Regional Outlook, Global Perspective


By Julia Suryakusuma

On June 18, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the ICD-11, the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases, which states that being a transgender person is no longer considered a mental disorder.

This is really surprising. The WHO removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses in 1990, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had already done so 45 years ago in 1973. Why did they take so long to do the same with transgender people? The WHO say now they have a better understanding of what it is, therefore leaving it on the list of mental illness causes stigma.
Well, better late than never!

But can you erase social prejudice by fiat? While gender rights activists worldwide have praised the move, the Indonesian government has been less than enthused. Apparently for them, local values are more important than science. According to Firdiansyah, the Health Ministry’s director of mental health and substance abuse, “A psychological diagnosis is different from a physical diagnosis. The mental health factor is very much related to religious and cultural values…[and]… we will support [the belief that transgenderism (sic!) is a mental disorder] and we will support it with evidence-based medicine”.

Transgenderism ? Is it an ideology, like communism? First of all, the term “transgenderism” is not a thing, let alone an ideology, but in the eyes of the government and conservative segments of society it might as well be. In fact, the discrimination experienced by members of the LGBT community is similar to members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) after 1965.

But if we’re going to talk about religious and cultural values, what about the Bugis, one of the four major ethnic groups in South Sulawesi? They recognize five genders: makkunrai, oroané, bissu, calabai, and calalai. Makkunrai, oroané are heterosexual women and men, or what are now called cisgender, bissu are shamans, a “meta-gender” who have to accumulate all four gender traits on them to become a bissu; while calabai and calalai are equivalent to trans women and trans men. These five genders are an integral part of the religious and cultural fabric of the Bugis.

Sure, other ethnic groups of Indonesia don’t have this particular gender categorization, but we have trans people aplenty. Ten percent of the populace are LGBT like everywhere else in the world. Trans people are less in numbers, but are often more visible.

A survey conducted by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) early this year shows that the majority of Indonesians accept the rights of LGBT, including transgender people, to exist and urge the government to protect them.

However, since the beginning of 2016, there has been a moral panic against the LGBT community in Indonesia unlike anything that they have ever experienced before, a sudden onslaught of inflammatory statements originating from our top leaders. This moral panic has not subsided up to now, and it clearly has to do with the rise of conservative Islam in the Indonesian political arena. Considering that this year and the next are election years, there will be more hate-filled speeches from our leaders against LGBT, taking advantage of people’s ignorance about sexual orientation, gender expression and identity. Sex education anyone?

At the beginning of 2018, TLC, an American television network, ran a series of films on four couples where the wife discovered that their husbands had been secretly trans for years, and were finally coming out. The series is called “Lost in Transition”.
With regards gender identity in Indonesia, we have also been ”lost in transition”, between science, the law, the state’s obligation to protect its citizens, and, electoral politics which is willing to target its most vulnerable members of society just to win votes. Sad.

09/07/2018 in Insight, Viewpoints


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