Being surrounded by regional conservative giants hasn’t stopped this small country from supporting LGBTQ rights.
More than 500 people came together in Timor Leste’s capital, Dili, for the country’s first pride parade, after its prime minister announced his support for LGBTQ rights in the country.
The 15-year-old nation — a former Portuguese colony — became independent in 2002 after a quarter-century struggle against its larger neighbour, Indonesia. The country has over one million people.
The parade — which was held on June 29 — was supported by local organisations like Hatutan, a local youth group, along with international organisations like UN Women and the US Embassy, according to Gay Star News. Groups in the country held a pride event last year.
The pride parade occurred as Rui Maria De Araujo, Timor Leste’s prime minister, publicly stated his support for LGBTQ rights, becoming one of the first few statesmen in Asia to do so.
“Everyone has the potential to contribute to the development of the nation, including members of the LGBT community,” De Araujo said. “Discrimination, disrespect and abuse towards people because of their sexual orientation does not provide any benefit to our nation.”
“This is how we can create an inclusive nation, where everyone can participate in the development process and make the most of the independence we all fought for,” De Araujo added. “One for all, all for one.”
Same-sex marriage remains unrecognised in the country.
Natalino Ornai Guterres told Mashable that while no official data exists on discrimination in East Timor, his group has encountered LGBTQ youth who were abused and kicked out of homes. “Some say they [have] dropped out of school due to excessive bullying and some feel uncomfortable walking on the streets,” he said. “Without the support and protection of their own family, these youngsters often find themselves in vulnerable situations.”
Guterres said that he was invited with three other youth leaders to be with the prime minister as he read the statement, and that he had written a week earlier to seek his support. “[De Araujo’s] message brings hope to those who still struggle to feel accepted in schools, at homes, and on the streets because of their sexual orientation,” he added.
Though the country’s laws count discrimination as an “aggravating circumstance”, cases are “often ignored” due to a lack of public knowledge of LGBTQ discrimination, Guterres said. “We hope the statement will educate more people about [discrimination] and encourage the authorities to act more proactively in solving those issues,” he added.
“Our focus at the moment is to promote the message of respect and ‘acceptance’, to help change the mentalities of people.”
“Assurance and positive encouragement from high-level government officials is crucial in order to make LGBTIQ people feel accepted and welcomed in their own home countries,” Ryan Silverio, a regional coordinator of the ASEAN Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression Caucus, a network of rights activists in Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
De Araujo’s remarks come as the LGBTQ community in the region faces a rising tide of religious conservatism.
Conservatives in neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia called for a boycott of coffee giant Starbucks over its diversity policy over the weekend, while Singapore’s government barred foreigners and foreign sponsorship of the city’s only pride event.
UPDATE: July 4, 2017, 11:04 p.m. SGT Added comments from Natalino Ornai Guterres.