Dédé Oetomo, PhD
March 28, 2008
By Justin Ellis
LGBT advocacy turns 30 in Indonesia: gay rights pioneer Dede Oetomo talks to Fridae correspondent Justin Ellis about life and activism in the archipelago.
Dede Oetomo received the annual Felipa de Souza Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in 1998 for his contribution to LGBT human rights in Indonesia. After completing his Ph.D. in linguistics at Cornell University in the US, he returned to establish Indonesia’s first gay outreach organisation, Lambda Indonesia in Surabaya, East Java, in 1982; and later the GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation in 1987. He is today the most publicly visible activist for gay/lesbian rights in Indonesia being one of the first to openly discuss homosexuality and HIV/AIDS issues in the mass media. In 1999 and 2004, Oetomo ran for the national parliament, providing further opportunities to argue that gay and lesbian persons deserve full inclusion in Indonesian society.
Fridae correspondent Justin Ellis spoke to Oetomo at the Asia Pacific Outgames in Melbourne this year where Oetomo reflected on three decades of LGBT advocacy in Indonesia.
: When did LGBT advocacy begin in Indonesia?
Dede: I would date it to the late 60s when the waria, the male to female transgenders became more visible and organised. They worked on social issues mostly, and out of survival, and usually with the help of municipal governments. In the 80s, following the example of the waria and ideas from the west, gay men and lesbians started organising.
Gay men more openly, with post office box numbers and magazines, the lesbians more discreetly. The gay movement, and in a way the waria movement, were boosted by HIV work in the early 90s, and the lesbians flourished after 1998 because of the growth in women’s feminist groups. Some of them were hostile to lesbians, but lesbians dominated others. There is a movement in many parts of Indonesia at the moment. There are gaps, for example in Sumatra and Kalimantan, but the existing organisations are quite strong.
: You established Indonesia’s first gay outreach organisation, Lambda Indonesia in1982? Did you experience any resistance?
Dede: In 1982 we were doing brochures and translations of materials, and even though Lambda Indonesia was a gay (male) organisation we meant to ask the waria and lesbians to join and a few lesbians did join. We didn’t have any incidents but there were administrative problems such as in 1988 when an over eager journalist in Surabaya (the East Java city and province where Oetomo lives) newspaper reported us to the local office of the Minister of Information.
We received a warning letter asking us to register our newsletter - not to ban it. The threats started to come in the late 90s. I could date them from 1997, especially around Yogyakarta and Solo on Java, but now they have stopped.
: And GAYa NUSANTARA was founded in 1987.
Dede: GAYa NUSANTARA was founded to simply connect people with each other. This was before the Internet so our magazine was the one way for people who were a bit shy and not street savvy to meet each other. Now, our strongest work in East Java province and in the city of Surabaya and cities in other districts is HIV prevention, care, support and treatment, together with the government and international organisations.
But we are also doing more advocacy work on LGBT rights. This year, and this is very special and new, we are planning an activists’ school to meet the demand from activists in other areas. With more visibility of LGBT organisations they feel they need to know more about the complexities of gender diversity and, for example, which hadith (Islamic teaching) to quote if a Muslim cleric challenges you about homosexuality.
And I’m happy to report that within GAYa NUSANTARA we now have active waria and also lesbians, so finally there are not only gay men but also all kinds of people, including sex workers. We might even have some female sex workers join us this year.
: How did the human rights agenda change with the end of the Suharto regime?
Dede: I would date changes a little earlier than 1998 with the formation of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia in 1993. The New Order (Suharto) government set it up as lip service to the West but it turned out to be quite effective. The phrase human rights started to be known - in the sense of freedom more than anything else.
And because of the human rights violations by the regime in East Timor, Papua and Aceh especially, the people got a simple but effective understanding of what a human rights violation was. In 1998 they thought, ‘no more repressive regimes, now we have our human rights.’ Groups of housewives would protest to the water company to get more regular and cleaner water, everybody would protest. Teachers would go on strike, workers, and also gay men, waria and lesbians.
Sex workers would protest if they had to stop working during Ramadan. It wasn’t always effective but it became a habit and what amazes me as an activist, probably I was naïve, is how fast people learn to organise.
