An Initial Observation of Homosexual and Transgender Experiences in the Islamic Province of Aceh, Indonesia: Political Dynamics and Daily Lives (Between Discrimination and Empowerment)

Farid Muttaqin 



This paper examines the different responses toward homosexuality and transgender(ism)[1] in the Islamic province of Aceh, Indonesia. First, I will elaborate on the attitudes of groups ‘external’ to homosexual and transgender communities, which include both political and social entities. Here, I will describe several governmental policies addressing issues of sexuality and gender or displaying a specific focus on homosexuality. Furthermore, I will explore how these polices awaken negative responses of both governmental officials and residents toward homosexual and transgender communities.

Secondly, I will examine the responses ‘internal’ to homosexual and transgender communities to the political and social reality of Islamized Aceh. Here, to some extent, I will also document parts of Acehnese homosexual and transgender lives. While within this situation it is found that public discrimination and violence against homosexual and transgender (as) individuals and (as) groups is more apparent, I contend that such negative political and social attitudes did not really ‘destroy’ the unique spaces for expressing their homosexual and transgender identity and orientation. I will also explore how living under the (difficult) situation of the implementation of Islamic sharia law becomes a ‘blessing in disguise’ for the community to both empower themselves and strengthen public awareness.

In writing this paper, I use data mainly gathered over a 3-year assignment from November 2008 to January 2012. During that period employed with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), I was actively engaged with civil society groups working on women’s rights and gender equality. This provided me a wide opportunity for deeper engagement in programs empowering homosexual and transgender rights. I had many opportunities for both formal and informal conversations and interviews. This experience not only provided me access to the activism and social activities of several homosexual and transgender communities, but also became an important medium to closely witness various forms of discrimination and violence under the context of applying Islamic sharia. Therefore, this paper is meant as a reflection upon my engagement in activism and advocacy in gender and sexual rights in the region.

Before my arrival to the United States to begin my doctoral study at SUNY-Binghamton this Spring 2012, I was specifically involved in research under a collaborative of local institutions – the Center of Women’s Studies at the State Islamic University of Aceh, UN Women, and Partners for Prevention – on masculinity and its impact on violence within the context of conflict; among the findings were that the conflict was reinforcing hegemonic patriarchal masculinity and the attitudes contributing to gender-based violence. Even when the conflict ends, gender-based abuse and discriminatory views and behaviors still exist. Women and those communities viewed as ‘the second social groups’ under patriarchal gender beliefs –including homosexuals and transgender – have been among the targets for public and political violence. It can be said, the end of the 30-year does not necessarily stop violence.[2]

Aceh: From Special Autonomy to Islamic Law (on Traditional Morality)

The policy of otonomi khusus (special autonomy) given by the national government of Indonesia has been the opening for local authorities in Aceh to use Islam – as a religion and as a ‘legal and political system’ – for both political and social purposes. Therefore, it is very important to describe this as a point of departure in elaborating political and social attitudes toward homosexuality and transgender. In fact, as commonly understood, in various contexts of political Islam, gender, sexuality and women’s rights are seen to be three integrated aspects that always exist in the application of Islamic law. They are also one of the first tools used to gain political attention in an election year, or in any other political campaign.

Looking back over the past 30 years, the province – located in the western most tip of Indonesia – endured a violent conflict involving Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, or the Free Aceh Movement) and Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI, or the Indonesian National Armed Forces). Following the 2004 devastating tsunami that claimed around 225,000 lives and seriously destroyed the area, the military conflict formally ended in 2006 when GAM and the Government of Indonesia signed a peace agreement in Helsinki facilitated by Mahtii Ahtisari the former President of Finland.

