Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Gay men in the reformasi era

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Dédé Oetomo

On the evening of November 11, 2000, a group of young volunteers organised an Aids education fair and party in the hill resort of Kaliurang, near Yogyakarta. They belonged to Lentera (meaning Oil Lamp), the Aids service wing of the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI) in Yogya.

Many national and international agencies have praised Lentera for reaching out and bringing in various stigmatised risk groups, such as gay men, male-to-female transgenders (waria), female sex workers, street children, as well as other people at risk but who have no particular societal identification, such as men who have sex with other men. Their approach is 'integrationist' - they do not directly challenge the conventional attitudes of the general public, yet are able to deliver effective services to those who are in need. People within Lentera often say their own philosophy is in line with the gentle Javanese belief in ngono ya ngono ning aja ngono, which you could translate as 'now you see it, now you don't'.

Lentera was started amid a wave of Aids activism in the early 1990s by a few young psychologists and planned parenthood activists, who saw the epidemic appearing on the horizon. From the very beginning a few concerned gay individuals 'integrated' themselves discreetly, often playing up the identity of an Aids activist rather than that of a gay activist. The events Lentera organised, however, always included an element of fun-filled entertainment, and there gay men and waria tended to predominate, if not in numbers then in ambience.

The Kaliurang event of November 2000 was called Kerlap-Kerlip Warna Kedaton 2000 (KKWK 2000, Flickers of Royal Court Colours). It was to be the second annual event where Aids activists could get together, take a break from the drudgery of activism, and share their knowledge with the general public in an entertaining way. There were stalls with Aids posters, condoms and lubricants, demonstration dildoes, gay magazines. A variety show combining entertainment and education was planned for the evening. Other people were there too, but the ambience was unmistakably campy. If not in number then in spirit, gay men and waria dominated the event.

KKWK 2000 became fatefully different compared to the first KKWK in 1999, and to other more ad hoc events in previous years. The event was held in the Hastorenggo Building, owned by the family of the sultan of Yogyakarta. As a sign of reformasi openness, members of the press were invited to cover it. They got more than they or the organisers bargained for. Around 9 pm, right in the middle of a campy fashion show, 150 men in traditional Muslim garb came in and attacked from the back rows, shouting 'Allahu Akbar!' The attack came without any warning. Wielding clubs, swords and machetes, and hurling soft drink bottles, the thugs attacked indiscriminately, forcing people in the audience to run towards the front part of the hall and through side doors to jump down to safety. The attackers then went from room to room, breaking down doors, and stealing wallets, handphones, small purses and the like.

The four policemen who were at hand could not cope with them, and called for help, which came soon afterwards. They apprehended 50-odd attackers, but these were soon released. Perhaps the police were afraid of a similar attack on their own premises, which would not be the first time.

The thugs claimed to represent a loose coalition called the Anti-Vice Movement (Gerakan Anti Maksiat (GAM). Some were members of the Ka'bah Youth Movement (Gerakan Pemuda Ka'bah, GPK), an organisation affiliated with the Muslim United Development Party (PPP). Others belonged to the Yogyakarta Mosque Youth (Remaja Masjid Yogyakarta). They launched their attack in the heightened moral atmosphere just ahead of the fasting month, Ramadhan.

Later, in the press, they justified their attack on the grounds that the Kaliurang event was a sex party of gays and waria. In the beginning of the subsequent media debate, KKWK 2000 organisers were given equal space. But it quickly became a one-sided affair, apparently because newspaper editors were threatened by GPK leaders and others claiming responsibility for the attack. A group of fifty-odd NGOs formed a coalition to protest the attack, but many soon left the ranks. Even the Yogya PKBI leadership was apparently under pressure to close down the program for gay men, waria and men who have sex with men.

New phase

I think we are entering a new phase in the development of Indonesian homosexualities, one where homophobic attacks, previously unknown, are becoming a bitter reality.

The attack on KKWK 2000 is not without precedent. Over the previous few months groups of men in traditional Muslim garb had been harassing gay men in the northern square in front of the sultan's palace, until then a safe gathering space. In the East Java town of Pasuruan a similar group paid a visit to a sometimes cross-dressing gay hair stylist and forced him to close down his business on the grounds that it was a den of vice. He argued back. The local branch of the political party PDIP advocated on his behalf, and he was able to keep his business open. In September 1999, following a huge demonstration by students and other elements against then-president Habibie during his visit to Solo, members of the Surakarta Front for the Defence of Islam (Front Pembela Islam Surakarta, FPIS) threatened to kill gay activists. The activists were planning a national working meeting of the Indonesian Network of Lesbians and Gay Men (Jaringan Lesbian dan Gay Indonesia, JLGI).

So while reformasi has brought a sense of widening democratic space, the flip side is these homophobic attacks. What are we to make of them?

One important answer, in my opinion, is a greatly increased public awareness of the variety of human sexualities. Since the 1980s, the media have begun to sensationalise phenomena like homosexuality. In the 1990s this combined with the drive against HIV/Aids to make possible much more open discussion of sexualities. There is now a new understanding of gender and sexuality.

True, many misunderstandings remain, but they are eroding. The old blurring of waria and gays persists, but one can now discern a separation among waria and gay men (which in some localities has even resulted in a mini-identity politics). More people are realising that there are gay men (pronounced 'gaai') who have sex with other men. Perhaps a more serious blurring happened when in the late 1990s people discovered 'sodomites', ie. adult men who rape young boys and kill them afterwards. This added to the frightening element of the unknown which is homosexuality. To a lesser extent the same blurring is happening to lesbian identities. The Indonesian Women's Coalition for Justice and Democracy (Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia untuk Keadilan dan Demokrasi) explicitly mentions lesbian issues as one of the fifteen issues facing women, but often they find it difficult to get representatives of lesbian communities to join.

However, more than increased awareness of sexualities lies behind the public attacks. In the reformation era we have also seen a rise of attacks on brothels, discotheques, pubs, and the like. The attack on gay men and KKWK 2000 must be seen as part of this wave. The attackers could be people of true religious faith, but more often they were shady elements of society. Those who came within close proximity of the KKWK 2000 attackers, for instance, reported smelling alcohol on their breath. The breakdown of law and order that accompanied the resignation of Suharto seems to give them an excuse to run on the rampage, as it were.

Perhaps we should understand both the opening up of democratic space for gay men and the attacks from the thugs and other elements as related sides of the same emerging phenomenon. While one can say it is a price to pay, one can also say that the attacks have made gay people and waria more militant and resistant to the dominant ideology of conservative morality. Even if it is not free from the risk of reactionary attacks, we may be witnessing the beginning of profound change in Indonesia's sexual morality.

Dédé Oetomo ( is the coordinator of GAYa NUSANTARA ( He lives in Surabaya.

Inside Indonesia 66: Apr - Jun 2001

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