An important milestone has been reached for gay rights in our region following a meeting between Islamic leaders and Indonesia’s premier gay rights group Arus Pelangi this month.

Although homosexuality is not banned under Indonesia’s national laws, recent years have seen a dramatic undermining of its legal status, with Islamic parties at a local government level introducing so called anti-pornography and anti-prostitution Sharia-inspired laws that target gay men and unveiled women – gay men being made pornographic by legal definition and innocent women finding themselves convicted of prostitution simply for being on the streets alone while possessing makeup.

Disturbingly, many local authorities have hired their own Iranian style morality police to enforce these laws.

The meeting was covered by Indonesia’s leading English language newspaper, The Jakarta Post, and led a representative from Indonesia’s Conference of Religions and Peace to declare that homosexuals were made by God and were a part of nature, and that homosexual attraction was motivated by greater things than mere physical lust.

Another speaker, from the Nahdlatul Ulama, conceded that prejudice against gay men and lesbians was a social construct, and that if heterosexuals were the minority, it would be they who would be the target of society’s prejudices, not gays.

To put this in perspective, Nahdlatul Ulama is the largest Muslim group in Indonesia and one of the largest Sunni Muslim organisations in the world with a membership approaching 30 million, and its one time leader Abdururrahman Wahid (also known as Gus Dur) is a former Indonesian president.

Importantly, though he is yet to make a statement on gay rights himself, Wahid has lent his support to the campaign to repeal these Sharia-based local laws, calling them an attack on Indonesia’s multiculturalism and its separation of religion and state.

Wahid has also thrown his hat back into the ring for Indonesia’s 2009 presidential elections. Could this perhaps be one of the few times in history where a religious leader coming to power could actually be a boon for gay rights, rather than a barrier?

Not all Muslim representatives at the meeting were supportive and Indonesia still has its share of violent fundamentalists, but that these hardliners even bothered to attend shows how far many Indonesians have come on this issue,and despite ongoing discrimination it bodes well for gay rights in Indonesia in the years to come.

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