With only half an island that’s shared with homophobic Indonesia to the west, tiny Timor Leste has a giant statue of Christ at the east end of the island on a sacred hill. (98% are Roman Catholic) What chances are there of finding a lively LGBT community in this remote mostly ignored nation of just over one million citizens in the South Pacific; squeezed between an intolerant Islamic state and a giant bronze edifice of Christian intolerance.

By Richard Ammon
September 2016

The Portuguese engaged in commerce with Timor in the early 1500s and eventually took it over as a colony throughout the 16th century. However the Dutch had similar intentions for the island which led to ongoing fighting between the two European imperialist countries that eventually resulted in an 1859 treaty in which Portugal ceded the western half of the island to Holland, yet Portugal remained holding authority over the eastern half, hence East and West Timor. On the mainland islands four hundred years of Portuguese rule gradually gave way to the state of Indonesia in 1945.

Then in 1975 Catholic East Timor declared itself independent from Muslim Indonesia. The Indonesians were not pleased so they invaded East Timor and occupied it as a province. This brought about twenty years of guerrilla warfare between Indonesian government forces and independence rebels.  It was estimated that “about 102,800 conflict-related deaths (approximately 18,600 killings and 84,200 ‘excess’ deaths from hunger and illness), the majority of which occurred during the Indonesian occupation.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_East_Timor

“On 30 August 1999, in a UN-sponsored referendum, an overwhelming majority of East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia. Immediately following the referendum, to make a bad  worse, anti-independence Timorese militias — organized and supported by the Indonesian military — commenced a punitive scorched-earth campaign. The militias killed approximately 1,400 more Timorese and forcibly pushed 300,000 people into West Timor as refugees. The majority of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed during this punitive attack. On 20 September 1999, the UN led International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) was deployed to the country and brought the violence to an end. Following a United Nations-administered three year transition period, East Timor was internationally recognized as an independent nation on 20 May 2002.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_East_Timor

Significant among the combating influences in the war were the two major religions of Islam and Christian Catholicism. Neither are tolerant of each other nor of homosexuality and LGBT people still today live in apprehension for their safety, although strangely it was decriminalized in 1975 (probably due to the Dutch influence). East Timor (ET) is one of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia; the Philippines is the other one.

Accidental Meeting
As it happened, in 2014, during Gay Pride Philippines, I met two people, Mateus and Richella, from East Timor. They were there for their first Gay Pride parade; they had never been to a Pride festival before so this was a major happy event for them.  Between dazzled moments for them we talked about LGBT life in East Timor. I had never met LGBT ET people before so this was my happy event as well.

Richella is a transgender M2F with androgynous features that let her usually pass as female. Smartly dressed in colorful pink dress with a pink shoulder purse (and pink hair) and wearing a stylishly frayed baseball hat, she said, “as a new country we don’t have a big LGBT rights organization that really supports us to have a pride march. So far we are a small group supported by the Asean Hivos Foundation(from Holland) program doing advocacy to strengthen the MSM and community…”

Mateus works for an NGO human rights organization in Dili, the capital of ET who said, “I was really impressed when we had a chance to join the Manila Pride march and Quezon City. It made us think we need to have this pride march in East Timor too.”

Rochelle, in a follow-up e-mail message said,  “as a new country we should start by learning from Philippines and then do it. We  need to speak out to our peoples and explain carefully so they can slowly understand of the process of gay Pride… we need to educate our peoples of their limited understanding of the rights of LGBT. The life of LGBT  in Timor East is quite different than the other country. We do not know such things as this Pride. We have local LGBT groups but we are really not open to the public; we are hiding our status of LGBT.  Our CBOs (Community Based Organizations) such as Codiva work to support human rights but they do not advertise themselves  as part of a LGBT community. The reason for this is because most of our people have no or small understanding about sexual minorities so we quietly do advocacy to educate about the existence the LGBT people and promote rights.”

However, she said, “It’s strange to say that even with limited understanding of LGBTs there are some transgenders open in public and  are more acceptable than gays and lesbians. Most LGBTs hide their status because of the misconception from our peoples that gay is same as transgender life. So transgender is more familiar to the people and also to the government. For example if a big event is organized by the government they will invite trans members to prepare the catering, snack foods, perform dancing and be a host to the event.”

LGBTI Organizations in Dili, East Timor
Despite a modest out gay population, mostly in Dili, ET does has a gay scene but has not been much visible in the years since full independence in 2002. Having suffered a civil war was devastating for private citizens. Gay life was hidden in the small corners of society. The atmosphere for freedom of expression was not welcome in time of war. Nevertheless a network of friends persisted and slowly coalesced after the peace treaty to form fledgling gay friendly associations. That’s when CODIVA emerged.

