Behind Indonesia’s LGBT Moral Panic

An anti-LGBT banner in Jakarta. Photo by Jamison Liang.

In the last two months, Indonesia has been hit by a moral and political firestorm. LGBTs have become the number one topic on both conventional media and social media, with so many varied arguments for and against. The problem is, the coverage of these arguments is heavily asymmetrical and imbalanced, indicated on how so many people on my Facebook News Feed shared articles arguing in opposition to LGBTs. What’s worse is that public officials came out of the woodwork and chimed in on their agreement with these anti-LGBT sentiments.

Our Vice President has asked for UNDP and foreign aid directed to LGBT advocacy groups to be halted; Minister of Higher Education called for a ban of LGBTs to attend universities; Minister of Defense claimed that LGBTs are a form of proxy war by the West to undermine Indonesian sovereignty; Tangerang Mayor made the Twitterverse explode by asserting that homosexuality is caused by over-consumption of baby milk formula & instant noodles; and possibly the worst was former Information & Communications Minister’s tweet calling for the killing of gays, quoting religious scripture. Many human rights activists has called out the said officials for their hurtful remarks and demanded for apologies, but their pleas have landed on deaf ears.

It didn’t stop there. The conservative right has mobilized movements to shut down LGBT advocacies: talks were cancelled; a peaceful demonstration by LGBT activists was shut down and its participants were sent threat messages; the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission has banned all effeminate behavior/roles performed by males actors on television; emojis on LINE and WhatsApp depicting same-sex couples has been banned; and the world’s only transgender pesantren (read: Islamic boarding school) has been closed due to fear of safety and rejection by the community.

The scientific community, who I thought would be more rational and objective in their assessment, was no better. A renowned psychiatrist went on TvOne’s Indonesia Lawyer’s Club and deliberately misled the Indonesian public by selectively misquoting the PPDGJ (the Indonesian-equivalent of the DSM, a diagnosis manual for psychiatric disorders) to make it seem like it is a mental illness, where in fact the APA has removed it from being classified as such in in 1973 and our Ministry of Health followed suit in 1993.

The Indonesian Psychiatric Association also issued a statement, quoting that according to Law No. 18 of 2014 regarding Mental Health, LGBTs can be classified as ODMK or Orang Dengan Masalah Kejiwaan, which translates to ‘peoples with mental/psychiatric problems’. They try to defend its distinction with ODGJ (Orang Dengan Gangguan Kejiwaan) or ‘peoples with mental/psychiatric disorder’. This interpretation is not only arbitrary as the law does not specify who is an ODMK, indicating that *anyone* is capable of having psychiatric problems regardless of their sexual identity, but it also confuses the society that is already under-educated when it comes to mental health — causing them to conflate the two terminologies, thinking they’re both the same.

All of this exposes the evil plague afflicting Indonesians: the inability to listen to reason, blinded by confirmation bias. So what is the root cause of this plague and how do we move from here? I believe this phenomenon can be explained with one simple social psychology theory: the Social Identity theory proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner.

Essentially, everyone looks for a meaningful and purpose-driven life, because merely existing isn’t really living, right? But no one really has a clue what that life is. People then seek to groups, with the expectation that it provides a better understanding of who they are, who they’re supposed to be, and what they need to do to achieve that. Collectives then start to form: tribes, kingdoms/states, and even organized religion.

There are two key processes in order for a social identity to be effective: categorization and comparison. Categorization essentially means that in order for a social identity to be meaningful, it has to be different. And in order to be different, it needs to be exclusive and exclusionary. In order to gain membership, one is expected abide by the rules that the social group has set and subscribe to the common belief the group has. Failure to conform will mean either being ostracized or isolated. This is a very powerful social control tool, because humans have a need to belong. As it is a natural evolutionary instinct, human feel pain when they’re excluded. Now, working on the assumption that people typically want to feel good about themselves, then for self-esteem reasons we are motivated to think of our groups as being as good as, if not better than, other groups. This is the comparison element.