: How do you see LGBT advocacy and human rights in Indonesia today in light of the Human Rights Action Plan 2004-2009?
Dede: We should start with the amendment to the constitution in 2000, and actually before that was the 1999 Human Rights Act. Although sexual orientation and gender identity were not explicitly mentioned in the amendment to the constitution, sexual orientation at least, was debated.
It lost at three in the morning. People were tired and said, ‘let’s just say Indonesian citizens should be protected against discrimination on any basis.’ Nobody has challenged it but it could be challenged. I’ve talked to lawyers; you just need to go to court. It’s not such a habit among Indonesians yet. In terms of advocacy we have all the instruments. The Human Rights Action Plan 2004-2009 is an explicit mandate for the protection of LGBT rights. Things are slow and the National Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Law probably have no idea about how to go about doing it but some of the LGBT organisations have started to do their own work. In March there’s going to be a national waria meeting, probably 100 people from all over Indonesia, and I know human rights is on the agenda.
We were always regional (Lambda Indonesia and GAYa NUSANTARA) so it was difficult to go to national parliament - and expensive - but now there are groups in Jakarta that are more militant and also better at lobbying, and there are allies in parliament, namely Eva Kusuma Sundari and Nursyahbani Katjasungkana. We had a bill on population registration, and in the bill there was a third gender called T - transgender. It didn’t get in - it was voted out - but it was there.
: The International Organization for Migration, with funding from the Royal Netherlands Embassy and in conjunction with Indonesian National Police trained the police in Aceh in human rights. Can you envision any LGBT human rights training for the Indonesian police?
Dede: I’m not sure about the Dutch government but we have approached the Dutch embassy in Jakarta. I’m trying to be fair to the Dutch government. I think they see that enough is being done by other people and parties. Dutch aid organisation HIVOS is doing a lot of work supporting LGBT rights all over the country, so yes it’s possible, but my point is it should be us demanding that the national commission or the police do these things. And it just hasn’t been done.
: At the recent ILGA Asia conference in Chiang Mai three Indonesians were elected to the first ILGA Asia regional board. This is quite a milestone in Indonesian LGBT advocacy, isn’t it?
Dede: I guess so and I’m comfortable with these three (King-Toen Oey, from Arus Pelangi; Poedjiati Tan, secretary of GAYa NUSANTARA; and Kamilia of the Institut Pelangi Perempuan, a lesbian youth organisation) because they are from existing and strong organisations.
There were Indonesians elected to ILGA boards in the past, but they were individuals who would sometimes disappear. Let’s hope that these three can bring the vibrancy of the Indonesian movement to ILGA Asia so that ILGA Asia can do more for the region.
: Your paper at the Rainbow Conversations human rights conference at the Asia Pacific Outgames was about indigenous transgenderism in Indonesia. How is it under threat?
Dede: For the major religions, Islam and Christianity, indigenous transgender people are seen as heathen. Also, many of the indigenous transgenders or homosexuals don’t identity as gay or transgender the way people do in the modern world. They always connect their gender or sexuality to shamanism or to some ritual art, so for them it’s the art.
The art can be under threat if you can’t perform it and then you don’t get paid. There have been efforts, by mostly progressive Muslim groups to defend these indigenous groups so that they can survive not only culturally, but that they will also have an economic base, as ritual specialists, wedding planners, preparing rice fields for cultivation and so on.
: Tom Boellstorff titled his anthropological work on Indonesia, the Gay Archipelago. Is Indonesian society essentially tolerant of homosexuality now?
Dede: Yes, as long as you don’t look into the family, but in urban areas, if you look at these young men and women and some transgenders, they are doing what young men and women and transgenders were doing in the 70s and 80s (in the West.) They are planning their coming out. They had to come out. That’s urban; there are two sides. In other places you are tolerated but probably not by your own family. That’s where the irony comes in.
Struggling for equality and fairness for LGBTIQ people in Indonesia
by Dédé Oetomo
The South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality aims to increase knowledge and scholarship on issues of sexuality, sexual health and sexual well being in the South and Southeast Asian region.
