Behind Timor-Leste’s Pride

On a sunny afternoon by Dili’s waterfront in June last year, throngs of activists in T-shirts crowded onto blocked-off streets, milling behind bright banners as they waited for the band to start. A pause, a shared intake of breath… then, the sharp rap-rap-rap of a snare drum and hundreds took that first step together, marking the beginning of Timor-Leste’s first-ever LGBTQ Pride parade.

One small step, one giant leap; the joyous, historic march garnered Timor-Leste international attention, a televised endorsement from the Prime Minister, and catapulted its charismatic organisers to brief media fame. The march was heralded a victory for an overwhelmingly Catholic nation neighbouring a country suddenly turning on its LGBTQ community.

Reading rhapsodic coverage of the march, you’d be forgiven for thinking Timor-Leste an LGBTQ paradise, an oasis of tolerance in a region of surging discrimination. Praise for the community is doubtlessly hard-fought and well-deserved, but as queer activists prep for the next march—planned as part of a three-day festival in July—the shine of a single event belies a grittier day-to-day.  

Rejection and reconciliation

“I hate you. I looked up to you, and now I don’t even know you. Gay people are monsters.”

The message came over Facebook while Natalino Guterres—the coordinator of the youth-run social inclusion network that organised the Pride march—was studying abroad. His brother had shared a homophobic Facebook post, so Guterres took the moment to come out in a private message. The men didn’t speak for two years after the exchange.

Moments before the drums started up that day last June, the brothers, long reconciled, embraced before the crowd.

Guterres had asked his brother to attend the march, but his hopes weren’t high. “He was working as an election observer, and they didn’t finish until 10, so he said he’d try to come, but, you know,” he says on a warm night in Dili, nearly a year after the now-famous embrace.

That moment was a long time coming for Guterres, who was bullied for being different growing up. Just last year, the activist got into arguments over a newspaper article (link in Tetun) declaring that transgender people bring shame upon Timor-Leste.

“My father saw it, he said, ‘Everyone looks up to you and I just hope you’re not like that’,” Guterres says. “‘And if you are, are you willing to change?’ He made me promise.”

A nervous laugh belies his next comment. Feeling as if he would never be accepted at home, Guterres had previously considered moving abroad permanently, or even committing suicide.

“Beyond the joyous performance of Pride lies a deep-seeded problem area where culture, religion and rights clash”

“Beyond the joyous performance of Pride lies a deep-seeded problem area where culture, religion and rights clash,” confirms Ryan Silverio, the regional coordinator of ASEAN’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression (SOGIE) Caucus. While Timor-Leste is a secular state, approximately 97% of the population identifies as Catholic.

Guterres is a reluctant spokesperson, quick to acknowledge that Timor-Leste’s queer community is more than just one gay man, and anxious to emphasise that he can only speak to his own experience. He’s aware of his privileged position: fluency in English, an overseas education and a plum job in development consulting places him firmly in a group of Timorese elite not representative of the country’s majority rural population. This sensibility anchors his activism; the social inclusion network he coordinates is named Hatutan, which means to pass on or hand down.

Sharing experiences for the first time

A pioneering study published in November 2017 by researcher Iram Saeed and her activist partner Bella Galhos reveals the context and challenges experienced by lesbian and bisexual women and transgender men in Timor-Leste. The report captures statements of queer people in the country, several of them hiding their sexual orientation by living outwardly heterosexual lives.

“I was raped by my own uncle who believed he could change my sexual orientation by pushing me into a heterosexual relationship,” one lesbian woman told researchers. “I got pregnant but I found traditional medicine to get it aborted. After that I left home.”

Women interviewed in the study speak of being assaulted, burnt, slapped; one said she’d been tied up in the back of a car and dragged across a road for everyone to see. Others shared experiences of leaving school and work because of teasing and ridicule.

“It was believed that I like to have sex with children and all children in the family were kept away from me,” one trans man said.