The Finish-brokered peace treaty was not the first attempt to bring an end to the war. Among the crucial efforts was the formulation of national policies to give the province special autonomy. In 1999, the National Law No. 44 on Penyelenggaraan Keistimewaan Aceh (The Governance of The Specialty of Aceh) was signed and followed by the National Law No. 18/ 2011 on Otonomi Khusus bagi Provinsi Daerah Istimewa Aceh sebagai Provinsi Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (Special Autonomy for Special Province of Aceh as the Province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam) to give a more extensive opportunity to the province in administering its domestic affairs, including empowering economic, natural, and human resources, enhancing local initiatives toward democracy, enforcing local governance mechanisms, strengthening the function of local parliament, and implementing Islamic sharia. Finally, in 2006, National Law No. 11 on the Government of Aceh (LoGA) strengthened the legal foundation to allow the implementation of Islamic sharia and customary law.[3]

More recently, the majority in Aceh, especially among the educated groups, believe that the policy of special autonomy to implement Islamic law was a political maneuver by the central government to address the emerging desire for separatism. Looking at the social, political, and cultural history of the region and the strong association with Islam, giving political and legal autonomy to apply Islamic law appeared to be a strategic choice to cool down the situation and the fight the fire of separatism. Local leaders argue the desire for sharia is not a recent initiative, as mentioned in the Naskah Akademik (academic document) of the Qanun Aceh on Islamic Crime (Jinayat). Alyasa Abubakar, a former head of the Sharia Body of Aceh, writes, “In its long history, Aceh was famous as a society that was very close and fanatic to Islam and adopted Islam as a cultural and personal identity” (page 7). Furthermore, “In the era of the United Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) and since the country’s independence day, Aceh has requested and even insisted to the central government that [Aceh] gain an authority to implement Islamic sharia in various aspects of life, including law, social and village governance.”

Given these strong local voices for the implementation of Islamic sharia law based on historical tradition, it is important to also highlight that certain local groups gain greater political benefits in Islamic law and are interested in maintaining the situation. While the policy allowing the implementation of Islamic law was initially a political strategy of the central government, it has become a tool for preserving, if not increasing, political power and position within the society for certain actors and social groups.

Although the legal and political authority and freedom to implement Islamic sharia is only one aspect of the special autonomy given by the central government, it seems that this is among the most influential factors driving both social and political lives. Since the issuance of local autonomy, Islamic law has been gaining the most serious attention from both the government and general public. It is very easy in such situations to find examples of how people simply connect various aspects of life to Islam, in order to garner public support. In fact, the exploitation of “Islam” has become synonymous with an expression of “local nationalism” (i.e. in contrast to “central nationalism” as part of Indonesia).

That is not to say there haven’t been inconsistencies in the implementation of sharia. One important example is that post-tsunami rehabilitation projects, which have involved international communities, has broken the ‘closed gate’ of Aceh and brought the society into more open space of interaction with not only global communities, but also global ideas. As a result, human rights, gender equality, democracy, and civil society have become more popular concepts within certain groups. Grassroots civil society organizations focusing on various social and humanitarian issues appeared to be growing fast–like mushrooms in a rain session. The international agencies play a significant role not only in the process of post-tsunami rehabilitation, but also in the democratization of Aceh. Their active and significant involvement in rehabilitation projects with people from various social and community levels, and grassroots organizations, has given them influence within society. One could suggest that it was the influence of the international community which led the often hardliner Governor Irwandi Yusuf to reject the compilation of Islamic crime bylaw issued by the provincial parliament in 2009.

Now, why are gender, sexuality, and women’s rights important issues in the awakening of ‘local nationalism’ under the implementation of Islamic law?

To some extent, it can be said that the history of Aceh must be studied as the history of Islam in Aceh, as it was an Islamic kingdom (sultanate) with a powerful king and queen, and within the framework of Islam as religion and as a political and legal system. In this story of history, women’s rights –and therefore gender and sexuality—appeared to be an issue that gained a serious attention: women’s rights in marital relationships extended the right of family property in the case of divorce, women appearance in political arenas as queen and military commander, and women as example of good behavior such that ‘women are the pillar of the nation/state; if women have good morality, so has the state;’. That period in Aceh is remembered as being politically, socially, and religiously stable, and women enjoyed greater rights, while respecting men, especially their husbands. In the recent era, some members and authorities of Aceh promote adopting these historical models. It is interesting to note that these aspects of traditional gender roles and morality are in stark contrast to many other areas in Indonesia. The implementation of sharia as envisioned is not a return to this version of historical Aceh; the re-construction of traditional gender roles and morality under the guise of Islamic law is a political and legal way to control women’s bodies and sexuality.

