East Timor (Timor L’este) is unique in southeast Asia–it is Roman Catholic, standing nearly alone among thousands of Islamic Indonesian islands. But such a distinction does not make it any easier for LGBT citizens to live their personal lives.
Male and female homosexuality in East Timor is legal. There was a clause against discrimination based on sexual orientation included in the original draft of the Timorese Constitution but it was voted out by 52 out of 88 MPs before the constitution took effect in 2002. The approach to homosexuality in this predominantly Catholic country is heavily influenced by the church.
Gay Life in East Timor: Interview with Richa (a trans East Timorese woman)
By Richard Ammon
At Manila Pride in December 2014 I met two people, one guy and one trans MTF, 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, Rica and Mateus. We tried to talk about LGBT life in East Timor but but the noise was too loud to understand clearly so we followed up with e-mails.
The country is a former Indonesian half-island nation where most folks speak Portuguese and Tetun. Some people also speak English, Indonesian and local indigenous dialects. Surprisingly as a former part of Muslim Indonesia East Timor is mostly Roman Catholic, a vestige of their European colonial status from 500 years ago!
Richa is a transgender M2F with androgynous features that mostly let her 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.”
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)
Richa said, “under Hivos Foundation we now offer three separate CBOs (Community Based Organizations) each with their own focus activities. As a result we have built up an organization called Codiva Foundation and are working to support the needs of MSM and transgender people”.
CODIVA stands for Coalition for Diversity and Action that includes:
1 CBO Casa de Rose is working to support transgender community to reduce stigma and discrimination;
2 CBO GayAmor is working to support the MSM community
3 CBO Rabenta is working to promote the human rights of LGBT citizens.
Richa also said: “I was really impressed when I had a chance to join the Manila Pride march and Quezon City. It made me think I need to have this pride march in East Timor too. As a new country we should start by learning from Philippines and then do it. I need to speak out to my peoples and explain carefully so they can slowly understand of the process of gay Pride. I 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 other countries. We do not know such things as this Pride. In Codiva we are really not open to the public; we are hiding our status of LGBT. The CBOs work to support this program but we do not mention thems as part of LGBT community. The reason for this is because most of our peoples have no or small understanding about sexual minorities However, still we carefully do the advocacy to promote the existence the LGBT people.”
She continued, “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. Because of this, LGBTs hide their status because 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.”
“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:
-reduce anti-gay vilification by some of East Timor’s political leaders;
-reduce the Church’s influence against LGBTs;
-initiate a gay civil rights movement;
-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;
-create outreach programs specific for homosexual men in East Timor;
-to educate that not all men who have sex with men are homosexuals and develop programs for these men who have sex with men;
-develop programs for men and women who are homosexual including programs to combat HIV-AIDS:
-make policies that are not based on moral or religious dictates;
-make policies based on science, legal rights and guarantees of privacy (common sense);
-guarantee the rights of persons diagnosed as HIV-positive against discrimination in the provision of health care services.
So you can see we have much work to perform in these years in East Timor”
End of interview.
Further information about Timor East
Compiled by Richard Ammon
The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, commonly known as East Timor, is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia. It comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor plus the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecusse, an exclave on the northwestern side of the island within Indonesian West Timor. It is located about 640 km (400 mi) northwest of Darwin, Australia.
In late 1975, East Timor declared its independence, but later that year was invaded and occupied by Indonesia and was declared Indonesia’s 27th province the following year. After years of guerrilla warfare and killing, in 1999, following the United Nations-sponsored act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on May 20, 2002. East Timor is one of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia, the other being the Philippines.
From May 2009 the country has its own Penal Code and does not criminalize homosexuality; it abolishes the death penalty and makes the age of consent equal at 18.
The Condition of LGBT Life in East Timor
From East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin
25 April 2009
Homosexuality in East Timor
The rights of the homosexual citizens of East Timor have proven to be a fertile ground for virulent anti-gay vilification by some of East Timor’s political leaders. Discussion of the issue in the public domain has also provided an opportunity for the persecution of gay men and women in East Timor through the hysterical anti-human and anti-Christian condemnations of the Roman Catholic Church.
There is a significant gay dimension to East Timorese society. But a proposed constitutional guarantee of the rights of homosexuals in East Timor was, under pressure from the Church and with the approval of homophobic members of East Timor’s national parliament, excised from an early draft of the Constitution leaving the gay community susceptible to marginalisation, discrimination and hate-motivated violence. It was on that occasion that a prominent politician denied that there were any gay people in East Timor and declared homosexuality a disease.
The Church’s influence in East Timor has actually contributed to the promotion of homosexuality, principally among East Timorese men. Strict compliance with bans on pre-marital sex and an oppressive social regime that seeks to control Timorese women’s sexuality in East Timor have most certainly restricted the opportunities for young East Timorese men. But primal human compulsions, in the end, so to speak, find a way of being expressed.
The protection of the rights of gay people in East Timor should not be a matter left outside the mainstream concerns of the justice system. And yet not a single cent of the millions upon millions of dollars of donor money has been dedicated to this.
Gay civil rights movements in advanced secular democracies agitated and achieved unprecedented legal recognition of equality before the law and impartial access to the protections afforded by the law to straight citizens. These achievements did not come about without a long and injurious campaign to refute the prejudices of the conservative Church and to drag the State to entrench secular anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws and to delete a wide range of laws and policies that discriminated against homosexual people.
If East Timor is to be credibly received as a state based on the rule of law and international laws and standards as its Constitution mandates, both clear policies and legislation must be presented by the Government to the Parliament for enactment to ensure the protection of equal rights to all citizens.
