It’s hard to imagine being born gay in Indonesia. Living in big cities like Jakarta and Yojakarta would be unimaginably hard compared to Australia, let alone living in the little Christian town of Salatiga in Central Java (population approx. 100,000).
Life here is still very religiously and family orientated. Despite the grand shopping centre in the middle of town, the numerous banks with glittering signs out the front advertising home loans and high interest accounts, and dazzling karaoke bars, people are still very relaxed, running on ‘indotime’. The churches are big buildings, and the mosques can be heard from anywhere in the town five times a day for Namaz. People live with their parents until married (unless they’re rich enough to study in a different town) and under government policy, everyone has a stated religion. Compared to other parts of Indonesia everyone, regardless of denomination, gets along very well here, despite the religious conservatism. Muslims attend the Christian university and vice-versa, for example.
After some research on Facebook, it became apparent that, despite the enormous taboo, there is a secret community of gays in Salatiga. After managing to join this totally private group, of which the majority of profiles are used only for the purposes of the group (many people having a ‘public’ and a ‘gay’ profile), a couple of guys agreed to meet to have coffee and a chat. Talking with them was very eye opening. One was originally from outside of Jakarta, and is now in Salatiga studying Nuclear Science. He is Catholic and has several crucifixes and rosaries on the wall of his small studio apartment in the suburbs of Salatiga. The other was Muslim, but said he rarely goes to a mosque or prays and that his family were not overly religious. He’s a graduate in Japanese studies at the local Christian university, had studied in Japan and now worked in a local bank.
It became pretty evident early in the conversation that these guys led very different lives to gays in Australia. Firstly, neither of their family’s knew – this didn’t come as much of a shock. Secondly none of their friends knew – this wasn’t much of a shock either. With this statement came the question, ”so how did you two meet?.” They had met on the said Facebook group and become friends through it. The only other gays that either of them had ever met had been through this group (which has over 100 members). They both planned to marry women and have 2 children, which is the norm in Indonesia. However, what was most interesting and shocking was the story of the Catholic student.
When asked whether sex was a part of the community in Salatiga, the answer was yes. The Muslim student explained that he had done it and some other gays in Salatiga do too. But, he explained, his Catholic friend hadn’t. His friend was going through a program at the local church, run by the priest and attended by around 6 other men, to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. Now this came as a shock. His story and the things he said were depressing; he spoke about how if he didn’t ‘cure’ himself, he couldn’t be ‘normal’. Apparently he never had sex due to the fact that if he did, he would ‘damage his soul’. Having sex was, according to the priest, the worst thing he could do on his road to recovery. When it was implied that it wasn’t possible to change ones sexuality, the student partially agreed, but followed up with, ”but oh well, I have to, I just have to.”
It is well known in the West that these programs can be incredibly detrimental to a person. They can cause suicides and deep psychological problems. Funnily enough, when this was brought up both students agreed, but the Catholic student had decided it was worth the risk. This is astoundingly ironic as he is in his second year of a Bachelor of Psychology at the university.
When the lives of these men is contrasted with those of gay men in Australia, the difference is obviously astounding. In Australia (for the most part) being gay isn’t viewed as a sickness (in Indonesian the word for gay/straight is ‘orang sakit/sehat’ – literally ‘people who are sick/healthy’). There are open communities, support, sexual health assistance, anti-discrimination legislation and a large marriage equality campaign soon to achieve its goals. In Indonesia, the government doesn’t acknowledge the existence of homosexuality and brands it as a ‘Western fad’ (not to mention provinces where sharia law is imposed by local governments and it is illegal for locals to be gay). There is zero support and coming out to friends and family is impossible. There is no sexual health support (apart from some very small, privately funded NGOs in Jakarta and large cities), and the concept same-sex marriage doesn’t even mean anything to most Indonesians, it isn’t a thing.
If it weren’t for the Facebook group, these two men would have no form of support, little knowledge, likely not a single friend in a similar situation, and one can only imagine, no hope.
Thank God for progress and secularity in Australia.