But like things in life, dynamics always shift. New social identities emerge and old ones feel that they need to defend themselves from being obsolete. They view these new identities as a threat, because it might challenge the beliefs that hold their group together and it might just dissolve the group entirely. As a defense response, groups tend to do two things: increasing in-group solidarity and increasing out-group derogation. In short: you hype up your internal group identity by emphasizing on the values and beliefs the group subscribes to and portray the out-group as antithetical to that. The next step is dehumanizing the out-group and their members, generally by portraying them as a lesser being, existentially and morally.

The social identity in Indonesia currently is heavily skewed to religious beliefs, particularly the Abrahamic religions, and this has been conflated as the ‘Indonesian culture’ or ‘Indonesian identity’. The Abrahamic religions are inherently patriarchal, because they heavily put the power dynamics and advantage towards men. They believe in biological determinism, that men are stronger and must provide the bread & butter for the family, whereas women who are weaker should stay at home and play the role of caregiver. This entrenched conception of gender roles become the default narrative in how Indonesians view how people should behave socially. Women, even though now they can work and have autonomy, are still subject to social expectations of child-rearing. That’s why most modern Indonesian women dread family gatherings so much, because that is happy hour for “When are you getting married?” related-questions to pop up.

The rise of vocal LGBT movements in Indonesia is a huge slap for the religious conservative right, because LGBTs dare to defy the patriarchal standards in which relationships should be formed. Their mere existence is viewed as a threat because they prove that marriage and relationships are something beyond reproductive purposes, that masculinity and femininity is not an exclusive gender trait associated with one’s biological sex upon birth. So of course, the religious right went on a moral panic and started to be more vocal. The term ‘movement’ also had a pejorative meaning: unknown, up to something, trying to challenge the status quo — and this fuels the paranoid fear that if LGBTs were to be recognized legally, the entire core of their belief system will be shaken.

This is when religious groups start to recite biblical quotes and rein in their followers to remember that it’s Adam & Eve, and not Adam & Steve nor Madam & Eve. The hierarchical nature of organized religion led followers to listen to their leaders without question, because they are perceived as the beacon of truth. This is why every scientific explanation that the liberal left tries to put forward has been dismissed so easily: they are seen as a part of the propaganda of the new emerging social identity, and accepting them means accepting the validity of the identity.

So as a consequence, Indonesian LGBTs have been subject to multiple forms of derogation. They’re called as an abomination, against human nature, the cause to HIV/AIDS, how they’re decaying the nation’s moral, jeopardizing our social fabric as they try to ‘convert’ others, even a behavioral link to criminal activities such as sexual harassment and pedophilia. Many people created degrading memes, like this:

“As bad as dogs are, the male dogs mate with the female ones. Not with the same sex.”

All of these serve the objective of dehumanization: it’s easier to hate someone when you can consider them less of a human compared to you. And this rhetoric is easily internalized by the followers, because it confirms everything they believe in.

The million dollar question now is, what can we do to end this hatred? A recent BBC article mentioned the rise of religious radicalism among Indonesian youths, and I believe this is one of the root causes of intolerance. Religion infiltrates the education and social spheres without control, and this provides room for extreme interpretations to dominate the normative space. What is needed are three things: reform in education system, legal framework, and political landscape.

Education should emphasize on moderation of religious teachings and an updated civic education promoting human rights as a universal and not a Western-centric concept. The legal framework and enforcement of law also must be strengthened to ensure freedom of expression and freedom of assembly of LGBTs and other minority groups, to foster democratic discourse, because the current banning frenzy only silences dissent and traps people in echo chambers where beliefs are left unchallenged. Finally, a liberal leftist party is badly needed in Indonesia. Although many parties currently are leaning to the left in their economic approach, none leans to the left on social issues, and a balance needs to be struck to make the political spectrum an even playing field.

My conclusion is this: what’s against human nature isn’t the fact that one cannot reproduce or being with the same sex. It’s the fact that humans choose to reject changes and refuse to adapt — our most biological instinct that has allowed us to survive. People need to understand that the world isn’t only black and white. There are so many shades of rainbow that make up the colors of the world, too.

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