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Transcending gender in Timor-Leste

Dili Weekly - July 15, 2014

Gabriela Gonzalez-Forward – Despite the discrimination and stigma they face every day, Timor-Leste's transgender, gay and bisexual community are learning to deal with abuse in constructive ways.

Amid reports of discrimination from health clinics against transgender, men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers, organisations have formed to ensure HIV and STI's tests can be performed, free from stigma and politics.

NGO Fundasaun Timor Hari'i (FTH) is a HIV and STI testing clinic which runs peer education programs with MSM and transgender volunteers.

FTH, or the Build Timor foundation, is focused on the emerging issue of HIV and AIDS in Timor-Leste. Their approach is about educating the community and uses peer based approaches to see long-term behaviour changes in MSM, transgender and sex worker communities.

Leao 'LeLe' Goncalves, a counsellor who runs rapid testing, said the NGO has 107 regular transgender and MSM patients who go in for testing every three months.

The clinic used to exist for referrals only, but since March they have been testing for HIV and STIs on site with the help of two doctors from the Ministry of Health who come in every Friday.

Goncalves said Community Based Organisations (CBOs) supported by Islands of South East Asia Networks (ISEAN)and Humanist Institute for Co-operation with Developing Countries (Hivos) helped explain gender identity and what it means to be transgender and androgynous.

"I get a lot of verbal abuse, and before these programs I didn't know much about gender identity and when people yelled at me I would just yell back with abusive words as a way to defend myself," Goncalves said.

"When I learned about my gender identity I understood that if someone yells at me I have to remember this is my sexuality and my orientation, and they must have their own problems."

As the queer community are at a high risk of contracting HIV, community support groups and peer-education programs are encouraging people to think about their health and their gender identity.

Rui Carvalho, director of Timor-Leste's ISEAN's Hivos satellite program and local fashion designer, said the CBO he runs, Gay Amor, is a space for people to talk about what they're going through.

"We have three CBOs in Dili, one is specific for MSM, Casa de Rosa is for transgender people and Gay Amor is for both. We also have one in Baucau, Maliana andOecussi-Ambeno, and ISEAN Hivos will extend to the other districts," he said. "We collect data of our members, and we have around 300 people in the five organisations."

ISEAN Hivos is working with four countries, Timor-Leste, Malaysia, the Philippines an Indonesia with goals to reduce the high rates of HIV, discrimination and stigma against transgender, gay and bisexual people.

With no safe houses for those experiencing discrimination, some who have been kicked out of home, ISEAN Hivos, through the CBOs and other programs creates connections for people to seek help.

Both FTH and ISEAN Hivos receive their funding from Global Fund and get some assistance from the government.

The recently established HIV commission in Timor-Leste is trying to spread the same message to at risk groups, targeting the under 25s, and receives nine and a half thousand dollars in government funding for educational programs.

The commission runs events at universities to engage young people on the issue of HIV with live music and quizzes together with flyers on sexual health and protection.

However Dr Dan Murphy from the Bairo Pite Clinic is doubtful about the effectiveness of these programs. "You don't really get someone's attention until they're HIV positive, then you can modify behaviour and have some effect. Trying to deal with kids who don't have HIV, it doesn't work I'm sorry," he said.

It's like saying no sex until you're married, okay good luck on that one. You can say it, you can say it a million ways but you can't show that it works."

Organisations like ISEAN Hivos, CBOs and FTH through peer education programs have speakers and educators who are living with HIV to get the message across.

"I have a friend with HIV who is MSM, he's working with the Positive group and he's a great speaker for us and our friends, it definitely works," Carvalho said.

All the groups have the same goal to end the discrimination and stigma against their communities and to fight for laws which will protect their rights.

"We have dreams to get married, but these are only dreams, what we are asking is that as long as we have a law which protects us, that's good for us," Carvalho said.

"In the future maybe, years and years, we'll have a law to get married – that's a bonus for us. But first it's protecting our rights."

Source: http://www.thediliweekly.com/en/news/capital/12564-transcending-gender-in-timor-leste