Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Jakarta, Courage Comes in a Small Package

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At the hand of the Jakarta Park Lane Hotel doorman, the large glass doors swing open with a flourish. From our vantage point seated in the spacious but spare lobby, we see Agustine enter. She is a diminutive, self-described “tom-boy” and feminist. A brave lesbian activist whose small size belies her large vision for LGBT equality in a predominately Islamic country that views queerness as a criminal act.

In fact, most LGBT individuals here will dare only to speak anonymously or in the shadows. To avoid potentially violent reprisals, their voices are re-engineered digitally and their faces obscured by black bars across their eyes to carefully conceal identities.

Agustine crosses the lobby, heading towards us while carefully assessing her surroundings. Although we have never met we know each other instantly. Warm, kindred greetings are exchanged and we decide our conversation would feel more comfortable taking place in the courtyard - someplace a little less public.

Over coffee, we talk for nearly two hours. Agustine tells us how she has survived against amazing odds and projects a spirit that fills the conversation with profound emotionality. Eyes tear up - hers as she recounts her story still vivid with pain some 21 years later and ours because our hearts ache in sympathy. "Violence against Gay and Lesbian people begins at home in this country, this is the first thing we must change," she says. "I ran away from home at age 18 - a victim of family violence triggered by my being homosexual. My best friend ran too - he had to escape the brutality of his family who were relentless in their punishing attempts to force the gayness out of him. We left our village and came to Jakarta. For nearly four years we lived together on the streets - I work now to make sure that young LGBT Indonesians shall not have to face the same horrors we did." She pauses as the weight of the memory lingers and the pain of her past is palatable.

Agustine’s current work at the NGO (non-governmental organization) Ardhanari Institute in Jarkarta is primarily devoted to women’s issues. Lest we forget that this is a patriarchal society that continues to relegate women to traditional Islamic roles. Subservience and motherhood their preordained destiny. "Women are our strong allies in the LGBT struggle," she points out. "They already understand being silenced and living as second class citizens. Whenever possible, we extend women’s issues as a means to advance the LGBT agenda. This builds unity and strength in both movements because we are finding commonality. Another strategy," she continues with great emphasis, "is our HIV prevention education program. Since it is not possible here to speak from an open LGBT platform, we must use whatever means necessary to neutralize homophobia and make our community visible. It has taken a long time but we have managed to shift thinking away from blaming gay people for HIV and look at the situation as a national health crisis. This has been extremely important in helping alleviate the persistent vilification of our community. Small steps that are actually quite huge for us," she says proudly.

Appropriately, we learn that the NGO Agustine works for is named after the Hindu god Ardhanari. In Hinduism, Ardhanari, is an androgynous deity composed of Shiva and his consort Shakti, representing the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies. The Ardhanari illustrates how the female principle of God, is inseparable from the male principle of God. Ardhanari is depicted as half-male and half-female, split down the middle.

Agustine eyes are bright and they widen with purpose; "the point here is that this is part of our history. The unified representation of male and female verifies we’ve been a part of Indonesian culture all along. The traditional Muslim argument that gayness is a subversive western idea is simply not true."

The conversation circles back to homosexuality and Indonesian law. Not only is homophobia rampant here but a new anti-pornography law includes a specific ban against homosexuality. This means that fines and punishment may be levied for not only possessing materials with any gay content whatsoever but also for engaging in same sex relationships.

Agustine then tells us about being involuntarily outed after a TV appearance supporting LGBT rights. "Not long ago there was a sensational murder trial of a gay serial killer here in Jakarta. The mainstream media used the horrific event to promote that such behavior was typical among gay people. I felt I could not stand by and let this propaganda stand as fact about our community. So I went on the air to represent an opposing view. My appearance angered some Muslim’s who then contacted the TV station. Fearing reprisals from the religious community, the station divulged my name and contact information. Shortly thereafter I began receiving threats to my well-being. I was forced to move and had to change all of my contact information. I decided then, that although I had to be discreet to avoid danger, I must stand up for LGBT rights. Things will not change unless we teach LGBT young people that there is nothing wrong with being who they are," she says with great determination.

On the subject of education Agustine is also quite emphatic. "Our primary goal at this time is to encourage and help LGBT Indonesian youth continue with their education for as long as possible. We must break the incomplete cycle of learning that for many concludes around the 6th grade. Knowledge will provide the power to stand up against hatred and bigotry in the future. Without this, progress for us will continue to be very difficult." Things fall silent for a moment.

As the interview draws to a close, we ask her if she is happy with her life now. "Yes," she says without hesitation. "All I wanted to do was prove that I could be a contributing person in this life. I educated myself and overcame many social stigmas about being a lesbian. I have a partner and we are very happy together." She smiles broadly, laughs gently and has an undaunted gleam in her eyes, "things will continue to get better - I know it."

Photo: Agustine and Bob, Park Lane Hotel, Jakarta, 2/13/09

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