Homosexuality and (Trans)gender(ism): “External” Social-Political Dynamics

In understanding external social political dynamics toward homosexual and transgender in Aceh, I will first describe local regulations on sexuality and sexual activities. In Aceh, these are bylaws published as qanun (or Provincial Islamic bylaws), qanun syariat Islam, or qanun Aceh. I will follow this with a description of how these qanun lead to increasingly negative political and social attitudes toward homosexual and transgender groups as shown by governmental officers and community members.

In the year 2003, the provincial government of Aceh made three separate qanuns that directly refer to Islamic traditional ethics and morality: on Khamr or drinking alcohol (Qanun Aceh No. 12), on Maisir or gambling (Qanun Aceh No. 13), and on Khalwat or non marital intimacies between man and woman (Qanun Aceh No. 14). In the traditional Islamic legal system, these three aspects have been seen as the foundation of Islamic ethics. When implemented in Aceh, they become the cornerstone of the local nationalism movement, and clearly distinct from non-Islamic ethics and morality of other Indonesian societies. In the supplemental document to the Qanun Aceh on Hukum Jinayat, called Naskah Akademik (academic document), and authored by Professor Alyasa Abubakar, from the Aceh Islamic State University and former head of the Sharia Body of Aceh, it mentions that among the objectives of this sharia-based regulation was to control the emerging public and popular punishments and sanctions against those accused of committing the activities ruled in the qanun. However, social punishments didn’t end with the establishment of these regulations.

Legislation to compile the various laws of Qanun Aceh and the three separate qanuns on khamr, maisir and khalwat under a single law called Hukum Jinayat (Islamic Criminal Law) was approved by the provincial parliament in 2009. As stated in Abubakar’s Naskah Akademik, this compilation was meant to make the regulation of these three aspects “solid, sharper, simpler, and nonrepetitive.” But the law was not signed by the governor. This showdown between the Governor and the members of parliament had the effect of an ‘awakening’ political and public phobia against homosexual and transgender communities. In my opinion, the fact that the Qanun was passed by parliament and not signed by the governor has created a legal certainty for social or popular violence.

As with other qanun Aceh, the Qur’an and hadith (the Prophet Muhammad’s examples) are the primary legal references for Hukum Jinayat. Although acceptable in the Islamic legal system, I view that the use of the Qur’an and hadith as a legal reference is problematic as they both invite different approaches and different interpretations. How could we base two sources with such differences into a single formal legal system? It is impossible without claiming absolute truth and by oppressing other interpretations. Its construction is therefore a simplification and singularization of the existing religious opinions only possibly through political action over the minority opinion. While the policy of special autonomy really gives legal and political legitimacy for employing Islamic resources like the Qur’an and hadith, it is only successful because the provincial parliament is dominated by Islamist political parties like Justice and Prosperity Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera) and the Aceh Party (Partai Aceh). Within this political and religious situation, provisions on sexuality that are not based on the Quran and hadith appear to be marginal or even absent in the Qanun.

However, it is interesting that in its legal reference the Qanun also uses the National Law No. 7/1984 that ratified the 1979 UN General Assembly’s Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Even though CEDAW is not an international legal instrument on homosexual and transgender rights, it has been referred globally as a legal reference in ending gender- and sexuality-based discrimination and violence. At best, using CEDAW in the Qanun exhibits a lack of awareness of CEDAW as human rights instrument, at worst it suggests political pandering to civil society and human rights advocates. To whatever extent, it proves that gender, sexuality and women’s rights are considered big political and religious issues in the context of contemporary “Islamization” of Aceh.

