Out of the Closet AND Public Life: Lesbians in Indonesia

Debates in the Muslim world regarding the LBGT community are rare, if not non-existent. However, Indonesia’s community has been raising its profile lately. With a legal system that does not criminalize homosexuality, the LBGT community may seem to face fewer challenges than communities in other countries.

However, even with the only Gay film festival in the Muslim world, the community still faces major challenges from religious groups in the country and negative social attitudes that are usually state-promoted. These sectors not only condemn the LGBT community’s private practices, but also all interactions with the public sphere. In addition, even when the state does not legally condemn same-sex relationships, this neither promotes tolerance, nor does it prevent provinces from applying Shari’ah law that is by definition anti-homosexual.

Lesbian women are some of the most affected members of the LBGT community in Indonesia. Lesbian women, as gay men, experience extreme social cohesion; however, they are usually more excluded from public life than men. In addition, they not only face the same challenges that heterosexual women face, but also suffer from sexuality-based stigmatization, discrimination, violence, etc.

Evelyn Blackwood explains that while gays and lesbians are usually considered to be “sick,” women suffer more religious and social stigmatization due to notions of femininity and motherhood. Although lesbian movements were able to flourish after the fall of Suharto’s regime, Islamic interpretations of femininity and female duties have driven lesbian women outside of the public sphere and have condemned them as “abnormal.”

Lesbian women may even have a harder time fulfilling the roles of a dual identity that has been pre-conceived by Islamic traditional notions of femininity and social homophobic attitudes. In this sense, lesbian women may have difficulties finding women’s groups that are not homophobic, feminist groups that promote different types of feminism, or gay groups that are willing to share leadership.

Although the gay community has mobilized to create a nation-wide movement and advocate for their rights, lesbian women tend to be undermined even by gay groups.  For example, Gaya Nusantara, which is the biggest and one of the oldest gay groups in the country, was not accommodating enough to share leadership with lesbian women who aimed to promote awareness and provide a space for similar-minded people.

Nonetheless, a lesbian network was created on 1993 under the name of Chandra Kirana. Eventually, Chiandra Kirana had to break away from Gaya Nusantara, in order to follow its own agenda and to create coalitions with different groups. As Bunga Jeumpa explains about Chandra Kirana:

“As activists within Chandra Kirana, we often wonder where our place really is. If we join the gay men’s movement, we become the Second Sex and are coopted. If we join the Indonesian women’s movement, we become like garlic among the onions – step sisters of the women’s movement. Where do Indonesian lesbians want to go from here?”

Furthermore, many groups, even within the lesbian community, may not be accommodating enough to meet the needs of lesbian Muslim women who practice Islam and who wish to remain within the religion. These women could face twice the challenge in reconciling their religion with their own identity and sharing it with different people Sadly, for many women, being a Muslim lesbian is a completely separate paradox in itself.

Nowadays, members of the LBGT community face death threats and most of them live quietly outside the public sphere. Even when the lesbian movement in Indonesia has made attempts to lean towards a more political agenda, neither the state nor religious elites are ready to debate the place of homosexuals in Indonesian society.

  • aarwaa

    This was fascinating. Please write more articles on muslim lgbt folks/lbgts in muslim countries!

  • Dina

    Kudos to you for your bravery, and I hope you will be able to love who you want to love, and stick to them proudly, in the near future also in Indonesia!

  • N

    Thank you for writing this. I’m a lesbian Muslim, and I too wonder if there’s space in my country (Malaysia) to have a lesbian Muslim movement. Not to invalidate the LGBT movement here, but just as in Indonesia as you mentioned, it’s mostly dominated by gay men.

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