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Sense and Sensuality in Timor Lorosa'e

The following is written from my preliminary observer’s perspective between the periods of September 11 and October 27, 2002 and as such is probably going to need future revision. However, the key elements of history and influence have been noted and at very least provide sufficient information from which future inquiries may take place. Particular emphasis is placed on the myth and practices of the Tetun people, but by no means exclusively so.

The Mythic and Religious Tradition

Like nearly all pagan and animist societies an inextricable link is determined between the provision of life in the human sense and the provision of life in a nature-wide sense with an emphasis on the female. Perhaps more so than other pagan/animist cults the moral good is emphasized with the natural order. To quote Cliff Morris: "In the Animist religion it is believe that we are on earth for a short period and that after death on this earth we would return to the womb of the earth through the many vaginas that exist in the Fatu Kuak [caves] in Timor. Therefore we must live a good life to return to our origins at the completion of our ephemeral stay on earth."

The animist religion had no church as such, with the family house serving this function, and with the woman of the house ruling supreme. On the female pole of the house hung woven bags containing the dried placentas of the occupants. These should always be carried throughout a persons life, otherwise they would have no protection against any Klamar [spirits], who may seek to invade the person. Klamar could act as guardians or be malevolent and entered a person through their orifices whilst they slept, but never the mouth or genitals.

Marriage was a detailed and sophisticated process in traditional Tetun society. It was also the only way that a person could change the social class they were born into. A go-between, usually a Katuas [wise elder] between two families would spend up to a year fixing the terms of the alliance, with a Lia Na'in [poet, wordmaster] reciting lengths of Dadolin [two line rhyming verse] of the relative merits of the marriage. When the terms had been agreed upon, the two young people would live together in the house of the girl’s parents. Consummation was the only recognized rite of marriage as such.

Particular supernatural beings included the Pontiana, a sort of succubus/incubus being with long nails that would take people away in the middle of the night. The Pontiana is very common across southeast Asian societies and is by no means unique to Timor or the Tetun people. Another, more malignant version of this was the Kukulasak, who in natural form was an old witch, but could transform herself into any other being, normally a beautiful young woman to beguile all sorts of innocent people. It is believed that had a particular fondness for the consumption of children (especially if they plump or naughty).

There is a particular endearing romantic tale entitled 'The Giant of Manufahi'. Once every thousand years, during an earthquake, the full moon is so bright that everything is visible, even secrets and mysteries. That night a beautiful woman appears perfumed with sandalwood. Many years previously, she was the lover of the Giant of Manufahi, named Beileira. She tried to free him from an equally giant boa constrictor, but even though she broke the snake's spell, her lover was dead. Refusing to accept this (shades of Orpheaus!), she causes her lover to arise from the earth once every thousand years. Whilst mortals do not witness this event (for they all fall asleep when this magic occurs), they can see it in their dreams. And then land of the Mauberes is filled with love.

The Current Situation

If my immediate reckoning is correct, the current situation with regard to eroticism in East Timor is due to the following influences: the Austonesian, Wamain and Papuan cultural imperatives, the religions imperative of the Roman Catholic Church, Portuguese colonialism, the invasion and occupation of by Indonesia and international presence following the establishment of the UNTAET (United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor) government.

Military occupations are never a pleasant experience for anyone and they are particularly unpleasant for women. East Timor is recovering from decades of forced sexual exploitation of women and this has contributed significantly to the conservative sexual mores that exist. Even more regrettably, there is significant evidence to suggest that East Timorese themselves (of the pro-integration militia variety) were responsible for some of the worst crimes, including sexual slavery in the refugee camps of West Timor. A particularly grim but honest account of these events can be found in Buibere or "Lian Feto Timor Lorosae Nian' by Sally-Anne Watson, published 2001 by Fokupers.

A strong social conservatism, or rather modesty, is the norm in East Timor. As such socializing in groups is highly recommended and a great deal of young Timorese erogeny is sublimated into dancing, of which the Timorese are particularly fond of usually participating all through the night to the following daybreak. Almost all local dances involve paired couples, usually with the man extending an invitation to a woman. This is not exclusive however, and when a woman extends an offer, no matter what lack of knowledge one may have about the dance or degree of tiredness it is simply impossible to refuse!

Young men and women are affectionately known to each other as 'toke' and 'tecki', being a type of lizard and gecko respectively. I have once heard the sound of said animal mimicked in much the way that anglophones use a 'wolf-whistle', but it seems that this was more in jest than commonplace. Despite the traditional and colonial religious discouragement of premarital contact such contact obviously does occur (there is probably not a society in existence that has successfully enforced such bans). The evidently preferred location in the Dili district is the beachside under the watchful gaze of Kristus Rei (Christ the King), a Portuguese introduced statue that mimics the one in Rio de Janeiro [nb: I have since discovered that this statue was introduced during the Indonesian occupation]. At this rendez-vous is quite evident that women are clearly in control of the (heterosexual) affairs with the male partner both compliant and subservient.

