Bella Galhos: 'Fighting my way forward' as an LGBTQ activist in Timor-Leste

September 20, 2023
Bella Galhos
Bella Galhos. Photo supplied.

Leo Earle interviewed former political exile, LGBTQ activist and presidential advisor, Bella Galhos, on a recent visit to Timor Leste.

* * *

Kantina Matak, the vibrant presidential cafe serving up 500 free meals a day to neighbourhood kids in Timor Leste’s capital, Dili, is characteristically lively when I sit down for lunch with Bella Galhos. It is a liveliness matched by Galhos, 51 and with an aura that draws you in.

Only three when Indonesia invaded, Galhos was exposed to the violence of the military from an early age, and it was in her teenage years she situated this violence in its broader political context — leading her down a path of activism. A survivor of the Santa Cruz massacre in November 1991, she hatched a plan of escape, and via an exchange program in Canada she relocated — beginning a tireless five-year solidarity building campaign.

In Canada, Bella’s personal experiences served as a testimony emblematic of life under Indonesian occupation in Timor-Leste. A compelling and charismatic speaker, she became a potent symbol within and of the international solidarity movement, connecting and inspiring a wide network.

Amongst her initiatives since returning in 1999, following independence, are the Leubrora Green School in Maubisse that teaches children sustainable agricultural practices and good nutrition, a women’s cooperative farming group and flower garden, and the Kantina Matak where we are sitting, employing and serving as a safe space for LGBT community members. She is serving her second term as presidential advisor, this time to Jose Ramos Horta — a role she loves, and describes as “a bridge between the people and the president”.

Her organisation Arcoiris (Rainbow) Timor-Leste offers shelter for members suffering violent situations, a place that “stands and defends the rights of the LGBT community in Timor-Leste”.

“Not only do they need the shelter, but also they want to feel secure. So, whenever they come to my compound, they feel secure. By giving the people a chance, opportunity and resources without looking at who they are.”

With first-hand experience, Bella is well-situated for this work; “one of my struggles was recognising who I am”.

“When I came out it was a process of being vilified over and over again, falling down on my knees … I was meant to be a minister in the government but because of my sexual orientation I was removed. My own family, my own brothers have tried to kill me … but it hasn’t stopped me.

“Young LGBT that I help care for are struggling to be accepted, loved, cared, protected, or invested in by their own family …They experience hardship, physical abuses, sexual abuses, abandonment, they drop out from school because they cannot handle the bullies, not only by their classmates, but also by their teachers who are not understanding and have no background whatsoever or no knowledge of what LGBT is. I think people really justify their homophobia and action against LGBT people by coming out with their own theory saying: Why you turn yourself to be this? Why can’t you just be a normal woman? Why can’t you just be a normal man? Why are you against God's will?”

Bella identifies the Catholic Church as a powerful institution perpetuating patriarchal ideals, and she makes a point of their hypocrisy.

“Why can’t we talk about priests who abuse children in convents, or uncles, fathers and brothers who ruin their own family? Instead you choose to talk about LGBT.”

In a country that is 98% Catholic, where churches dot the hills and priests hold prominent sway, being an LGBT activist is hard. “I risk a lot for saying what I say and doing what I do. But I always believe that a struggle, any struggle, whatever it is, whatever time it is or where it is, somebody needs to start it.

“Being an activist is a privilege, and it is my responsibility of speaking out for others.”

Inevitably, this has drawn the ire of the church, Bella tells me. “One time there was a huge public letter coming out from the Church about me because they know I was the one that was the voice of dissent. They claimed [in the letter] that [they] supported the LGBT community, [and] are only against [people choosing their] sexual orientation.”

There is a challenge in the tension; both staunch public activist and sensitive individual, caring deeply about others.

“The way people look at you, [you] already know that you do not belong there … I am always ready to be crushed and screened out … I fight my way forward even though sometimes it’s hard.”

Laughter comes easy around Bella, and her answers are splashed with colourful anecdotes and allegories. Asked what progress has been made 24 years on from the vote for independence, she likens the government to getting ready for a party where “you don't know which clothes to put on first. If you want to put your pants on first or your underwear. So I think that's what we need to be putting in place, things in sequences, you know, we should not go to the sky first, start with the earth.

“We cannot keep on using the excuse ‘new country’ as a way of saying it's okay to make mistakes … We cannot keep running the country by just turning on our Petroleum Fund. That is for me very worrying.”

“More than 20 years putting money into all these key sectors but we have not seen the results, we need to see the result and if the result is not seen it means that we are wrong in how we are investing it … we are already getting at least two or three generations that almost have no future to hold on to and most of them are already taking off and the younger ones are also hoping to get out and that's not a good sense of staying in the country to feel and to see what is going on here.”

The valorisation of veterans in a country where resistance leaders are constitutionally enshrined as “national heroes” often comes at the cost of everyday people in the sharing of power.

“Today we are still talking about veterans, all about veterans. Basically the country's owned by the veterans and the veterans are putting all the money into the older people and we forgot to bring money to the younger people, the future of the country, the future leaders of the country, and that’s worrying.”

It’s a dynamic that means the same faces have been in power since independence, and Bella references corruption as a feature of this ruling elite. Timor-Leste rated, in 2022, as having the highest hunger and malnutrition in Southeast Asia, according the global hunger index — a statistic that sits oddly with the US$19 billion sitting in Timor’s Petroleum Fund.

“Development is going at a snail’s pace because the government is too busy distributing power among people who actually don’t have the ability to work or serve the public. These people claim, ‘I did this, I did that, I lost my family, I was with you, I suffered the most, so I deserve to be a minister.’ It’s still like that.

“We are still pleasing each other by providing each other jobs — you know, to make people happy, make followers happy. And the majority of people are suffering because this is not what they were promised when campaigning is taking place.”

Bella believes a possible pathway forward would allow the mixing of “the younger generation into the process of developing the country”.

“Over 60% [of the population] is young. They should be prioritised. They should be dignified. By giving them space, their voice should be heard, should be counted.”

This sort of people-driven participatory philosophy underpins Bella’s outlook: “The priority, the centre of all development should be people, people, people and people means you don't see the classes that you don't see the categories; it’s the people. And first you have to get them involved, not just use them when you need the vote but [so that] their voices can actually be heard and counted in the program.”

What next for Bella? Energetic, with a life loaded with experiences, maybe a presidential run? “Winning or not, I don’t care. I just want to challenge the norms.”

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