In Hukum Jinayat, issues of sexuality are presented and ruled in several sections. In Chapter I Article 1, several definitions are provided related to sexuality, including Khalwat (No. 16), Ikhtilath (No. 17), Bermesraan (No. 18), Mahram (No. 19), Zina (No. 20), Pelecehan Seksual (No. 21), Liwath (No. 22), Musahaqah (No. 23), Pemerkosaan (No. 24), and Qadzaf (No. 25).

Within the list of definitions, Liwath and Musahaqah are two terms that refer to same sex sexual relationships. Liwath is defined as hubungan seksual antara laki-laki dengan laki-laki yang dilakukan dengan kerelaan kedua belah pihak” (a sexual relationship between a man and another man based on voluntary consent of the two) and Musahaqah is hubungan seksual antara perempuan dengan perempuan yang dilakukan dengan kerelaan kedua belah pihak” (a sexual relationship between a woman and another woman based on voluntary consent of the two). The emphasis in the text is mine, as hubungan (relationship) displays an ambiguous meaning. Does relationship mean sexual desires, sexual identity, sexual ideology, or sexual activities, or none of the above? What actions define it a sexual relationship?  In bahasa Indonesia, even though it can be understood that hubungan seksual refers to sexual intercourse, it can also be understood as other sexual actions.

The Qanun in fact does not specifically define hubungan seksual. To refer to sexual intercourse, the Qanun uses the term persetubuhan (from tubuh, or body), which is more commonly and undeniably understood as sexual intercourse. Persetubuhan is used in the definition of Zina: “persetubuhan antara seorang laki-laki dan seorang perempuan tanpa ikatan perkawinan dengan kerelaan kedua belah pihak” (sexual intercourse between a man and a woman without a marital tie based on voluntary consent of the two). If we look at Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (the Grand Dictionary of Bahasa Indonesia), seksual (sexual) as an adjective has two meanings: (1) related to sex/gender (jenis kelamin); (2) related to sexual intercourse between men and woman. While hubungan seks is “physical contact among human beings for the sake of joy (kenikmatan)”. From the dictionary, hubungan seks or hubungan seksual can even include all physical actions and activities that are meant for eliciting joy and satisfaction. Likewise the naskah akademik does not exhibit particular information about liwath and musahaqah. In fact, the academic document described only seven actions considered Islamic crimes including (1) consuming alcohol,  (2) gambling, (3) khalwat (4) ikhtilath (5) adultary (zina) (6) rape, and (7) accusing khalwat, ikhtilath, zina and rape without evidence (”Naskah Akademik,” page 17).

The use of such ambiguous definitions suggests that the qanun was written without sufficient research and understanding of the issues of sexuality in general, and same-sex sexuality, in particular. As a consequence, there is no legal clarity (and therefore no legal certainty) in dealing with this issue of liwath and musahaqah. Furthermore, the qanun can be interpreted to allow ‘legitimate’ and legal discrimination and violence against homosexual men, women and transgender accused of having hubungan seksual regardless the form of the relationship. In Aceh, and in any society, sexuality itself is a social construction and requires a multi-interpretative approach. What would happen if these are applied in a legal system that really needs a single meaning to avoid multiple interpretations?

Liwath and Musahaqah in Hukum Jinayat are described and ruled more specifically in Section 9 Chapter 33:

Article (1) Every individual intentionally involved in liwath and musahaqah will be punished with 100 lashes at the most and fine of 1000 gr of pure gold at the most or 100 months in jail at the most.

Article (2) Every individual who intentionally ‘promotes’ liwath and musahaqah will be punished with 80 lashes at the most and fine of 800 gr of pure gold at the most or 80 months in jail at the most.

In Chapter 34, it is mentioned:

Every individual who intentionally does ‘activities’ mentioned in Chapter 33 against children will be punished with 200 lashes at the most and fine of 2000 gr of pure gold at the most or 200 months in jail at the most.

