Sun, 21 May 2000

Yogya gays in search of identity

By Singgir Kartana

YOGYAKARTA (JP): "Yogyakarta is a haven for gays" read a banner put up for several days on the River Progo bridge, which leads to the city of Yogyakarta from Jl. Wates. The provocative banner was put up in conjunction with Gay and Lesbian Solidarity Day in March.

Has Yogyakarta become a favored place to live for the gay community. How does the surrounding community react to their presence?

Do not be surprised to learn that gays have for a number of years considered Yogyakarta a comfortable place to live in. Yogyakarta's residents generally tolerate the presence of gays; besides, Yogyakarta, as a center of education, always welcomes newcomers. Gays may find life in Yogyakarta to be comfortable because the city is home to two gay organizations, Jakin, which has about 50 members, and the Indonesian Gay Society (IGS), which claims over 400 members. Interestingly, most members of the two organizations are university students.

IGS coordinator Faisal, 23, estimated there were more than 2,000 gays in Yogyakarta, most of whom were from other areas. Their professions range from businessmen, employees of private enterprises, civil servants to workers on construction sites.

Popular night hangouts for a get-together or a date are Borobudur Cafe, Java Cafe, Papillon Discotheque, Purawisata and the Northern Palace Square.

Due to the continuing stigma, gays continue to try to blend in with the surrounding community. In terms of physical appearance and behavior most cannot be differentiated from heterosexuals. However, gay people have developed a dialect to identify each other.

"We have a special kind of language that we use among ourselves. We have a secret code and will change it the moment we find out that this secret is leaked. We used to wear an earring in our right ear. When the code became known to outsiders, we devised a new one," said Hanung, 32, who runs a laundry business and is initiating the establishment of an organization of gay environment lovers.

Gay people often conduct activities for fun, such as having get-togethers at cafes, chatting sessions and trips to tourist attractions. However, the activities are not regularly scheduled.

Members of Jakin and IGS have a rather more regular schedule for their activities. They meet often, including to assess the use of their codes. Jakin, in addition, publishes a special magazine under the same name. The magazine contains information about gay life in Yogyakarta and its surrounding areas. Besides, every Jakin member enjoys the counsel and advice from Lentera PKBI (the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association), a non- governmental organization dealing with sexual health advocacy.

"The assistance provided by Lentera PKBI is intended more than anything else on sexual health, for example by providing information on sexual health, condoms and counseling on safe sex activities. In reality, gays are vulnerable to HIV infection," said Antok, one of the volunteers from Lentera PKBI.

Jakin chairman Zoel, 25, said their organization thought up a number of activities for the benefit of the public, such as fund- raising activities for the poor. Unfortunately, he said, many of the plans were not realized because of the community's own concerns about acceptance.

"If we do something, we wonder if it will be acceptable to the community because we are a minority social group which the community has never socially recognized," said Zoel, a student of the school of economics of a private university here.

Compared to Jakin, IGS has a clear program. Perhaps, as all its members are university students, its activities have intellectual and political nuances. Apart from publishing its own magazine, New Jaka-Jaka, IGS has often carried out national-scale activities such as observing National Gay and Lesbian Solidarity Day. IGS organizes discussions on important social problems every second Sunday of the month. It also conducts political campaigns related to equal rights.

"We do not have any more problems related to narcotics and drugs. As far as I know, none of our members use narcotics and drugs," Faisal said emphatically.

What is the response of the people of Yogyakarta to the presence of gays among them? According to most gays, the people in Yogyakarta assume an open attitude toward them. As long as the gays do not disturb public interests, they are free to carry out their activities. Gays in Yogyakarta say they have never met any obstacles in carrying out their activities although they openly declare that they are gay. Nevertheless, they still think twice about organizing social activities in public places.

Faisal admitted that part of the community still harbored negative views toward gays. He said it was the result of the inability of some gays to be part of the greater society and "some do inappropriate things in public".

Yogyakarta has its own historical value in the birth of one of the fist gay organizations in the country. It was here that the Yogyakarta Gay Brotherhood was set up in 1985, three years after the establishment of the country's first gay group in Surakarta. In 1987 the organization changed its name to IGS. The city was host to the first Lesbian and Gay Congress in 1993. To cap all this, it was also in Yogyakarta, to be exact at the building of the Indonesian-French Institute (LIP), that the National Gay and Lesbian Solidarity Day was recently observed.

"In Solo (Surakarta) we once experienced a sad event," said Faisal, who is a student in architecture at a private university. "Well, we can say it was a threat.

"In September 1999 while we were having our national working meeting at Dana Hotel, a group of youngsters claiming to be from the Mosque Youth Forum came and threatened us. Eventually, we had to cancel our meeting."

Gays perhaps should be thankful that Yogyakarta has provided them space for their activities. Unfortunately, when the community begins to welcome their presence, it is the gays that have set up their own exclusive groups and keep a distance from society. As a result, public opinion has it that groups of gays are fond of holding secret parties. This is reason enough for the community to harbor suspicion toward gays.