Is a ‘Great Gay Migration’ from Indonesia underway?

Is a ‘Great Gay Migration’ from Indonesia underway?

Wisnu Adihartono (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Marseille)

“… (Crying in front of me) … My parents didn’t want to have a gay child so they stopped the relationship. But I am still in contact with my two sisters. I love them … love very much … I send them some euros and ask them about the condition of my parents. … they don’t want to speak with me … One day, one of my sisters want to send me some money, but I said « no », I am her brother, so I have to take responsibility. I have four sisters … One of them acts like my parents. She is a fanatic about Islam … I want to contact her, but it’s impossible … (Crying) … I miss them …”

That is a touching story from one of my interlocutors when I interviewed 20 Indonesian gays in Paris as part of my PhD research about migration of Indonesian gays to Paris. His emotion when he cried telling about his family circumstances and why he had to move to Paris instead of stay in Indonesia as he would have preferred is palpable. The migration of gays has happened within and between many countries in the world. One peak could be seen in the United States in the early 1970s and early 1980s as the “Great Gay Migration”, which was marked by “an influx of tens of thousands of lesbians and gay men (as well as individuals bent on exploring their sexuality) into major urban areas across the United States.”(1) Why then, are some gays and lesbians moving to other countries?

According to Takács, Mocsonaki, and Tóth, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) people can be seen as members of a minority group; that is, a group characterized by a relative powerlessness regarding their interest representing abilities.(2) They are also a group of people who are singled out from others for differential and unequal treatment and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.  Along with this goes homophobia: the cultural devaluation of homosexuality. Their sexuality thus disparaged, homosexuals are subject to shaming, harassment, discrimination, and violence, while being denied legal rights and equal protection – in other words, denials of recognition. Gays and lesbians also suffer serious economic injustices; they can be summarily dismissed from paid work and are denied family-based social-welfare benefits. But these economic disadvantages are not rooted directly in the economic structure, but derive instead from an unjust cultural-valuational structure.

This is the present situation in Indonesia, where LGBT groups have little or no power and limited access to fight for their rights. The idea that homosexuality is a disease is widely shared in Indonesia where they suffer the consequences of a severely homophobic society. At the beginning of the 1980’s, homosexuality became closely connected to the spread of the aids virus in the minds of many Indonesians. As a consequence, in Indonesia, people call gay people ‘orang sakit’ (the ‘sick’). Indonesian national laws generally do not recognize or support the rights of LGBT people. While homosexuality is not criminalized, a recent poll shows 93 percent of Indonesians feel homosexual couples should not be accepted.

In practice, homosexuality has been informally tolerated so long as its practice is discreet and hidden.  But this places LGBT individuals outside a primary institution through which individual rights are expressed (that is, with regard to marriage, inheritance, taxation). Therefore, to avoid being discriminated against many Indonesian’s LGBT have played a form of ‘hide and seek’.Part of the situation in Indonesia is the role of powerful norms of masculinity. Being a man is associated as ‘kuat’ or strong, having ‘kekuatan’ or power, and men should always be the leader in all situations. It means that, in contrast, being an Indonesian woman should have a ‘lembut’ or a tender character, express actions imbued with courtesy and, most importantly, should serve their husbands. These roles in Indonesian society are understood as ‘kodrat’, or as predetermined and destined by God.(3)

This dynamic creates a sharp sex role differentiation between men and women. LGBT people are forced to operate under this heteronormative system. In these circumstances, Instead of staying in Indonesia, many choose to migrate to other countries – for example, to Paris, but also to the Netherlands based on the very strong historical ties between Indonesia and the Netherlands. Living in Indonesia as a gay is hard because it was blocked by the attitudes of many who still cannot accept homosexuality even though there are some people who think that homosexuality is a sexual preference that is not against nature.

Migration is understood to be a “necessary action” to avoid the discrimination in Indonesia: “I am afraid to be gay in Indonesia. My family knows that I am a gay, even my friends. My family is ashamed of having a gay child, even if I did not feel I made a “mistake” in my family [he feels that being a gay in his family is his “big mistake”]. Maybe they feel they failed to educate me. Having a gay child is a big disgrace in Indonesia. Eventually, I felt not accepted by the society. Most would only accept men and women without being able to see any other type of individual. I realized that behind it all, there are Indonesian values with which we must comply, for example religion, in this case Islam because I come from a Muslim family. I do not blame religion, but this is a fact.”

Another respondent tells of the difficulty of ordinary gay people:

“Actually it was very hard to leave Indonesia, but for me it was a necessity. Being gay in Indonesia is very difficult, unless we have made some achievements. At the time I left Indonesia, I did not have any achievements. Look at my friends who are successful, they are gay but their families close their eyes because of their achievements, but what about gays who do not yet have such successes? There is no other way… should they stay in Indonesia playing “hide and seek” or try to leave Indonesia without knowledge and just rely on the ability of their partners? Other than that, do you know FPI? The Islamic Defenders Front who are desperately fighting for Islamic values while the leaders themselves had their own depravities!! It was not fair!! What is wrong with us?”

Although many Non-Governmental Organization groups fight for homosexual rights in Indonesia, discrimination against homosexuals continues. Being open about their sexual orientation makes gay people particularly vulnerable to discrimination by society, religion, and even by the State. That’s why migration has become a “natural way” to avoid being mistreated. The State could stop them moving to other countries by ensuring their safety and equal opportunities. Without such efforts, there will be an “Indonesian Great Gay Migration”.

(1) Weston, Kath. (1995). ‘Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imagery and the Great Gay Migration’, Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 2.
(2) Tákacs, Mocsonaki, and Tóth, Támas P.  (2008). ‘Social Exclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) People in Hungary’, Research Report, Institute of Sociology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
(3) Nilan, Pam, Demartoto, Argyo, and Wibowo, Agung. (2014). ‘Youthful Warrior Masculinities in Indonesia’, in Joseph Gelfer (ed.), Masculinities in a Global Era, New York, Heidelberg, Dordrecht, London: Springer.


Wisnu Adihartono is a PhD candidate in sociology at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Marseille, France. His research examines the migration and family relationships of Indonesian gays in Paris.