Gemma Holliani Cahya, Jakarta – When American tourist Kristen Antoinette Gray began writing about her stay in Bali on Twitter, she apparently had little idea of the controversy she would cause.
Gray and her girlfriend had travelled to Bali for six months but, when the pandemic hit, decided to wait it out on the island. The move had transformed their lifestyles, she wrote, allowing them to enjoy an "elevated lifestyle at a much lower cost of living". Her business, which she ran as a digital nomad, had started to take shape, and the island had offered a much-needed respite from the political turmoil in the US. It was also, she said, a safe place for the black and queer community.
After sharing her experience, she posted a link to an ebook she had created, which she said contained visa tips. It also gave advice on getting into Bali during the Covid-19 pandemic – despite an entry ban for foreign visitors, which was put in place to stop the spread of the virus.
Her post immediately prompted an online storm among Bali residents. Her comments, her critics felt, summed up the privileged attitude of foreign tourists who ignore local rules. They pointed out that she showed little awareness of huge economic inequality on the island, or of the impact of the pandemic on local people. Within days, authorities announced that she would was deported.
For the queer community in Bali, the episode has been especially fraught.
Explaining their decision to deport Gray, officials not only accused her of operating a business in Bali, but also of having "disseminated information disturbing to the public". Her description of the island as a welcoming place for LGBT travellers was among the comments they highlighted.
Bali, a Hindu-majority island and a tourist destination that attracts gay travellers, is considered more open-minded than other areas of Indonesia, where discrimination against LGBT people is rife.
LGBT residents on the island, however, do not enjoy the same privileges as visitors, said Arya, a program manager at Gaya Dewata Foundation, an NGO that provides health and educational services for LGBT people.
"It is friendly here for LGBT tourists because they are here as tourists. The people in the tourism business will accept them whatever their sexuality is, they will be served well," Arya said.
"But we all have to understand the culture, and the local condition, and be careful with our actions to protect the local community. Not everyone here can express themselves that freely," he added.
Some fear the publicity generated by Gray's deportation could prompt the authorities to crackdown on LGBT people in Bali. Over recent years, there have been worrying signs of increased hostility.
Last year, authorities announced they were investigating a villa that had marketed itself as a destination for gay travellers, with one official stating at the time that "here in Bali we don't recognise that culture". In 2019, a Bali-based LGBT pageant held its crowning ceremony in secret after it was targeted with online criticism.
So far in Bali, there has been no action against the community, said Arya. But he added: "As tourists they will return to their countries, but we live here, we are staying here. We [the local LGBT community] are the ones who have to deal with the impact if something happened."
Homosexuality is legal in Indonesia, except in Aceh province, but LGBT people lack legal rights and face widespread prejudice. Exorcism and conversion therapy continue to be imposed upon people, while the Indonesian Psychiatrists Association (PDSKJI) classifies homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexualism as mental disorders that can be cured through proper treatment.
A study by Pew Research Center published in 2020 found that only 9% of Indonesians agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society.
Gray has denied any wrongdoing in relation to her business activities, stating that she had not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia. "I'm being deported because of LGBT," she said last week.
Her lawyer, Erwin Siregar, said that the couple had not broken any laws and that they were just trying to promote Bali, and help people come to the island after coronavirus restrictions were lifted.
Mata Kai, a musician and campaigner against LGBT discrimination who has spoken open out about her own sexuality, says the episode demonstrates that Indonesia – including Bali – is not queer-friendly.
She fears for travellers who might listen to Gray's advice, and for Indonesian queer people who, she said, "undergo not only laws that threaten us, but also highly pressured society that thinks we're not normal and that we need to be cured".
"It has now exploded into a story that has lasting repercussions on a very unprotected and vulnerable minority which is us, in the queer community."