A transgender woman sings in the streets of Yogyakarta for money. Many LGBT people turn to begging because of discrimination in the workplace. (Photo courtesy of Hartoyo/Our Voice)
For Hartoyo, being gay in Indonesia has had consequences for as long as he can remember.
He recalls realizing he was attracted to men when he was a fourth-grader in elementary school. The bullying started soon after.
Kids in his school would mock him, calling him banci, or “sissy”. He describes the first six months of his junior high school as the “scariest” in his life.
“I didn’t have courage to be myself,” Hartoyo said in an interview with ucanews.com. “I was afraid.”
Now an adult in his 30s, Hartoyo, is no longer the boy who cowered under the taunts of his peers. He’s the founder of Our Voice, an organization that advocates for the concerns of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community in Indonesia. Still, his sexuality is an emotionally charged subject.
“I feel sad every time I see a couple sitting in a park or in the street. They can express their love freely,” said Hartoyo, who uses a single name. “I want to be like them. But I live in Indonesia.”
And in Muslim-majority Indonesia, being gay has its ramifications.
In December last year, the country’s highest Islamic clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), issued a fatwa, or religious edict, that proposed harsh punishments for people engaging in homosexual acts. Suggested punishments include caning and even death. MUI officials publicly announced the fatwa earlier this month.
Indonesia’s national criminal code does not explicitly prohibit homosexual acts, though Aceh province’s sharia-based laws criminalize homosexuality.
The MUI is an influential Muslim organization, however, and observers say its fatwas have in the past been used by fundamentalist Muslims to justify acts of discrimination.
Rights activist Azriana works with the Jakarta-based National Commission on Violence against Women, or Komnas Perempuan. She said the fatwa is likely to intensify discrimination and violence against LGBT people.
“The fatwa combines molestation, which is a crime in the penal code system in Indonesia, with sexual orientation, which is not regarded as a crime,” said Azriana, who uses one name.
The fatwa has the potential, she said, “to criminalize people who don’t commit crimes”.
Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the fatwa will only make discrimination against the LGBT people more serious.
“The MUI’s fatwa wants them to be caned and even sentenced to death, instead of protecting them,” he said. “I can’t imagine how [MUI clerics] will fight against themselves if a member of their family is a member of the LGBT community.”
Komnas Perempuan recorded 37 cases of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people last year — the first year the organization tracked such cases. According to 2013 research from advocacy group Arus Pelangi, almost 90 percent of LGBT people have experienced some sort of violence, from threats to physical attacks.
However, MUI officials are defending the fatwa, which they say is a response to an increasingly prevalent “phenomenon” of public homosexual lifestyles.
“The phenomenon of sexual crimes and the phenomenon of deviated sexual orientation has come to society and this concerns the people. It then becomes a social problem,” Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh, secretary of the MUI’s commission on fatwas, said in an interview.
“MUI is called to answer such a contemporary issue and then to find a solution to it. Based on religious review and sociological and legal aspects as well, we issued the fatwa,” Sholeh said.
The fatwa has the support of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, whose members have engaged in violent acts against perceived enemies, often from other faith groups.
“Being homosexual isn’t God’s will,” Habib Muhsin, FPI’s chairman, said in an interview.
He said he believes the number of homosexual people in Indonesia will grow.
“According to Islam, the punishment is the death penalty,” he said.
However, it remains unclear what the long-term ramifications of the controversial fatwa may be.
Hartoyo, the LGBT activist who is himself a Muslim, is hopeful that Indonesians as a whole will not back the spirit of the fatwa.
“I believe that the fatwa, if it has to be introduced to society, will not get support from the people,” he said. “If some people use the fatwa to justify violence, we must wait for the state to take strict action.”