As mentioned above, even though the authors of the Qanun employed CEDAW as a legal reference, the essence of CEDAW as an international human rights instrument were not applied in the provisions concerning homosexual activities. As a result, the Qanun applies punishment which the CEDAW characterizes as cruel. The cruelty of these punishments can be magnified by the ineffectual definition of hubungan seksual, Furthermore, what action or activity can be defined as mempromosikan or promote, as referenced in Article 2. Could an individual be given 80 lashes for posting an updated status in Facebook?

It is not surprising then that we find emerging political and social prejudice and phobia toward homosexuality and transgender communities. It can be said that such a phobia is legitimized under the framework of of the Qanun.

It comes as a surprise, then that transgender is not specifically included or targeted in the Qanun provisions. While transgender or waria are ‘acceptable’ and move easily within most Indonesian communities, the latent social, cultural and religious perspectives on waria in Aceh suggests potential for significant public discrimination and support of legal morality enforcement.

Within Aceh, transgender individuals are labeled abnormal and believed to oppose and challenge Divine rules and public morality. Therefore, it goes, they are not good Muslims and do not abide by sharia. There have been cases of public and political violence against transgender communities: in March 2011, a transgender working as a street hair stylist was tragically murdered in an altercation with a man who taunted and verbally abused her. In that same year, political candidates and their supporters took to attacking transgender residents and their ‘free spaces’ like beauty salons, as an act to gain public support and enhance their reputation.

It is important to mention, that while some studies (for instance Oetomo, 2001; Boellstorff, 2005) may conclude that transgenders even homosexual transgenders are ‘acceptable’ within both Indonesia and Aceh, and they are free to live and mingle with other community members, patriarchal and homophobic perspectives strongly influence and contribute to a political awakening leading to actual and structural violence. In my conversations with women’s rights advocates, I found that some male activists had been labeled homosexual to create and strengthen public stigma against these women’s rights campaigns, against the reputations of individual male activists, and against certain homosexual communities. They all are oftentimes categorized in one box as anti-Islamic and anti-sharia.

Finally, the criminalization of homosexuality has weakened the infrastructure to care for homosexual or transgender victims of violence. It is very hard or even impossible to find a crisis center that provides non-judgmental treatment and care. Some cases of violence remain unreported because it would require individuals to disclose their sexual identity, thereby inviting secondary victimization. If the violence were covered in the media or by local rumor, the public would say the attack was the consequence of their own actions.

Homosexuality and Transgender: “Internal” Daily Lives

In this section, I will describe two different “layers” of daily life homosexual and transgender communities of Aceh encounter in dealing with Islam and Islamized Aceh: first as individual and personal experiences, and the other more organizational and institutional. This delineation is important to understand the spaces in which homosexual and transgender individuals have for expressing his/her own identity and orientation, including in the context of applied Islamic sharia. These stories illustrate an important fact that homosexual and transgender lived and “came out” in Aceh long before the recent policy of Islamic law.

To better elaborate the experience of an individual in Aceh, I would like to share a life story. Over the course of my fieldwork, I interviewed a number of friends who had already declared their homosexual orientation with a small group of women’s rights advocates. The decision to come out of the closet appears to be an interesting issue of study. While it is commonly believed that in an area with a dominant Islamic law like Aceh, it would not be a safe area for revealing one’s homosexuality, but it still happens here. With the loudest voices labeling homosexuality a sin and homosexuals the enemy of Islam, the same lessons taught to children remain unchallenged even as some children aged and faced their own homosexual urges. We can also see in these life stories that the ‘natural’ process of being gay and self-identifying as gay, is also a transformation in a more political level. The controversy of homosexuality in the context of religion rests in the erroneous notion that homosexuality is a natural choice and is a social and political statement made by an individual contrary to the pillars of religion.

What is the story of being gay in Aceh? When do individuals first discover his/her homosexuality? What were their feelings at that time? When and how did they accept their gay identity? What is the impact of the Islamization of Aceh to the individual’s coming out?

Even though he did not mind his name and identity disclosed in this paper, I’ve chosen to call him Kaka, not his real name. Here is his story, in his words, of being a homosexual and of experiencing homosexuality in the Islamic context of Aceh.