For many, the terminology used by the researchers was utterly foreign—both because they’d never heard it, and also because Tetun, Timor-Leste’s most widely spoken local language, lacks the vocabulary to describe queer people in neutral or positive terms. The researchers instead used Portuguese words.  

Guterres says that a perception exists of gay men as predatory.

“I feel like, um, people sort of, people sort of compare you to… just that.” He laughs, shifting hesitantly in his seat. His reference to “that” is undefined, but the negative connotations are clear.

“That’s all that we had. It’s like, do you want to be one of those?”

“Bringing shame to us”

Until as recently as two years back, Romiaty da Costa Barreto had to wear masculine clothing when returning to her village to visit family. A transgender woman who works for CODIVA, a diversity coalition established as the country’s first LGBTQ group, she’s faced confusion, harassment and abuse for her gender expression.

“If I was wearing women’s clothing the neighbours used to say that I was bringing shame to them,” she says. “So I adapted and tried to become closer with them, tell them about my experiences, so they can understand and accept it. If people are discriminating against you and you distance yourself, they will continue.”

“If people are discriminating against you and you distance yourself, they will continue”

She cites legal reform that will allow transgender people to change their legal names and genders as a key priority for Timor-Leste. “It will be hard, but that’s the plan.”

On paper, Timor-Leste’s LGBTQ community appears already well-protected from discrimination. The country’s constitution enshrines human rights for all, and its representative to the United Nations has enthusiastically signed a suite of recommendations and resolutions confirming the rights of the LGBTQ community. In March 2017, Timor-Leste informed the Human Rights Council it was accepting two recommendations made on sexual orientation and gender identity.

But a push to explicitly guarantee equal rights for LGBTQ people in the constitution’s 2002 drafting was voted down. Opponents of the clause variously said its inclusion would create conflict with the Catholic Church, that the country isn’t ready to deal with the issue, and that its inclusion would “give people ideas”.

Iram Saeed says an explicit constitutional guarantee would require policymakers to consider the LGBTQ community’s needs as part of their regular decision-making process. Too often, she says, organisations and individuals in positions of power see LGBTQ rights as a separate issue or area of consideration; in this way, human rights organisations are able to derogate responsibility towards queer people whose struggles should fall within their remit.

“[W]hen [LGBTQ people are] not continuing their education because they’re being bullied on account of their gender identity, when it affects their job prospects, because they don’t have the education to get a good job, these things are affecting them,” Saeed says. “It’s affecting them as well. But [human rights organisations] don’t see it as their issue.”

International support

While local groups are dogged in their efforts, support from international institutions have given the issue a significant boost. Saeed’s report was published through local women’s network Rede Feto and funded by the United Nations Development Programme’s Being LGBTI in Asia project, and the United Nations Human Rights Advisor funds activities in Timor-Leste.  

“Some people think [that the concept of LGBTQ] is a foreign import, so it’s good that we ran [the Pride march], but it’s still important to have credibility from these big organisations,” says Guterres of the march, which he and a UN Women staffer discussed for the first time a mere two weeks before the event.

Hatutan had moved quickly, organising the 500-person-strong march and concert, including wrangling worldwide media coverage and producing branded shirts still seen today on the streets of Dili. “I accept and respect people’s differences,” read the shirts, which were provided free to Hatutan through an international donor network. “How about you?”

Timor-Leste Pride - New Naratif
Timor-Leste’s first Pride march in 2017 was celebrated as a major victory for LGBTQ equality.

“Despite the many positive efforts and progress being made to advance gender equality, [LGBTQ] people continue to face considerable violence, discrimination and exclusion because they do not conform to perceived norms of gender as binary and fixed, and attitudes which assume all people are heterosexual,” Sunita Caminha, UN Women’s Head of Office in Timor-Leste, tells New Naratif. For UN Women to realise its mandate for gender equality, she says, LGBTQ people must be seen and heard.

Work by the ASEAN SOGIE caucus has also increased regional support for Timor-Leste’s LGBTQ community. Its 2017 country assessment, Building a Rainbow in Timor-Leste, laid out the context and challenges faced by the community, and recommended a consolidated national response and investment in LGBTQ youth. The caucus supported Saeed and Galhos’ research, and helped Guterres and Hatutan prepare their documentary The Road to Acceptance, which showed families accepting their LGBTQ siblings and children.

