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OK to hate

Indonesia’s LGBT population is under attack. As Christopher Kelly reports, forcing the community into the shadows is having a devastating impact on the country’s HIV response.

On 28 March 2017, neighbours forcibly entered an apartment in the Aceh province of Indonesia. Inside were two young men. They were abducted and taken to the local police station. Two months later, the men were caned in front of a jeering crowd of more than a thousand people. They received 83 strokes each. Their crime? Engaging in consensual sex.

While Aceh is unique in that it is under ultra-conservative Islamic rule, systemic persecution against the LGBT community has become commonplace across all of Indonesia over the past couple of years. In 2017 alone, at least 300 people were targeted by police because of their sexual orientation and gender identity — the highest number recorded.

As well as acts of vigilantism, LGBT spaces are raided on a regular basis and social media accounts of those suspected of being LGBT are monitored by police. Authorities forcibly test gay men for HIV and release the results, and members of the LGBT community face public humiliation and widespread shame. All the while, politicians stoke the anti-gay hysteria by calling for criminal penalties for LGBT activities.

“The government and the police have made it abundantly clear that it’s perfectly OK to hate LGBT people and to act on it,” said Kyle Knight, an LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). According to a recently released HRW report, the hate campaign being waged against the LGBT community is proving catastrophic for public health.

Figures from UNAIDS back up the claim: HIV rates among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Indonesia have rocketed five-fold in recent years, from five percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2015. In major cities such as Denpasar and Jakarta nearly one in three MSM are living with HIV. Meanwhile, HIV prevalence among transgender women in 2015 was 22 percent. This spike in HIV diagnoses, says the HRW report, “can be traced to a nationwide anti-LGBT moral panic”.

Cultivated for cynical political purposes, the witch hunt of Indonesia’s LGBT community has forced people underground and into the shadows. “Stigma and discrimination against populations at risk of HIV, as well as people living with HIV, has discouraged some HIV-vulnerable populations from accessing prevention and treatment services,” says the report. Indeed, only 50 percent of gay men in Indonesia have tested for HIV and — of those diagnosed — only nine percent are on antiretroviral drugs.

Many of the LGBT spaces that have been raided were used for outreach purposes. Their closure has already had a detrimental impact on the local response. “It is devastating that clubs have closed — they were the only places where we could find the community,” an HIV outreach worker in Jakarta told HRW. “Clubs were hotspots for us because we knew that even the discreet guys felt safe about their sexuality inside, so we could do HIV testing and they wouldn’t be scared to participate.”

Another outreach worker told HRW that “over the past two years, MSM have started distancing themselves from us” and also noticed that “we see more and more [MSM] waiting to get really sick before they seek help or even ask questions about HIV”. An HIV counsellor at a community health centre in Yogyakarta confirmed the disturbing trend. “Most of the MSM we see these days have at least mild symptoms when they come in for their first HIV test.”

Since mid-2017, it has become increasingly difficult for outreach workers to conduct even the simplest conversations about HIV. “It’s becoming more and more work to convince them of the basics — condoms, testing — because of the moral panic,” said an outreach worker in Jakarta. Such is the climate of fear that condoms have become illicit items that — if discovered by police — can be used as evidence that “deviant” sexual activity has taken place. “People refuse condoms these days. They tell me that keeping them in your private room is dangerous.”

As a result of the draconian measures, HIV organisations and sexual health clinics are operating in secrecy. Jakarta’s main sexual clinic has no website and its existence is spread by word of mouth out of fear it will be attacked by vigilantes. “We like to keep [the clinic] known for only those who need it,” said its chief doctor.

In the conclusion to its report, the HRW urges the highest ranks of the Indonesian government to display “the courage to confront the anti-LGBT moral panic”. While Indonesian President Joko Widodo has publicly defended the rights and dignity of LGBT Indonesians, his statements have not been followed through with moves to stop discrimination and abuse. President Jokowi, for example, has yet to take any steps to deter senior government officials from engaging in hate speech or to stop the police from conducting discriminatory raids on LGBT venues.

If the present climate persists, it is feared that the HIV epidemic among Indonesian MSM and other marginalised groups will become unmanageable. “Unless certain steps are taken, this will spin out of control,” said Knight. “The Indonesian government’s failure to address anti-LGBT moral panic is having dire consequences for public health. The government should recognise that its role in abuses against LGBT people is seriously compromising the country’s response to HIV.”

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