way. Some public activism is also possible within the context of more acceptable events such Women’s Day and May Day marches.

Upon reflection, one can say that sexual minorities are not the only group for whom the promises of reformasi have been broken. These promised reforms have also failed religious minorities, West Papuan activists and, arguably, all Indonesians.

For better or for worse, most Indonesians are now familiar with the concept of LGBT, if only vaguely. The issues have been placed squarely on the table, and visibility will perhaps make these challenges easier to tackle. We must move towards a more tolerant future to realise the promises of reformasi for all Indonesians and embrace the genuine meaning of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika as a diverse nation.

Dédé Oetomo ( is founder and trustee of Yayasan GAYa NUSANTARA in Surabaya.

Inside Indonesia 138: Oct-Dec 2019

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