Monday, June 10, 2013

Negotiating LGBT Rights and Development in Indonesia

Sawatdee krap/Selamat pagi!

Well, it has been a couple weeks since I arrived in Thailand, so perhaps this is a good time to introduce myself and my research this summer (generously supported by a Sigur Center Grant for Asian Field Research).

My name is Jamison Liang and I am currently in the middle of my MA in Anthropology & International Development at George Washington. My research focuses on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement in Indonesia—particularly in Aceh province—where I look at the intersection of international, national, and Islamic law and how they have been applied to issues of gender and sexuality. Aceh is coming to an important crossroads this year; the provincial legislature is debating how to formulate its Islamic criminal bylaw (qanun jinayat), which could potentially criminalize homosexuality. One of the central questions I am investigating this summer concerns the influence of international development and human rights organizations, ultimately asking how effective (or ineffective) a purely rights-based argument is in producing societal change on the ground.

As advocacy for human rights of LGBT communities has gained traction among international organizations, especially the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Indonesian NGOs have followed suit, adopting human rights-based rhetoric. Yet how do international actors and local NGOs implement these abstract strategies, especially in areas where they appear to contravene societal morals, religious beliefs, or local laws? What happens when government officials and local leaders explicitly reject queer communities? My research aims to answer this question by focusing on the intersection of LGBT rights advocacy and international development initiatives in Indonesia, noting how global LGBT rights policies are “translated” into culturally appropriate and effective messages by local activists.


So, why am I in Bangkok? As it turns out, I am doing this research while helping the United Nations Development Program Asia Pacific Regional Center (UNDP APRC) with their project “Being LGBT in Asia: A Participatory Review and Analysis of the Legal and Social Environment for LGBT Civil Society in Asia.” I am largely in charge of helping write Indonesia’s national report, though I am also assisting with the social media side of the project, posting about LGBT-related news across the region in bahasa Indonesia and English.

At the same time I am identifying people from various international development and human rights organizations to interview in Bangkok—the hub of the development field in Southeast Asia. Accordingly, these individuals should be able to talk about how rights-based advocacy is practiced at a regional and international level by tracing the flow of recommendations from civil society to policy dialogues at the UN. To be sure, I remain critical of how development agencies have historically interacted with “sexual/gender minorities” solely through the lens of HIV—a discourse which I argue has “medicalized” their identities by linking them to the HIV epidemic. While this issue has rightfully opened up space in development to talk about sexuality and gender more critically, it has also made it harder to see other social problems as legitimate.

Once my research wraps up in Bangkok at the end of July, I will head to Indonesia (Jakarta and Banda Aceh) for a spree of interviews with CSOs and international NGOs. To be sure, there will be much to learn in the coming months! In the meantime, if you’re interested in the Being LGBT in Asia project, check out:

- Instagram and Twitter: @beinglgbtinasia
- QQ-tencent: t.qq.com/beinglgbtinasia 
Jamison Liang
MA Candidate in Anthropology & International Development
Sigur Center 2013 Summer Grant for Asian Field Research
Site: Thailand and Indonesia


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