My education commenced around the age of four in, a private Catholic school where I was enrolled for six years. This was where I learned how to read and write. Since my early days of schooling I found kinship with other girls, skipping on the jump-rope, and playing with Barbie dolls, just like any other girls my age.
At school, my own teachers and mentors were the source of the constant bullying I endured throughout my childhood, for no better reason than for my harmless girlish demeanor. My schoolmates and family insisted that I stay away from the girls, and play only with the boys, even though I always felt like an outsider around them. My feminine predisposition, they said, was a cause of shame and ridicule from my neighbors, and they made me feel so unhappy with the life I wanted to live. It soon became clear to me that this is the burden I must bear as a transwoman; this is the burden I must bear to be true to myself.
My childhood was plagued with trials and tribulations right until the final days of senior high school, in 2004. My desire to pursue a university education in University Nacional Timor-Leste (UNTL) upon graduation was impeded by my parents’ lack of finances. Subsequently, I had no other option but to sell my body to sustain my enrolment in the English and Portuguese Language courses, as well as various basic ICT courses. My two years chasing my dreams and expanding my skill-set were made possible because of my side job as a sex worker, and I have no regrets, as ultimately this led to my living freely as a transwoman!
Equipped with my education and experience, I decided to apply to teach voluntarily for a year in an elementary school, in Jalan Kampung Alor, Dili. Alas, my life of facing discrimination and stigmatization, continued. Sejario, one of my colleagues, would tease and ask me every single day, “Why do you behave like a woman? A man should act like a man. You are an embarrassment.” Yet the woman in me held on defiantly, and stoically I embraced my commitment to teach voluntarily for a full year.
Quite bizarrely, I was told that my presence as a transgender woman was bringing ill fate to my colleagues, and I was advised to withdraw from my position. I was the target of perpetual harassment. Thankfully, in 2009, I was informed by two of my fellow transgender sisters, Belinha and Tuta, that there was an opportunity available to volunteer in a non-governmental organization: Fundasaun Timor Harii (FTH). This organization focuses on spreading awareness on STIs and HIV/AIDS. I was very attracted to this opportunity because of the experiences I’ve had. With a team of twenty other transgender women and men who have sex with men (MSM) volunteers in FTH, I was able to raise awareness within a very large community here. Wherever there were transgender women and MSM, there I was, teaching them all about HIV/AIDS and all the various STIs.
Later that year I was invited to attend a workshop in Bali, Indonesia, where we were taught assessment techniques, undoubtedly an essential tool to help the transgender women and MSM community here in Timor-Leste. Upon return, I undertook assessment projects in two districts. The goal of this assessment was to ascertain the understanding of HIV/AIDS and STIs within the local transgender women and MSM community, and the efficacy of public healthcare programs in enabling access to medical care for this community. I also analyzed the stigma and discrimination faced by my LGBTQI brothers and sisters, and drafted recommendations to relevant authorities on future projects. I was very sorry to report that the mainstream community was incapable of accepting the transgender women and MSM community as part of the Timor-Leste ecosystem. And it was up to me to change that.
On 27 July, 2010, I was invited by one of the NGOs under FTH, Scarlet Timor Colectivo, to attend a meeting in Malaysia. Because I was also a member of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), I attended as a representative of transgender sex workers (TG SW) in Timor-Leste. In this meeting, we discussed the situation involving transgender sex workers in Asia, and what life in general is like for TG SWs in our respective countries. I have first-hand experience on the difficult challenges faced by TG SWs, and in the meeting, I shared my own accounts from Timor-Leste. In a nutshell, this is the situation in Timor-Leste: the number of TG SWs is relatively low compared to other countries per capita, and more often than not trans individuals hire males for sex. In fact, cisgender male sex workers are more numerous than transgender female sex workers.
On 3 December, 2012, I joined the ISEAN-Hivos Program Satellite Office in Timor-Leste (IHPSOTL). As a transgender outreach worker there, I obtained further knowledge on training using ICT-based tools; community leadership governance and mobilization; training on advocacy and networking; and behavioral change and communication (BCC) training. In 2013, I became the transgender program officer. IHPSOTL eventually evolved into Fundasaun CODIVA (Coalition for Diversity and Action), where I work today.
My time at Fundasaun CODIVA has given me many opportunities to represent and protect the transgender community. In 2014, I attended the Meeting on Transgender Health from Global Perspectives in Bangkok, Thailand; the Regional Meeting on ISEAN Trans-Specific Program in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the Trans ISEAN Regional Community Workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My commitment to the cause has kept me going this far.
I feel very proud to be doing the work that I do. and to be where I am today. I can finally live a life that is true to who I am. The immense support we, at Fundasaun CODIVA are privileged to receive from the ISEAN-Hivos Program (IHP). has enabled us to empower the transgender community here in Timor-Leste. The various activities we undertake: Beauty Brigade training, ICT training, Behavior Change Communication (BCC) training, advocacy programs and so much more, are all thanks to our friends at the IHP. My life as a transwoman feels complete, and I shall continue to, relentlessly, fight for the freedom of my transgender sisters here in Timor-Leste.
This is the story of my life. Rife with hardships, but forever strong.
Story by Romiyati