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Op-Ed

On democracy, citizenship, difference, and the advocacy of connivance

Sass Rogando Sasot responds to Atty. Bruce Rivera’s well-circulated contrarian take on the Valkyrie fracas. In an essay, Sasot presents four interrelated critiques of Rivera’s essay: 1) a critique on democracy, 2) on the question of whether transgender people are enjoying the benefits of full citi-zenship, 3) on Rivera’s rejection of an important aspect of acceptance: respect for difference, and 4) on the “advocacy of connivance that Rivera had fallen into by not challenging the frame in which Valkyrie’s no-crossdressing policy operate: the frame of cisgender norm”.

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In his well-circulated contrarian take on the Valkyrie fracas, Atty. Bruce Rivera rightfully said that cross-dressing and transgender people are entitled to all the rights and obligations granted by law because of their status as citizens. However, the problem lies not on their status as citizens but on “how we define the meaning of discrimination.” Thereafter, Rivera laid down the foundation of the rest of his contrarian view: “Is a democracy allowed to discriminate? The answer is YES. Provided there is a valid classification.“ Then he pointed out that the division of the almost 100 million population of the Republic of the Philippines into two sexes, though “a problem,” is still a “valid classification.” Therefore, the discrimination based on this division is allowed in a democratic society.

“This is the same law,” he said, “that forces a transgender to write M to the question of sex even if the heart wants to write F.” In this statement, he did not only reduce transgender people into transgender women only, he didn’t also point out why this is exactly a problem. Instead of offering this explanation, he just went on to say that Valkyrie pales in comparison to issues that he would have “taken the cudgels for,” namely: “denying a cross-dresser the right to vote; and denying a transgender the right to own property or denied the right to practice a profession.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t even include the cause of fighting for a gender recognition law, which is always implicated in almost every instance of discrimination transgender people face, including the Valkyrie issue, which Rivera reduced to an instance of “a bruised ego.” He concluded his essay by telling us that there is “only one way to be accepted” and that is “when people will see our similarities rather than our differences.”

In this essay, I will offer four interrelated critiques of Rivera’s essay. I’ve been academically trained in political philosophy; thus, I will interrogate his essay using the approach in this discipline. The first critique centers on democracy, the important actor in his statement, which Rivera didn’t define. The second on the question of whether transgender people are enjoying the benefits of full citizenship. The third one challenges Rivera’s rejection of an important aspect of acceptance: respect for difference. And finally, the fourth critique challenges the advocacy of connivance that Rivera had fallen into by not challenging the frame in which Valkyrie’s no-crossdressing policy operate: the frame of cisgender norm.

ON DEMOCRACY

Rivera didn’t give any definition and just assumed that “we all know what it means.” This taken-for-grantedness is unfortunate, specially that the central actor in his essay is a democratic society, who, as Rivera argued, is allowed to discriminate if there is a “valid classification.” So what is democracy? And how is the validity of a classification established in a democracy?

Democracy is not a legal term but a political one. Rivera lacked a political unpacking of the term that is crucial to his argument. Usually, we define democracy as the rule of the people, by the people, of the people. In On the Demos and its Kin: Nationalism, Democracy, and the Boundary Problem, Arash Abizadeh provides a more sophisticated understanding of democracy: democracy “demands that the human object of power, those persons over whom it is exercised, also be the subject of power, those who (in some sense) author its exercise.” In other words, the demos must be the author of the power they have to obey.

Classifying something, specially if it’s the State that is doing it, is an exercise of power. In a democracy, for a “classification system” to be valid, it must be authored by the demos itself. If the classification system is not authored by the demos, then the power this system holds over the demos is an arbitrary exercise of power, i.e. it doesn’t have any democratic legitimacy, thus unacceptable in a democratic society.

Gender is one of those classification systems. Gender has so much power over our lives. It shapes almost every aspect of our lives, and gender norms are enforced by the full might of the State. We are legally obliged by the State to write, recite, and perform the gender and the cultural norms associated with the state-sanctioned gender assignment we were classified into when we were born. If we disobey this gender assignment, we will be punished by the State in both direct and indirect ways.

For example, transgender people are required by the Department of Foreign Affairs to look like their gender assignment at birth in their passport photos. Maria, a Filipina trans woman in California, once shared: “When I was renewing my Philippine passport, I was asked to remove my make up and pull my hair in a pony tail because I am a “male.” This is no different from the experience of the trans woman referred to by the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) in its statement on the Valkyrie issue. “The Professional Regulation Commission or PRC’s Registry section,” STRAP narrated, “required a transwoman to tie her long hair and look less masculine before being issued a professional license.” Even in the workplace this is the case as what we can learn from the story of Claire, a labor rights leader and transgender woman, and “one of the 96 contractual employees of Tanduay Distillers Inc. in Cabuyao, Laguna who decided to launch a sudden strike after they were told on May 16 to stop reporting to work by May 18.” While working, Claire “was forced to be “mas mukhang lalaki (appear more manly)”, including getting a haircut, as well as wearing more masculine-looking clothes.”

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Following Rivera’s logic, these instances can be allowed in a democracy because they are based on “valid classification.” But the question is: does the gender classification system, as it stands, have democratic legitimacy? Is the demos the author of the power of gender over our lives? If not, then how can it be valid in a democracy and be a legitimate reason for discrimination in a democratic society? And if we live in a democracy, why should Maria and the trans woman in the PRC Case be compelled by the government to obey something that has no democratic legitimacy? Isn’t that tyranny? Can Claire’s expression of her gender identity be protected by the State? Or will the State protect and enforce more the current legal gender system, just as much as it will protect and enforce more the interests of Lucio Tan?

ON CITIZENSHIP

Rivera said that transgender people are citizens. But while encouraging us to “let our advocacy have essence,” he failed to ask this substantive and essential question: Is the citizenship of transgender people in equal terms with cisgender people, i.e. those who have gender identity and/or gender expression that matches what is expected of their gender assignment at birth? The answer is No, and this is because citizenship has been based on the reality of cisgender people.

