Saturday, May 7, 2016 is a day I will never forget. That day I, along with my fellow panelists Quratul-Ain Bandial from Brunei Darussalam and Ha Trang Van from Vietnam (panelists) as well as moderator Tunggal Pawestri from Indonesia, conducted a discussion on a hot-button topic of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issue.
It was the third day of the third annual ASEAN Literary Festival (ALF), which was held at the Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) cultural center in Jakarta.
We were nervous. The day before, the permit for the event had suddenly been revoked by the police, after some hardline groups raised opposition against three topics to be discussed in the event: the 1965 genocide, the LGBT issues, and the Papua disintegration.
Though the permit was subsequently granted again, we were still jittery, knowing how the LGBT issue had been politicized by public officials and mass organizations, which incited hatred towards members of the community in order to gain political popularity.
A large number of policemen curiously flocked the building to “protect” (or intimidate?) us, but they made us even more nervous – for we knew how they often turned a blind eye when religious militants were attacking minority groups.
The first hour of the discussion seemed to be going well, until we noticed a number of men with the stereotypical hardliner look entered the discussion venue. I was a nervous wreck when one of these guys suddenly moved to the other end of the venue and looked at me straight in the eye with a killer stare.
He stayed there for a few moment while taking pictures and videos of us, all the while staring at me intently that I squirmed in my seat. I was scared that he would throw something at us and attacked us physically – who knew? That’s what happened when militant groups raided a discussion led by a Canadian feminist writer in Yogyakarta four years ago.
I recalled that the moderator, mbak Tunggal, even let the forum knew that “the situation was getting hotter here as some opponents seem to have entered the room.” But the question-and-answer session carried on. Finally, the stern-eyed guy left the room and I was relieved. Then the discussion ended; we were safe and sound, although I was drenched in cold sweat.
A day after ALF ended, before I checked out of the hotel, ALF director for international cooperation Mary Farrow asked me “Do you see yourself as courageous, or you just do what you think is right?”
I chose the second answer. We just did what we think was right.
And I was not alone. My friends, some writers who were with me for six days in the ASEAN-Japan residency program, stayed along with me at the venue in order to provide moral support. Some even cancelled their plan to attend another session with an established writer whom they admired in order to protect me in case something happened (well, I’m thrilled, guys).
They also offered protection when I was about to leave the venue and walk back to the hotel, in case I got attacked. And there were also my friends from all over Jakarta who populated the venue, some sitting on the floor or standing up, as there were more people than seats.
I also recalled seeing festival director Abdul Khalik and program director and novelist Okky Madasari standing there to support us. Mbak Okky smiled at us, which helped ease my nerve.
My LGBT panel is just one example of how people who firmly believe in human rights and love literature and arts came together in this festival. Other ‘hot-button’ events, including a discussion of the 1965 massacre moderated by my senior at The Jakarta Post Evi Mariani, was also flocked by a large crowds of people, many not so friendly of the topic.
I was impressed by the courage shown by Prodita Sabarini, Ika Krismantari and Febriana Firdaus, three journalists who set up the platform ingat65 (remember 1965) collecting stories from 1965 survivors, at a time when many mass organizations tried to muzzle any discussion on this topic.
We were also delighted by a number of exciting art performances and discussions on literature, particularly those that featured senior writers Budi Darma, Triyanto Triwikromo, Sapardi Djoko Damono and Joko Pinurbo. We learned that arts and literature are nothing but labor of love.
And, finally, I would also like to extend my gratitude to my 12 fellow writers who were there with me to exchange insights and provide moral support throughout the ASEAN-Japan residency program (conducted within six days prior to the festival). They are Zelia Vital, Kristian Cordero, Ridhwan Saidi, Ha Trang Van, Stephanie Ye, Quratul-Ain Bandial, Heng Oudom, Christanto Senda, Guntur Alam, Pringadi Abdi, Rio Johan and Akina Shu. Also thanks to the residency committee, especially mbak Okky, mas Abdul, Mary, mas Timen, mas Ikhsan, mbak Ghea and mbak Ulfie.
You guys have revived my faith in the goodness of humanity.
Sebastian Partogi is a feminist writer living in Jakarta.