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LGBT in Indonesia: how first church to welcome queer members is a lifeline for some, target for others

South China Morning Post - August 7, 2019

Amanda Siddharta – Every Friday night at a house in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, a church group meets to discuss issues surrounding gender and sexuality. There are usually 12 to 15 people, but only a handful attend regularly.

One of them is Calpin Yeremia, who has been dropping by every week since last year. Yeremia is currently studying to become a pastor at a theological school in the city. But there is one problem – he is transgender and there are no such pastors in the Muslim-majority nation.

Born a woman, the 22-year-old now identifies as a man in his personal life. He has not yet told his theological school this. When fellow students ask "why is your hair so short?" or "why do you always dress up like a boy?", Yeremia just shrugs it off.

"I'm quite small in stature. People would look at me and think I'm just a tomboyish girl who always wears baggy clothes," he explains.

Yeremia attends the weekly group discussions not only because the topic is relevant to him, but also because it is organised by the Gereja Komunitas Anugerah (GKA), the first Christian church in Indonesia to openly welcome members of the LGBT community.

"Their interpretation [of religion] is not conservative or traditional. It's more progressive," he tells the Post.

The GKA – the Grace Community Church in English – was established under the Reformed Baptist Church in 2013. For Pastor Suarbudaya Rahadian, it was an opportunity to reach out to Christians who had never been to church or had stopped attending.

Rahadian's goal was to reignite their faith. He created the discussion group to talk about the various issues that prompt people to abandon their religion.

"There were many atheists who came here and they told me why religion doesn't make sense to them, and why [in their opinion] religion has a moral problem – for example, the way that religion seems to advocate oppression and violence," he explains.

Rahadian took pains to assure them that this did not have to be the case, and that no one should feel that God has forsaken them.

During the early GKA group discussions, it also became apparent that one of the main reasons many people stopped going to church was that they regarded the institution as homophobic.

It was then that Rahadian decided to encourage his congregation to embrace the LGBT community – to encourage inclusiveness and love.

"The fundamental spirit of Christianity is that no one should be denied the love of God. If someone is denied this, then we have failed. It must be inclusive. The church must take the side of the weakest and help the most vulnerable groups in our community," he says.

So in 2015, GKA church released a public statement expressing its support for Jakarta's LGBT community. It was a bold step to take, but one the pastor felt was essential.

"The main point is that diversity is a gift from God. We must recognise and celebrate them [the LGBT community]. We also encouraged other Protestant churches... don't simply reject what you don't understand," he says.

Not everyone in the congregation agreed with Rahadian, however. Some members left the church. The Reformed Baptist Church then severed all ties with the GKA over its controversial stance, and expelled it from the association.

This left the GKA without funding. The church is now self-sustaining and finances all its own activities, and Rahadian says it has been a struggle going it alone.

This has not stopped the GKA from trying to build relationships with theological schools and other churches. It has approached several campuses in Central Java in the hope of establishing a small community where LGBT students can find a safe space to share, much like the weekly discussion group sessions it holds each Friday.

Rahadian admits, however, that whenever he has brought up the issue on social media, he has received harsh, angry comments.

"I don't know why, but when it comes to sexual diversity, it's so easy for people to be triggered by anger. I now avoid open discussion on social media because it won't achieve anything," he says.

The GKA church has also been threatened by hardliners and conservative groups based in Indonesia. It has been a victim of fake news, such as when it was falsely reported that the church performs same-sex marriages.

As a result, it has been forced to introduce safety and security protocols to ensure it can act quickly in the event of an incident or attack during a service. The congregation has been informed of appropriate steps to take if they need to evacuate the building. So have members of the weekly Friday group discussions.

Despite the threats, the church's mantra has inspired one of its members, Nico Pongmasangka, to create the Indonesian Rainbow Christian Fellowship, an online platform for sharing news of events and opening up discussion among minority groups in the country.

"I want to spread more theological discourse concerning the LGBT community here," Pongmasangka says. "But Indonesian Rainbow is a community that is separate from GKA because I want this to be more inclusive to people outside the church as well."LGBT rights in 'new' Malaysia still have a long way to go

He says his organisation, which now has more than 480 followers on Instagram, has not yet received any threats. "Messages once in a while say what we're doing is a sin, that's all," he says.

Indonesia has a reputation as a moderate Muslim country, but in recent years fundamentalist groups that advocate for sharia law have gained more influence and support. As a result, LGBT people have faced growing hostility and intolerance, including physical attacks.

A survey commissioned last year by Jakarta-based pollster Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting found that 87.6 per cent of Indonesians regarded LGBT people as a threat, and 81.5 per cent believed their behaviour was forbidden by whichever religion they adhered to.

Meanwhile, the linking of LGBT people to HIV threatens to derail the fight against the epidemic in Indonesia. With half of the infected population undiagnosed, according to 2018 estimates by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids), the country has the lowest percentage of HIV-positive individuals in Southeast Asia who are aware of their status.

Dede Oetomo, an LGBT rights activist and the founder of GAYa Nusantara, an NGO for LGBT rights in Indonesia, believes the GKA church can help fight the stigma in Indonesian society against the community.

"Religion is an important part [of life] for many in the LGBT community living in Indonesia, so affirmation from a religious institution such as GKA can show them that religion doesn't reject LGBT people," Oetomo says. "I believe that in the future there will be more religious institutions following in the footsteps of GKA."

As for Yeremia, thanks to the GKA he has finally found a place where he belongs – one where everyone is willing to accept his gender identity. It is something he had never experienced at home or the church he formerly attended.

"In my family, they always said that I couldn't be like this [transgender], because the Bible says it's not allowed. And at the other church I used to go to, they didn't acknowledge my gender identity. To them I'm still a woman because I was born a woman," Yeremia says.

Although the GKA church openly welcomes Yeremia for who he is, he is still torn over whether to continue his journey to become a pastor. The theological school at which he studies, like most other Christian institutions, does not support the LGBT community.

So Yeremia has a dilemma. If he chooses to become a pastor he must be recognised as a woman (Protestant churches in Indonesia allow women to become pastors). Alternatively he could give up his studies completely and live openly as a transgender man.

Although there are currently no transgender pastors working in Indonesia, Yeremia still hopes to become one someday, though he remains pessimistic.

"It's a struggle," he says. "To become a pastor you have to be heteronormative, and I'm not. I'm different."

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/lifestyle/family-relationships/article/3021586/lgbt-indonesia-how-first-church-welcome-queer