Citizenship is often understood as membership in a political community, which is currently embodied by the State. The State decides the boundaries of citizenship, i.e. who becomes a citizen, the terms of membership – the rights and obligations of being a citizen, and the level of membership – full or subordinate. Social groups that have been previously excluded from enjoying the rights of full citizenship – Greek warriors, peasants, plebeians, medieval artisans, proletariats, blacks, women, immigrants, gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people, living with disability – have fought to make the boundaries of citizenship become more inclusive. However, these struggles are not easily won because as Engin Isin said in his essay City as a Difference: the “dominant groups…have never surrendered…without a struggle.”

In the context of this essay, the dominant group are cisgender people to which Rivera belongs.

Transgender people are seeking to redefine the social world because they cannot fully fulfil the obligations of being a citizen and exercise their rights as equal citizens if in the first place they have a subordinate form of citizenship and, most importantly, when citizenship is based on the reality of cisgender people.

The birth certificate is the legal document that establishes our existence. Through it we become legal persons, and this means that we will possess the capacity to have and to maintain certain rights, and to have duties enforceable by law. One of the important aspects of our legal personality is our sex.

Our sex is legally defined at birth. Let me digress for a moment. This article will not make any distinction between gender and sex as I don’t share the view that “sex” is a biological fact while “gender” is socially constructed. Hence, I use sex and gender interchangeably, as well as female with girl/women, and male with boy/men – but this is not to say that gender is a biological fact. Genitalia, body parts, are biological facts but the label we assign to them and the activity of assigning a particular sex/gender to these body parts are not. As what Anne Fausto-Sterling said in Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, they are social decisions based on normative views about sex/gender. More importantly, the law does not make any distinction between sex and gender. Assigning a baby’s sex is also assigning the baby’s gender. They are not separate and independent legal processes.

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Taking our external genitalia as the cue, the doctor (or whoever attended to our birth) proclaims, and hence assigns us, into either the category of “boy or girl.” This proclamation, however, is not a description of what is between our legs but an act of giving us the first aspect of our legal identity and therefore of our citizenship: sex. Along with other details such as name, date of birth, name of parents, the sex that was proclaimed by the doctor gets entered into our birth certificate. In turn, the sex on our birth certificates will be the sex that will be reflected on all our legal documents, such as our passports. It will be also be the sex that will be considered in the application of several laws, such as marriage laws.

Most people find no problem with the sex to which they were assigned during their birth. They are cisgender people whose sex assignment at birth matches their lived gender identity and/or their gender expression.

The reality of cisgender people is taken as the norm. And because cisgender people dominate every political community, the discourse of citizenship becomes entangled with the experience of cisgender people. Those who don’t share the way cisgender people experience gender are then treated as second class citizens. Thus, transgender people don’t experience citizenship in the same way as cisgender people. As what River said, transgender people are “forced” to kept on writing their gender assignment at birth despite the fact the gender that they live everyday is not that. Cisgender people, though required to also identify their birth gender, don’t experience this as “force” because the gender that they write is the gender they live everyday.

Cisgender citizens will never experience what Ria Rosales experienced when she saw her job offer evaporate after her employer saw that her documents reflect that she’s Male. Transgender people are socially marginalized and individually discriminated against because they are not living in accordance with the gender norms of their legal sex at birth, which in turn intersects with other system of oppression based on class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion etc.

What produces these patterns of discrimination based on gender identity and expression is the presence of a law that takes cisgender people’s experience of gender as the norm against which the legitimacy of our gendered experienced is judged. Cisgender citizens will never experience doors being shut to them because of their lived gender precisely because they are the ones who were closing these doors. And they don’t fear closing these doors because their exclusionary practices are backed by the full might of the State biased towards the cisgender experience of gender.

ON DIFFERENCE

“The only way to be accepted,” Rivera said, “is when people will see our similarities rather than our differences.” In one aspect I agree with Rivera. After all, the discourse of difference has legitimised the oppression of the other, which can even have a genocidal result. As what Narcisa Paredes-Canilao rhetorically asked in Decolonising the Subjects from the Discourse of Difference, “which one really led to colonialism or the Holocaust or which is a more potent antidote to (wo)man’s inhumanity to (wo)man, difference from or identification with the Other.”

However, it is not the recognition of difference per se that lead us to inflict indignity upon each other, but the way we value difference. If cisgender people, who dominate society, interpret their version of being human as exceptional, God’s chosen way of living, the only legitimate way of experiencing gender, they are not just recognizing difference but putting their difference on a pedestal, in the throne of power that can police others into becoming like them.

In Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship, Iris Marion Young discussed the failure of universal citizenship in treating each citizens as equals. Instead of delivering its promise of equality to all qua citizens, citizenship “operated in fact as demand for homogeneity.” The terms of similarity, Young argued, is set by the dominant group. Thus, seeing our similarities is not innocent activities but can be a way of imposing the way of living of the dominant group.

We must use both the lens of similarity and difference in order to see another human in her totality. More significantly, we must use both lenses in order to see how the lens of difference can make us see another person as inferior and how the lens of similarity lead us to reject the validity of another person’s version of humanity. The danger of a cisgender person seeing only a transgender person as similar to him/her is the inability to see how the State-sanctioned cisgender norm has rendered transgender people as not only different but inferior, illegitimate, and immoral. And a cisgender person who only sees a transgender person as different would be blind to the common humanity that binds them together.

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ON THE ADVOCACY OF CONNIVANCE

Who has the right to decide our own gender, and therefore the way of expressing? This is at the heart of the Valkyrie issue and all instances of gender identity and expression based discrimination.

This is left unaddressed by Rivera who only assumed the validity of the current gender classification system, which lead him to conclude that discrimination based on it can be allowed. Earlier, I put into question the validity of the current gender classification system in our democracy because, in the first place, this was never democratically legitimated. Further, it’s a gender classification system that rendered the cisgender experience of gender as the only State-sanctioned experience of gender, and therefore the only gendered experience that have full access to the protection of the State. Consequently, transgender people, despite sharing the same formal citizenship as cisgender people, have to fight rather than simply request for this access.

By not challenging the very framework of cisgender norms, Rivera missed the opportunity of making the kind of advocacy he is forwarding fully relevant to the lives of transgender people. His advocacy is an advocacy of connivance. Borrowing the concept of trial of connivance that Jacques Vergés developed, an advocacy of connivance is an advocacy that seeks merely to evaluate the facts in relation to the existing framework. This is what Rivera did when he merely recited the law in relation to the facts of the Valkyrie issue and when he reduced the Valkyrie issue as merely an issue of a “bruised ego.” He accepted the cisgender framework and called it a day.