CODIVA (Coalition for Diversity and Action) is the main organization. It provides a safe space for LGBTI community members to gather and socialize. They also provide information relating to sexual health especially HIV prevention.
Within CODIVA there are three separate CBOs (Community Based Organizations) each with their own focus activities:
1 Casa de la Roza is a social enterprise run by CODIVA working to support transgender community to reduce stigma and discrimination; They also provide beauty services for the LGBTI community in Dili.  
2 CBO GayAmor is also a social group that reaches out to network with the gay male MSM community
3 CBO Rabenta is a human rights group that promotes the human rights of all LGBTs.

Marie Stopes is not an exclusively LGBTI organization but they have strong links with the community and provide sexual and reproductive health services to the community. 
(Timor Hari’i is no longer operational. It was an HIV and STI testing clinic which ran peer education programs with MSM and transgender volunteers.)

Build Timor foundation is focused on the issue of HIV and AIDS. They use a peer based approach to urge long-term behavior changes in MSM, transgender and sex worker communities.

HIVOS are a large international Dutch organization that has relationships with NGOs around the world, including LGBTI organizations in East Timor.  HIVOS funds a lot of the educational and health programs in many developing countries and “promotes knowledge exchanges and policy advocacy for LGBT rights.”  From the Hivos website: “LGBT rights have been part of Hivos’ Rights and Citizenship programme since the 1990s and consists of financial support, knowledge exchanges and policy advocacy for LGBT rights. Hivos backs the acceptance of sexual minorities, advocates against homophobia and pushes for political attitudes change toward sexual minorities; it assists worldwide in LGBT coalition building. Hivos supports over 50 LGBT organizations and more than 20 HIV/AIDS projects with a focus on LGBT people, and invests over three million euros annually in the advancement of LGBT rights.”  (https://hivos.org/focal-area/lgbt-rights)

ISEAN ‘Island of Southeast Asia Network on Male and Transgender Sexual Health’ is another international network established with the view of sharing information among Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and promoting effective HIV responses for MSM and transgender people. ISEAN is the first sub-regional grouping (a collective) of community representatives, national networks and organizations from Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and East Timor.

Today’s LGBT Scene
‘We are everywhere’ as the saying goes, because we never left,…”  despite the hardships of war, the prejudice of politics and the discrimination of religion. There are several Australian efforts to improve the status and visibility of LGBTI in ET. One of these comes out of Melbourne where a cooperative health and rights exchange program is under way. “At present, the LGBTI community in Dili is addressed as a public health issue. The identity of the LGBTI community is inextricably tied to their health risk as carriers of HIV/AIDS. As a result, the few community development programs aimed at the LGBTI community are addressing their sexual health needs. These programs are indeed crucially important but do little to break the stigma attached to the LGBTI community.

The Melbourne Program uses a rights-based community development approach to protect gays  from violence and discrimination. The aim of this program is therefore to build relationships between Timorese LGBT organizations in Melbourne and Dili in ET. It is intended that Timorese and Australian communities “will be able to share resources and experiences to expand the purview of LGBTI activism in East Timor beyond the realms of stigma and public health—not an easy task since same-sex desire is most commonly seen by the general public mostly in terms of the sexual act.” Shifting public opinion and understanding away from sex acts to deeper, whole-human identity and lifestyle patterns—rather than just ‘sex’ which makes most people nervous and uneasy—is an essential and foundational challenge.  Seeing LGBT people as ‘family’ is more comfortable; seeing them as a mother, father, brother, cousin helps to normalize gay people as  ’neighbors’ rather than scary night people.

Defiant and Brave Celebration
Since my first meeting Rochelle and Mateus in Manila things have changed for the better in ET. In 2016, June 17, a small but remarkable and defiant celebration of LGBT life was staged outdoors in public in the East Timor capital Dili with a confident title of ”Free to be.me 2016”. It was not a show of strength but a unique show of courage to demonstrate that LGBT people are born, raised and work in ET and have a distinct rights to life and liberty and to love anyone of his or her choosing. It was a risky but not illegal event; socially risky for some of the individuals who showed up to mark the rare event.

