It's not illegal to be gay in Indonesia, but police are cracking down anyway

An Indonesian man is publicly caned for having gay sex in Banda Aceh, in May.
BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

An Indonesian man is publicly caned for having gay sex in Banda Aceh, in May.

In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, homosexuality is legal and the state largely stays out of issues of private morality.

But as conservative religious groups become more prominent in political life, police are increasingly finding other ways to crack down on LGBT communities.

At the weekend, they arrested 58 Indonesians and foreigners at a Jakarta sauna popular with gay men, allegedly for violating the country's pornography laws. Indonesia's pornography legislation - passed in 2008 and often criticised by legal experts and human rights activists for being too vague - technically prohibits any public depiction of sex for profit, but in practice it is often used against politically vulnerable groups.

Detainees hold items from a men's club in a police vehicle after the police conducted a weekend raid on what authorities ...
BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

Detainees hold items from a men's club in a police vehicle after the police conducted a weekend raid on what authorities described as a "gay spa" in Jakarta, Indonesia.

"We've increasingly seen police targeting LGBT groups using pornography laws," said Ricky Gunawan, the director of the Community Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta. In fact, last week's incident was the third of its kind that has been reported this year. In April, police in the city of Surabaya broke up a party at a hotel for similar reasons, arresting 14 men, and in May, 141 men were arrested at a sauna in Jakarta.

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A plainclothes policeman holds a rifle as he escorts suspects during a police investigation after a weekend raid on what ...
BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

A plainclothes policeman holds a rifle as he escorts suspects during a police investigation after a weekend raid on what authorities described as a "gay spa" in Jakarta.

"These communities have always been targeted by police, but we've seen this worsen since 2016, when a number of high-level politicians made statements portraying LGBT communities as immoral or a threat to the nation," Gunawan said.

There have been several public comments that may have led police to believe a crackdown was in order, but the most famous was probably delivered by Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who said last year that the LGBT agenda was like a "proxy war" threatening national sovereignty.

"This is a kind of modern warfare," he said, according to Tempo magazine. "It's dangerous as we can't see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed - now the (LGBT) community is demanding more freedom, it really is a threat."

Policemen hold rifles during the weekend raid on a "gay spa" in Jakarta.
BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

Policemen hold rifles during the weekend raid on a "gay spa" in Jakarta.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said last year that the job of police was to defend LGBT communities and other groups from discrimination, but he has largely stayed on the sidelines of the debate as the crackdown has intensified.

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Since the end of 2016, radical Islamists have also been playing a larger role in Indonesia's politics. Groups like the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, were influential in organising mass rallies calling for the imprisonment of Christian Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama for allegedly committing blasphemy against Islam. They got their wish in May.

Ironically, pornography laws have also been used to target Islamist FPI leader Rizieq Shihab. Police accused him of violating them by sending sexually explicit images by phone, or "sexting", with a mistress. He fled the country, and many analysts suspected authorities were using the laws to clip the wings of an Islamist movement that had gotten too powerful for their liking.

A police line is seen at the gate of a men's club after a weekend raid on what authorities described as a "gay spa" in ...
BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

A police line is seen at the gate of a men's club after a weekend raid on what authorities described as a "gay spa" in Jakarta.

The glaring exception to Indonesia's tolerance of private sexuality is the conservative and semi-autonomous Aceh province, where sharia courts now dole out public punishments. In May, two men were publicly caned for having sex.

But even in more liberal cities like Jakarta, where gay clubs and queer advocacy groups operate openly, the spate of arrests has had a chilling effect on the LGBT community.

"The situation right now is very sad," said Azril Hadimirza, the head of People's Diversity Network, a new support organisation for LGBT Indonesians and other minorities. "LGBT persons have always faced discrimination in the workplace, or in their family lives, but now the police are using the power of the state against us in our private spaces, too.

 - The Washington Post

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