March 26 in Surabaya

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Today is my birthday. It is half past five in the afternoon. We are hiding inside our ninth floor room in a hotel in Surabaya, Indonesia. A group of around 20 or 30 Islamic fundamentalist men have blocked the hotel lobby. Today was supposed to be the first day of the 4th International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (ILGA) conference in Asia.

It has been roughly 4 hours now since the group of Islamic fundamentalist men arrived. I have been looking outside our window from time to time. At the parking lot below are local police men. The conference organizers told us that the police will protect us from the fundamentalist protesters. But I am not sure if they will protect us or protect them. I am scared. But I try to stay calm. All of us who are inside our hotel rooms have been advised to pack our things and prepare to evacuate. I see two big buses parked along the road with police vans at the helm. I am hoping that this is our trip to safety. I look down and the police men are still huddled below. I see some men with big cameras, probably media men. We are today’s news. As they say, “bad news is good news.”

I am writing to stay calm. I have been trying to contact Tesa but the phone in the secretariat room keeps on ringing. I was able to contact other participants who are also waiting anxiously to know how this ordeal will end. I manage to keep Lian, our six-year-old daughter, amused by watching cartoons on TV. She asks, “Where are we going?” I answer, “On a field trip, maybe to visit an Indonesian friend’s house.” “Are we going to have our vacation already?” Tesa and I had promised her three days of holiday after three days attending this human rights conference. The chanting of a Muslim prayer echoes from outside our window. I hear a faint sound of a bell and rush to the door, wishing that Tesa has just come out of the elevator. I wait again.

The characters from the cartoon on TV sing “Happy Birthday”. I am reminded that I am turning 36 today. I had been very excited to spend my birthday with activist friends from around the world. I had imagined being greeted in the conference plenary, having served on the ILGA board and having co-organized the 3rd Asian conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2008. This is my other life of LGBT rights advocacy. With LGBT activist friends, I would always feel extraordinary happiness – perhaps the imagined feeling of unconditional love and acceptance. In this community, everyone loves you for who you are. No one feels abnormal or immoral. No one is a freak. And two mothers with a daughter draw pride and not prejudice. Though my life in the everyday as a teacher, researcher, sister, daughter, and friend is generally peaceful (with perhaps only fragments of blatant and subtle discrimination), the peace one finds in one’s community is bliss. This is the peace we imagine for everyone, gay or lesbian or bi or straight, woman or man or trans or intersex. This is the peace we are fighting for.

The doorbell rings and finally, it’s Tesa. She says that we are to stay in the hotel for the next three days, as scheduled. The organizers and the police think this is safer than trying to go out of the hotel in buses. She has in the meeting with the conference organizers. Our Indonesian woman lawyer friend, together with her brother who is also a lawyer and another Indonesian woman friend, have been helping the organizers negotiate with the police and the hotel management. The organizers have been trying to ensure our security. As far as I know, only the Indonesian male activist who has been our spokesperson was physically attacked by the group of fundamentalist men.

I do not feel safe. We do not feel safe. An Indonesian female activist friend calls me and says that she got word from an Indonesian Muslim female friend who lives in Surabaya that more members of the Islamic fundamentalist group will arrive tomorrow morning. She tells me that these are members of the FPI or the Islamic Defenders Front. I ask her if she is scared as an Indonesian who knows these people. She says yes. This group is known to be violent. I am alarmed. I call Tesa and ask her to urge the organizers to arrange for the safe evacuation of everyone immediately. We cannot let our guard down. The police say we will be safe for the next three days. But can we trust them? How do they know that they can protect us? They could not even protect our Indonesian male activist friend who was mobbed by these men. I trust my Indonesian friends. The organizers agree. We begin the evacuation.

In 30 minutes, we will be picked up by a female friend who lives in Surabaya. I tell Lian that the field trip is on. We eat bananas. It is almost 8pm. Lian has been so good all these time – amusing herself by playing with her trans monkey and female fox stuff toys, writing poems, and imagining make-believe worlds. My family back home in the Philippines has been sending birthday greetings through text messages. I am thankful for my family. They love me and my partner and our daughter. I do not tell them that we are being threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. I fear that they will panic. This will just cause undue stress. Suddenly, I feel hungry. I am stressed. It has been more than 6 hours now.

_ _ _ _ _

It is almost midnight and we have been safely evacuated by our Indonesian female friends. Lian is now sound asleep, happy about our field trip. Tesa and I discuss the events and continue to plan for the next day. A group of us, around 12 female activists, had been the first to leave the hotel. We had decided to leave in small groups. The plan was to evacuate everyone that night. We stay first in my Indonesian female friend’s room. Despite the tension, we manage to joke around. We joke about our butch friends who will put us in danger because of how they look. We joke about who is femme and who is butch. They joke about my birthday and what a great party this is. A Filipino friend says she will never come to any of my birthday parties again. After all the logistical procedures have been sorted out, we take the elevator to go down the lobby. The situation was tense. We were watchful of everyone as they in turn watched us. Our Indonesian woman lawyer friend talked to the chief of police. Following her lead, Tesa, Lian, and I are the first to go out into the darkness of the outside world. With the help of friends, we ride the van. We see the other members of our group ride their own vehicles. The police watch us drive out of the hotel. We are on the road to safety.

It is past midnight. I try to sleep. Tesa and I have been in constant communication with the other conference participants, checking if everyone has been evacuated safely. Some confirmed that they were safe. But some we could not contact. The last thing that Tesa tells me is that the organizers had prepared a surprise birthday cake for me. I say a prayer of thanks.

Mira Alexis P. Ofreneo

March 26, 2010
Surabaya, Indonesia

[To read a news coverage of this event, see “Islamic protestors force evacuation of ILGA conference participants in Surabaya” by Sylvia Tan in; others news in and]

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