Timor-Leste’s Pride: A Story of Hope and Activism

22. Nov. 2023

‘In the past, men like us were marching with weapons, fighting for our independence. Now we get to dance on Pride instead and continue their fight for everyone’s freedom like that’. It is these words, shared by activist Natalino Soares Ornai Guterres[1], that come to mind as we walk in Pride and pass the Motael Church in Dili, Timor-Leste.

In 1991, the church bore witness to Sebastiao Gomes’ murder. The student activist fighting against the Indonesian occupation was dragged out of the church, in which he sought refuge, and killed. His funeral transformed into a protest. The protest escalated into a massacre, claiming the lives of an estimated 250 individuals. The footage of this event was the first of its kind to be smuggled out of Timor-Leste, and it subsequently became a pivotal moment in the country’s struggle for independence from Indonesian occupation, which endured for 24 years. Neither Indonesia nor its supporting governments could deny Indonesia’s human rights atrocities any longer, and activists from around the world united in solidarity movements to demand Timor-Leste’s freedom.

Eight years later, in 1999, an overwhelming number of Timorese flocked to the polling stations to participate in a referendum, with over 78% voting for independence. Following another violent outburst that resulted in the deaths of 2,000 people of approximately 104.000 in total, the displacement of 890,000 individuals, and the destruction of 70% of the country’s infrastructure, Timor-Leste ultimately achieved freedom. It is said that the resistance was coordinated on three fronts: the armed guerrilla fighters in the Timorese jungle, the urban clandestine movement primarily organized by students and civilians, and the international solidarity movements across the globe organized by Timorese refugees, activists, and allies.

Today, it is not an international solidarity movement that marches with and for Timor-Leste, but the country itself marches once more in solidarity with its people. I find myself surrounded by rainbows, queens, angels, laughter, and joy. We greet Bella Galhos, one of Timor-Leste’s most prominent activists for LGBTIQA+ rights, who is currently serving as an Advisor to the President. She is also founding member of Arcoiris – meaning “Rainbow” and one of the first Timorese LGBTIQA+ organizations who provide shelter, a community centre, and outreach. We pass a group of Timorese dancers adorned in traditional clothing and headdresses, symbolizing Timorese royalty and its connection with the spiritual landscape of the country. Ahead of us is Pepito Kadalak, a prominent social media influencer, in stunning attire.

It was Pepito and Natalino who dared to write a letter to then Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in 2017, seeking a message of support for Pride month. They never imagined they would receive an invitation for a meeting on the same day and become key figures in initiating the first Pride March in Timor-Leste. Natalino, who is now approaching us with a broad smile, exclaims, “Mana[2], this is amazing! We have never seen so much diversity during Pride march!” We embrace in joy and gratitude, extending thanks to Ljubljana Pride for donating 300 flags symbolizing a rich tapestry of queer identity that goes far beyond the easier available conventional rainbow flag.

“It was really small in the beginning,” Natalino reflects, “but over the years, so many more people have joined. We couldn’t believe it.” Nor can I. I observe other activists, including those from Timor-Leste’s cultural literacy movement, the feminist movement, civil society organizations, and international entities. I also witness families coming together, artists, and onlookers who watch us pass with genuine smiles on their faces.

This wasn’t always the case. Sara Niner documents how the Constituent Assembly in 2002 voted to remove the term “sexual orientation” as grounds for anti-discrimination from the draft constitution. The Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ) recognized the inadequate legal provisions for LGBT people in 2010 but did not designate them as a “priority focus group” in the strategic plan for 2011-2020 because they “did not experience systematic or generalized violations of their rights,” despite substantial evidence to the contrary. The challenges faced especially by lesbians, bisexual women and trans-men, as highlighted in a sobering report conducted by Bella Galhos and Iram Saeed in 2017, underscore the persistent societal barriers that require continued attention and advocacy. The deeply ingrained patriarchal and religious norms within the nation create a complex terrain for the ongoing struggle for acceptance and acknowledgment of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Thanks to Pride events and advocacy, at least the Ombudsman’s stance shifted slightly. In 2018, the PDHJ Ombudsman reminded the government of its obligations to formulate policies that ensure LGBT rights and raise awareness about complaint mechanisms. In 2019, he acknowledged his own duty to serve the community and protect transgender rights.

So how has Pride evolved into such a widely embraced and supported event? In August 2022, this stands out as one of the fundamental inquiries that I engage in with members of the queer community, allies, as well as activists and students who may not be in immediate proximity to the LGBTIQA+ movement. They all agree: Pride has not only been significant for the queer community in Timor-Leste but has also created opportunities for everyone to reimagine gender norms, roles, and relationships to align with preferred ways of being that go beyond heteronormative and patriarchal concepts. A crucial aspect here is that Pride organizers effectively framed Pride as a “March for Diversity and Self-Determination.” They successfully linked Pride with the historical struggle for Timor-Leste’s independence and contextualised Pride and the fight for LGBTIQA+ rights within a broader popular sentiment, recognizing that while the country may have achieved independence, there is still much work to be done to ensure that people can live with dignity, peace, and justice. Will this prove sufficient to withstand the anticipated backlash?

I cannot say for certain. What I do know is that the small island nation has already overcome all conceivable obstacles and achieved the unimaginable with its independence in 1999. What I also know is that this demanded efforts within the country, involving those who were active agents of change, and those who actively supported that change both within and outside of the country.

References and further links:

A Research Report on the Lives of Lesbian and Bisexual Women and Transgender Men in Timor-Leste | HIV/AIDS Data Hub for the Asia-Pacific Region

Gender relations and the establishment of the LGBT movement in Timor-Leste – ScienceDirect

Why we seldom hear about LGBTI Women in a male-dominated society? | Bella Galhos | TEDxDili – YouTube

Parade Perjuangan Timor Leste Memerdekakan LGBTQ – YouTube

LGBT Pride in Timor-Leste? – YouTube

Julia Scharinger is a Senior Consultant with trans:verse, a consultancy firm dedicated to embedding gender- and conflict-transformative approaches within peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance, and development work. During their free time, Julia volunteers with Ljubljana Pride in Slovenia.

Pictures: Julia Scharinger & Délio Branco

Ljubljana Pride Association themed its 2023 Pride Festival with the slogan “Diverse communities, one fight” and aspired to explore topics of practicing international queer solidarity. Our association has been the recipient of all kinds of international support from other LGBTIQ+ organisations in the past and we are proud that we are now in a position that we can support, even if with symbolic gestures, other Pride movements and LGBTIQ+ organisations all around the world.

[1] The quote forms a segment of an interview conducted in August 2022 for research into emerging counter-hegemonic masculinities, to be published in the Routledge Handbook of Masculinities, Conflict and Peacebuliding.

[2] “Mana” means “sister” and is a term used far beyond the realms of family of birth.