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Gay rights activist rejected as Indonesian human rights commissioner

After months of tests Dede Oetomo is not one of the 13 applicants chosen by MPs to serve on Indonesia's human rights commission
Veteran Indonesian gay rights activist Dede Oetomo

An Indonesian gay rights activist who has been waiting for months to hear if he will be accepted to serve on the national human rights commission has found out that he didn’t make the final cut.

The appointment of Dede Oetomo, an openly gay academic, to Komnas HAM, Indonesia’s human rights commission, would have made a positive statement in a country that has been accused of regressing in its acceptance of LGBT rights.

In the end Oetomo was not one of the 13 applicants chosen after the final tests - an hour essay exam, questions from MPs and a vote from members of the House of Representatives commission on law and human rights.

‘My take is that some of the lawmakers did not see SO/GI [sexual orientation/gender identity] rights as a priority, while others (my guess, the Islamists) rejected me outright, and still others probably wanted to play it safe,’ Oetomo told Gay Star News.

The House of Representatives announced yesterday that the new commissioners would include two members of Indonesia’s top Muslim clerics' association Indonesian Ulema Council and one incumbent from the last commission, Jarkarta Post reports.

As well as Oetomo, the three candidates with disabilities - Indonesian Association of Visually Impaired People’s Mochamad Soedioto, Suharto and Setia Adi Purwanta - were also dropped in the final selection tests.

‘Now I go back to my work on LGBTI rights and HIV and sexual and reproductive rights and health, with a boost of energy, knowing that at least I made the short list drawn by the selection panel,’ said Oetomo.

Jarkarta Post reported today that Oetomo’s name was met with jeers by lawmakers in the chamber, but he told Gay Star News that ‘when the ten or so MPs interviewed me on Tuesday evening last week, they showed respect and were polite’.

The Jarkarta Post also pointed out that a couple of the chosen commissioners lack impressive track records on human rights, namely Natalius Pigai, a Papua-born civil servant, and Siane Indriani, a former television journalist and the University of Indonesia's public relations manager.

Oetomo has been a gay rights activist in Indonesia since 1982. In 1987 he started the long-serving LGBT rights organization GAYa NUSANTARA and he received a Felipa de Souza Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in 1998.

In March at the beginning of the Komnas HAM selection program, two politicians were quoted saying Indonesian society and Islamic lawmakers ‘would not accept gay or transgender commissioners’.

According to a recent survey Indonesia is in need of more LGBT rights education. A report released on Sunday showed that 80.6% of the 1,200 respondents said they objected to having gays and lesbians as neighbors, a figure that has risen from 64.7% in 2005.

But Oetomo said the survey’s questioning was flawed:

‘I’m not sure the respondents, especially the uneducated ones, really know who homosexuals are. These people are more familiar with transgender women (waria), and my sense is that most of them are comfortable having them in their midst. The survey does not ask a question about waria.’

A waria rights activist, Yulianus Rettoblaut, initially applied to be a Komnas HAM commissioner along with Oetomo but was knocked out of the competition in one of the early rounds last June.

Oetomo said education is essential for fighting homophobia in Indonesia. ‘It’s not easy because comprehensive sexuality education is rejected by the Ministry of Education,’ he said. ‘But youth groups working on sexual and reproductive rights and health are educating themselves and people around them in an increasingly significant way, so I think I keep my optimism.’ 

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