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5 min

The silent war for Indonesia’s LGBT community

Two refugees look back at their exodus from Jakarta to Vancouver

Rainer Oktovianus, an Indonesian activist and photographer, fights social stigma through his photos like this self-portrait. Credit: Courtesy Rainer Oktovianus

Rainer Oktovianus and his husband Eka Nasution are still getting used to holding hands in public.

If they walked down the street holding hands or kissed on a street corner in their native Indonesia, they could be beaten or killed, they say. Even after more than a year in Canada, they find themselves instinctively hesitating to touch openly in public.

Sitting across from me in a cafe in downtown Vancouver, they carefully intertwine their fingers on the table. Oktovianus sits square, long curly hair pinned back, with a broad and easy smile. Nasution, fine boned and sharply dressed, perches quietly in the background and listens intently, offering a few words here and there in English accented by Indonesian and his second language, French.

Oktovianus and Nasution left Indonesia just as the country slid into what now has been 18 months of horror and violence for LGBT people. It began in January 2016, when the minister of technology, research and higher education complained about LGBT groups organizing at the University of Indonesia, and demanded they be shut down.

The comments were a spark that ignited a wave of latent homophobia across the country. Other government officials piled on, demanding an end to United Nations funding for LGBT and HIV programs, or directly calling for gay people to be killed. The minister of defense quipped that gay people were more dangerous than nuclear war. Islamist groups like the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir knocked on doors and infiltrated internet chatrooms to hunt down gay people, loudly declaring they wanted to throw them off buildings.

In May 2017, two men in conservative Aceh province were publicly caned after vigilantes burst in on them allegedly having gay sex. At the same time, police in the capital, Jakarta, arrested 141 men on charges of holding a gay “sex party.” For the first time, police across the country in recent weeks have openly declared their goal of rounding up and imprisoning anyone who is gay.

Courtesy Rainer Oktovianus

The more visible gay people become in Indonesia, Oktovianus says, the more hatred and violence is directed towards them. And the more hatred and violence, the more visible they become.

Before this snowball of anti-gay sentiment began, the common narrative in the Western media suggests, Indonesia — the fourth most populous country on earth — was relatively tolerant towards LGBT people. Nasution frowns when I suggest this, and shakes his head with increasing vigour.

“When you say it was kind of okay before 2016 — it was not,” he says. Hatred of gay people always bubbled beneath the surface; it just needed something to set it off.

Oktovianus and Nasution should know. In Indonesia, Oktovianus worked in HIV prevention in Jakarta for the Dutch humanitarian group HIVOS, while Nasution taught at the French embassy and lectured at the local university. As visible activists for LGBT rights and HIV prevention, they soon had targets on their backs.

In 2010, an Islamist group called the FPI, or Islamic Defenders Front in English, picketed a queer film festival Oktovianus organized in Jakarta’s Dutch embassy. The local police joined in with the protesters, demanding the festival be stopped.

In 2011, Oktovianus lobbied the Indonesian social network Kaskus to remove an emoji representing a negative caricature of a gay man. The site’s founder was amenable, and took the emoji down. In resulting publicity, however, Oktovianus and Nasution had their photos, address and phone number plastered around the web. They were forced to move, and received text messages from people threatening to hang, mutilate or kill them.

Foreign observers may say Indonesia does not, strictly speaking, criminalize homosexuality but that is hardly true, Oktovianus says, when laws against pornography and obscenity are used to jail gay people indiscriminately. Being officially legal is no help when the police stand by and let vigilantes hunt you down, he adds.

In January 2016, as the anti-gay crackdown began, a friend living in Japan called Nasution and told him about bubbling rumours that the Indonesian government was going to take drastic action against the LGBT community. With years of activism behind them, Oktovianus and Nasution knew they would be among the first targeted. Every police siren in the night set them on edge; they knew they had to leave.  

“We just want a family. We just want a future together,” Oktovianus says. “And it’s sad that we have to leave our home to achieve our dreams and goals.”

The two had been to Canada before — on vacation in 2014, when they got married on a whim. The joy of marriage was dampened by a nail-biting few weeks when they realized their marriage certificate would be sent to them in Indonesia by mail — a snooping customs official could lead to the police showing up on their doorstep.

Eka Nasution says homophobia has simmered in Indonesian society since before the crackdown.
Courtesy Rainer Oktovianus

When Oktovianus and Nasution contacted Toronto LGBT refugee aid organization Rainbow Railroad early in 2016, they were told to get to Canada by any means possible. On March 13, 2016, they arrived in Vancouver on student visas, scraping together their savings for tickets and documents to get out of the country. By November, they were accepted as refugees.

Today, Oktovianus is finishing a diploma in web development and volunteering at the SPCA, while Nasution volunteers at the Health Initiative for Men and works at the Dr Peter AIDS Foundation. Oktovianus, a photographer, is working on an art project to fight social stigma of all kinds. They recently gathered the courage to kiss on Georgia Street.

“The first year has been hard for us, because we try to put aside our paranoia and realize that people will accept us here,” Oktovianus says. “We’ve had to learn that here our opinion has been as valuable as others.”

They still keep in touch with a few close friends in Indonesia, and follow the news closely, but have cut off many of their old contacts in the LGBT community. As openly gay refugees, the risks of infiltration by anti-gay groups in chatrooms and forums they once frequented is too great.

Now that they are safe in Canada, they want to speak out openly about gay rights in Indonesia in ways they never could at home.

“We still have that fear in our heads,” Oktovianus says. “But I try to fight that off by exposing what happened in Indonesia through our stories of what is happening there.”

Even with nearly as many people as the United States, Indonesia gets relatively little attention on the world stage, Oktovianus says. He is worried the human rights crisis for gay Indonesians will go unnoticed.

“Since 2016 we have been crying for help, but we haven’t got that spotlight, because there is a war going on in the Middle East and there are so many countries Canada needs to help,” he says. “Indonesia is not loud enough to be heard. But if people don’t know what happened, how can they help?”

Perhaps, Nasution proffers, it is because the crisis in Indonesia is happening so quietly. There are no flames or bombs or smoke — just gay people being dragged away one by one.

“People think war is about fire, you know?” he says. “But sometimes war is what you see off the back of your patio. That’s war.”