Rivera cannot see the issue beyond “a bruised ego” because it wasn’t his version of humanity that was put into question. He said that there are a lot of straight people who can’t enter the stores we’ve entered into because they don’t have money, a lot who can’t eat because they were poor. This is a valid point but the issue is not about class but the intersection of class AND gender. Not all impoverished people experience poverty in the same way. A poor cisgender man would have a higher chance of finding a job than a poor transgender woman. Claire’s cisgender co-workers don’t have to experience being forced to be masculine at the workplace in pain of losing their job. And even rich people don’t experience privilege equally. This was aptly demonstrated by the experience of Trixie and Veejay. Rivera can’t see this intersection because he has not problematized the cisgender framework of our everyday lives but simply considered it as “valid classification.”

He said that we must find an issue that can make “the common man… relate and symphatize.” When Laude was murdered, we have witnessed how vicious and transphobic the “common man” was. In order for the common man to relate and symphatize, Laude’s being transgender had to be swallowed by her identity as a Filipino. But when we highlight Laude’s transgender status, the common man, instead of relating and sympathizing, responded with a whole range of cruel, transphobic “blame-the-victim” tactics. Why? It’s because the common man is a cisgender person who has taken-for-granted the privileges he/she have by simply having a gender identity and/or gender expression aligned with his/her gender assignment at birth.

Trans advocates, including those Rivera condescendingly looked down upon, are revolting against the dictatorship of the State-sanctioned cisgender framework. They are engaging in an advocacy of rupture, an advocacy that seeks to challenge the very framework, in this case the cisgender framework, within which facts would be interpreted. Valkyrie didn’t simply make a business decision. Valkyrie is enforcing the State-sanctioned cisgender norm, which has been the source of oppression of a lot of people whose gendered lives don’t fit the cisgender experience of gender. Trans advocates are not just making noises, they are reclaiming the right to define our own gender from the state, the church, the medical profession, and even from private establishments like Valkyrie.

#BeyondValkyrie

Since 2001, as she was about to turn 19, Sass has dedicated herself to the LGBT Rights movement in the Philippines, most specifically to issues of gender identity and freedom of gender expression. James Green, an international transgender rights activist, served as her mentor via email. She started giving discussions on transgender rights and issues in Luneta Park in Manila. In December 2002, she co-founded the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). In 2003 & 2004, together with Drs Sam Winter and Mark King of the University of Hong Kong, she did the first comprehensive study on transgender women in the Philippines. The study has been published in the International Journal of Transgenderism. In 2009, she was one of the LGBT activists invited to speak in a historic United Nations General Assembly side-event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. In 2013, she received the ECHO Award, given annually to excellent and promising migrant students in the Netherlands. In 2014, she received the Harry Benjamin Distinguished Education and Advocacy Award from the World Profession Association for Transgender Health. A nomadic spirit, Sass loves to write, walk, read, cycle, and cook. Together with the love of her life, Sass is currently based in The Hague, The Netherlands. She graduated with a Combined major in World Politics & Global Justice, minor in International Development (Magna cum Laude) at Leiden University College, which bestowed her the 2014 Global Citizenship Award. She is a contributing writer on TG issues for the mag, through The Activist. Sass.Rogando.Sasot@outragemag.com

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Literary Pieces

I Am Here

Have you ever been “lost” in a labyrinthine gay bathhouse? Here’s a poetic glimpse at its nerve-wracking – yet intoxicating – appeal.

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Photo by Toa Heftiba from Unsplash.com

I stood there in front of that door for God knows how long. Staring at that small sign that says “Pull”, I felt my heart pounding as I fumbled for my wallet in that harshly lit alley in downtown Tokyo. I knew I shouldn’t be there, which explains the hesitation, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk away. This is a mistake; I mutter under my breath, it’s been too long-much too long.

It’s getting cold. This is ridiculous. Go in or go back to the hotel.

I reach out, and all of a sudden the door opens. Out pops an old man in a greatcoat, about 60 years old, his hat pulled down low on his brow, with flushed cheeks and brandishing a briefcase. He takes one cursory look at me as he brushes past me and starts to shuffle towards the train station down the block. I could hear a man’s voice coming from inside, gruff and clipped. I don’t speak Japanese, so I feel this sudden (though not thoroughly unfounded) jolt of guilt that I was wasting their heat since I stood there holding the door open like a frozen doorman. I quickly found myself inside.

There they stood, peering at me. These two men, one significantly older than the other, stood there and bowed. The younger of the two smiled, revealing a toothy grin. “American?”

I shook my head, no. “No, no, Filipino.”

“Ah! Filipino! Welcome, welcome.” He put out a cup of steaming barley tea and motioned me to drink. I cupped it between my hands to warm them and breathed in the nutty aroma wafting from the small ceramic cup. “Manila?” He asks. “Yes.” My voice was tightening in my throat. “How much?”. He smiles again and points to the ticket machine off to the side of the door. The machine had a laminated sign on it that says ¥2,800. He went over and took the money I fished out of my wallet and fed it to the machine. It spits out a ticket, and he hands me my locker key on those elastic bands not unlike the vintage phone cords I played with when I was younger. I slip it on my wrist, and follow him as he led me past the split curtain and into the locker room.

***

Photo by John Baker from Unsplash.com

I open my eyes. It is pitch black.

My eyes slowly start to adjust to the darkness and slowly, shapes begin to form around me. Undulating bodies, slick with sweat, they writhed under my touch. In this surreal landscape, I could feel my mind slowly melt away, along with the stress built up on the knotted muscles on my back.

I feel it, the hot breath on the back of my neck as I slowly rise from where I lay my head, rising from the warmth of some faceless chest that served as my pillow for the past half hour, as the rest of the room pulsed with lust. I felt two strong hands suddenly grip my arms as I steadied myself to stand.

“Wait. We’re not done.”

