At her age of 51, Yuni Shara has to worry about her safety in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, all because she is transgender.
In the past months, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual (LGBTI) community in the country has seen an increased number of attacks.
“It’s not easy to live as a transgender [person]… We are persecuted. Especially if we make a mistake, then people will easily drive away or intimidate us,” Shara told The Globe Post.
Shara, who friends call “YS”, has lived in the city of Yogyakarta in central Indonesia for decades. She once worked as a street singer but left the profession a few years ago to become an activist for marginalized and minority people.
Accustomed to the difficult environment, the transgender community in Indonesia has come together to support each other and establish a security system for themselves.
“The best way is through a cultural approach, which is to contribute and establish familiarity with the communities in which we live,” Shara said.
Together with some of her friends, Shara manages an Islamic boarding school for transgender students, where they can freely worship and listen to religious lectures.
The school was shut down by a hardline Islamist group in February 2016, but now it’s operating again.
“Building a positive image is necessary. Besides, we really want to concern ourselves with positive activities,” Shara said.
"LGBTI is not some right that needs to be fought for — rather, it's a disease that needs to be cured."
This is Indonesia's only Islamic boarding school for transgender people. It's a safe haven for its residents, but for some Islamists, it's a threat. pic.twitter.com/U6WbI074pW
— DW News (@dwnews) October 18, 2018
Shara noted, however, that the political process can break apart the security systems that the community has struggled to maintain. She said a pattern of violence has emerged that has been afflicting LGBTI groups in Indonesia, especially transgender women. It has become especially noticeable as the country’s general election is approaching.
Indonesians will elect their representatives, president, and vice-president on April 17, 2019. Incumbent head of state Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is going to face a standoff with retired general Prabowo Subianto. The legislative candidates and the president are currently all involved in the campaign process.
“It is possible that there are parties or politicians who raise anti-LGBTI issues to attract a mass of supporters. The moral issues are very attractive to some people,” Shara said.
In November, seven transgender people in East Jakarta were told to leave their boarding house by some of their neighbors.
Another incident happened last month with two transgender women in Bekasi, where they were beaten, harassed, and one of them was stripped off her clothes by dozens of people.
Based on a witness testimony, an attacker shouted, “You are a man, right? And your friend is a waria [transgender]? Don’t you know that it’s a sin?”
The victims cried and called for mercy, saying “Ya Allah [my dear god]!”
“There is no Allah for you. No need to mention God. You don’t deserve to have been born,” the men said.
The attacks, according to Shara, spread fear among the transgender community, especially those people who were not mentally prepared.
“So far, we can still conduct activities as usual, but we never know what the next development will be. Moreover, this is a political year,” she noted.
Shara said the attackers of transgender people, who usually belong to hardline Islamic groups, are individuals who are ignorant and are only oriented toward the words of their leaders.
“Indonesia is not a country based on Islamic law, even though the majority is Muslim. Everyone should be protected, regardless of their background,” she said.
According to Novel Bamukmin, a preacher from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), transgender individuals must be nurtured and cured because they have “diseases.”
He further told The Globe Post that he believes that “transgender [people] who carry out similar sex must be sentenced to death.”
In Indonesia, transgender people are often associated with natural disasters, such as landslides, earthquakes, and floods. Bamukmin claimed that transgender individuals live in severe violation of the Shari’a (Islamic) law, and invite the wrath of God.
Bamukmin denied that FPI commits violence against transgender people, and has only limited its activities to evicting and canceling their events. That, he said, had been in coordination with the police.
“Assertive action is different from violence. Because there are more and more transgender communities, so it is necessary to take firm actions in coordination with the police,” he said.
Bamukmin is not alone. A survey by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) showed that 81 percent of the polled agreed that belonging to LGBTI was prohibited by religion. In addition, 88 percent of Indonesians feel threatened by LGBTI existence, even though the exact form of threat was not explained.
Amnesty International: Crackdowns on LGBTI people in Indonesia hit alarming level https://t.co/LdarNOxTBL
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) November 6, 2018
However, negative attitudes toward the LGBTI community were not accompanied by a desire to discriminate against it, because the survey showed that as many as 57.7 percent of citizens stated these individuals still had the right to live in Indonesia, and 50 percent believed that the government was obliged to protect them.
In 2015, Yulianus Rettoblaut, also known as Mami Yuli, became the first openly transgender person in Indonesia to achieve a masters degree. She told The Globe Post that transgender people must understand their position as a minority group in the country that is becoming more conservative.
“We have to be smarter in ‘reading’ the situation. The present conditions are no longer safe for us. It is better that we avoid commotion and try to be low profile,” said Rettoblaut, the Chair of the Indonesian Transvestite Communication Forum.
She agreed that the political situation has a lot of impact on the community’s security as certain political figures and parties often use moral issues to gain support.
Understanding that it is difficult to fight back openly, Rettoblaut said transgender people must begin to develop strategies to place their representatives in parliament.
“LGBTI people must unite, look for the right people to occupy positions in parliament so they can voice protection for LGBTI. It takes a long time and we must be patient,” she said.
Rettoblaut added that most transgender people in Indonesia face alienation from their families and difficulty in finding work, forcing many to seek employment on the margins of society. Unable to find mainstream jobs, many “waria” are forced to work in the sex industry.
Is Indonesia the new Uganda? Thousands of Muslims protest against LGBTI community in Bogor, Indonesia. 'LGBT is very contagious & dangerous for the nation’s generations’ an organisers warned. Latest example of escalating anti-LGBT hysteria & repression https://t.co/mBmnD4GSk5
— Peter Tatchell (@PeterTatchell) November 14, 2018
A report from the Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat) shows that in 2017, at least 973 people in Indonesia were victims of stigma, discrimination, and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. The majority (715 people) were transgender, followed by gay (225 people) and lesbian (29 people) individuals.
“Transgender groups are the most vulnerable group to experience persecution. People easily able to recognize them only from their physical appearance,” the report, published in May, said.
It noted that since the beginning of 2016, politicians, government officials and state institutions have issued anti-LGBTI statements – ranging from criminalization to “ways to cure” homosexuality, to censoring information regarding LGBTI individuals and positive reporting about their activities.
Naila Rizqy Zakiah, a lawyer from the LBH Masyarakat, told The Globe Post that cases of violence against the LGBTI community have increased partially because of rampant religion-based intolerance. She added that the majority of victims did not report instances of violence because of trauma and fear of being re-persecuted.