The crackdown on Indonesia’s LGBTQ community in recent years is fueling skyrocketing HIV rates in the world’s largest Muslim democracy.
Between the years of 2007 and 2015, data from Human Rights Watch shows that the rate of HIV among men who have sex with men (MSMs) has shot up from five percent to 25 percent—a fivefold increase. This figure is more than twice as high as neighboring Thailand, where nine percent of gay and bisexual men test positive for the virus.
The differences between the two countries throw Indonesia’s HIV crisis into starker relief.
Whereas over 90 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS in Thailand know their status, an estimated one in three Indonesians who are positive for HIV have been tested for the virus. Seven in 10 HIV-positive individuals in Thailand regularly take antiviral medications to control its spread, but just 12 percent of Indonesians do.
An estimated 48,000 Indonesians—both queer and heterosexual—contract HIV every year. While straight men are most likely to report new HIV diagnoses, more than a third of this population are MSMs.
The international human rights group claimed this problem has been fueled by the recent wave of “moral panic” in Indonesia targeting the LGBTQ community.
Although Indonesia was once known as one of the most tolerant countries in southeast Asia, Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono said that began to change in 2016. Conservative leaders claimed that “homosexuality was contagious, that it might affect children, [and] that it is more dangerous than nuclear war,” he stated in an HRW report released Sunday.
In January 2016, Education Minister Muhammad Nasir called for queer and trans students to be banned from universities, while politician Nasir Djamil referred to the LGBTQ community as a “serious threat to the nation.”
Those comments triggered a wave of raids on LGBTQ spaces in the nation of 230 million people. More than 300 individuals were arrested in the year 2017 alone, as police targeted gay saunas, apartments, and private events to detain anyone suspected of being queer or transgender. During a raid on Jakarta’s Atlantis Spa last May, 141 people were apprehended in a single evening.
Approximately 40 individuals were formally charged as a result of those raids.
Following these attacks, HIV/AIDS advocates say it’s more difficult to provide resources to a vulnerable community. Clinics offering outreach to people with HIV have been shut down, in addition to gay nightclubs where advocates could find potential clients.
“LGBTQ people’s access to condoms, to counseling and to HIV education is disappearing,” said Harsono, who co-authored the report. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for HIV education groups to access these communities. The situation is alarming and rates of HIV infections are increasing in Indonesia.”
Others claimed that LGBTQ people are too “scared of being beaten up” to seek out medication, treatment, or testing. Dimas Alphareza, an HIV/AIDS services coordinator, claimed healthcare workers are often stood up by the populations they serve.
“[W]e make an appointment through social media to meet, arrange a time and a place, but when we get there the person doesn’t show up,” he told HRW.
The impact on outreach to the country’s LGBTQ community has been dramatic, according to Harsono. He said that organizations engaged in HIV/AIDS outreach which might have offered services to 700 clients a month before the crackdown now service around 250—a 64 percent drop.
Harsono predicted that current levels of HIV transmission would “bring Indonesia 20-30 years back to the 1980s when the HIV/AIDS virus was still new.”
“This is going to be very damaging for Indonesia,” he claimed.
Kyle Knight, an LGBTQ rights researcher and coauthor of the report, alleged in a statement that the problem will continue “unless certain steps are taken to dial back on these raids, to create safe spaces for those to gather to gain information, [and] to get safety, sense of dignity, community and privacy.”
“What’s shifted in the last two years is that the government and police have made it abundantly clear that it’s perfectly okay to hate LGBTQ people and to act on it,” Knight said.
But for now, the crackdown on queer and trans lives in Indonesia doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
A proposed revision to the Indonesia Criminal Code introduced in parliament earlier this year would introduce harsh penalties for sex outside of marriage. Although homosexuality is currently legal everywhere in Indonesia outside the Sharia-governed independent province of Aceh, the change would serve to criminalize sodomy in a country where same-sex marriage remains illegal.
That proposal was condemned by the United Nations as “inherently discriminatory” but has remained on the table since being introduced in January. A month after that draft bill was put forward, the Health Ministry responded to international backlash by declaring homosexuality a “mental disorder.”
Things have deteriorated most sharply, however, in Aceh—where two men were flogged 83 times in 2016 after being accused of same-sex intercourse.
In January, a dozen transgender women were apprehended while working their day jobs as hairdressers at salons in the ultra-conservative region. Their hair was reportedly cut off and the women were forced into undergo training seminars where they would be reeducated to “make them masculine.”
You can read the report in its entirety here.