“I need to freshen up, aniki, and I need a smoke.” I watch as Touma stands up, his muscular bulk slowly rising from the floor. I feel him approach and pull me into a deep, long bear hug. “Don’t take too long. I might not find you again.” He growled into my ear. “You are mine tonight.”. I feel him stiffening against the inside my thigh, and I knew he wouldn’t last too long, with or without me. I noisily breathed in the smell of his musk, kissed his neck, and he lets me go.

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I wind my way out of the maze of corridors lined with men of all shapes and sizes, obscured by the dark. I can feel their eyes on me as I brush past them, their hands “accidentally” brushing against my body. I feel the cold draft coming from the shower area, and I close my eyes against the light that greets me as I open the door.

***

I opened up my locker and started to undress, the guy from reception looks on as I peeled off the winter gear I had on. The guy from reception steals glances at my little awkward striptease. I ask him if I need to be totally naked.

“Yes. Or underwear.”

I stop pulling down my boxers, and I start to close my locker. He says something in Japanese again, and holds up a strip of fabric. A fundoshi. Oh no. I slowly removed my boxers, and neatly folded them. I placed them inside the locker and closed it, I stood there and reached for the fundoshi, and he smiled.

“After bath.”

Of course. This is becoming more and more embarrassing as each moment passes. He hands me a small washcloth and goes back through the door to the reception area. I stood there for a moment, looking at the calligraphy scrolls that adorn the walls of the space. I slowly make my way towards the long corridor where I could hear the faint sound of water. I wonder where all the people were.

I enter one of the shower stalls and begin to wash off the stench of the city.

***

I settle down in one of the hot tubs, my washcloth folded neatly on my head. I relish the feeling of being almost lulled to sleep by the gentle rippling of the water, and the almost iridescent heat of the stone tiles on my skin.

Why do I do this to myself?

I breathe in the heady mix of steam and jasmine. I am getting much too old for this. I know. I’ve seen the looks the younger ones give me. How they see the wrinkles that have appeared almost overnight. Not that I care much. I have always been very cavalier about my appearance, even when I was younger. Partly because I have always been unhappy with how I looked. Only later was I able to think of my features as mildly attractive to others.

The door opens and he stood there, staring. I see a hint of surprise and a slight pink flush to his cheeks, and a towel in his hand. I smile slightly, completely unaware of what my face was doing. He takes it as a positive sign. He walks towards me slowly, his body well-proportioned and well put together. He had a sexy, compact and stocky build, with thick arms and calves that are covered by coarse hair. I move to make room as he steps into the tub and sits across from me.

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I took the time to study his face: Those eyes that seemed to me so full of curiosity, as if they were drinking everything in. That thick beard that came away from the sides of his face, filled with crystal droplets that dripped down to his chin and fell one by one into the tub. I could see the swirling patterns of the hair on his back and shoulders. I see him looking at me.

He can’t resist. He can’t fight it.

***

Photo by Jakob Owens from Unsplash.com

He stood up, the water washing down his lithe body making it gleam under the soft lights of the bath. He gracefully steps out of the tub, and I can’t help but look at him in awe. He takes a towel from a small squat table and proceeds to dry himself off. I don’t know if it was the heat, or the heavy scent of flowers that pervaded the room, or just a deep longing that I feel at the pit of my stomach, but I can’t help but watch transfixed as he seemed to move in slow-motion.

He walks back towards the tub, and he sits on the edge. His hand reaches down and runs his fingers through my beard, and traces the outline of my jaw. I smell the subtle scent of vetiver on his wrist as he does this. I feel my anxiety start to subside in my gut as this gorgeous stranger continues to trace his fingers around my face, across my brow, down my nose, and against the side of my neck where my pulse was racing. I closed my eyes in delight.

“Izumi.”

“Anton.”

I feel his hands move to the back of my neck, gently feeling the tense muscles he found there, and moving his fingertips in small circles. I don’t think he speaks English. With my luck, he probably doesn’t. But as it always happens, right now is not the time for words. I got up from the tub and step out. He got another towel from the table and began to slowly dry me off, taking his time with fascinating precision. After he dried my legs, he lets the towel drop to the floor.

There we stood.

He says nothing. Just looks at me with a perfectly still, handsome, inscrutable face. I feel his hand in mine and he silently leads me into the void.

***

I see nothing. I don’t need to.

My hearing picks up where my vision left off, and I hear the soft padding of his feet behind me as I move further into the maze. I sense the other people hiding in corners, their eyes moving faster than their bodies, as they watch him with either hunger or cold, dispassionate ambivalence. I find a little empty corner just as my eyes begin to get used to this twilight world once more. I push him against the wall and look at him.

Handsome. Within and without light.

I feel his forearms, my fingertips lightly brushing against the strands of hair, until I reach his broad shoulders. His averted and while it may first seem impossible to explain, I feel the heat of his blush. I lean in and kiss him on the lips, a number of small tentative kisses that lead to longer, deeper ones. He was hesitant at first, but he began to return the kisses, gripping my arms tight and pulling me closer to him: obliterating what little distance there was between us. He spins me around and pins my hands above my head on the wall with an audible smack that the people around us turned towards us. He’s strong, I think to myself, I fight back somewhat but he persists.

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His hands felt soft against my skin, and they burned with warmth that surprised me.

Why do I do this to myself?

My mind snaps back to here. I feel his chest under my palms as he busied himself under me. I feel the fur under my fingers like I was riding a wild beast. This emptiness inside me is lost in the thrum of excitement I feel deep in my belly: the same soft thrum that slowly sets my mind adrift, makes my body convulse, and makes me feel as if my joints have come apart like wax.

***

Photo by Rene Böhmer from Unsplash.com

I open my eyes.

“Tea?”

The guy from reception smiled as he offers me another cup of barley tea. I look over to the other end of the room where a huge guy was sitting, dozing off. I check my watch and realize that I would need to take a cab back to the hotel. I never noticed the first time I walked in, how graceful the small stone garden was, and how intricately carved the big stone lion was on the entryway. I picked at my fingernails nervously as I waited for him to come out.

He comes out of the locker room into the reception area, his hair slicked back, and dressed in a wrinkled shirt and a slim tie. He returns his locker key to the reception desk. He looks at me, and smiles.

“Izumi?”