Such efforts will also create a suitable legal and social environment for managing HIV-AIDS infections in East Timor. Unfortunately, as the whole world knows, the spiritually-unstable leaders of the Roman Catholic Church continue to ban the use of condoms as a protective measure to avoid infection. In East Timor, this immoral doctrine will result in the avoidable deaths of men and women.
Intrusions of religious doctrines into the formulation of social policies and legislation in East Timor is a grave error – morally, jurisprudentially and constitutionally.
LGBT Community and HIV Prevention
Timor Leste Red Cross Exludes Homosexuals From HIV-AIDS Reduction Program
19 September 2009
Before the undemocratically-formulated Constitution was adopted in East Timor in 2002, constitutional protection for homosexuals in East Timor was expunged from an early draft. The then Constituent Assembly (the prototype of the present National Parliament) voted to remove gay protections from the new nation’s draft constitution.
Fifty-two of the Assembly’s 88 members specifically voted to exclude “sexual orientation” from an anti-discrimination clause. Discrimination was banned based only on “color, race, gender, marital status, ethnic origin, economic or social status, beliefs or ideology, politics, religion, education, and mental or physical condition.”
One member of the assembly, Joao Carrascalao, (who was the East Timor Transitional Administration’s Minister for Infrastructure) called homosexuality “an illness” and “an anomaly” and said protecting gays would create “social chaos.” Another member said the only homosexuals in East Timor are foreigners.
This is the grotesque and primitive social context in which HIV-AIDS prevention policies are supposed to operate in East Timor; a context in which the most basic rights of homosexual citizens are denied and in which homosexuals are publicly vilified by political leaders (some of whom were deeply engaged with the illegal Indonesian occupation and the universe of human rights violations perpetrated during the period from 1975 through to 1999).
This context is problematical not only for the civil rights of homosexuals in East Timor but also for HIV-AIDS prevention policies and it is reflected in a recent position vacant advertisement for an HIV-AIDS consultancy with the Red Cross.
In that advertisement, the Red Cross notes that it is one of the most active implementing organizations working in the National HIV/AIDS and STI Program, lead by the Ministry of Health. HIV/AIDS is emphasized in CVTL’s (Cruz Vermelha de Timo-Leste) Strategy 2006-2009 with the objective of increasing HIV/AIDS knowledge and its prevention in youth and Most at Risk Groups (MARGs). Since 2005 CVTL has been involved in HIV programs with MARG including transport workers, clients of sex workers and female sex workers.
The job advertisement continues: “CVTL are currently receiving a grant for their activities with MARGs, specifically clients of female sex workers and men with multiple partners. Funding is from the Ministry Of Health, and is part of the country’s Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM) grant. This grant started in January 2008 and will continue until December 2011.
Not a single mention of outreach programs for homosexual men in East Timor! Homosexual men are the most “at risk” group for HIV-AIDS transmission!…
Read full story
Homophobia, Discrimination and HIV in Timor-Leste
27 September 2009
The National HIV/AIDS and STI Program reveals yet another conceptual error in the strategy. It ought to be clear to even the least informed HIV-AIDS policy decision maker and advisers that not all men who have sex with men are homosexuals. Nor is there any inclusion of bisexuality. Programs must at least be able to identify the MARG’s which this policy document does not do. It is the MARG profile that dictates the policy response. So, it is necessary to consider programmatical objectives in relation to men who have sex with men but who are not homosexual, men who have sex with men who are homosexual and men who have sex with both men and women (as well as sex workers and their clients, intravenous drug users, people who have received blood transfusions of blood products before testing of blood supplies was introduced, to name but a few).
These conceptual failures have meant a misformulation of policy and the deployment of defective programs to combat HIV-AIDS in East Timor; such as the Timor-Leste Red Cross HIV-AIDS Reduction Program which reinforces the separation and marginalisation of the gay community from the straight community. It does this by excluding the gay community as a MARG from its program (the principle, most active international NGO in this area).
That has been hived away from the Red Cross program and programming for men who have sex with men (but not homosexuals) has been assigned to a small, inexperienced, under-resourced national NGO which would be even less enthusiastic about combating HIV-AIDS by combating homophobia as a central programming theme.
How can it reasonably be expected that the critical issue of homophobia will be properly addressed under the East Timor National HIV-AIDS strategy as it is presently cast? There would be much more chance of success if an international agency were to put homophobia as part of its HIV-AIDS reduction program and that this be undertaken with the entire community as the target.
Policies based on moral or religious dictates are of no avail in the minimisation of HIV transmission and this is because a moral or religious doctrine can not prevent infection.
Socialisation and the open availability of condoms*, national public information campaigns about safe sex, treatments, and civil rights guarantees are known to minimise infection. Policies based on science, legal rights and guarantees – as well as common sense – turn out to be the best ones; able to turn the peak of new infections into a plateau and eventually into a downward trend. Policies that seek to advance a moral or religious framework for the suppression of HIV ought to be discarded since they do not prevent HIV transmission.
Consequently, the rights of persons diagnosed as HIV-positive must also be a pillar of any national HIV strategy. Discrimination in the provision of health care services for people living with HIV contributes to a hastened demise of those people and is a strong disincentive for people to be tested leaving the entire community at greater risk. Guarantees of confidentiality of HIV status must be set in law; as do anti-discrimination laws and laws prohibiting criminal vilification of homosexuals, homosexuality or HIV-status.
East Timor is a long way from that. But the longer and further away from that kind of policy reform East Timor is, the more of its citizens will suffer and die terrible deaths – and the further HIV will spread into the general community.