Queer Life in Indonesia

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Indonesia does not criminalize homosexuality, cultural understanding of gender is diverse, and the country has had the oldest LGBT organizations in Asia.

Did you know that President Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia? Probably. But did you know he had a nanny who was is a transgender, a waria? Despite the diverse attitudes throughout the country, some regions nicer than others, trans women in Indonesia live in a Muslim nation where they have a “pageant, work as singers or at salons and include well-known celebrity talk show host,” notes the Associated Press.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim society in the world. With an estimated 200 plus million Muslims, it is considered to contain over 10 percent of the Muslim community worldwide in its borders. Indonesia is not unique just by population, though. This is a country that is one of the few places in the Muslim World where the old and the new constantly co-exist, struggle for their respective places, and find a common ground.

“Islam in Indonesia has a centuries old tradition of being a tolerant, compassionate, and inclusive religion, where the difference between what is Islam and what is Arab is keenly felt,” noted a documentary on PBS, the US public broadcaster.

As the largest society in the Muslim World, Indonesia influences cultures far from its borders and has been influenced by other cultures too, Muslim and otherwise. I grew up in Somalia, for example, a society far from Indonesia, and I have noted previously how Indonesia has influenced my own culture as well as how Indonesia has been influenced by other cultures, too. As such, as a young man I became interested in how sexual diversity is viewed in Indonesia and even wrote LGBT memoirs in my book Illegal Citizens.

Sexual and gender diversity in Indonesia is a clear example of how the nation is influenced by several factors. First of all, Indonesia is one of the Muslim countries in which homosexuality is legal. Indonesia is also home to some of the oldest LGBT Rights organizations in Asia. This part of modern Indonesia has to do with the fact that the country was colonized by the Netherlands, which did not have anti-sodomy laws and did not push its laws on its subjects the way Britain did. At the same time, the culture, just like many other cultures, has had its own historical connections to sexual and gender diversity. For example, some communities in Indonesia have more inclusive understanding of gender than other parts of the Muslim World. However, the Muslim World did expose homophobia to Indonesia, even if the national law is not homophobic. This led to some regions of the country having homophobic laws.

Although there is a lot of recent bad news coming out of Indonesia, it is important to remember and not lose focus of the fact that Indonesia is still a better place for LGBT Rights than other Muslim countries, including its neighbors. Indonesia just faces a lot less issues than other societies when it comes to extreme forms of Islam. For example, Indonesia’s most immediate neighbor as well as its closest cultural Muslim society, Malaysia, still criminalizes sexual activities between members of the same sex. That has to do with the fact that Malaysia was a British subject, as well as a country that is friendly with Wahhabis. For example, the Atlantic reported recently that “Malaysia still has over six times the rate of Muslim citizens leaving for battle in the Middle East as Indonesia has,” although Malaysia has only a population of 30 million versus Indonesia’s 250 million population.

In other words, there is a growing modern effort to create more homophobic attitudes in Indonesia. However, there has been a growing effort in the past thirty-plus years of creating awareness as well. That is what it means to live in a country where homosexuality is not illegal, where cultural communities have diverse understanding of gender identity, and where there is a collaborative effort between locals and the international community to fight for rights.

Afdhere Jama is the author of  Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the FaithHe lives in the United States.

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