Homosexuality and homoeroticism is seemingly acceptable in East Timor. Physical affection between members of the same sex is common and often close friends of the same sex will often walk hand in hand or with arms draped across each others shoulders - in fact such sights is significantly more common that public physical contact between members of the opposite sex. Whereas this is supposed to represent non-sexual friendship, it seems highly improbable that this is exclusively so. There is a vibrant gay scene in Dili and as is common with other parts of the world they are evident trendsetters in fashion and style. When Elizabeth Exposti revealed that she was a lesbian to her family in the film 'Children of the Crocodile' she was treated with a degree of respect and love far beyond what is typical of many so-called liberal societies.

Whether this is due to the influence of the Portuguese or the acceptance of the homoeroticism in Austronesian cultures (and notably in the Malay archipelago) I am yet to ascertain. Quite clearly both could be relevant. Portuguese cultures, among all European and particularly Catholic European cultures have been particularly advanced on this issue, with Brazil being the first country in the America's and with group gay marriages between Portuguese being recorded in 16th century Rome.

Nonetheless, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not included in the East Timorese constitution, although it was initially proposed. To this day, only Fiji and South Africa have that honour. It is widely accepted that lobbying from the Church caused this exclusion and this does seem to be the case. Nonetheless, in other areas the Church has been remarkable sensible. In both Timor and the largely Christian Flores islands, they have given passive support to the governments AID/HIV awareness campaign which advocates either (a) abstinence (b) fidelity or (c) condoms. It would seem, with a continuing practical emphasis on social justice, that the local church has decided it has a moral obligation to keep people alive regardless on the peculiar normatives and whatever Bull the Pope puts out.

I have encountered one clear example of polygamy in East Timor whilst visiting a small village just north of Same (a more animist region). Witnessing a large number of huts on a hillside and farming on what seemed to be an impossible slope I was dutifully informed: "That's where the mountain man lives. He has seven wives. The huts are for his children. He has forty children." I suspect that the mountain man is both (a) very busy and (b) a cause of endless frustration to the local padre.

Pornography and prostitution both exist, although in very limited amounts. The country is simply too cash poor to support a domestic market (indeed, it is the poorest country in the world when measured on purchasing power) and internationals are usually here on humanitarian rather than pleasure tourism. On two occasions I have been offered pornographic CDs from the numerous street vendors in Dili. Recently a group of Indonesian women working as prostitutes were expelled from the country for breaching the conditions of their visa along with two men described as being in "smart suits and dark sunglasses" (really!). Of the non-commercial variety, the various deserted and partially destroyed buildings often are daubed with erotic art. These are usually drawn in charcoal and often with evident skill in both the abstract and realist forms and with male and female representation in a variety of poses. In some instances these are quite reminiscent of the frescoes of ancient pagan temples.

Future Prospects

East Timor has an unusually youthful population. This, combined with the sense of freedom that accompanies political liberation and the oft-ignored but empirically verifiable effects of climatic location initially bodes well for the prospects of sexual emancipation, regardless of the complaints of grumpy elders and religious leaders. It is simply contrary to nature and common sense to presume that the sweet taste of freedom will not have an erotic content which may very well become a point of political and social conflict in the near future.

The prospects of emancipation are muted by the economic conditions of East Timor. Despite how unerotic economics is, it is critically important in any consideration. There is a very real prospect that prostitution and other forms of commercial erotica can become matters of economic survival rather than vocational choice if the country remains impoverished and dependent on tourist income. With the UNDP also highlighting the need to protect East Timor from HIV/AIDS the need of sex worker associations/unions, open discussion and education and the establishment of a social welfare system becomes evident.

Once again it is emphasized that these are but preliminary notes based on observation and a modicum of literature review. The emphasis at this stage is rationalist and cultural rather than empirical and legislative, anecdotal rather than researched. Nevertheless, I hope that I have given at least an initial view of the dynamic features and key elements in the development of sense and sensuality in the new nation of East Timor.

Commenting on this Blog entry will be automatically closed on December 31, 2002.


Social taboos In a largely Muslim country, being gay or lesbian remains fraught
(The Age (Melbourne), Friday 28 June 2013., p19)

Leading a double life in Indonesia

A good façade helps many gay people get by, writes Michael Bachelard in Jakarta.

Ardy Laplante had his first sexual thoughts as a 12-year-old boy watching a
shirtless man cleaning the mosque near his house.

At 13, Ardy was sent to a pesan­tren, an all-male Islamic boarding school, and
was quickly initiated into homosexual sex. Eventually his boarding-house
exploits became too much for the school.

“They kicked me from the pesantren because many people loved to play with me,”
says Ardy (not his real name). “The teachers told my mother that I’m sick.”

But he insisted to his parents that he was not gay, and to date, he says, “they
still trust me”.

