Homophobia in Indonesia: The Politics of Sexual Morality and the Globalization of Western Homophobia

Farid Muttaqin, Pendiri LETSS Talk


I view that there was a significant change in the studies of homosexualities or queer identities or gender and sexual diversities in Indonesia. Earlier studies focus on observing certain forms of “native” sexual and gender identities which address queer and homosexual experiences. Such an observation can be found, for instance, in the works of Wachirianto (1991) on warok-gemblak in Ponorogo, East Java, Andaya (2000) on bissus in South Sulawesi, and Graham (2001) on calalai in Bugis community.

A new emphasis on how “native” homosexual peoples are engaged in the process of negotiating their sexual and gender identities, particularly within the context of globalization was shaped. Examples of the latter academic research include the work of Blackwood (2010) on tombois and femmes in Padang, West Sumatra, and of Boellstorff (2005) on gay and lesbi, an “archipelagic” category of homosexualities different from “ethnolocalized homosexualities and transvestites” (Boellstorff, 2005: 43), such as bissus and warok-gemblak in the earlier studies.
While these all studies contribute to the academic knowledge building on Indonesian “queerness” and the discourse of gender and sexual diversities, I view the issue of homophobia is paid a very little attention in these studies. I found only Boellstorff (2009) who has a specific work on homophobia linked with the politics of masculinity and national belonging.

Blackwood’s (2010) observation demonstrates tombois and femmes’s sense of agency in terms of how these “local” lesbi show a “capacity” to negotiate their gender and sexual identities with, in particular, the state’s and Islamicist normative gender and sexuality constructions. But, the “capacity” and experience in negotiating gender and sexual identities do not indicate that these tombois and femmes are empowered to struggle against homophobia within the society. The fact that both native or ethnolocalized homosexualities and national or archipelagic gay and lesbi live within and interact with the society, is often used as an argument to characterize Indonesia as a country that is “tolerant of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism” (Boellstorff, 2009:130).

Homophobia appears to be emerging in the political and public arena in contemporary Indonesia. A survey conducted nationally in October 2012 tells the increasing intolerance against minorities within Indonesia society and shows intolerance against homosexual peoples to be in the first place followed by intolerance against people with different religious beliefs like Ahmadiyya and Shia (Denny JA Foundation and Indonesian Survey Circle Community, 2012). In March 2010, a group called the Unity Front of the Community of Islam (FPUI) terrorized International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) council that planned to conduct the IV Regional Conference of ILGA Asia and pressed the police office to ban the conference (ILGA, 2010). At a formal political level, the government of Indonesia has issued the 1974 Marriage Law that acknowledges only traditional heterosexual marriages. In Aceh, the only province in the country authorized to implement Islamic law, in 2009 the provincial government has issued an Islamic Criminal Law that criminalizes gay homosexual sexual “activities.” The making of this provincial bylaw was followed by several cases of violence against LGBT people. These are an example of homophobia in Indonesia, both at formal political level and in “daily lives.”

Kulick (2009) and Boellstorff (2009) bring about the conceptual problem of homophobia in terms of its focuses more on individual psychological and private aspect, not on social and political structures. In this paper, I conceptualize homophobia in its general meaning of “hatred of queers” which includes ideology, ideas, and attitudes that show phobia toward gender and sexual differences. Even though it originally grounds in individual psyche, since it is developed under the ideology sexism based on heteronormativism, it is applied in social and political structures. I will discuss certain social and political elements that contribute to the development of homophobia in Indonesia: the state’s politics of moral sexuality of both during Dutch colonial period and Indonesian postcolonial era and globalization of (Western) homophobia. I will observe how the politics, the idea and the attitude of homophobia had a historical root in the politics of sexual morality of Dutch colonial rulers and continue in the recent politics of both the national and local governments in Indonesia.

