BANDA, ACEH INDONESIA – Overwhelmed by fear, members of the main gay rights group in the Indonesian town of Banda Aceh started burning piles of documents outside their headquarters in late October, worried that the Sharia police would raid them at any moment.
Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh had weeks earlier passed an anti-homosexuality law that punishes anyone caught having gay sex with 100 lashes. Amnesty International criticized the law, saying it would add to a climate of homophobia and fear.
“We are more afraid, of course,” said a 31-year-old transgender person who, along with three other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group, Violet Grey, burned the pamphlets, group records and other papers.
“As an institution, Violet Grey went as far as removing all documents related to LGBT. We burned them all,” said the group member, who declined to be identified out of fear of being arrested.
The province’s tight-knit gay community, estimated by some at about 1,000 people, has become increasingly marginalized since Aceh was allowed to adopt Sharia law as its legal code.
Aceh was granted special regional autonomy as part of a 2005 peace agreement ending a three-decade-old separatist insurgency.
After the anti-homosexuality law was passed in September, Violet Grey began warning its 47 members to keep a lower profile and for gay and transgender people to avoid going out together as couples in public.
No one has been arrested under the law, which Aceh officials say will not be enforced until the end of 2015 to allow residents time to prepare for it. But this has not eased the fear in the gay community.
Even before the law, life was not easy for gay people in the most religiously conservative part of Indonesia, the north of the island of Sumatra.
The gay community is a target of regular harassment from Sharia police and residents. Transgender people are particularly vulnerable because of the difficulty of concealing themselves in public.
In 2011, a transgender makeup artist was stabbed to death in Banda Aceh after she held up a stick in response to a man’s taunts.
Aceh authorities defend the law, saying it does not violate human rights because gay people are free to live together but just cannot have sex.
The law also sets out punishment for various acts apart from gay sex including unmarried people engaging in displays of affection, adultery and underage sex.