I see the big guy get up and start gathering his things. He looks at me, and gives a slight, almost imperceptible bow and put on his coat and hat. He looks back at Izumi and motions for him to follow, saying something in Japanese before heading into the street. I look back at Izumi, and he smiles. He gives a little bow, and opens the door to follow the man outside.

I stood there for what seemed like forever. Quite unsure what to think or feel. I smell the light scent of vetiver left hanging in the air.

“How do you like?”

I like him very much.

The guy from reception grinned at me from behind the desk. I come over to return the locker key. Everything is great, I said. He puts back the key on the hook, and thanks me again, looking at me with those knowing, but soft, brown eyes. He gives a bow and asks me to come again. I put on my coat and after one last sniff of that perfume, I step out into the brisk cold of a clear winter night.

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From the Editor

3 Terms you need to know in HIV advocacy in the Philippines

HIV advocacy in the Philippines has evolved – and in many ways, devolved – to highlight erroneous practices. Here are at least three terms in use locally that highlight how BROKEN HIV advocacy is in the Philippines.

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Photo by Samantha Sophia from Unsplash.com

I was in Northern Mindanao when I first heard of a term used to refer to a service “provider” who – in a word (and there really is no going around this) – ALLEGEDLY “molested” masseurs who had to be tested for HIV as required by their line of work.

When interviewed, some of these masseurs alleged that a certain medical practitioner who – during testing – would “dulaan ang among itlog ug utin (fondle our testicles and our penises).” And then – as if to show them who’s the boss – “mu-ngisi pa jud siya, unya mu-schedule sa uban sa amo-a ug booking (this person would smirk at us, and would even schedule trysts with some of us).”

That was the first time I heard of a term that is apparently used to refer to people like this person: “advoKATI”, a play on “advocacy” and “makati (literally, itchy; and contextually, a slut)”, because they supposedly use advocacy as a cover for their itch/desire to pick up or sleep around.

Through the years, other terms being used related to HIV advocacy also came to my attention. And here are at least three of them; all of them highlighting how BROKEN HIV advocacy is in the Philippines.

***

1. advoKATI
n. Refers to a person who uses the advocacy as a front to get sexual partners.

The medical practitioner mentioned above is an example; though – by no means – is his case unique. Other examples include: giving (donated) vacc in exchange for sex with a PLHIV; providing after-testing services only to good-looking newly-diagnosed persons with HIV, while the not-so-good-looking are left to fend for themselves; and “counselors” using the confused state of mind of newly-diagnosed PLHIVs to sleep with them.

2. advoCASHy
n. Profiting from HIV advocacy; or people who profit from the same.

Let’s get this straight: Profiting from HIV is not exactly new; nor is this exclusive to the Philippines.

Globally – and perhaps even more apparent – is the profiteering done by pharma companies that produce the life-saving ARVs for PLHIVs. There is also the issue with accessing “good” drugs by developed countries (e.g. PrEP) versus “dumping” of those not already used by the developed countries in the poorer countries (e.g. phase out of Nevirapine and Efavirenz).

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Perhaps Peter Mugyenyi said it best when he tackled in “Genocide by Denial: How Profiteering from HIV/AIDS Killed Millions” the “incredible self-indulgence of the pharmaceutical companies and the cold-heartedness of the rich world that turned a blind eye until it was far too late, and then responded too slowly with too little.”

Now not just the big “bodies”, but even the other players in responding to HIV are mimicking this. And yes, this includes HIV “advocacy” in the Philippines, which is emulating this, too.

Here, we continue hearing that “there is no money in advocacy”, much more for those affected by HIV. This is supposedly why it’s difficult accessing existing treatment, care and support (TCS) – because, as always stressed – “there just isn’t enough money to go around”.

And then you hear about HIV “advocates” who can afford to buy numerous stuff (from a number of cars to a number of properties to luxury items to high-end gadgets to getting cosmetic surgery, and so on) from their “small” salary as NGO workers.

Or “advocates” who have drivers. WITH UNIFORM.

Or “advocates” who can tour the world using only their “meager” earnings from their “small” salary.

This is NOT to begrudge people their salaries.

BUT when you couple these with:

  • Inability of newly-diagnosed PLHIVs to go to treatment hubs because they don’t have money to pay for their fare.
  • Complaints from PLHIVs about inability to access to treatment because they can’t pay PhilHealth.
  • Non-access to other meds for opportunistic infections (or the need to beg the likes of DSWD or PCSO to fund these meds).

I am starting to sound like a “sirang plaka (broken record)”, repeatedly writing about issues I’ve already written about.

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BUT there’s this disconnect that is too painful to just ignore.

All because there are “advocates” who see HIV as a cash cow.

3. advoKATKAT
v. The use of HIV advocacy for social climbing. “Katkat” is a Bisayan word meaning “to climb”. This is often related to advoCASHy as it emphasizes only the glam in “helping” even sans the actual helping.

There are NGOs paying PR firms to promote HIV “advocacy”. Ask them how many people got tested because of the “campaigns”, and they’d tell you: Our indicator is the number of Facebook likes. “Likes” derived from the money paid to celebs, bars, photographers/videographers, alcohol consumed, et cetera. Partying in the guise of advocating.

There’s an “award” for people who “helped” HIV advocacy in the Philippines – even if grassroots HIV workers question the “winners” (e.g. who these people are, how they were chosen, what they’ve really done for the HIV community). What’s seemingly important is the hype created; particularly since celebs “joined” the “cause”. More photo ops mean more exposure means more (possible) funds.

There’s the funding of a photo campaign because the one disbursing the fund are “models” in the campaign, themselves.

There’s a well-funded beauty pageant even if we have (often denied) ARV shortage (not to mention hubs that still do not offer all tests included in the OHAT package, from CD4 count to viral load count).

As already noted in the past, there’s this focus on the glam/social climbing (e.g. get celebs to promote testing), perhaps forgetting that real advocacy goes beyond that.

Too much focus on the glitzy fibs, less emphasis on the grimy truth

And so here we are now, with 31 new HIV cases reported every month in the Philippines. Ten years ago, we only had one case EVERY DAY.

We are fucked. But we’re not only fucked because of lack of sex education, non-promotion of condom use, antiquated practices (e.g. we have yet to teach U=U in the country, or make PrEP and PEP widely accessible), and so on.

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We’re also in deep shit because the people who should be serving us want us to be there so they can benefit from it.

This is the new(er) world of “advocacy”…

It’s called advoCASHy to promote advoKATI and advoKATKAT.

***

Back in Northern Mindanao, I asked those who alleged to have been victimized if they complained – officially.

I was told: “Na, kinsa ra ba mi (Yeah, right! Who do we think we are)? Kolboy kontra sa medical practitioner, paminawun ba mi (Sex workers versus a medical practitioner, who would listen to us)?”

Despite recognizing power structures and all that, I admit I still initially found the “excuse” inexcusable. Lodging a complaint against an abusive service “provider” seems like a good first step to remedy this situation. Letting things as they are only allows the erroneous system to continue.

And then – much later – the person they alleged did them harm formed a new NGO, and this NGO was funded by a bigger NGO based in Metro Manila. I mentioned the allegations to one of the heads of the Metro Manila-based NGO, hoping – perhaps – for them to closely look at the allegations since, and after all, they were “enabling” the person involved by funding this person.

Let me get this straight: These are all allegations, of course, and they need to be investigated to be validated/invalidated. Everyone involved ought to be heard – from those who accused, and the accused. But that they exist at all should already be cause for concern.

Alas, the allegations were ignored.

So this “provider” continues to be coddled – and enabled – so long as this person’s NGO churns out reports that the bigger NGO can use to get even more big bucks.

All too apparent, people choose to turn the blind eye so long as money keeps flowing in…

No wonder HIV advocacy is in the Philippines remains broken…

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Op-Ed

Reconsidering Kofi Annan’s AIDS legacy

At the turn of the century, AIDS denialism was at its peak. Kofi Annan helped to break it. Here, Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, pays tribute to the former UN head.

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By Michel Sidibé
UNAIDS Executive Director

A shining light of Africa has passed away. An African at heart, but a global citizen, Kofi Annan symbolized the best of humanity. He was a rabble-rouser, a troubleshooter and a change-maker.

At the turn of the century, AIDS denialism was at its peak. Mr Annan helped to break it. “More people have died of AIDS in the past year in Africa than in all the wars on the continent. AIDS is a major crisis for the continent, governments have got to do something. We must end the conspiracy of silence, the shame over this issue,” he said.

When Mr Annan began his term as the new United Nations Secretary-General in 1997, the outlook for the AIDS epidemic was bleak—some 23.9 million people were living with HIV, there were 3.5 million new HIV infections and access to life-saving treatment was only available to a privileged few.

He cajoled world leaders, humbly, diplomatically, and when the message did not sink in he spoke out publicly and forcefully. “Friends, we know what it takes to turn the tide against this epidemic. It requires every president and prime minister, every parliamentarian and politician, to decide and declare that “AIDS stops with me. AIDS stops with me,”” he said.

Under his leadership, in 2000 the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1308, identifying AIDS as a threat to global security. In 2001, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS was held—the first-ever meeting of world leaders on a health issue at the United Nations.

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In 2000, at a time when less than US$ 1 billion was being invested in the AIDS response, he called for a war chest of at least US$ 7–10 billion for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. That call, and his concerted lobbying of world leaders, led to the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which went on to save millions of lives. Mr Annan remained a patron of the Global Fund, helping to ensure that it is fully funded.

The Millennium Development Goal of halting and reversing the spread of AIDS and the 2001 United Nations Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS set HIV prevention targets, but did not set concrete targets for access to treatment. At the time, the cost of antiretroviral medicines was astronomically high. Sitting down with the pharmaceutical industry, Mr Annan helped to pave the way for an eventual reduction in their prices. Who could have believed in 2001 that the cost of life-saving antiretroviral medicines would fall by 2018 to as low as US$ 60 per person per year. Today, some 21 million people are on HIV treatment.

Mr Annan deftly used his convening power for good. When he learned that less than 30% of people had knowledge of HIV, he brought together media leaders and helped to launch the Global Media AIDS Initiative. As a result, hundreds of hours of AIDS awareness programmes were run pro bono by public and private media companies around the world. Mr Annan even appeared with an HIV-positive Sesame Street character, helping to reduce stigma and discrimination against children affected by HIV.

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His heart was with people affected by HIV. He saw first-hand the realities of the HIV epidemic. He knew that real change came when women and girls were empowered. “It requires real, positive change that will give more power and confidence to women and girls and transform relations between women and men at all levels of society,” he said. “It requires greater resources for women, better laws for women and more seats for women at the decision-making table. It requires all of you to make the fight against AIDS your personal priority not only this session, or this year, or next year, but every year until the epidemic is reversed.”

He embraced diversity. He was vocal about the rights of sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who use drugs and transgender people. “We need to be able to protect the most vulnerable, and if we are here to try and end the epidemic and fight the epidemic, we will not succeed by putting our head in the sand and pretending that these people do not exist or that they do not need help,” he said. “We need to help them and we need to resist any attempt to prevent us from recognizing the need for action and assistance to these people.”

Mr Annan had a special place in his heart for UNAIDS. He made time for us, kept informed about the progress made in the AIDS response and donated the royalties from a book of his speeches, We the peoples: a UN for the twenty-first century, to UNAIDS. Four weeks ago, when I met with him for lunch, he expressed happiness over how far we had come but was equally concerned that the response was not keeping pace with the ambition we had set.

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Two decades ago, he characterized the impact of AIDS as the single greatest reversal in the history of human development, the greatest challenge of our generation. I recall his words as he accepted the UNAIDS Leadership Award in 2016. “Today, we see tremendous progress, but the fight is not over. We must continue the struggle and wake up each morning ready to fight and fight again, until we win.”

At UNAIDS, we promise that we will not rest until the AIDS epidemic has ended. We owe it to him.

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From the Editor

On doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result…

The anti-discrimination bill has been pending in Congress for 19 years now. There are anti-LGBTQI politicians hindering the bill’s passage; but it may also be time to REALISTICALLY look at the current handling of the ADB to ascertain what needs to be changed from within the LGBTQI community so we don’t wait for another 19 (or more) years…

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Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos from Unsplash.com

Insanity: Doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.