The State’s Politics of Sexual Morality

Stoler (1989) points out the politics of sexuality was applied by Dutch colonial ruler in East Indies, now Indonesia, to build “racial distinction” between the colonizer and the colonized. Stoler suggests that “the very categories of ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’ were secured through form of sexual control which defined the domestic arrangement of European and the cultural investment by which they identified themselves” (2005:635). This politics of sexuality during the Dutch colonial period was applied as a way of the colonial politics of inclusion to clearly and distinctly separate between the colonizer and the colonized. Sexuality was deployed as an element to distinguish the two “nations” and “races.” Stoler observes that “[i]nclusion and exclusion required regulating the sexual, conjugal, and domestic life of both European in the colonies and their colonized subjects” (1989:635). The sexual morality was applied when the Dutch colonial ruler formed certain policies and regulations, such as the restriction of European women’s entering East Indies as a form of sexual control to prohibit their sexual relationship with native men, who were labeled as “innocent but immoral” (Stoler, 1989:639) in terms of their sexual behaviors. Her observation develops an insight about the politics of “deploying sexuality” and the politics of sexual morality in an historical period of Indonesia.

While Stoler emphasizes her discussion on the relationship of men and women in both marital and outside marital institutions, I found that the Dutch colonial ruler applied the politics of sexual morality in the form of criminalizing those accused of committing pedophilia. Like in Stoler’s analysis, this situation occurred in the same colonial period of early 20th century. It is therefore this colonial phase that opened the discussion on the development of homophobia in Indonesia, including in a more recent period.

Sutjipto’s (1992) My Path of Life (Jalan Hidupku), the first “autobiography of Javanese gay elite of the early 20th Century,” provides information on homosexual lives during 1920s-1930s in Indonesia. The manuscript was written in 1920s. One aspect of homosexual life in Dutch communities at that time was to have sexual intercourse with boys. Pedophilia was common within Dutch communities in Indonesia (Sutjipto, 1992: 131). There were number of boy prostitutes called bestong in Java at that time (Sutjipto, 1992:131, 133). For the boys, financial profit was one the main reasons to be involved in the prostitution (Sutjipto, 1992:114-115, 131). The interest in continuing to a higher educational level was another important motive of boy prostitutes. Dutch homosexual men often promised the boys to fund their education (Sutjipto, 1992:118).

The Dutch colonial ruler formulated the Criminal Law (Wetboek van Strafrecht) that included pedophilia as a crime (Budiman, 1992:x). The Dutch colonial ruler applied again the politics of sexual morality as in the case of concubinage and “inter-racial marriage” in Stoler’s (1989) observation. The first pedophilia case brought into the court was noted to occur in 1938; at the same time, the Dutch colonial period sent a lot of homosexual men to jails, not only in big cities like Batavia (Jakarta), Surabaya, Semarang, and Bandung, but also in smaller cities like Cirebon, Cianjur, Salatiga, Magelang, Pamekasan, Padang and Makassar (Budiman, 1992:x-xi). Though the Dutch ruler criminalized only the case of pedophilia, the situation to some extent influenced to the development of homophobia, particularly when Dutch media reported the situation by labeling this sexual phenomena among homosexuals at that time within the context of “morality.” A number of Dutch media published in Indonesia called this “homosexuality” as zeden-scandaal (the scandal of morality) (Budiman, 1992:x-xi). I view this period as a crucial moment in the development of homophobia within Indonesian society, both at the political and social levels.

The state’s politics of sexual morality continues in a more recent time, especially during the New Order administration under President Soeharto (1966-1998). Weiringa (2003) observes that President Soeharto took the presidential position and maintained his power by “destroying” the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia/PKI), including its largest women’s organization, Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani). The politics of sexual morality was applied when President Soeharto labeled women members of Gerwani as immoral, as “communist whores” (Weiringa, 2003:70), accused of getting involved in the murder of the “seven generals” and to mutilate the generals’ genitalia. By punishing women Gerwani, President Soeharto, who claimed himself as the Father of the Nation, made another political claim based on the politics of sexual morality as the savior of the Nation’s Morality.

The New Order regimes, as in Blackwood’s (2010) studies also constructed the “political ideology” of normative gender binary. This politics places gender relationship only within heterosexual form in which their sexual relationship is legitimate only within heterosexual marriage. This New Order’s politics of gender binary and heterosexual norm intersects with the “Islamicist interpretation” that brings the same understanding of gender binary (Blackwood, 2010). The formulation of the 1971 Marriage Law that carries a cultural and religious interpretation of traditional gender binary and heterosexual norm transforms such cultural and religious interpretation into more formal legal system. The politics of sexual morality and normative gender norm by the New Order regime strengthens heterenormativism and gives an influence to the development of homophobia within Indonesian society.

