The Story of Yuli

Yuli Rustinawati is the founder and chairperson of Arus Pelangi, Indonesia’s leading LGBTI advocacy and support organisation. With over 10 years of experience in civil society activism, there is very little that Yuli has not seen over the years. This past week, we sat down with Yuli for a little chat about the work that Arus Pelangi does, a look back at the crisis of violence that befell Indonesia’s LGBTI community between January and March this year, and what keeps her going in spite of the challenges that lay in wait.

Hi, Yuli! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do at Arus Pelangi?

Arus Pelangi was founded in 2006 and I’ve been there since the beginning, working to advocate for LGBTI rights in Indonesia. But my journey in activism really began in 1998. While I’ve also been involved in another human rights organisation in Indonesia, I have been really devoted to Arus Pelangi for the past 10 years.

Our activities can be categorised into four pillars - civil advocacy, public campaigns, education and organisational development. We’re really open about the work we do at Arus Pelangi. We interact with the community through our membership framework and we share our plans, strategies and resources with them.

What does the sociopolitical climate look like for queer Indonesians right now? Have there been any changes over the years? 

We’ve been working in the public eye ever since our founding to achieve equal rights for LGBTI Indonesians, but in the past 6 months the political landscape has shifted in this country and impacted the LGBTI community as a result. In January, government officials began to openly speak out against the LGBTI community in various ways, while religious groups and the media were only too happy to follow suit.

There was so much hate speech against the LGBTI community that physical violence and harassment ensued across the country - not only in Jakarta but also in other provinces, with so-called “vigilantes” being the key culprits. More than 140 such incidents were reported between January and March 2016. 

All of a sudden, LGBTI people were being ostracised by their neighbours and evicted from the communities that they had belonged to.

Earlier this year, a crisis occurred within Indonesia, affecting the LGBTI community greatly. What was it about and how did it affect you/your organisation?

What happened is really the doing of the religious groups and the political parties. They come up with the same statements against LGBTI people every single time, proposing that LGBTI people be forced into conversion therapy or punished as criminals and that LGBTI organisations should not be allowed to exist. As leaders of LGBTI organisations come out into the public eye, politicians make use of the general public to spread pressure and fear about LGBTI people. The government is definitely responsible for the violence - that’s the kind of incidents that result when you go around banning our events and dealing with us like we are a threat, instead of treating us as a part of the society.

What was it like being at the forefront of this crisis? How did you and your organisation deal with it? 

At the time, we did not spring directly into action; we spent a week simply watching and monitoring the situation in order to get an understanding of it. What we saw was that the safety of LGBTI individuals were clearly under threat, and it was getting worse. News was even coming in from outside of Jakarta about violent attacks.

It has never been more important to fight for freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

So we formed a coalition with other human rights organisations and NGOs, some of which are not even LGBTI-related, to make a joint statement condemning the violence. We also provided assistance, information and safehouses along with a helpline where people could report incidents regardless of their location. I would say that the lasting impression of that period was how all these civil society organisations banded together to help one another.

The state colliding with activists in a protest

The state colliding with activists in a protest

What kinds of learnings did you and your organisation gain from this experience?

The thing is, this series of events was not exactly a surprise to us. It really started when the Indonesia Islamic Cleric Council issued a fatwa, and while there have been sporadic incidents of violence, it has never been this widespread or this severe until now. Over the past two years, LGBTI rights has also become a political issue with a growing movement behind it and more and more visible figures, which of course incites a reaction from the other side. 

There are government officials who think that the state and religion are one and the same, and ignore the fact that the Constitution guarantees that the rights of all Indonesians, including that of the LGBTI community, must be protected.

With the economic situation also causing unhappiness among the public, the LGBTI issue has become a convenient distraction away from the real problems affecting people’s livelihoods.

I think that we took away several learning points from this experience. Firstly, it’s important to collaborate with other NGOs and treat our work as not just an LGBTI issue, but a human rights issue. 

When we come together with other organisations working in the space, we become louder and stronger.

Secondly, advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a long-term investment to create mainstream understanding of sexuality and gender - it isn’t something that will happen overnight. We’ve learnt the importance of being more aggressive about bringing people over to be our ally. You cannot help LGBTI people when you don’t understand the challenges that the community is going through. You certainly do not help LGBTI people when you continue to walk around thinking they’re deviant people who have no place in your community.

At the same time, making sure the LGBTI community is well supported physically, socially and psychologically is just as important. Encouraging self-acceptance, for instance, for there’s no point achieving equality unless you love and value yourself for all the ways that we are different and special. 

Equality only takes place when we consider ourselves as free and equal to another human being, and demand others to treat us as equals.
Activists in Indonesia take the streets in response to the 2016 crisis.

Activists in Indonesia take the streets in response to the 2016 crisis.

In what ways have your personal experiences living as a queer woman in Indonesia influenced the ways in which you handle events like that as the head of an organisation?

I think that working so openly to improve the sociopolitical situation for LGBTI people in Indonesia has made me really aware of the threats that this work can have. However, I am allied to my cause and the needs of the community that I serve. For me, I’ve grown to see the importance of a strong support system - having a loving, accepting family and wonderful friends helps me find the energy to carry on. With a strong support network, we can take on any challenges.

What motivates you to keep on going through with this work despite the daily challenges?

I feel like I’m the lucky person. I feel like I’ve had so many opportunities since I was young; good family, good education, good friends, good allies surrounding me; allowing me to do the work that I’ve been doing for the past 10 years. And that’s really it, I advocate for LGBTI rights because I am able to do it. There are not many people like me who have the support necessary to do this work, and I feel like it’s my duty to stand up for them. We know how important it is in empowering LGBTI people in Indonesia and beyond, and we are determined to make an impact.

Activists in Indonesia

Activists in Indonesia

Tell us about the fundraising drive that Arus Pelangi is running right now.

We’re currently doing fundraising - we have a campaign ongoing with Alturi entitled “You Are Not Alone” which you can check out here. Please make a contribution if you can and help us continue the work that we do for LGBTI Indonesians all across Indonesia.

What does the future look like for Arus Pelangi?

The future of Arus Pelangi is that our work will never stop. Although there have been problems and there will continue to be difficulties, I am confident that we can get over them just like we already have.

We will not quit even if the government does now hate us, abuse us and try to pass discriminatory regulations that penalise LGBTI people.

It isn’t easy at all, but what we do have is trust from the community and trust from other human rights organisations along with a ton of connections and opportunities to work together. We work closely with the community; we know what happens in the community, and from the community we learn what the issues are that we need to work on and who our enemies may be. We will keep working, pushing and advocating on LGBTI issues under a human rights framework, and we will work to establish more bases in the provinces so that we can work better in those areas.

#YouAreNotAlone by Arus Pelangi

#YouAreNotAlone by Arus Pelangi

What makes you most proud about Arus Pelangi?

It is the fact that we are so tightly-knit with the LGBTI community. Our work has inspired others to speak alongside us against discrimination, particularly amongst young people who have joined the fight. It makes me particularly proud to see young leaders building their own campaigns and movements, and women leaders becoming more prominent in civil society activism.

Is there anything you'd like to say to the LGBTI community in Indonesia and SE Asia as a whole?

Even in the greater ASEAN region, being LGBTI is not easy either. But don’t forget that you are not alone. We’re a community that supports one another. Learn to accept yourself and surround yourself with people who will accept you as well.

Being LGBTI in Indonesia has never been easy. But you are not wrong, and being yourself is not a criminal offence.

Help Arus Pelangi keep their safe house open through the end of the year and operate other emergency support services. Donate here.