HIV-AIDS and Homophobia in Timor-Leste

In its Comments on the U.S. Department of State Country reports on Human Rights Practices for 2008, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) and West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAT) noted that, in East Timor:

There is pervasive bias against homosexuals, keeping nearly all closeted.

People with HIV/AIDS are largely unidentified due to lack of public information and testing.

HIV may be far more widespread than public health officials admit, according to some experts.

AIDS casualties are listed as dying from tuberculosis or other opportunistic diseases.

The lack of access for HIV-positive people to information, testing and health care, combined with common extramarital sexual relations, will likely kill many people in coming years.

In 2005, the author of the blog Dilly Dallying posted an account of encounter with homophobia in East Timor. On 10 November 2005, the author wrote that a Timorese woman had expressed
virulent homophobic comments. The woman was young, supposedly well educated, from a very well to do family and worked for a Human Rights NGO. Her comments, the blog author reports, in particular about gay men were outrageous. She said that there were no gay people in Timor before Indonesia invaded and that gay men were responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS.

That blogger also reports on a chapter in a Tetun language book called “Kuidadu an” (Taking care of yourself). Under the sub section called "Extramarital Sex", were included the following words: prostitute (three different words), cross dresser, man who acts or dresses like a woman; homosexual (all one word); effeminate heterosexual male; tomboy, woman who acts like a man; homosexual; lesbian; cheap (easy to get; mainly applied to women); mistress (in addition to the wife); take a mistress. To make matters worse, the woman who wrote the book is a Dutch Australian academic.

Then, more was to come, says the Dilly Dallying blogger:

"My Tetun tutor told me that he didn’t like any of “this”. When I questioned him as to what “this” was, he said, “all these people”. I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked as this young man has expressed so many views concerning women (eg there is no such thing as rape in marriage because of course, if I want sex with my wife, she must give it to me!), gender and children that adding homosexuality to the bag covers thoroughly the whole issue of sex and gender.

However, at times like this, I simply cannot shut my mouth and say nothing. I explained to him that being homosexual is a human right and that in countries such as my own, such people are (generally speaking) accepted and protected from discrimination in law (mostly). I also told him that homosexual couples could marry in four countries including two that are Catholic and that perhaps one day, this too will happen in Timor. He just tut tutted and shook his head in disbelief that this was so and was probably thinking how strange and appalling we Westerners are. Little did he know that in my mind, I was thinking how bloody lucky I was to be born in the West and not in Timor."

Dilly Dallying is right to point out these expressions of homophobic slander of homosexuals because they reveal how deeply entrenched the primitive ideology of homophobia is in East Timorese society - thanks to the Catholic Church's antihuman, intolerant and vilificatory doctrines on homosexuality.

Its impacts from programs to reduce the transmission of HIV that do not take due account of the gay community as a most-at-risk group are fatal for the people those programs are supposed to be focused on.

The East Timor National Strategic Plan for a Comprehensive and Multi- Sectoral Response to HIV/AIDS/STI. 2002 –2005 from the Ministry of Health does not contain a single reference to homosexuality, homosexuals or homophobia. There is only a single reference to "men who have sex with men".

And this exposes 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.

This post author conducted a work shop with the East Timor National Parliament Committee on Health in 2004 under the University of San Francisco (Centre for Law and Global Justice) Legislative Drafting Initiative (part of The Asia Foundation's Access to Justice Program).

The work shop topic was health care policy and law for mothers and the question of birth control through condom use came up. The author noted that condoms could be bought at certain shops in Dili but was quickly informed that the condoms were only there for "Misters" - that is to say, foreigners (malaes)!

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