JAKARTA - Homophobic rhetoric is nothing new in Indonesian politics. In recent months, elected officials have labeled gay Indonesians as morally corrupt, inconsistent with national values, and "worse than nuclear warfare."
But the recent arrest of several gay men at a private party in south Jakarta's Kalibata City was a shock for many, both because the raid was led by the right-wing Islamic Defender's Front (FPI) party and because the police actually followed their lead.
FPI has been emboldened in recent months by the success of initiatives like their huge rallies against Jakarta's ethnic Chinese governor, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama. With little opposition from President Joko Widodo and other mainstream politicians, the group has become brazenly divisive.
"What's happened in 2016 is strange and unprecedented," said Kyle Knight, a Human Rights Watch researcher.
Earlier this year, he said, many prominent officials had a "sort of meltdown" where they goaded each other into making inflammatory statements like that of Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who compared homosexuality to nuclear war.
"And what mainstream politicians decided to do was keep quiet, so as not to fan the flames of extremists," Knight said. But silence had the opposite effect, and ultimately let their voices echo unchecked.
The acronym LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender — has become so symbolically loaded in Indonesia, Knight said, that politicians use it as shorthand for a whole set of liberal values. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of them didn't even know what it stood for," he said.
The FPI, Knight added, has turned gay rights into a wedge issue to drum up middle-class moral outrage before regional elections in January and February.
"I think the phrase LGBT is a cheap way of appealing to ‘moral voters,’ and Islamic parties are using this to get votes," said prominent gay rights activist Dede Oetomo.
But this strategy might not have its desired effects. Journalist and Indonesia expert Elizabeth Pisani analyzed hundreds of sharia-inspired bylaws and found that "morality-based" legislation does not translate into popularity with voters.
Although anti-gay and religiously intolerant laws win local politicians the support of hardliners like FPI, she found, the politicians who champion them are less likely to get re-elected than their moderate peers.
The Kalibata City incident
"The fact that FPI could enter private premises is worrying," Oetomo said. "There are now different levels of reality within Indonesia, because the hardliners are so intent on turning their worldview into action."
The FPI has attacked LGBT events since at least 2002, when they disrupted a film festival in Surabaya. But until recently, Oetomo said, their position tended to be perceived as fringe.
In the Kalibata City raid, police confiscated 17 cellphones, two packs of condoms and antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS, according to local newspaper Warta Kota. None of these things, nor the act of homosexual intercourse, are illegal.
"It's this pattern of behavior where the police take militant Islamists’ ‘tips’ seriously, which is not at all surprising," Knight said. "But the chilling effect that the police send even just by showing up … is that the social sanction comes from on high and gets interpreted as open season on LGBT people." Plus, he said, the immediacy with which FPI could claim credit for the incident on Twitter and disseminate its message to sympathetic citizens is unprecedented.
If FPI retains popular support for its LGBT stance, it may succeed in passing all or part of a proposed ban on homosexuality. In 2014, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), an umbrella Muslim organization that includes FPI, issued a detailed fatwa against LGBT relations. The fatwa's rhetoric has inspired the proposed legislation.
"MUI doesn't have law enforcement capabilities, but we just wanted to remind the government of Indonesia that the LGBT movement endangers Indonesian culture and Indonesia is not the same as Western countries that allow LGBT relations," said Nadjamuddin Ramly, Deputy Secretary-General of MUI.
MUI perceives LGBT visibility as a threat to heterosexual marriage. According to the fatwa, "the institution of marriage is the only legitimate institution in channeling sexual desire and organize the household and the community."
Community watches, waits
"I'm very angry," said Anggun Pradesha, a transwoman activist and filmmaker in Yogyakarta. "FPI's hatred is strange. On the basis of some distaste, they feel so obligated to diminish the rights of other human beings."
Pradesha was rattled by the Kalibata incident. "What those men did was not illegal," she said. "What does that mean for the rest of us?"
She pointed out the slight absurdity of the whole concept of "LGBT" within Indonesia, as it groups together a centuries-old social category of transgender, or third-gender, individuals with homosexuals. But she welcomed the incidental kinship and its strength in numbers: all the better to persevere with.