Creative Commons License

Stephen Suleeman: The Best of What Indonesia Represents

Stephen Suleeman
Stephen Suleeman

Written by Photos & Text by Video by Written by Audio by
Julia Suryakusuma

1 December 2021

Stephen Suleeman. ( & Photo Lab)

When Aditya, my son, was a toddler, it was obvious he was left-handed. I was always on the alert to protect him from people who said, “Use your sweet hand!” (meaning the right hand), when he automatically extended his left hand to receive something from them. In a flash, I would say, “Adit is left-handed!” Forcing him to use his right hand could have led to various mental and emotional problems, as well as learning disabilities. I explained this to each of his teachers since he was in kindergarten. I warned them, “Please don’t force Adit to use his right hand. He is left-handed. End of story.”

Stephen Suleeman, an LGBTIQ+ advocate and activist pastor who died on Nov. 8, was not as lucky as Aditya. Although Indonesia’s slogan is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), being a minority in this country is not always easy. And besides his status as a double minority – Chinese and Protestant Christian – Stephen was also left-handed, which gave him triple minority status.

I thought I knew Stephen well, but I only found out about his left-handedness recently from his interview on the Theovlogy Channel on Dec. 5, 2019.

Stephen recounted how his teacher and grandmother had forced him to use his right hand. As a result, he was severely traumatized and developed a stutter. Then, when he was in elementary school, a friend reminded him that he was left-handed, so he began to eat, write and do various activities with his left hand. Gradually, the stuttering disappeared, but it wasn’t until the age of 24 or 25 that he could really speak normally. Imagine!

However, Stephen’s trauma was a blessing in disguise for the LGBTIQ+ community because it allowed him to empathize with them. Stephen was born left-handed; LGBTIQ+ people are also born the way they are. He had some sense of how it felt. If an LGBTIQ+ person were forced to be heterosexual, they would be as traumatized as he was when he was forced to use his right hand.

It took Stephen over 20 years to recover from his trauma and become left-handed again, which for him was normal. The gender identity and sexual orientation of an LGBTIQ+ person is also normal for them, just as cisgender-heterosexuality is normal for people who are not born LGBTIQ+. And did you know that left-handed and LGBTIQ+ people have something in common? They each make up 10 percent of the world’s population!

Despite the fact that he was never bullied, in church circles Stephen was sometimes boycotted for his consistent and very open activism and advocacy in support of LGBTIQ+ issues. But he did not care. The title of the Theovlogy interview was, “Deviant Ministry: Finding God in the Wrong Place”, which he criticized. He said he found God precisely in the right place. He believed that defending LGBTIQ+ people was in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ, who, if he was alive today, would also defend LGBTIQ+ people in the same way he defended the poor, sick, disabled and other marginalized groups. As a Muslim, I also believe that if he lived today, the Prophet Muhammad would defend LGBTIQ+ people.

Are LGBTIQ+ people sinners? Do heterosexual people not sin? We are all sinners, Stephen said. As Jesus said, “Let him that is among you without sin cast the first stone.” Just because you are part of the majority, there is no need to be hypocritical or self-righteous, Stephen added.

When, in November 2019, I received an invitation to attend an international conference organized by Stephen titled “Queer Identity in Religion and Culture” on human sexuality and queer theology, I was stunned. Amazing, I thought. Was he not afraid? Many LGBTIQ+-related events in Indonesia had been raided by fundamentalist Muslim vigilante groups or the police – or were not allowed in the first place. But the conference was held at the Jakarta Theological School (JTS), so they must have received official permission. Speakers and participants came from far and wide, from abroad as well as from regions of Indonesia, with many young people of all faiths and religions – a true picture of Indonesian pluralism!

 Stephen stunned me again when we once had a long chat on WhatsApp about feminist theology. I happened to come across a video called, “Why Did The Gospel Try To Erase Mary Magdalene?”, which discusses the controversy surrounding the figure of Mary Magdalene. I sent it to Stephen, asking him what he thought about it.

The common view of the Gospel regarding Mary Magdalene is that she was a prostitute who repented and became a follower of Jesus. The truth is that she was one of Jesus’ apostles, as well as being a wealthy businesswoman who supported Jesus’ activities. It was she who witnessed Jesus being crucified, waited until he was taken down from the cross and cleaned his body, which was covered in blood and wounds. But what is even more crucial is that it was Mary Magdalene who first witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, which is the basis of Christianity. Without the testimony of Mary Magdalene, perhaps Christianity would not have been founded.

I asked Stephen about this. To my surprise, my question prompted him to send me a barrage of material about feminist interpretations of biblical history, as well as things that were intentionally erased, hidden or distorted, as was the case with the representation of Mary Magdalene. This misrepresentation of women figures occurs not only in Christianity, but also in Islam and possibly other religions and cultures. Neither Christianity nor Islam was born as a religion that oppressed or subordinated women, but patriarchal attitudes and customs made them so. I was again amazed by how progressive, brave and even revolutionary my friend Stephen Suleeman was.

It turned out that apart from being an LGBTIQ+ defender, he was also a feminist. He wanted to express this in real terms by applying to become a commissioner at the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) for the 2020 to 2024 term. He asked me to write a reference letter for him for this purpose. I felt very honored that Stephen, whom I respected and admired so much, had asked me to do this. I believed that if he was so committed and dedicated to the LGBTIQ+ cause, surely he would be the same in defending women. Feminists desperately need male allies like Stephen, whose integrity is unquestionable.

Unfortunately, he was not accepted, perhaps because there were many other candidates who had been active in the field of women’s rights for a long time.

Physically, Stephen is no longer with us, but his spirit of defending the weak and marginalized and fighting narrow-mindedness, hatred, bigotry and the patriarchal arrogance of religion and culture will live on in the hearts of all of us who have been touched by his spirit and his love.

Stephen’s death is a great loss for the LGBTIQ+ community, his friends and his family, but also for the country. He personified what Indonesia should be. He was the best of what Indonesia is.

Julia Suryakusuma is a columnist, a researcher, and a feminist. For 15 years, she has been writing a column for Indonesia’s largest English daily, The Jakarta Post. She is the author of Julia Jihad and State Ibuism.