In the 1960s, I grew up in Pasuruan, East Java in Indonesia. During this time, I learned that trans women in Jakarta started organizing action groups.
The first trans women organization was Himpunan Wadam Djakarta (also known as Hiwad – Jakarta Trans Women Association). The organization began in the late 1960s with the facilitation of the then Governor of Jakarta, Ali Sadikin, a marine general.
Local governments often financially supported transgender organizations, which then led these organizations to support trans women in the community.
Hiwad did not stage a riot like Stonewall. Its goal was to fight for the dignity and equal rights of trans women.
Thus, the trans women of Indonesia started the movement separately from the gay movement in North America and the West.
This history is barely known even in Asia, and has been marginalized or silenced in Indonesia itself. This is perhaps due to modern ‘educated’ people viewing trans women as marginal or aberrant.
The people in the streets have always known and lived with trans women, who for a long time were more familiar than gay men and lesbians.
Many Indonesian cultures also have terms for non-binary gender identities. Some, like the Bugis of South Sulawesi and the Bima of Sumbawa, also have terms for trans men.
I moved to upstate New York in 1978 to study linguistics and Southeast Asian studies, at just 24 years old.
I went to Cornell University, mainly as a teaching assistant tutoring in Indonesian (and occasionally in Javanese and Madurese). The assistantship came with a tuition waiver and a regular salary.
I was following in the footsteps of my professors at the Institute of Teacher-Training and Education in Malang, East Java, and before that at the same institution in Surabaya.
While I was at Cornell, I came out as gay in the winter of 1979.
I devoured just about everything the Cornell Library had on homosexuality and gay liberation. They filled a shelf under the Library of Congress, with the call number HQ76. I quickly learned about Stonewall and became inspired by the struggle that gave rise to the LGBTI liberation movement in the United States and much of the West.
By the fall of 1980, I had written a few coming out pieces in the Indonesian media. Editors then forwarded letters from about 15 or so readers – all gay men – who were interested in myself or in gay life in the US. So I was corresponding with them fairly intensely.
I put them in touch with each other and that was the beginning of my work organizing gay men in Indonesia.
Setting up an Indonesian LGBTI rights group
I had the chance to go home to Indonesia in the summer of 1981 to work on an Indonesian textbook with my professor John Wolff. During this time, I spent some time with trans women activists in Surabaya and elsewhere, learning about their organizing.
By 1982, we set up Lambda Indonesia – the country’s first gay rights activist group. I had to return to Cornell University to finish my PhD in 1983-4. There was no question that I would return home to continue the organization.
I had also met my first long-term partner in Indonesia in 1982.
Lambda Indonesia fizzled out by 1986 due to mismanagement by the then leadership. So in 1987, my partner, Ruddy Mustapha, and a few other friends and I set up GAYa NUSANTARA, which is still active in Surabaya.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Indonesian activists learned about Stonewall as our movement participated in international activities in the last decade. As democratization and human rights work became more possible after the fall of Dictator Soeharto, our activists became familiar with human rights instruments.
The history of the international LGBTI movement and Stonewall was certainly prominent in this history. However, it never formed a strong component of our discourse of struggle.
If anything, we tend to refer to the trans women movement that started at about the same time as Stonewall, and to our pre-colonial past, when diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation was arguably the norm, or at least accepted and sometimes institutionalized.
LGBTI rights in Indonesia
LGBTI rights are only vaguely guaranteed in the Indonesian Constitution and in the Human Rights Act of 1999, in terms of protection against discrimination on any basis.
In practise, the government has almost never protected LGBTI people and communities when our rights are violated. In fact, state actors sometimes violate our rights, at least by omission, if not by commission.
The past three years have seen a deterioration of conditions for LGBTI people, communities and organizations. Many politicians, state officials and religious leaders blatantly express their homophobia and transphobia, which can translate into persecution.
Many analysts explain this in terms of the conservative turn in Indonesian society and specifically the run up to national elections in April 2019.
Trans women, being the most visible in society, now bear the brunt of physical violence by state law enforcement apparatus, Islamist vigilantes and of symbolic violence by society in general.
Society has sporadically persecuted lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans men. The most severe of this happens in the family and religious communities.
To look at it with a silver lining, at least most Indonesians are now familiar with LGBTI people, communities and organizations – though sadly often in negative terms.
But the 200-odd organizations across the archipelago are not giving up easily. Young activists and allies have come forward, triggered by the attacks. They are sailing the ship as they are building it.
International pressure, including behind closed doors conversations between visiting dignitaries and our leaders, seem to work – though with a frustratingly slow speed.
Indonesia’s LGBTI future
At a personal level, it is largely still possible to live openly as LGBTI people.
Community hangouts are still bustling. The ubiquity of the internet, dating apps and other social media channels means that even rural LGBTI people in remote areas now can access information and each other, much more than in the past. Organized activities must take place in secret, though activists are creative in securing such events.
In my view, given how much the LGBTI communities and organizations, with the help of passionate allies, have been able to consolidate and fight back, I am hopeful that in 50 years’ time, things will be much better.
Other minorities are also fighting back. As hard as anti-democratic forces try, they can never take away the democracy we won in the monumental 1998 riots.
Wiji Thukul was a poet who disappeared in the struggle for democracy in 1998. He famously said: ‘There is only one thing to do: Fight back!’
And there we can draw strength from Stonewall and other struggles across the globe.
Dédé Oetomo is the founder of Indonesia’s first gay rights group Lambda Indonesia. He then founded GAYa NUSANTARA and is APCOM’s Regional Advisory Group Chair.