Up close and personal with people from Timor-Leste’s LGBTIQ+ community

By Ali MC
Beach near the Dili suburb of Bidau Santa-Ana, where the LGBTIQ+ safe house Arco Iris (‘Rainbow’) has been established.

Content warning: please note that the experiences described in this article may be confronting and distressing to some people. The words and images may cause sadness or distress, or trigger traumatic memories for people, particularly survivors of past abuse, violence or childhood trauma.

timor leste lgbtiq+

Timor-Leste still has yet to uphold the rights of LGBTI people.

Beaten and strangled. Attacked by a machete. Sexually assaulted. Not by strangers, but by family members.

These are the experiences of LGBTIQ+ people in Timor-Leste, one of the youngest nations in the world.

After gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002, the country founded a new constitution which incorporated the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite these hopeful beginnings, Timor-Leste is still grappling with embedded discrimination against the LGBTIQ+ community.

The influence of conservative Catholicism and male-dominated, cultural values in Timor-Leste means that many LGBTIQ+ people remain reserved about expressing their identity. While some families and communities may be accepting and supportive of LGBTIQ+ people, for the majority, to ‘come out’ may result in being ostracised from friends and family, being denied education and employment opportunities and, in some cases, being subject to violence and sexual assaults.

Aga

My name is Aga. I grew up in a suburb named Taibessi, a place I call home for as long as I can remember. It’s a safe place where I can roam around with my friends.

The biggest challenge being an LGBTI [person] in Timor-Leste is that my community and my own family do not accept me for who I am.

I don’t know yet how to overcome these challenges. Silence is my only option! I know that I am a member of the LGBTI community, but I don’t want to be judged and be treated differently.

I hope that one day I can become a leader who can make a difference in my community and I hope my family can be proud of me.

My message to other people is to treat everybody with respect equally, regardless of our differences.

In a developing nation where people rely on close family connections for economic survival, being excommunicated can have devastating consequences. But one community group in Dili – the capital of Timor-Leste – is providing a safe space for LGBTIQ+ people to seek support.

Bella Galhos and Iram Saeed run a safe space called Arco Iris, meaning ‘Rainbow’ in Portuguese (one of the official languages in Timor-Leste). The space is often used as a temporary shelter for those who are facing violent discrimination in their family or village. Located in the Dili suburb of Bidau Santa-Ana, it is here that people can gather together to support each other and discuss the issues they face as a community. It is the stories that emerge out of this intimate, safe space that the extent of discrimination and trauma experienced by the LGBTIQ+ community is revealed. Some of these stories were canvassed in a groundbreaking report, “A Research Report on the Lives of Lesbian and Bisexual Women and Transgender Men in Timor-Leste” published by Bella and Iram, which reveals horrific, personal stories from the LGBTIQ+ community in Timor-Leste.

Interviewees reported being subject to extreme violence as a result of their sexual orientation, including being beaten and strangled by family members, being attacked by a machete and being tied up and dragged by the back of a car along the road. One interviewee also reported being raped by their uncle, who believed he could change the sexual orientation of the victim through sexual violence.

Due to the fear of such violent reprisals, many LGBTIQ+ people never disclose their identity. Instead, they choose to lead suppressed lives and may end up in unhappy marriages, self-harming or even committing suicide.

Nonetheless, grassroots initiatives such as Arco Iris sustains the hope that the rights of LGBTIQ+ people across the country will be both promoted and respected in the near future.

Lula

My name is Lula. I grew up in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. I love living in Dili, because it’s a great place to be, I can hang out with my friends and meet a lot of people.

The biggest challenge being an LGBTI in Timor-Leste is that I always get beaten up and judged by my family and my community. These obstacles have made me suffer until today. I still don’t know how to get through these obstacles.

I hope that one day I can be a successful person for my family, my community and my beloved country, Timor-Leste.

My message to other people is to respect the LGBTI community and give us equal opportunities.

We are as capable if given the same opportunities. Stop discrimination against the LGBTI community.

Joker

My name is Maria Jose [or] ‘Joker’. I live in Bekora, a suburb located in Dili. I love living here, because it’s not an issue for the community that I am an LGBTI member. That is due to my good attitude and being respectful towards other people. I also love helping the people in my community.

The biggest challenge being an LGBTI in Timor-Leste is my own family. When I was 15 years old, I realised that I was different than other girls. From that moment onwards, I was judged by my own family and they restricted me from playing with my male friends.

I was told to play with girls only, I had to do the household chores and I was not allowed to go out at night.

I didn’t know how overcome these challenges besides being silent. At that time, I thought life was unfair and I attempted to commit suicide, because I thought I was the only one feeling this way and I was the only odd one in this world. After meeting mana [sister] Bella Galhos I began to see life differently, I was motivated to live my life and fight for my rights.

I hope that one day I can be someone who can contribute to my country’s development. I also want to make my family proud.

My message to other people is to accept and love yourself.

Letty

My name is Letty. I grew up in Delta Nova with my family. It’s a great place to live, it’s safe and I love the people in my neighborhood.

Honestly, coming from an educated family, I did not have to face the same challenges as most of my friends. My family accept and love the way I am. The issue comes from the community.

As an LGBTI member, we are considered as the “trash” of the society, therefore we get judged and discriminated by community.

To overcome this challenge, I just ignore them. I just live my life the way I am and educate myself while they are judging me.

I want to continue my studies and I want to make my family proud.

My message to people is to treat us respectfully. Although we are different, we are also the same, we are also the citizens of Timor-Leste who want to contribute to our country.

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