On Monday March 4, law professor Arief Hidayat, stood before members of the House of Representatives and answered questions to determine his fitness for Indonesia’s constitutional court.
In a series of answers delivered to the commission of elected officials, Hidayat declared that all Indonesians ought to believe in God, and that the country, an emerging economic power with a population of 237 million, should implement only those human rights standards that are “compatible with the local context.”
Then he was posed a more specific question: should the country recognize same-sex marriages?
The answer was no.
“The idea can be accepted in the United States but not here because, theologically, Indonesia defines marriages as being between a man and a woman,” the Jakarta Post reported him saying.
Later that day, 42 of the 48 commission members elected him to a five-year term on the powerful court.
The statements, and their affirmation by the vote, drew the ire of Indonesian LGBT rights activists.
“It seems the portrayal of same-sex marriage as a Western product was not only appreciated by some parliamentarians, but also by the leadership of influential Islamic organizations here,” Hartoyo, a prominent LGBT rights activist in Jakarta, told 429Magazine, referring to media reports following the vote.
He was especially disappointed because Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, two of the Islamic organizations, “receive money from international donors for HIV programs in which they work with gay and transgender populations.”
In 2007, Hartoyo’s plight became infamous after it was made public that he was tortured by police and civilians who caught him living with his male partner in Acheh, the province in northern Indonesia ruled by repressive Sharia (Islamic) law since 2003.
“The perpetrators dragged me, beat me, verbally abused me, then called the police on us,” he said.
According to testimony given to the Asian Center for Human Rights, the men were further harassed in custody and sexually abused by police officers. Denied access to a bathroom for many hours, Hartoyo’s partner was then forced at gun point to urinate on his head.
“This all happened in Indonesia, to Indonesians. Gay Indonesians,” said Hartoyo.
Still reeling from the abuses he faced six years ago and enraged by the use of LGBT rights as a litmus test for a court meant to be a check on justice, Hartoyo wrote an open letter to the newly-elected justice, introducing him to the world of gay Indonesia.
The letter, excerpted below, read:
Mr. Hidayat, I have never experienced loving a woman. As far as my experience goes, my love is only for men.
Mr. Hidayat, I have never visited any Western country but I was attracted to men even before I really understood what Indonesia was, and what Islam was.
Mr. Hidayat, you consider same-sex marriage to be Western culture, contrary to the Indonesian Constitution, but why, may you explain, is the issue of same-sex marriage still being debated in France and the USA? Will those who reject same-sex marriage in the West then say that homosexuality is a product of the East, the South, or the North?
The fact is that when Western countries were criminalizing same-sex love, our archipelago was celebrating the plurality of sexuality in our cultures. For example we can cite the traditional plurality of sexuality here, such as the cultures of the Bissu, the Warok-Ggemblak, the Mairil in the Islamic boarding schools, the Ludruk, the history of the Lengger dancers, the poetry of Abu Nawas and more, there are many Indonesian cultures that have a place for same-sex partnerships.
Mr. Hidayat, homosexuals are around us, like it or not, this is a fact that has been true since long ago and it is still true today. They might be those closest to us, our children, our siblings, our grandchildren, or our best friends, but sometimes we have no empathy for this issue. They are not people who have invaded from the West but rather they are part of us.
The torture in 2007 spurred Hartoyo to flee to Jakarta for refuge. He now runs an organization called OurVoice, which advocates for LGBT rights and provides social protection for LGBT people in the city.
But his escape to the country’s bustling capital city has not provided complete respite from the challenges of being gay in Indonesia.
“The terror of torture remains with me to this day. I fear of having to go through it all again, even though now I live in Jakarta,” he said.
Hartoyo’s letter to the newly-elected justice went viral on social media, stirring up a range of comments.
“I have not experienced Hartoyo’s life, but even so, reading his letter – although it is not addressed to me – I have been touched,” commented a law professor after posting the letter on Facebook.
Budiatman Satiawihardja, a member of staff in the Indonesian Council of Ulama and an Australia-trained biotechnoligst, wrote to Hartoyo in an email:
“According to my analysis this could be caused by the fact that when your parents were (please excuse) copulating, and fate dictated that the seed became you, it was highly possible that at that moment Satan entered because probably your parents forgot to pray or at least say “in the Name of Allah”. I am sorry, but this is naturally a matter of the unseen world.”
The debate, Hartoyo believes, is a helpful part of the movement in Indonesia.
“Whatever the debate, this letter of mine is to bring to the attention the, of the constitutional court judges, the general public and the state, the fact that I am gay, a child of Indonesia and at the same time a Muslim, who prays to God to be allowed to one day be buried in Indonesia,” he said.
“This is my hope as a child of this country, not of the West.”
Indonesia’s constitutional court, established in 2001, is responsible for interpreting all matters of constitutional law, disputes related to the authority of state institutions, and matters of political parties and election results.
A new draft of the country’s criminal code, pending in the House of Representatives, would outlaw cohabiting unmarried couples, a move LGBT activists fear could increase targeting of same-sex couples.