Hardly anyone else in the country understood what it was but Bella Galhos, an advisor in the Office of the President, was present at the rally. Whether she was there to represent her liberal self or a newly tolerant government was unclear as she listened to LGBT activists Mariano da Silva Nunes declare to all who would listen that LGBT people of EastTimor “are human beings who have a right to love.” He said “the public is entitled to know that gays exist among the population and they are trying to do good.” He also added that the community he leads “now has a membership of more than 600 people.” (As reported the BBC.) Rochelle  said “everything that your saw in the BCC news about the celebration is true.

Silverio Pinto Baptista, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of East Timor (PDHJ (Provider of Human Rights and Justice; http://www.provedor-jus.pt/) was also was there to say “Let us protect the human rights of our LGBT brothers and sisters…everyone has a right to do what they want, let them express themselves however they want to be. Do not judge them, only God can judge his people.”

The ‘Free to be me’ event was organized by the local Foundation Codiva. Mateus and Rochelle were involved in that event on the same committee. She also said, significantly, “there were no  comments or criticisms from the church or the government itself… most of our community are trying to change public perspective about LGBT peoples.” The peaceful and friendly rally was a small effort in that direction.

International Forum for Human Rights
Also this past summer (2016), according to Rochelle, “the life situation of our LGBTI in Timor Leste is quite better. In August 2-5, we conducted a LGBTI national forum and the response from the community and the society was good. Also, the level of discrimination is quite low at this time  as we are making sincere and active efforts to partner with UNHCHR, PDHJ and the local police.”

Her upbeat attitude was in large part due to the successful ground-breaking human rights event forum held in Dili. The forum was held in August at the Dili Convention Center. It was a cooperative effort between ASEAN SOGIE Caucus (ASC) once again engaged critically with the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) 2016. (SOGIE refers to ‘sexual orientation and gender identity expression’) and the local CBO Codiva.

Major goals of the conference were: (1) strengthening the network among LGBTIQ activists and allies, (2) as well as providing networking space to explore future collaborations; and (3) addressing ‘intersectionality’ and how this should be included in the analysis and strategies of LGBTIQ organizations. Intersectionality means “the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or social group. These categories often create overlapping and interdependent systems where discrimination or disadvantage occurs.” In other words being inclusive of all sexual varieties within the LGBTIQ community in ET so no one is excluded from the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ that is today attempting to coalesce into a cohesive human rights movement in ET, that is inclusive of all SOGIE (sexual orientation and gender identity expression) efforts.

The challenge is to identify and invite diverse sexual minorities that have felt left out of (or never been included in) the larger society agenda. Such minorities members numbers are small, often are timid about being public, who feel defenseless against institutional bigotry (of church, legal system and police) and who may be indigenous minorities. Engaging these marginalized types of people with larger stakeholders such as interfaith organizations, human rights defenders and agencies working on HIV/AIDS prevention  and treatment as well as sexual rights advocates to help support undervalued minorities (trans and sex workers). The challenge is also to provide ways to access legal aid and to confront security threats faced by LGBTIQ activists of all expressions (including Gay Pride parade marchers).

“The conference was very attuned to the need for all to feel a safe in a transformative space where often ignored and unheard voices of individuals and small groups who experience multiple forms of discrimination and marginalization are provided opportunities to articulate their issues and to request their recommendation.”

One speaker at the conference advocated for the need to also engage with artists and writers in the struggle because they have the capacity to “imagine and re-invent language that will help to guide the struggle” through written platforms.

A conference like this in ET is crucial for today’s LGBTIQ citizens to be able to stand up and be heard and demand formulating new laws and changing phobic attitudes in a new age of awareness even in a tiny nation of just over one million people. No one must be left out of this new age.

Future Challenges
Richella wrote to me about her hopes for a better future in ET for LGBT people : “I hope you can come and help us to have our own pride march. And I hope you can help us to get a constitutional guarantee of the rights of homosexuals in East Timor–and also these goals.”

Her hopes and dreams are to:
-reduce anti-gay vilification by some of East Timor’s political leaders;
-reduce the Church’s influence against LGBTs;
-develop a legal and social environment for managing HIV-AIDS;
-help improve the primitive social context in which HIV-AIDS prevention policies are supposed to operate;
-educate that not all men who have sex with men are homosexuals and develop programs for these men who have sex with men (and unknowingly transmit STDs and HIV);
-develop programs for men and women who are homosexual including programs to combat HIV;
-make policies that are not based on moral or religious dictates;
-make policies based on science and common sense such as legal rights and guarantees of privacy;
-reduce discrimination in the provision of health care services.

“So you can see we have much work to perform in these years in East Timor”
Hugs and love,

Further reading:
See also:

Stigma against HIV positive people: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13691058.2017.1293845

Gay Life in East Timor 2015