The South and South East Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality aims to develop and build on the scholarship and capacity in the field of sexuality in the region with a view to transforming theory into practice. It attempts to increase and consolidate the knowledge base and resources available on the issue and enhance the conceptual understanding of the fields of sexuality, gender, and human rights and of the inter-linkages with socio-cultural issues. The Centre works with eight focal countries: China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. In the last two years, the Resource Centre has met these goals through information exchange, structured/experiential learning, and collaborative efforts between practitioners working in the areas of sexuality, sexual health, and sexual well-being.
GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation, based in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, is one of the regional partners, and originally worked for the sexual health and well-being of gay men, transgenders, and male sex workers. In 2003 the organization expanded its mandate into research and education, public awareness and advocacy in the area of gender, sexuality, and sexual health.
Following up on the model of the Resource Centre, a number of organizations working on gender, sexuality and sexual health and rights issues with different populations (women, midwives, LGBTIQ communities, religious leaders, young people, differently abled people) came together in 2007 and formed the Indonesian Sexuality Forum (Forum Seksualitas Indonesia). Mitra Inti Foundation, an organization of public health alumni whose main work is providing technical assistance in reproductive health issues for women, was tasked to manage the Forum on behalf of the founding organizations.
GAYa NUSANTARA is also a partner in the development and piloting of the Sexuality Short Course coordinated by LaTrobe University on behalf of the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society.
Finally, GAYa NUSANTARA, in partnership with other key LGBTIQ organizations, will implement a national LGBTI human rights program.
GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation
Research & education: Research projects on (gay men) surviving stigma, male-to-male sex, sexuality of PLHIV. Training in gender & sexuality, leadership for LGBTIQ activists, advocacy and human rights.
Public awareness & advocacy: Publishing magazines, books; organizing performances and exhibits, book discussions, public forums; advocacy on HIV issues, LGBTIQ issues, sexual and reproductive rights, pluralism.
Sexual health and well-being services: STI & HIV prevention for gay men, transgenders & other MSM in Surabaya; care & support of PLHIV at local hospital; face-to-face, telephone & internet counseling for gay men and other MSM.
South & Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality
GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation assists in promotion and selection of participants for the Regional Institute, hosted the Institute in 2005, and hosted an Applied Study Program (on Sexual Diversity) in 2006. We also plan to liaise with the Centre in providing information and materials from Indonesia and forwarding regional information and materials to our Indonesian constituents.
Indonesian Sexuality Forum
Gender and sexuality module development in Indonesian based on Indonesian data and the needs of Indonesian communities and organizations.
Training workshops involving trainers and participant from the different communities with which members of the Forum work with.
Building of a network of researchers and educators on gender and sexuality using a critical paradigm.
LaTrobe University Sexuality Short Course
GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation provides networking links, expertise in gender and sexuality studies, and other support to the piloting of the Short Course modules in Indonesia.
Training modules, other materials
National AIDS Commission
National Human Rights Commission
National Commission on Violence Against Women
Embassies of progressive nations
Regional networks (7 Sisters, APCOM, APCASO) and organizations (Forum-Asia)
Local and national universities, research institutes, schools, women’s organizations
Local, national and international media
Progressive political parties
GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation is an organization based in Surabaya, Indonesia, It works on research and education, public awareness and advocacy, and sexual health and well-being services around gender and sexual diversity, especially of LGBTIQ people.
Dédé Oetomo finished his PhD in Linguistics and Southeast Asian studies at Cornell University (1984). In March 1982 he helped found Indonesia’s first organization for homosexuals, Lambda Indonesia (1982-1986). He is also co-founder (1987) and a member of the board of trustees of GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation. Since 2004 he is an advisor to the South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality. Since 2007 he is also a member of the Interim Governing Board of the Asia-Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM), and currently an advisor to the Indonesian Network of Gay Men, Transgenders and Other MSM as well as member of the Working Group on Gay Men, Transgenders and Other MSM at the National AIDS Commission. In 1998 he received the Felipa de Souza Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and in 2001 the Utopia Award for Pioneering Gay Work in Asia. Academically, he is a Special Reader at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Surabaya. In this capacity he is a member of the Indonesian HIV Research Core Team.