“I felt that I was a homosexual when I was about 5 years old; I began to enjoy observing men, some men who were older than me. I really liked taking showers in a river just to see some undressed men taking showers there too. At that time, I didn’t feel strange with this feeling though I tried to hide it. When I was in grade 7, when I was 12 or 13 years old, led by my curiosity as a teenager, I began to know more about sexuality. I secretly read my aunt’s (‘semi-adult’) novels and books.

One day, I found a book Pedoman Kehidupan Seks dalam Islam (A Handbook of Sexual Life in Islam) describing sex education in Islam, including the ethics of purity after sexual intercourse, etc. The book also explained sexual orientation and activity categorized as sexual deviation including same-sex intercourse. So, that was the first time I heard the term homosexual, and after reading the book I even categorized myself as homosexual. I was really sad as I knew from the book that I was part of those sexual deviants. I was really afraid after reading the book quoting a hadith, “A man having sexual intercourse with another man would never be pure from the ‘dirt’ even though he takes a shower with the whole sea.” I was really afraid and felt that I was a sinner since at that time I was already involved in same-sex intercourse with my friend. The feeling of being ‘abnormal’ and ‘sinful’ continued haunting me. Yet, as an adolescent, I felt that my homosexual interest was also emerging. I liked taking a shower in the river more than ever before, though I had a bathroom in my house. I had a fantasy that someday I would have a boyfriend who would live with and love me.

The feeling of being ‘abnormal’ and ‘sinful’ kept haunting me at that time. So, I decided to go to a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) as I saw in my young mind this was the best way of atonement and self-purification. I thought in the pesantren, I could deepen my Islamic knowledge and I would become a more pious Muslim so I could erase my homosexual feelings and desire. Nevertheless, that was of course not valid as pesantren indeed displayed a lot of opportunity for me to indulge my sexual interest in men.

I always believed this was a sin and abnormal, so I had to stop it. I was afraid of being punished by God in hell. That was my biggest fear regarding my sexual orientation at that time. Yet, it did not mean that I was not afraid of coming out and declaring this orientation in my family. I tried to hide my sexual orientation though I was not always successful since from my childhood I used to be expressive in articulating my sexual orientation especially through the way I spoke, dressed, and played. As a result, people around me oftentimes made me a joke. This experience really was psychologically traumatic; I was depressed and lost my self-confidence. Even until now I still have this problem.

Knowing this was such a common situation in Aceh, I continued to hide my sexual orientation until I encountered women’s rights advocacy and interacted with women’s rights activists in the city of Banda Aceh (the capital of the province) during the post-tsunami rehabilitation. Nevertheless, at that moment, the feeling of being abnormal still existed; I even planned to get married (I was 22 years old at that time). The discussions with colleagues and friends have allowed me to learn and better understand gender and sexuality. As a result, now I accept myself and my sexual orientation.”

The story of Kaka when he finally experienced an important transformation from a personal and painful life story to a more powerful, political action displays a very important example of an ‘internal’ response to homosexuality. While the interaction with women’s rights advocates in the area played a crucial role in shifting to a more open perspective on homosexuality, it occurred simultaneous to the implementation of Islamic sharia law and membership in a community critical toward the religious, political, cultural, and social institutions that appear to be discriminatory against homosexuals. Kaka is now undertaking Master’s coursework in gender and sexuality in a university in Australia.

A similar story was told by Rere who shared information that he felt that he liked men more than women beginning at about 6 or 8 years old. Like Kaka, Rere also liked to bathe in the river to see other men taking a shower there, too. When he was in senior high school, he admitted to being homosexual. Also, like Kaka, he has been involved in various forums and activisms on sexuality and gender.

From the example of Kaka and Rere, homosexuals in Aceh are engaging in same-sex contact, even beginning in childhood. This ranges from casual dates to intercourse. It includes individuals from all segments of society, including some stories of sex with police officers. In strict legal terms, having same-sex sexual relationships and same-sex sexual encounters are safer for homosexual couples, as compared to pre-marital sex for heterosexual ones. Kaka, Rere and their friends even joked that they really enjoyed being homosexual and having same-sex intimate encounters in Aceh because they could exist in secret and under a non-suspicious public gaze.

