Making way for pride in Timor-Leste

News Events

WORDS + PHOTOS: Xian Warner / 07.08.2018

At 4:30pm on Friday 20th July, a flock of doves was released into the warm afternoon sky, as nuns’ white habits billowed in tune with the rainbow flags around them, and a prayer officially launched Pride Timor-Leste 2018. It was no coincidence that one of the hashtags for the event was #MarsaBaDiversidade, or, March for Diversity.

WORDS + PHOTOS: Xian Warner / 07.08.2018

Indigenous people with traditional clothes dacing on top of a rainbow flag

A representative from the Asosiasaun Defisiénsia Timor-Leste (Timor-Leste Disabled People’s Association) made opening remarks from a rainbow float, under the shade of the beachfront coconut palms.

From the back of the crowd, bedecked in black lace, with knee-high boots and hip-length curls, the band leader from CODIVA, a local transgender health NGO, bolted through the crowd. With an impressive spin of her silver staff, she commanded the 20+ piece marching band to get the party started. And what a party it was!

The 2018 Timor-Leste Pride Parade encompassed so much of what I love about this country. The coming together of people from such different walks of life, the seeming contradictions that somehow flow around each other like water so as to coexist smoothly, the hard memories of the past that give strength to the energetic enthusiasm of wanting to make the future of the nation better. And the way that music is a thread that ties it all together.

A music band of young people in school uniforms, playing in the middle fo the street

The marching band held the beat at front...

While musicians, including Black Jesuz and Joviana Guterres, got the back half of the crowd dancing to the tunes booming from the float. Only when passing the Motael Church was the volume lowered – out of respect (to carve out a new social space requires flexibility). At one point during the hour and a half long march, one section of the crowd cheered on an acrobatic capoeira performance in front of Dili’s port. Another section, further down the road, watched in awe as the stilettoed transgender band leader climbed atop a carefully-balanced pile of drums in front of the gates of the Government Palace to conduct the band’s rendition of ‘Lambada,’ as if playing to the heads of State.

This focus on music isn’t incidental either. Building on the lessons from Timor’s first Pride parade last year, the organisers wanted to get more youth involved – live performances by local celebrities is one of the ways they attempted to achieve this. And it seemed to work. The organisers had printed 700 t-shirts for the event this year, hoping to top last year’s attendance of about 300 people. As the hot grey asphalt on Dili’s main promenade turned into a river of colour, the crowd swelled to an estimated 1,500 people, mostly youth, with even more curious onlookers watching from the sidelines. As I was taking photos from the footpath, a young jogger stopped to ask me what was going on. When I explained, he gave me a thumbs up and said, “This is great – this is what Timor needs.”

Not everyone has been so supportive, however. Within a few hours, public Facebook posts about the event had already received aggressive, homophobic comments. Natalino Ornai Guterres, of Hatutan, the volunteer-led youth organisation coordinating the Pride festivities together with CODIVA and Arco Iris, explained to me that discrimination and violence continue to be daily realities for LGBTI people in Timor-Leste. This treatment, he described, holds young Timorese LGBTI kids back from achieving their best at school, which, in turn, reduces their longer-term employment opportunities. Recent research also confirms very severe forms of violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity exist in Timor-Leste. One of the authors of this research, renowned lesbian activist, co-founder of Arco Iris, and environmental educator, Bella Galhos, said, “Many Timorese think that the idea of LGBTI was imported from overseas. But we were born in Timor, we live in Timor. And we were born this way.” In response to these ongoing challenges and discrimination, this year Hatutan is maintaining its focus on three priority areas: increasing acceptance at home, reducing bullying in schools, and addressing street harassment.

Group of young people walking while holding balloons arrangements that spell PRIIE with each letter in a different colour
A teenage girl and boy holding each the Timor Leste flag and the LGTBQ+ flag

But Guterres also explained...

The importance of keeping Pride as a positive event – a celebration. By identifying key influential people to speak out in support of LGBTI rights, the organisers are hoping that this will inspire youth to be open to diversity and encourage others to shift their mindsets. In addition to engaging youth through the participation of popular local musicians and celebrities, the organisers also reached out to Government, in the hopes that their message reaches even broader, potentially more conservative, audiences. Last year, for example, the respected former Prime Minister, H.E. Dr. Rui Maria de Araújo, made history by releasing a televised national statement calling on families and communities to accept and support their LGBTI relatives and friends. This year, unprompted, he posted a message on his Facebook account reiterating his ongoing support. H.E. Secretary of State for Equality and Inclusion, Maria José da Fonseca, who was invited to speak at this year’s event, stated, “I came here to march on behalf of the [new] Prime Minister and I was amazed and touched today to see some youth in the parade feeling empowered and proud to be themselves. Our Prime Minister makes it clear that this new government will work hard to ensure that there is no discrimination against anyone, including members of the LGBTI community.”

As the sun set over the nation’s second Pride parade, a dance troupe, in traditional Timorese tais costumes, performed over a rainbow carpet and a group of young musicians played a beloved old Timorese song, while the crowd swayed along in unison. The message, strung together by musical chords, felt clear: Timorese culture and diversity acceptance are not mutually exclusive. They can, and in many cases do, co-exist in harmony.

When I asked Natalino Guterres what message he’d like to share with our readers, he said, “Come to our Pride celebrations next year – see how we do it in Timor.” I promise you, you won’t regret it.