This witticism has been attributed to, among others, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain (though when Rita Mae Brown used it, she attributed it to the Narcotics Anonymous “Basic Text” released in November 1981). But no matter the “origin”, the thought remains – i.e. it’s silly (perhaps even idiotic) doing the same thing over and over and over again when we already know what the result will be.

This thought kept nagging at me in the way the anti-discrimination bill (ADB) is being handled – particularly why, after 19 years, it continues to languish in Congress (in either the Lower or Upper House, or in both – depending on the year being discussed).

Let’s state the “givens” first.

1. There will always be haters IN Congress.
In the past, in the House of Representatives, it was Rep. Bienvenido Abante (6th District, Manila City) who – this one is the most ironic of all – chaired the Committee on Human Rights; as well as the likes of Rep. Lito Atienza (of Buhay Partylist). Currently, and in the Senate, we have the likes of Sens. Tito Sotto, Manny Pacquiao and Joel Villanueva.

2. Numerous politicians use the LGBTQI community to advance personal interests.
For instance, Sotto’s “Eat Bulaga” earns a lot of money by parading members of the population he refuses to grant human rights (i.e. Super SiReyna and Suffer SiReyna). And Villanueva USED TO support LGBTQI human rights, back when he needed the votes; but when he already got that, the narrative changed…

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3. The haters can be “persuaded” to side with what’s right.
Even the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (somewhat) changed it’s tune: it is now anti-discrimination of LGBTQI human rights (as long as it will still be able to discriminate, of course).
Some forms of “persuasion” can be harder/harsher – e.g. take the moolah away from Pacquiao, and he starts “reaching out” to the people he considered “masahol pa sa hayop (worse than animals)”. Some efforts are done behind closed doors – e.g. trans Rep. Geraldine Roman reaching out to Atienza to allay his fears that the SOGIE Equality Bill has nothing to do with marriage equality (and discuss the “toilet issue”), so that he ended up supporting this.

Now here’s where the “argument” of this article enters the picture.

Largely, it seems that the current approaches to promote the ADB (seem to just) continue to be the same.

And so we continue to be failing.

Consider these:

1. The ADB development continues to be “exclusive”.
Even when the ADB was comprehensive and mentioned other minority sectors (like PWDs, seniors, Indigenous Peoples, religious minorities, people living with HIV, et cetera), no representatives of these sectors were invited in the development of the same ADB.
Forgive me for saying this, but this is typical of a “top-to-bottom” effort – i.e. when someone basically dictates what’s good for… everyone (without hearing from the supposed beneficiaries).

2. The constant “othering”. And this happens outside and inside the LGBTQI community.
“They” are the “enemies”; only “we” are the “heroes” (there were even pro-ADB factions who wanted to discredit Roman who helped pass the ADB in the Lower House in 2017 after only a year).
“They” don’t know what’s good for the people; only “we” know better what’s good for them.
“We” don’t have to engage “others”; “they” do nothing but complain and complicate the ADB.
“We” can’t support any other form of ADB; we just want “our” version to pass.
This is “our” ADB because we’ve backed this for so long.

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3. Efforts related to ADB tend to be elitist.
The “handlers” of ADB continue to not see that – yes – online presence is good, but if the people supposed to benefit from it do not even know of it, of what good it could do to them, then the “noise” created is just that, exactly: noise.
I say: Try going to some beauty parlor in Valenzuela, or Quiapo, or Tondo, or… just about everywhere in the Philippines. Ask the parlorista if he or she knows of the ADB. If he or she does, that’s GREAT; but if he or she doesn’t, then reconfigure plans to make sure that these people know of it.
I remember during the Pacquiao debacle, when Luzon-centric activists/“activists” were flown to Mindanao to meet with the boxer. The local LGBTQI community there were – basically – ignored, treated as inconsequential to the cause they’re supposed to be part of.

4. We can’t show the numbers.
Last June, “we” were so proud to have held a “Pride” event in Marikina that was attended by approximately 25,000 people (the claim).

Metro Manila’s LGBT gathering breaks attendance records, highlights ubiquity of LGBT people if not causes

But – get this – when a “unified political rally” was held to push for the ADB, we couldn’t even get 1/4 (or even 1/8!) of that number. And then another more recent “rally” was held in the Senate, again to push for the ADB, and the attendees did not even reach 50. We’re not “25,000 strong”; instead, it seems, and in a few words, we are “25,000 weak”.

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One of the continuing “sore” issue re ADB is its association with marriage equality. The truth is, many people – including politicians – continue to think it advocates marriage equality. If – after 19 years! – the ADB continues to be misunderstood even by people who are supposed to have access to copies of the ADB, then – let’s admit this much – the messaging is failing…

Nineteen years is far too long a time to wait for the passage of a law that will protect us from discrimination because of our SOGIE.

So yes, we thank everyone – from Etta Rosales to Kaka Bag-ao to Roman to Sen. Rosa Hontiveros, and so on and so forth – who are pushing the ADB (no matter the version) in Congress.

But we also have to REALISTICALLY look at ourselves (and those handling the ADB) and check why we continue to fail. Again, we have “enemies” on the outside, yes. But unless we see (and admit, and start doing something about it) that some of what needs to be changed are from within the LGBTQI community, then we may have to wait for another 19 (or more) years…

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From the Editor

Start with that wo/man in the mirror…

With revisionism, credit-hogging, co-opting/hijacking of causes, et cetera happening even within the LGBTQIA community, Michael David C. Tan says “we need to look at ourselves closely and see if we have become the very people/systems we seek out to destroy/dismantle.”

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PHOTO BY TWEETYSPICS FROM PIXABAY.COM

“…I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love
It’s time that I realize
That there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan
Could it be really me, pretending that they’re not alone?

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change…

MICHAEL JACKSON
Man in the Mirror, 2008

This is going to be short; and yet I hope… crisp.

But – to start – considering Michael Jackson’s tattered past, let me apologize for starting this article with portions from his “Man in the Mirror” hit. Not to lift him up (he doesn’t need me for that) or attack him for his flaws (and he sure had many – e.g. child molestation charges), but his words sort of easily sum up a key message so many of us want to forget. That is, that for change to happen, we need to start with us. It’s a hackneyed statement/cliché, I know; but – guess what? – the stock statement has not gone stale.

