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Indonesia's LGBTQ community fears legal crackdown

Arti Ekawati
June 2, 2022

Indonesia's parliament is currently debating on the country's criminal code. LGBTQ rights activists are worried new legal standards on morality could be used to persecute same-sex couples.

A rainbow umbrella LGBTQ rights parade in Jakarta
LGBTQ rights in Indonesia are not legally protectedImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto

Indonesia's lawmakers are working on reforming the country's criminal code under a draft bill, known in the country by the acronoym RKUHP. The reforms are an attempt to sweep out a colonial era criminal justice system, but there is concern the reforms will be used to make more types of conduct illegal.

That is why LGBTQ rights activists are worried new legal standards could be used to penalize and persecute same-sex couples.

Same-sex couples in Indonesia cannot legally marry. The law states that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman, as husband and wife. However, there is also no specific law prohibiting or penalizing a same-sex relationship between two consenting adults. 

The community's concerns come precisely because of the ambiguity. 

"There is no LGBTQ wording in the RKUHP," Indonesia's coordinating security affairs minister, Mohammad Mahfud MD, said in a tweet. "But there are threats for offenses against decency and same-sex intercourse in certain situations and ways. Same as there is no word 'thief' in the criminal code, but there are acts of taking other people's things unlawfully."

Conservative Islamic lawmaker Amin Akram told DW by text message that his Prosperous Justice Party wants the bill ratified "immediately" and says there are plans to pass it by July 2022.

Why is the LGBTQ community concerned?

The tweet from Mahfud MD has raised concern within the LGBTQ community and among legal activists, even if LGBTQ people are not specifically mentioned in the bill.

Infographic Homosexuality in Asia

Indonesian lawyer and public defender Ma'ruf Bajammal questioned the government's commitment to combating discrimination and to protecting the human rights of citizens.

"The state should not criminalize a person only based on their sexual orientation," Bajammal, who works for the legal non-profit organization Community Legal Aid, told DW.

Atang Irawan, a law lecturer at Pasundan University in West Java province, encouraged the government to conduct a transparent public discussion on the issue before the bill is ratified.

"For those who are against it, they are of the opinion that the state goes too deep into regulating morality. They think it is too much for the state to intervene with the private rights of its citizens," Irawan told DW. That's why further discussion is needed, he said. 

Why is Indonesia voting on legal reform?

Indonesia has been trying to renovate its Dutch colonial era criminal code since the 1960s. The last attempt to ratify this particular RKUHP bill was in September 2019.

However that was postponed after massive protests broke out throughout Indonesia, mostly led by student groups.

Indonesian students rally against changes to corruption law

The bill would have made "defaming" public figures, institutions and religion an offense. Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim-majority country by population. It would also have prohibited premarital sex and included "morality" clauses.

According to a public version of the draft seen by DW, it is the proposed article in RKUHP on "fornication" that has raised concerns among local LGBTQ groups.

This proposed article said that anyone who commits "obscene acts against other people who are of the different or same sex" could be fined and face imprisonment from 18 months to nine years. The definition of "obscene" would apply if the act is conducted in public, forcibly with violence or threats of violence, or is published as pornographic content.

Conservative lawmaker Akram said sex between two same-sex single adults would be punishable under the bill if it was conducted in public.

"If [the sexual act] is conducted secretly, you cannot be prosecuted," he added.

Growing intolerance against Indonesia's LGBTQ community

Although Indonesia has traditionally embraced diversity and many locals practise tolerance toward people with different sexual orientations if they are discreet about it, intolerance towards the LGBTQ community has grown over the past few years.

Gay couple caned in Indonesia

In 2016, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, a regulatory body for local media, issued a regulation prohibiting all broadcasters from showing men behaving in a feminine way, including dressing in drag or wearing cosmetics. This deprived many artists of income.

A recent podcast by an Indonesian celebrity, Deddy Corbuzier, stirred public anger on Twitter. Corbuzier interviewed a gay Indonesian man named Ragil Mahardika and his German husband, Frederik Vollert, about their life as a gay couple in Germany.

Soon after, the hashtag #UnsubscribePodcastCorbuzier was trending on Twitter, leading Corbuzier to take down the interview and issue a public apology.

On May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, the British embassy in Jakarta sparked controversy by raising a rainbow flag. The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the ambassador and asked the embassy staff to be mindful of the host country's culture, local media reported.

Rahka Susanto in Jakarta contributed to the article.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn