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East Timor activist visits Fulton

East Timor activist visits Fulton

October 28th, 2018 by Helen Wilbers in News

Natalino Soares Ornai Guterres, a leading advocate for LGBT rights in East Timor, travelled to Westminster College to speak about his work. He helped organize the country's first Pride March two years ago.

Photo by Helen Wilbers /Fulton Sun.

Content note: This story discusses sexual assault, domestic abuse, suicidal thoughts and homophobia.

A few years ago, activist Natalino Soares Ornai Guterres was close to giving up on life.

He'd just come out as gay to his parents after returning to his home country — tiny, conservative East Timor. His father's response was to tell Guterres not to bring shame upon the family.

"I felt devastated," Guterres said. "I went out that night with the intention to end everything."

Instead, Guterres decided to fight. In 2016, he arranged the country's first LGBT Pride event, which bloomed into its first Pride parade in 2017. On Friday, Guterres spoke to students at Westminster College about how he became a leader in working toward acceptance for LGBT people in East Timor.

East Timor is a Southeast Asian nation occupying half of the island of Timor, located north of Australia. Its population is about 98 percent Catholic. During Guterres' childhood, being openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or anything outside gender and sexual norms was unheard of.

"The belief was that you're either this or that," Guterres said. "God created men and women and each had a particular role."

That simplistic definition made a target of Guterres, as a young boy with mannerisms that some perceived as feminine and a dislike of soccer.

"When I grew up, I hated myself," he said. "I used to hide under the pillow and cry every day."

Even before Guterres realized he was gay, his classmates had already noticed there was something different about him.

"Once, I was sexually assaulted by a bunch of soccer players who thought I would like what they did to me," he remembered.

East Timor places great importance on family, and Guterres was terrified of disappointing his. He was determined to change himself. He prayed every night and dated girls. He took up the stereotypical manly pastimes, such as soccer. Nothing worked. His own experience convinced Guterres that being gay isn't a choice.

"No one chooses to be a way that makes their whole family hate them," he said.

During high school, he came out for the first time to an unlikely source of support: a nun. He'd struck up a friendship with her when she'd visited his school to offer mental health services to students still traumatized by the country's recent fight for independence.

"She told me that to make my family proud, I should study hard, get good grades, and stop drinking and smoking," Guterres said.

It was what he needed to hear at the time, but today, he has mixed feelings about the nun's advice. He's watched straight friends go into debt, make poor decisions, drop out of school and still receive the unconditional love of their families.

"I think it's insane, as a gay person, that I have to work so much harder than anyone else to be respected," he said. "Why can't we be recognized for our humanity? But if that's the only way, I'll fight tooth and nail for it."

In 2007, Guterres left the country to attend the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Among people from varied backgrounds and diverse identities, he began to feel more comfortable in his own skin. It still took him until 2012 to come out to his friends. Then, in 2013, right before he went to his first Pride parade, he came out to one of his brothers.

"He told me he hated me," Guterres said.

The pair didn't speak for two years.

After completing his master's degree, Guterres was torn about whether to return to East Timor. However, he kept thinking about others like him — the bullied, rejected children.

"What would happen to them if they had no one to talk to?" he wondered.

Shortly after returning home, he came out to his parents, to disastrous results. Guterres resolved to start changing hearts and minds across the country. He co-founded Movimento de Adolescentes e Crianas, an organization to create social change by educating and protecting children. He also founded Hatutan, which means "to spread the word," an organization that advocates for LGBT equality.

Work ahead

Before the first Pride march in 2017, Guterres did something he knew was a long-shot: he wrote a letter to East Timor's prime minister. As a young nation, East Timor's citizens put a high value on enjoying the freedom the nation has won and working together to develop the country.

However, not everyone can enjoy those freedoms. According to a 2014 study, about one in four LGBT people in East Timor have experienced physical maltreatment, and at least one in three have been verbally abused. (The nation also has a high incidence of domestic and gender-based violence.)

Respondents to another study reported vile maltreatment. Some described being forced to drink chicken blood, under the belief it would cure them of their identity. Lesbians and transgender people reported being subject to "corrective rape," sometimes perpetrated by members of their own family. Others were beaten and kicked out of their homes.

That, Guterres told Prime Minister Rui Maria de Arajo, is unjust.

"I guess the letter worked, because the prime minister responded," Guterres said, his grin gleaming.

Arajo invited Guterres and other activists to his office and delivered a statement advocating equality for LGBT people. That support gave Guterres and his friends confidence to bring Pride to the streets.

"It felt like the first time I watched our flag being raised in 2002, after we first gained independence," Guterres said.

Even better, his estranged brother showed up wearing a T-shirt that said, "You are not alone." The two embraced, weeping.

The 2018 march was even bigger, with more than 2,000 — including Guterres' mother — in attendance. Nuns and priests marched, too, with the Catholic Church in East Timor issuing a tentative supportive statement.

Through Hatutan, Guterres has worked to gain international support for LGBT rights in East Timor and is lobbying the government for more resources. Recently, a former aid to the country's president came out as lesbian and founded a home for displaced lesbian youths.

Based on the stories Guterres hears from other young people, the nation still has a long way to go before LGBT people achieve true equality in society. Hatutan recently produced a short documentary that encourages families to accept their LGBT family members, and will be showing it around the nation beginning next month. Watch it at bit.ly/hatutanroad.

The progress he sees brings Guterres hope.

"(Activism isn't something we see as a burden," Guterres said. "We do it out of joy."

He encouraged budding young activists in Fulton to be bold and seek support from friends and allies.

"My advice to anyone who identifies as (LGBT) is to not give up," Guterres said. "It sounds cliché, but don't give up."