Asia-Pacific

'You feel very unsafe': Fears mount as Indonesia's gay sex ban looms

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As Indonesia debates whether or not criminalise same-sex relations as part of an overhaul of the country's criminal code, alarm among the LGTBIQ+ community is growing.

Growing up in a small village in northern Sumatra, not far from Indonesia's ultra-conservative Aceh province, Jayanto Tan spent his youth hiding his true identity.

"Being homosexual in Indonesia is not acceptable and you feel very unsafe and insecure and you get the feeling of fear the whole time," he told SBS News. 

In search of acceptance, Mr Tan moved to larger cities but found homophobia was rife across the county.

So, at age 26, he migrated to Australia.

Jayanto Tan says he can comfortably and openly express his sexuality through his art.
Jayanto Tan says he can comfortably and openly express his sexuality through his art.
SBS

"I decided I can't bear living in secret. My community in Indonesia can't stay true about their sexuality. When I was in Jakarta, Bali, Yogyakarta, when we go out, we never say we were gay but we have this negative feedback, people say 'oh homosexual be careful because they carry disease'," he said.

Now 49, Mr Tan became an Australian citizen in 2001.

He's currently studying fine arts in Sydney, where he says he can comfortably and openly express his sexuality in public, and through his art.

"At the moment, art is really the place where you can feel like you can 100 per cent be yourself," he said. 

Mr Tan hoped in the years that passed since he left, Indonesian attitudes to gay rights would have shifted.

But a trip home last month confirmed little has changed since he left.

"Even last month I went back to Bali and they talking about homosexual as a disease and I think how can I change their mind to think that homosexual is not a disease."

Anti-gay discrimination on the rise

As the country's parliament moves to revise the Dutch colonial-era criminal code, there are reports that anti-gay discrimination is increasing.

Initially, among a suite of other changes, were plans to criminalise public displays of same-sex relations.

In the latest draft, however, only so-called homosexual acts considered to be pornographic will be banned. 

Though watered down, there are concerns about how the proposed law may be interpreted.

Dr Helen Pausacker, the Deputy Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at University of Melbourne, says what exactly constitutes a pornographic act is under question. 

"What is going to constitute a pornographic act? Is it going to pornographic to kiss in public ? That still remains to be seen," she told SBS News.

She says debate around the status of same-sex relations has led to vigilante behaviour towards the LGBTQI+ community.

"What we have seen though is just merely discussing these drafts, there’s been a lot of extra-legal activity in Indonesia, so the idea that it might be criminalised has led for example, to people’s houses being invaded. 

"I think the fear is both, homosexuality will be made illegal but I think even more of a reason to fear is these vigilante gangs and the fact that police are making arrests," Dr Pausacker said.

Last year, more than 140 men were arrested for pornography in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, during a raid on a gay cub. 

Such incidents are causing unease among the LGBTIQ+ community, according to Dede Oetomo, an Indonesian-based gay rights activist. 

"They are worried, they are annoyed, they are scared," he told SBS.

As the debate continues, alarm is growing. 

This week it was announced that changes to the criminal code may not be finalised until the end of next year.

Mr Oetomo says if same-sex relations is criminalised, it would give police and vigilantes more leverage to harass and discriminate against them.

"Just to note, even before this revision of the criminal code, there have been raids of private sex parties of gay clubs and the flogging of the two guys in Aceh.  We know things have happened in an increasingly conservative environment since 2016. This is another blow to our rights," he said. 

At an Asian Food Festival at the University of Sydney, Indonesian students  serve up  traditional fare from their homeland.
At an Asian Food Festival at the University of Sydney, Indonesian students serve up traditional fare from their homeland.
SBS

Young Indonesians 'more open-minded'

At an Asian Food Festival at the University of Sydney, Indonesian students have set up a stall, serving traditional fare from their homeland.

Today, they are celebrating their culture, insisting there is much to be proud of.

But there's also an underlying concern about where Indonesia is headed in regards to LGBTIQ+ rights.

"I don't think it's something we should be proud of. I think it's a step backward," Indonesian student Nicholas Sasmita told SBS. 

He says younger Indonesian are more opened-minded about the issue. 

"Most of my friends are fine with it, they're accepting it and they're not going against it."

Another student, Olivia Oey, says despite the view of many in her homeland, she believes people should not be judged on their sexual orientation. 

"I believe every person has the right to live their life in their own way."

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