The LGBT Debate and the Fear of “Gerakan”

This is the longer version of an article published in The Jakarta Post, February 27, 2016.

Intan Paramaditha*

LGBT debate jakpost

    The LGBT debate in Indonesia today speaks volumes about different kinds of fear. It reflects the fear of the dissolution of heteronormative values and national morality, which, since the Reformasi, have been embedded within a conservative interpretation of religion. It also tells about the anxiety regarding the idea of the nation, now experienced as wildly polyphonic and elusive rather than cohesive. Entangled in these fears is another fear: the fear of gerakan (movement).

            In his 2004 article, anthropologist Tom Boellstorff examines an attack perpetrated by the Ka’bah Youth Movement on an LGBT event attended by 350 gays and waria in Kaliurang, Central Java. He uses the term “political homophobia” to describe the emotional rage that emerges in response to a threat to normative masculinity that represents the nation.

Changes have taken place since Boellstorff published the article. Political homophobia is not only expressed on the streets but also in the towers, exemplified by the controversial (now withdrawn) statement of Research, Technology an Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir, who called for LGBT communities to be banned from campuses. Anti-LGBT groups constantly seek to legitimize their position through authoritative voices, including the Islamic fatwa and medical discourses. Boellstorff’s article, however, remains relevant to remind us that sexuality is never a matter of sex per se. In Indonesia especially, it projects desire and fear in ways that illuminate how the nation is envisioned. Which bodies represent the nation? Who has the right to claim national belonging?

In the context of the nation, the phrase “Gerakan LGBT” (LGBT Movement) is often used to signify the national limit. Gerakan suggests transgression of a safe zone, a space where a harmless entity that we can ‘tolerate’ transforms into a national other. Conservative activist Fahira Idris states that LGBT in Indonesia has metamorphosed from “individual acts” into “a massive and organized movement.” Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil, similar to Idris, claims that he has no problem with the private matters of LGBT individuals. What concerns him is when LGBT communities publicize their movement through social media. The fear of Gerakan LGBT is precisely the fear of what is mentioned in the Article 28 of the Constitution, “the freedom to associate and to assemble.” It is the fear of publicness.

There are ghosts we cannot fully capture when we translate “gerakan” as “movement.” These ghosts deceive and conspire. We have been trained to be suspicious of gerakan. Something is always lurking underneath, ungraspable, threatening. Gerakan summons the trauma of not knowing.

Gerakan in Indonesian language induces a memory of disturbance. The government used the term Gerakan Pengacau Keamanan (Security Disturbing Movement) to stigmatize separatist movements as mobs endangering the nation. The gerakan that we will never forget, as our memory is guarded by film, museum, and textbooks, is the G30S (the 30th September Movement), framed by the military as the coup attempt of the Indonesian Communist Party. The propaganda movie taught us to visualize gerakan: dark-lipped men plotting evil schemes. The New Order regime instilled the fear of remnants of the communist party through the acronym OTB, Organisasi Tanpa Bentuk (‘organization without form’). A strange term indeed, and it must be understood in how Indonesians imagine a spectre. A spectre is formless, but it can take on any form: a woman, a child, your neighbor. OTB’s appearance deceives.

Every gerakan has the potential to morph into an OTB; its form might not speak true of its intention. LGBT movement might appear as a fight against discrimination, but something may be hidden underneath: a grand design that threatens national unity. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu calls the LGBT movement as a latent threat: “It’s dangerous as we can’t see who our foes are.” The fear of gerakan is the fear of gerakan is the fear of the unknown.

Gerakan politik” (political movement) is a treacherous hybrid creature as we have learned to distrust both words: gerakan and politics. Therefore, Amien Rais sanitized the 1998 Student Movement as a moral movement (gerakan moral) and not political movement. Because politics is about ambition, not conscience. Politics is not normal, hence the Soeharto government ‘normalized’ the practice of citizenship through the Normalization of Campus Life (NKK/ BKK) program. For a long time, normal meant depoliticized. And we must not forget that the New Order regime maintained order by demonizing another gerakan: Gerwani (Indonesian Women’s Movement). Return women to their normal place at home or they will turn into castrating monsters.

And alas, LGBT movement is anything but normal, in both the heteronormative sense and the New Order-esque paradigm of politics. Is LGBT movement political? It certainly is, and there is no reason why it should not be. There is no way to change perspectives in the society without political goals. How could groups bring attention to the assault of waria or the corrective rape happening to lesbian women if the language in legal terms had not changed (in the 2008 Pornography Law, homosexuality is included in the deviant acts of sexuality)?

Unfortunately, anti-LGBT groups have failed to grasp what Dede Oetomo and GAYa NUSANTARA have done for decades (they could have taken a crash course by reading Hendri Yulius’ piece in The Jakarta Post: “What does the Indonesian LGBT Movement Want?”). The political goals of the LGBT movement have been falsely framed as “LGBT Propaganda,” which means advertising “LGBT lifestyle” (often described as hedonistic and hypersexual), or in Minister Muhammad Nasir’s term, having sex or showing affection on campus.

Confining LGBT issues to the private realm seems to be a safe middle ground for everyone. By proclaiming that they have no problem with non-normative sexualities as long as they remain private, anti-LGBT activists and public officials will sound ‘tolerant,’ if not less homophobic. On the other hand, those who are sympathetic toward LGBT groups prefer to call attention to urgent matters (e.g., research facilities at universities) rather than private sexual orientation. This way, they face less risk of being harassed in social media.

“There is nothing more public than privacy,” as Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant put it. Sex in Indonesia is not, and will never be, a private matter. The state has the authority to regulate, and hence to make public, all things we want to consider private.

In the time when the contestation of legitimacy is fierce, as shown by the recent Indonesian Psychiatric Association statement that categorizes LGBT people as sufferers of mental disorders, institutions of higher education should strategically deploy their influential position and articulate their intellectual integrity. They should, in the tradition of critical thinking, unpack what LGBT movement is, why it emerged, and why it is feared. They should ensure a space for intellectual public discourse on the LGBT movement instead of participating in the recreation of a normalized, depoliticized civil society.

An analysis of the gerakan should begin by acknowledging its right to be in the public instead pushing it to the private realm. As we have learned from the OTB scare, what is invisible creates more fear: the fear of a formless spectre.




*The writer, who gained a PhD from New York University, is a fiction author and scholar focusing on media, culture, and sexual politics. She teaches as Macquarie University, Sydney.