The reform movement (Gerakan Reformasi) in 1998 that ended the leadership of President Soeharto opened the window for the implementation of regional autonomy policy (Otonomi Daerah). Local governments at both district and provincial levels have now opportunity to formulate their own “local bylaws” (peraturan daerah). This recent political development has opened the continuation and expansion of the politics of sexual morality that is now implemented by the local governments. Aceh Province, the only province in Indonesia that gains the political and legal autonomy to formally implement Islamic sharia law, becomes the leading local government in the implementation of the politics of sexual morality in the recent times. “Homosexualities” are addressed as target of these legal formulations.

In 2009, Hukum Jinayat (Islamic Criminal Law) was approved by the provincial parliament of Aceh. Liwath and Musahaqah are two terms that refer to same sex sexual relationships addressed in Hukum Jinayat. Liwath is defined as a sexual relationship between a man and another man based on voluntary consent of the two and Musahaqah is a sexual relationship between a woman and another woman based on voluntary consent of the two. In Section 9 Chapter 33, it is stated:

(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.
(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.

The intersection of the state’s politics of sexual morality and the Islamicist interpretation has made homophobia more apparent in the wider public and social arenas in daily basis that involve non-governmental elements. Some cases of homophobia now seem to be “legitimate” as they gain support from both the state and the dominant Islamic “communities.” A religious group, the Defender of Islam Front (Front Pembela Islam/FPI) showed homophobic attitudes frequently, including in the recent case when they attacked a discussion forum attended by Irshad Manji, a Muslim lesbian from Canada, without any legal response from the police.

“Globalization” of Western Homophobia?

The sociologist Dennis Altman (1996) offers a concept of globalization of Western queer identities or “the internationalization of gay identities.” Many studies challenge this thesis, including Manalansan (2003) on Filipino gay men in New York, Wekker (2006) on the mati work of working class women in Paramaribo, Suriname, Blackwood (2010) on tombois and femmes in Padang, West Sumatra, and Boellstorff (2005) on gay (and lesbi) archipelago in Indonesia showing the diversities of (homo)sexual identities and experiences in these regions. Following this controversy on the “global gay thesis,” is there a possibility to call the “globalization of Western homophobia”? Or, any form of homophobia in Indonesia is simply a product of “native” politics and culture?

Despite the history of the politics of sexual morality was traced back in the Dutch colonial rule, the sense of “globalization of Western homophobia” is found when Dede Oetomo, a gay activist and a sociologist who founded the first gay organization in Indonesia, GAYa Nusantara, when he responded to the strong rejection against his running for a commissioner of the National Commission of Human Rights recently, said, “Kita ini meniru homophobia dari Barat, padahal di Barat homophobia sudah selesai” (We adopt Western homophobia. In fact, homophobia in the West was already “finished”) (Our Voice, 2012). 

The ongoing “globalization of Western homophobia” is indeed believed by some Muslim scholars in Indonesia. In responding to Oetomo’s opinion about the end of Western homophobia, Al-Mustofa (2012) argues that the fact that gay rights in the West, like in the United States, still deal with a lot of obstacles is evidence of the ongoing homophobia within Western society. Therefore, he states, “Let’s continue showing our homophobia, as Western society does so.”

While the state’s politics of sexual morality and the Islamicist interpretation on traditional motherhood and womanhood are close with local nationalism and “Islamism,” local politics and “culture,” Indonesian’s knowledge and application of the knowledge of homophobia seems to be influenced by Western homophobia when they encounter the discourse of Western homosexualities brought by “globalization.”