This sexual experience is indeed interesting in the context of the sharia law implementation in Aceh. The Hukum Jinayat strictly prohibits sexual intimacies in the forms of khalwat, ikhtilath and bermesraan (Chapter I, Article 1, No. 16, 17, 18). These three terms refer to sexual activities between men and women and do not include same-sex sexual activities. Nevertheless, the definition of these three forms of sexual intimacies –khalwat, ikthilat and bermesraan excluding non-heterosexual relationships– proves that the Qanun was made under a strong heteronormativism that acknowledges only heterosexual sexual relationships and sexual intimacies. Nevertheless, the inclusion of liwath and musahaqah and the presence of individuals and organizations voicing sexual rights, in the ‘implementation’ level have opened public ears and eyes to more intensely monitor and control over suspected ‘homosexual couples.’

A second perspective on the ‘internal’ dynamics among homosexual and transgender communities is through the programs and activities facilitated by Violet Grey. With Kaka and other friends, Rere mobilized and organized homosexual and transgender groups through VG, a local organization they established to advocate gender and sexual rights with a specific emphasis on the rights of LGBT communities in Aceh.  VG is the first LGBT organization in Aceh and is open and includes both individuals from the LGBT community and their allies.

In this example, we can find an important shift from an individual endeavor to a more solid movement of a community. VG was established in 2007 by a mix of veterans and newcomers to public advocacy. Through VG, under the sexual rights movement, homosexual and transgender rights are addressed and voiced without segregation. VG has become a medium for these ‘newcomers’ for deeper engagement in the movement and to empower themselves in the field of sexual and gender rights.

As previously stated, some transgender, homosexual, and homosexual transgender in Aceh often use beauty salons as safe spaces for self-expression and freedom to meet. There is freedom to express their own identity, dress according to their preferences, exchange and share stories and experiences, and have a career. As a result, the beauty salons become an important venue for VG and for building the group’s awareness of freedom and human rights. VG even consolidates and coordinates their programs and movements through salons. While political, social and religious authorities refer to the Qanun to oppress homosexual and transgender communities in the area, the groups use the Qanun to mobilize and consolidate their movement and advocacy in face of the political, social and religious oppression. The strengthening of the LGBT community is the unexpected consequence of the Islamization of Aceh.

The primary objectives of VG are (1) to disseminate information related to sexual and reproductive health issues to LGBT groups, (2) to endorse the fulfillment of human rights for LGBT groups through advocacy and public awareness building, (3) to develop the human resource capacity of its members and all accompanied groups, and (4) to expand the organizational network at the national and international level. In implementing its programs, VG also addresses the needs of building public knowledge, understanding and awareness about homosexual and transgender rights and to expanding homosexual- and transgender-friendly social spaces in the area, especially under the context of Islamization.

At the beginning, as an initial strategy for advocacy, VG actively facilitated programs focusing on HIV-AIDS issues. With this focus, VG could develop a network with governmental or semi-governmental institutions both at the national and local levels, such as the National Commission on HIV-AIDS. Later, in 2009, VG began collaborating with HIVOS, a Dutch-based international NGO, and started strengthening and expanding its focus to human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights. The drafting of Hukum Jinayat and a number of cases of discrimination and violence encouraged VG and HIVOS to move from their work on HIV-AIDS to focus more on human rights. The programs in partnership with HIVOS had three main objectives: (1) strengthening LGBT communities in Aceh through training and other capacity building activities, (2) the dissemination of knowledge and information on sexuality and gender mobilization through research, documentation and publication, and (3) building and enhancing awareness through public campaigns.

