Within minutes into our meeting Ical told me that he had had two one night same sex rendezvous in the week. This wasn’t the kind information I was after, but I was appreciative of the candour and frankness of the disclosure. Here, in this fiercely conservative society, homosexuality isn’t just illegal, but prosecuted with the most vehement of phobias—the mere admission to homosexual tendencies can bring on the cruellest of human rights abuses.

But to be open and honest about it is normal for Ical; he is a devoted Muslim. And according to him there are no mistakes in god’s creation, if he was born homosexual it’s because god made him so, not that there is anything wrong with him, therefore he feels truly accepted and part of god’s plan.

Ical is one of a handful of workers and volunteers that make up Violet Grey. Violet Grey is a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) organisation established in 2007. It is the only LGBT organisation to come out publicly in defence of LGBT’s rights in Aceh. The organisation initially concentrated on HIV-AIDS issues, but then shifted their focus to human rights after they faced discrimination and intimidation from both society and authorities, particularly from the Aceh’s Syariah police; much of their work still remains underground, closely scrutinised and targeted by an oppressive system with zero tolerance for anything outside the norms it identifies with.

The type of oppression Ical, Violet Grey and other members of the gay and lesbian community endure spans from verbal abuse to violence and downright aggression, but Echa, a transgender with a baritone voice and a body to match, says that the safest place to be is in the most dangerous place—a wonderfully positive philosophy, but one that beggars belief.

A case in point, in March this year, Cut Yanti, a transgender make-up artist, was bludgeoned to death with a crow bar after reacting to taunts and abuse. Cut Yanti ran a mobile beauty business in Banda Aceh, she was out on her rounds when she was subjected to the usual taunts ‘bencong, bencong’, loosely translated as ‘tranny’. It might have been an affront too many for Cut Yanti, who for a change reacted to the taunts; a scuffle ensued and the tormenter beat her unconscious and left her bleeding in the gutter. Cut Yanti was dead by the time she arrived at the hospital.

In the Muslim tradition the dead must be buried immediately after their passing, but to add to the indignity of her premature and violent death, Cut Yanti laid in hospital for more than a week, until authorities gave her a burial, as Cut Yanti had lost most of her family in the tsunami of 2004, and if there was anyone left she could call family they would not have been game enough to make claims of kinship to a bencong. The only consolation to this sorry tale is that the killer was apprehended and is in custody awaiting trial. The gay and lesbian community was too stunned to take any action but admired Cut Yanti’s courage and struggle. Nonetheless, a dead hero serves very limited purposes, and martyrdom doesn’t guarantee acceptance anyway.

LGBT people maintain safety in numbers, socialising in groups, gathering in cafes in the company of each other. This does not prevent taunts and the long, curious and unfriendly stares, but at least averts physical confrontations. At times Echa enjoys the attention; she likes to flaunt her looks and diversity, she has a wide network of women friends, and by and large has the support of her mother, who notwithstanding her desire to have Echa as her son, has accepted Echa’s sexual and gender preference not before suggesting to Echa to seek psychological help.

The same can’t be said for other members of Violet and Grey. For Ical the biggest hurdle is that of being accepted by the family. Kinship and family relationships are very important to Ical, as they are to most people, and being ostracised by the people he loves most presents his greatest challenge. But Ical is committed to a cause—the cause of LGBT being accepted as members of the community.

It isn’t all gloom and doom for Ical though, he still feels that as a male he can enjoy the privileges of a patriarchal society. He says that it is much worse for lesbians who must endure the “double burden” of their sexual preference and being women in a society that operates very much on clear and discriminatory gender lines.

In an interesting twist security authorities, in this deeply conservative society, have admitted of being clueless about how to handle the case of two women who recently joined in marriage, as same sex marriages are not dealt with under Islamic laws. In 2009 there was an attempt to outlaw lesbians but the bill was never signed by the Aceh Governor, Irwandi Yusuf, thus the law cannot be enforced.

Quirky as it seems the marriage took place with the blessing of the community, not in a spur of inspirational and progressive thinking but because they could not tolerate the couple living together out of wedlock committing adultery and ordered them to marry.

The local authorities are still looking for avenues from which to charge the couple. The head of the Aceh Public Order Agency has been quoted in the media as saying that the women “must be beheaded, burned and their ashes must be spread in the ocean”.

For Violet Grey the work continues, and given the general attitude towards LGBT people, their activities will remain underground for a while still. Their aspiration is to become a political force and a legitimately recognised party. Echa dreams of a community with no violence and discrimination towards LGBT people, where advocacy, information sharing and public awareness are common place; Ical’s more grounded hopes are to find a soul-mate, possibly from another country, and for those who are still unable to be quoted on record, they are tired of the hypocrisy and lies that compel them to live with their secret.

Fotos: Banda Aceh; ’11