By Beh Lih Yi
JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indonesia said on Thursday there was "no room" for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement in the country, after Human Rights Watch criticised the government for failing to protect the group that has come under unprecedented attack.
The LGBT community is largely tolerated in Indonesia, especially in urban areas. But LGBT people suffered a sudden public backlash when a central government minister said in January that LGBT people should be barred from university campuses.
The comment "grew into a cascade of threats and vitriol" against LGBT Indonesians, fuelling increased hostility from family and neighbours and fostered stigmatisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on Thursday.
But the government hit back at the criticism.
"As a citizen, whoever the person is will have his rights protected, without looking at his sexual preference," presidential spokesman Johan Budi told Reuters in a text message.
"But if LGBT means a mass movement to influence other parties to become like them, then there's no room here."
Dede Oetomo, one of Indonesia's most prominent LGBT activists and founder of LGBT rights group GAYa NUSANTARA said Budi's remark did not come as a surprise but it showed "the president doesn't understand human rights".
At the height of the anti-LGBT backlash, the authorities banned TV and radio programmes from broadcasting LGBT-related information and a minister said the LGBT movement was being used by outsiders to brainwash Indonesians.
An Islamic boarding school for transgender women was also forced to shut down.
Kyle Knight, HRW's researcher on LGBT issues, said the authorities' failure to act had created a "social sanction from the highest level" for attacks and hate speech.
"It gives a sense that you can do it with impunity," Knight told a news conference in Jakarta.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, and the barrage of criticism against LGBT has been seen as a test of the country's largely tolerant attitude towards the group.
"I don't feel safe with seeing all the 'end LGBT' statements on social media. I feel like a dog," an unidentified 25-year-old gay man interviewed by HRW was quoted as saying in the report.
Some of Indonesia's LGBT activists, however, saw a silver lining to the controversy.
Activist Ryan Korbarri, 28, said the backlash which was played out on television and in local newspapers prompted his parents' curiosity about his job with a LGBT rights group.
"They did not know what I was doing before, they are more aware now although they tried to persuade me to leave my job. I told them this is the way I live and I will stick with it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It used to be a taboo but we openly talk about it now. Many parents did not realise there are so many LGBT people here until then," Korbarri added.
Oetomo of GAYa NUSANTARA said LGBT groups suffered setbacks after the backlash, including difficulties in securing funding for advocacy campaigns but he remained optimistic.
"It put things on the table, whether you like it or not, this is a real issue and it gets talked about," he said.
Oetomo however sounded a note of caution, pointing to a petition lodged with Indonesia's top court by anti-LGBT groups to criminalise consensual sex between adults of the same gender.
He said if successful, the petition would lead to long term consequences with "another few decades of battle" ahead for LGBT activists wishing to fight any such criminalisation.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, additional reporting by Reuters bureau in Jakarta, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)