Beside through the “classic globalization” of colonialism, the “globalization of Western homophobia” is transferred through certain ways. The emerging gay and lesbian activism that involves international gay and lesbian communities is one way. Q! Film Festivals, for instance, are performed annually. Along with the growing access to internet, this situation often leads people in Indonesia to observe information related to queerness. Despite such an activism has contributed to empowering gay and lesbian movement in the country, especially in terms of their appearance in public sphere, this has also contributed to opening public “eyes” to watch homosexual lives closer. At the end, some Muslim groups, mainly FPI, target activities like Q!Film Festivals in their attacks.

Anthropological studies on queer identities or homosexualities or gender and sexual diversities in Indonesia mainly conducted by Western scholars are viewed as a possible media in building social knowledge and public awareness about homosexualities and queerness among Indonesians. While it still needs further elaboration, despite these contributions, the “adaptation” of the academic knowledge of these studies popular media possibly influences to strengthening homophobia within the society, especially when the “adaptation” creates public discourses through these popular media, an important aspect in the recent globalization era.


Anthropological studies of gender and sexual diversities in Indonesia contribute to presenting the sense of agency among local and national gay and lesbi in negotiating their gender and sexual identities. An observation of homophobia and how it was developed within Indonesian society will provide an understanding of both political and cultural processes of the development of homophobia. This observation will further consider the importance of discussing how the “sense of agency” can contribute to Indonesian gay and lesbi meet their sexual rights, including the rights to be free from violence and discrimination based on the ideology of homophobia and heterosexism.

Works Cited

Al-Mustofa, Abdullah. 2012. “Homophobia dan Naluri Kemunkaran” (Homophobia and the Evil Instinct). Suara Hidayatullah (November 11, 2007).

Altman, Dennis. 1996. “Rupture or Continuity? The Internationalization of Gay Identities.” Social Text (48), pp. 77-94.
Andaya, Leonard. 2000. “The Bissu: Study of a Third Gender in Indonesia.” Andaya, Barbara. Other Pasts: Women, Gender and History in Early Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hawai’i at Mânoa.
Blackwood, Evelyn. 2010. Falling Into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2005. The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
____________2009. The Emergence of Political Homophobia in Indonesia: Masculinity and National Belonging. In Murray, David. Homophobias: Lust and Loathing Across Time and Space. Durham : Duke University Press.
Budiman, Amen. 1992. “Introduction”. In Sutjipto. Jalan Hidupku: Autobiografi Seorang Gay Priyayi Jawa Awal Abad XX (My Life: an Autobiography of a Javanese Aristocratic Gay of the Early 20th Century). Jakarta: Apresiasi Gay Jakarta.
Graham, Sharyn. 2001. “Negotiating Gender: Calalai’ in Bugis Society.” Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context (6). http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue6/graham.html
Kulick, Don. 2009. “Can There Be an Anthropology of Homophobia?”. In Murray, David. Homophobias: Lust and Loathing Across Time and Space. Durham : Duke University Press.
Manalansan, Martin F. 2003. Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 1989. “Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-Century Colonial Cultures.” American Ethnologist 16(4):634-660.
Sutjipto. 1992. My Life: an Autobiography of a Javanese Aristocratic Gay of the Early 20th Century). Jakarta: Apresiasi Gay Jakarta.
Wachirianto, Iwan. 1991. Gembalakan dalam Perspectif Sosiologis (Gemblak, A Sociological Perspective). Surabaya: Fisip Universitas Airlangga.
Wieringa, Saskia. 2003. “The Birth of the New Order State in Indonesia: Sexual Politics and Nationalism.” Journal of Women’s History, Vol.15(1), pp.70-91.
Wekker, Gloria. 2006. The Politics of Passion: Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora. New York: Columbia University Press.

Online Resources

“Dede Utomo Bertekad Perjuangkan Homoseksual dan Waria Jika Terpilih Menjadi Komnas HAM” (Dede Oetomo Will Fight for Homosexuals’ and Warias’ Rights). http://www.ourvoice.or.id/id/2012/10/dede-utomo-bertekad-perjuangkan-homoseksual-dan-waria-jika-terpilih-menjadi-komnas-ham/.
“If only It Were a Movie – Homophobic Radicals Protest Indonesia’s Q! Film Festival.” http://www.sdgln.com/news/2010/10/11/if-only-it-were-movie-homophobic-radicals-protest-indonesia-s-q-film-festival.

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