While many Western countries adopt, or inch towards, gay mar­riage, in a
largely Muslim country, being gay or lesbian remains fraught. Being homosexual
is not illegal, but the social taboos remain strong. Political and religious
authorities view it as “haram” — forbidden or unholy. It’s considered a Western
import, a sign of deviance, loose morals.

A Pew Research Centre survey reported 93 per cent of Indone­sians felt
homosexuality should be rejected. Only 3 per cent accepted it. As a result, the
lives of sexual minorities are hedged about by lies and deception.

Long-time activist Dede Oetomo, says his friends’ behav­iour is governed by the
word “diskret” — discretion. Few have the courage to tell family or employer.

Ardy, now 23, is typical. At sev­eral clubs in Jakarta he can dress, dance and
kiss as he wants as the drag queens and “go-go boys” gyr­ate on the stage. He
finds one-night stands on the ubiquitous BlackBerry messenger service and
through social media.

But Ardy maintains a façade. He has a girlfriend (who does not know his sexual
orientation); he says he will “turn straight” in his 30s, get married and have
children. Most importantly his family treats him as a good Muslim boy.

“Perhaps they can read that I am gay, but they don’t want to know,” he says.

There are small but surprising exceptions to “diskret” behaviour. The creative
professions are rela­tively open and drag shows are sur­prisingly mainstream.

“Samantha Fox” — real name Samuel Sanderkan — has made a part-time living since
he was 14 performing as a drag queen. He earns about 500,000 rupiah ($55) for a

He is bold — accepting dares from his friends to go as a woman to straight-only
nightclubs; walk­ing in the streets to see how many straight men ask his price.

Once, performing in Makassar, Samantha’s show was shut down and he was arrested
for the “vul­gar” display of female flesh. “But when they found out I was not a
real girl, it was OK.”

Cross-dressing and homosexu­ality have deep resonance in some Javanese cultures
and Samantha has performed at weddings, par­ties and corporate events as Lady
Gaga and Kylie Minogue.

The official take of Indonesian Islam towards homosexuality and cross-dressing
is unforgiving. “It goes against nature,” says Ma’ruf Amin, an official with
the govern­ment’s Muslim advisory body, MUI. He says homosexuals can be “cured
by being prayed for, or by receiving psychological and spir­itual advice”.

Munarman, the spokesman for the Islamic Defenders Front, one of a growing
number of thuggish mass Muslim organisations, blames an alleged moral decline
on “cross-dressers, adulterers, homo­sexuals, lesbians, people who like to show
off their genitals”.

Ardy remains an active Muslim, praying regularly, and tries to avoid thinking
about the contradic­tion between faith and sexuality. “I love my God, but I’m
scared with my religion because in my religion if you are gay, you will be
going to hell, not heaven,” he says.

Ardy’s answer is to “turn straight” in time to be considered for a place in
heaven. When he’s 32, he plans to marry and have chil­dren.

“There’s almost an obsession [with getting married],” says activ­ist Dede,
founder of lobby group Gaya Nusantara. He is in his 50s and grew up under
Suharto, but says that since the dictator’s ous­ter, “Indonesia has turned very

Most find the biggest stress within their own extended family. Lesbian Ade
Grande says coming out is “double, triple” as hard for lesbians as for gay men
— she has to deal with the patriarchy as well as her sexuality.

Ade is only one of two in a circle of 30 lesbian friends whose family knows her
sexual orientation. Twelve years ago she felt she must tell her mother, but it
took months to rehearse the speech.

To Ade’s surprise, her mother accepted the news. Most of her friends, though,
are terrified even to have the conversation.

“I will never tell my mum! She would go into shock and then die in the hospital.” —
“Samantha Fox”

Despite all Samantha Fox’s chutzpah, when it comes to his mother, he goes to

“I will never tell my mum! She would go into shock and then die in the
hospital. She’d kill me, then take me back to Batam Island.”

Being obviously gay on the street, particularly outside the rel­ative safety of
Bali or the big Javanese cities of Jakarta, Surabaya and Yogyakarta, can also
be dangerous.

“The police patrol and round people up either for public order offences or
corruption,” says Dede. “Release costs 50,000 rupiah ($5.50) and you usually
have to do oral sex [on the policeman].”

But activist Rafael says that, if they stay “diskret”, most gay men and
lesbians get by.

Organising gay-themed public events, though, remains fraught. Q! Film festival
organiser Menina­putri “Putri” Wismurti says it’s grown worse since passage in
2008 of an anti-pornography law. Funda­mentalists use the law to argue that
anything “promoting” homo­sexuality is illegal.

In 2012, police declined a permit for the festival unless organisers could
prove it was “halal” — approved by Islam. The festival went ahead regardless —
they insisted they did not need a permit.

Now festival organisers aim to be “diskret”. Putri says.

“Every year I have people com­ing up to me [at the festival] and saying, ‘Now I
know that I’m not alone’.”

But when even the gay and les­bian film festival is subject to “don’t ask,
don’t tell”, that’s a dif­ficult message to convey.