“Such cross-country collaboration between Timorese activists and comrades in the region is putting Southeast Asian solidarity in action again,” says Silverio.

Building momentum

Last year’s march wasn’t actually Timor-Leste’s first gay rights event. The previous year, CODIVA organised an LGBTQ conference, and HIV activists have been advocating for decades. But the march was Timor-Leste’s first groundswell—a national moment emboldened by an affirmation from then-Prime Minister Rui de Araújo of the LGBTQ community’s worth.

While organising the march, Hatutan volunteers had decided to try and record a message of support from the prime minister. They wrote to his media advisor on a Monday in early June, then settled back to wait, expecting to be kept on tenterhooks for the customary couple of weeks.

They received a positive reply later that same day. When they went to his office to shoot the video, not a single word of their proposed draft had been changed. The message was screened on national television two days before the march.

Barreto says the video was widely shared on social media, and helped increase awareness and tolerance of LGBTQ people in the country. “The general community who didn’t yet understand the lives of LGBT people could start to understand,” she says.

“My brother wanted to kill me in the car because I brought shame to the family”

When it comes to raising awareness, individual stories and public faces are crucial in the struggle to get people thinking and talking.

“We need more strong voices,” says Saeed. “We need more women coming out to talk about their issues and challenges and how their lives can change when people start accepting them. Right now, there’s only one voice. She was the first one and she’s still alone.”

As if on cue, Bella Galhos enters the living room, barefoot and carrying an open pot of yogurt. She came out publicly at CODIVA’s 2016 Pride event, and is one of just a handful of out-and-proud queer people in Timor-Leste. Her participation in the resistance against Indonesia’s occupation of Timor Leste—which lasted from 1975 to 1999—is well-documented, harrowing, and deeply inspiring.

“My brother tried to kill me,” she says, matter-of-factly, spoon in hand. “Right here in front of this house. He hid behind the wall and threw stones at me when I came in with the car. He wanted to kill me because I brought shame to the family.”

A pause; a mouthful; a shrug. “I’m over it now.”

On top of the not-for-profit environmental school and a new government-contracted hotel that Saeed and Galhos run together, they’ve also recently formed an LGBTQ organisation, Arcoiris, which takes its name from the Portuguese word for “rainbow”. Headquartered near their house in Dili’s suburbs—a safe area where Galhos’ status protects visitors—the organisation serves as a safe space for young queer women and non-binary people.

“Many have horrible experiences of being kicked out and having no support from their families,” says Saeed of the centre’s first visitors, some of whom were employed by the pair to conduct interviews for the research report. “They have these issues, but nowhere to go.”

The pair’s report makes a series of compelling recommendations, calling for sweeping reform to violence-response services, the creation of leadership and economic opportunities for LGBTQ people, and the establishment of physical safe spaces for queer people.

Ignorance, not bigotry

Despite the significant challenges faced by Timor-Leste’s LGBTQ community, hope burns bright.

Galhos, busy with the hotel, recalls a weekend spent surveying the site not too long ago. “There were these big guys there, and we spent over an hour talking about LGBTQ rights,” she says.

“No one had ever talked to them about it before. They all hugged me at the end of it; it was the first time someone had explained. I always have a lot of patience when I talk to people because I know I’m talking to an ignorant, so I talk with them full of respect, full of manners.” She switches from English to Tetun, mimicking her own politeness, grinning as she imitates the responses she gets: sorry, sister, I ask forgiveness. “We need to have opportunities for healthy discourse.”

The mental image of a five-foot-tall woman talking down burly builders is as compelling as the thought of Guterres’ brother racing from polling booth to Pride parade, or of Barreto’s previously disapproving neighbours sharing Pride videos on Facebook. The road is long, but these instances are signs of Timor-Leste’s true promise, of a community embattled, but never broken.

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