VG has also facilitated community forums on Islam and sexuality, and the impact of sharia on their lives. In some forums, it became clear that LGBT individuals were still struggling with being religiously ‘abnormal’ and ‘sinful’. Within the discussion they could share their feelings and try to seek solutions based on religious approaches. The forum allowed them to support each other, strengthen their self-esteem and reaffirm their identity as good Muslims. In addition to these discussion forums, VG also facilitated activities to improve the professional capacities of its members. They hosted trainings on fashion and modeling, presentation skills, management and organizations, dance, etc. These events have also been subversive by some political, social, and religious authorities. Is it appropriate for pious Acehnese to engage in fashion shows, or beauty and dance contests? The criticism is not reserved for the LGBT community, as an Acehnese girl was very publically condemned for participating and winning the Miss Indonesia contest.

VG also invited other advocates, members of local human rights and women’s organizations and progressive Muslim groups to the trainings and forum. VG succeeded in creating a local network and mediated the development of LGBT-friendly communities in Aceh which became important partners in voicing LGBT rights in the context of Islamic sharia law.  In my opinion, the educational, social, and professional development activities have played an important role in challenging the traditional construction of social morality of Aceh.

Within the LGBT community, these activities provided new and larger spaces to freely express their own sexual and gender identities. In ‘underground’ members-only events, VG community members often used these spaces to explore and articulate freely their sexualities, in effect creating place akin to a gay bar, where they could be the dominant community. These underground spaces became especially critical when the former safe spaces like beauty salons were targets of political propaganda and aggressive attacks, especially in the local election season.

Conclusion and Final Notes

It is undeniable that the implementation of Islamic sharia in Aceh has sought to assert a more traditional Islamized society. The politics have significantly influenced the adoption of traditional social views and attitudes towards sexuality. The qanun has become the formal legal foundation for political and social discrimination and violence, and while political and social dynamics under an Islamized Aceh appear to be increasingly unfriendly, LGBT groups have developed their own ‘internal’ tools to foster self-empowerment and challenge the oppression. With this unintended consequence, one could consider the implementation of Islamic law a ‘blessing in disguise’, leading to individual, community and social transformation.

Studying the real experiences of homosexual and transgender individuals, especially by international researchers, would play an important role in providing larger spaces for these groups in achieving their due human rights. International study will invite greater attention that will later be very significant in mobilizing and consolidating gays and transgenders’ rights advocacies and movements, especially in Muslim-dominated countries. Even though the Hukum Jinayat was not formally made into law, the underpinnings exist, and active monitoring is really necessary.

The focus of this paper in describing the dynamics of only a few specific groups has limited itself to a slight segment of a very diverse community. Given the significant variety, thorough study of human rights and women’s rights advocacy groups in the area is warranted. A more comprehensive study would play an important role in presenting the complex situation that exists, as well as promoting the continued transformation of the community and the individual.

*Paper prepared for the 2012 Annual Conference of Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Toronto, Canada, 15-18 March 2012. I wish to thank Karen Kray for generously helping me edit and give valuable comments to this paper. I also would like to dedicate the publication of this paper in to the late Ichal Riza, a dedicated activist who worked tirelessly to empower gender and sexual minority groups in Aceh. I owed him a lot for his tremendous helps to introduce me to the LGBT groups in the area. He passed away in 2018.

[1] I use term transgender(ism) to address its more complex meaning which refers not only transgender experiences and identities, but also ideology and perspective in viewing ‘transgender.’

[2] UNDP and UN Women’s study of gender-based Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) provides some examples of the continuous perpetration of gender and sex based violence and discrimination in some post-conflict countries like Republic of Congo and Sudan in the forms of economic and financial subordination, domestic burdens, HIV-AIDS, and marginalization in political and decision making positions. See, UNDP and UN Women Interagency Working Group on DDR, “Gender Responsive DDR How-To-Guide”, 2011.

[3] Article 6 point (2) of the LOGA describes ‘mandatory affairs included in the province’s authority Article’ which are, among others, to implement Islamic law and customary law, to expand Islamic lessons in its local curriculum, and to give greater authority for Muslim clerics (ulama) in making legal and political decisions. Meanwhile, Article 20 of the LOGA includes “Islam” or keislaman as one of legal bases of governing Aceh province.

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