Here’s the thing: So many of the (now out-to-the-world) flaws from within the LGBTQIA community merely reflect what we sought out to change. And so many of these same flaws are there because of our refusal to see that, in so many ways, we have become mini versions (some are actually exact replicas) of those we attack.

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Off my head, check:

1. Revisionism.
Yes, LGBTQIA people (like non-LGBTQIA people) claim that the Marcoses – and by extent, the role played by the likes of Pres. Rodrigo Roa Duterte here – seem to be busy amending our Martial Law history. By all means, we should be mindful of all forms of revisionism; we should not forget our past (the good and the bad) because we can only move forward if we know our history.
But – this is what’s unnerving! – there are also LGBTQIA community members (many of them the most loud in criticizing the revisionism that is happening) who are revising the LGBTQIA history in the Philippines – e.g. who should be credited for starting “Pride”, who we should thank/adore/praise/treat as gods for starting (not even for getting pass) an anti-discrimination law, et cetera. When we criticize what we, ourselves, are doing, that’s called (in a word) hypocrisy.

2. Dictatorship.
We go back to former strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos; and we now have Pres. Duterte, both we attack for their (what we refer to as) “wanton desire to cling on to power”. Rightfully, it should be said.
But then we look inside our LGBTQIA community, and we have:
A) Metro Manila-centric “leaders” who would go to LGUs to ask/dictate/tell them to develop ADOs sans community consultation of the LGBTQIA people there;
B) So-called “networks of LGBTQIA organizations” with “leaders” who are there as forever heads (with no mechanisms for passing of power); and
C) “Leaders” who help dictate where funds go, and yet only give the same to their inner circles.

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3. Idya-idya/Sila-sila/Nepotism/Special groups.
That the supporters (no matter how evil they may be) end up dividing the spoils of war is an oft-cited observation. In the past, the term we used was “cronies”. The terms may have changed, but the concept remains the same – i.e. that a small circle of people end up benefiting from those in power.
Yes, this is wrong; and yes, this has to be criticized (and changed).
But looking inside the LGBTQIA community, it’s not like we’re “exempted” from this practice.
Consider:
A) The non-inclusive approach to developing the anti-discrimination bill (ADB) (I have said this in the past, and I am saying it again and again and again);
B) As noted in point #2, the giving of available funds ONLY to inner circles; and
C) The continuing Metro Manila-centric-controlled discourse re “LGBTQIA movement in the Philippines” (there are those who’d deny this, of course; that’s their right. But that these same people are based in Metro Manila or are even overseas bely their very denial).

We often hear – as reasoning or as excuse, depending on how this is interpreted – that it’s because our LGBTQIA movement is “still young” And yes, this may be true. But the fact remains that when we’re no better than the very people we attack; when the systems we say are wrong/erroneous are the same inside our movement, then who are we kidding, really?

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Op-Ed

Where’s the fire?

Reighben Labilles notes that the movement has only succeeded on a surface level. “It seems as if its reduced the queer struggle as a regular yearly narrative – a PR thematic during Pride Month, or something that resurfaces when a famous Pinoy queer couple gets married abroad, or when a queer Filipino becomes a victim of a violent crime… It’s time to go beyond the echo chambers of FB and Twitter.”

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By Reighben Labilles

When the rocks were soft and I had more hair, I used to be active in the local efforts for LGBT rights.  But shit happens and I had to move on.

I’ve led a colorful adulthood since then: balancing work in a very queer-friendly IMC firm, enjoying a quiet, private life with my partner, and participating in the testosterone-dominated MTG gaming community which I deeply love. In short: this lady hasn’t been fulfilling her role (no matter how small) as a civilian participant in social issues – hanggang FB-FB na lang and the occasional rally pagpasok sa schedule.

But it did allow me insights into the shared Filipino psyche when dealing with social issues. It can be summed-up into two observations: (1) people don’t care enough; and (2) people don’t know how to care for issues that don’t directly affect them.

Now this leads to my opinion on the state of progressive movements in the country. Given the public’s almost apathetic attitude towards dealing with society’s problems outside of furious FB and Twitter posts – movements struggle to make a dent in the status quo. When the population barely participates in these efforts, it cannot facilitate lasting change in the nation within the timeframes we need – which is dapat now na.

Case in point: this administration reacts when people have adverse online responses to their policies – but they still find ways to move forward with their plans because push-back from the citizenry isn’t strong enough. What’s even shocking is that there is a non-zero percentage of the population that actually likes what’s happening!

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In my opinion, these are the same harsh truths faced by groups that continued the fight for queer rights. They have rallies, online and offline campaigns, press events, and even the occasional nods from “allies” in the government. But the groups, in their various forms and iterations and evolutions, have been at this endeavor for decades now. So why is it we don’t have major victories in the pursuit of progressive changes in the country?

Years of reflection and observation have led me to this realization: The movement has only succeeded on a surface level. It seems as if its reduced the queer struggle as a regular yearly narrative – a PR thematic during Pride Month, or something that resurfaces when a famous Pinoy queer couple gets married abroad, or heaven forbid when a queer Filipino becomes a victim of a violent crime. The approach so far has its benefits, as it has encouraged more Filipinos to come out and pursue their own truths despite adversities. There is more queer visibility in the media. And we even live in an age where we have a proud transwoman serving in Congress.

But there is something I sorely miss. Something that I am guilty of no longer possessing. Gone is the fire and fury of old, of screaming at the wholesale injustices of the world against everyone from the poor to the queer. Where is that blaze that consumes people’s hearts – the passion that drives us to spill into streets until the elect gives us the rights and benefits and opportunities we all deserve. And finally, where is the push for greater compassion and understanding between all Filipinos – so we can make the most out of this struggling country.

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As I am far removed from the forces that actively continue the fight for our rights, I can offer no practical solution to what we face. I only offer these thoughts: We can only succeed in enacting change now when all of us finally understands that changing how the world works requires sacrifice.

It’s about taking time in our day to participate in causes that matter, of going beyond the echo chambers of FB and Twitter, of actually going to the streets, into communities, with our personal efforts evolving into finally working with each other for our shared aspirations.

And ultimately this: ending the culture of US vs THEM, as true and lasting progressive change can only be achieved when we are unified by shared goals while celebrating each other’s uniqueness and diversity.

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