In December 2013, transpinay Kirsten Bernard VI was at Francisco Bangoy International Airport in Davao City, on her way to Metro Manila where she was to catch her flight back to the US. For security screening, “the airport had separate entries for ‘lalaki (male)’ and ‘babae (female)’,” Kirsten recalled. As a transpinay, “I thought it okay to join the line for the ‘babae’.” But after she passed through the metal detector machine, a lady guard started “not patting but groping me with her bare hands. She groped my breasts, and then groped between my legs.”
That guard then “immediately screamed at the top of her lungs: ‘Bakit ka andito? Labas! Doon ka pumila sa lalaki (Why are you in this queue? Get out! Join the male queue)!’”
Kirsten remembered feeling so embarrassed she just obeyed while holding back tears.
Kirsten’s American boyfriend, who was with her, asked her why she obeyed and allowed herself to be debased. He raised the issue to some of the airport staff, “but they refused to call the airport manager,” Kirsten said.
Kirsten said she wanted to “elevate the issue, but fighting back was not possible because we had a flight to catch.”
In hindsight, Kirsten said this issue “continues to haunt me. Its relevance can’t be understated because when that happened to me, my very existence was violated.”
Kirsten did not know of the existence of ADO; and – perhaps – neither did the guard. But occurrences like this beg the question of whether as a country, the Philippines has more prejudice than Pride for LGBT Filipinos.
TOLERANT PINOY SOCIETY?
In June 2013, the Pew Research Center released “The Global Divide on Homosexuality” study that noted that despite the relatively high level of religiosity in the Philippines, 73% of Filipinos supposedly said that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” Of the 39 countries covered by the global survey, only 17 countries had majorities that accepted homosexuality; and the Philippines ranked at number 10 among the 17.
Much has been said about the tolerance of LGBT people in the Philippines – that is, so long as LGBT people conform to stereotypical roles (for instance, work as fashion designers, make-up artists, hairdressers and entertainment personalities), then they are “welcome” to be part of the Philippine society. But problems arise when LGBT people go beyond these roles.
Kirsten’s experience is an example of the difficulties LGBT people face for being LGBT, no different from what other LGBT Filipinos also experience – e.g. in Cebu City, another locality with an ADO, transgender people reported being barred from entering establishments; and in Quezon City, still another locality with an ADO, transpinay Mara La Torre filed an employment-related discrimination case.
Without intending to take away from the horridness of these experiences, these LGBT people were still “luckier” than most if only because their lives were spared. Because while there are no accepted data on LGBT-related hate crimes that led to deaths of LGBT people, numerous cases have made the news. In 2012, for instance, in Bacolod City, Dr. Andres Gumban was stabbed 34 times – with the two suspects videotaping the stabbing. Prior to him, still in Bacolod City, the body of 34-year-old Ian Sherwin Sandoval was found with 16 stab wounds. Bacolod City, by the way, also has an ADO.
More recently, the case of Jennifer Laude made headlines, with the transpinay dying in the hands of American Joseph Scott Pemberton (she died from asphyxiation after he drowned her in a toilet bowl). And only two weeks after Laude’s grisly death, another transpinay Mary Joy Añonuevo was found dead after getting stabbed 33 times.
STILL NO LEGAL PROTECTION
The Philippines has no national laws criminalizing homosexuality. But – it is worth highlighting – it also does not have laws protecting LGBT people.
Interestingly, one of the first LGBT-related bills filed in Congress was sponsored by Rep. Rey Calalay as early as 1995; it proposed to recognize “third sex” as a sector. But legalized protection of LGBT Filipinos may actually come from the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB) that has been filed and re-filed in the Lower and Upper Houses of Congress since 2001. The ADB’s incarnations included: House Bill (HB) 6416 filed by Akbayan partylist Rep. Loretta Ann Rosales in 2001; Senate Bill (SB) No. 1738 filed by Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr.in 2004; and SB 165 by Sen. Loi Estrada and SB 1641 by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed in 2006.
More recently, in 2015, the latest version of ADB (HB 5687) was approved by the Committee on Women and Gender Equality. Unfortunately, it was never scheduled for second reading on the House floor.
Naomi Fontanos of Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas noted that “in the last 16 or 17 years, shepherding the ADB into law in Congress might have changed hands, but the human rights situation of LGBT Filipinos has hardly improved. This is why up to now, getting an ADB passed remains relevant.”
Interviewed by Outrage Magazine, Rep. Kaka Bag-ao – who was representative of Akbayan, the partylist group that sponsored the ADB during the 15th Congress – said that “we need to open more minds and hearts in Congress. Some think that the bill will lead to same-sex marriage because of a certain provision prohibiting discrimination in the issuance of professional licenses and similar documents. They wrongfully interpret that these include marriage licenses, which is definitely not the case. They should understand that this proposed measure does not ask for special rights, but it simply seeks to protect the existing basic rights of LGBT citizens.”
Another partylist, Bayan Muna, has also been actively pushing for the ADB, which it sees as an important step in pushing for human rights for all. In 2010, Bayan Muna filed HB 1483 (an ADB); in 2011, it filed House Resolution (HR) 1432 for the investigation of hate crimes against LGBT people; and HB 4853 declaring May 17 as National Day Against Homophobia (NADAHO). In the 16th Congress, Bayan Muna Representatives Neri Colmenares and Carlos Isagani Zarate re-filed the ADB as HB 1842, and HB 1843 for NADAHO.
“Respect for human rights includes the recognition of certain economic, political and socio-cultural rights and the elimination of any form of discrimination against any group of persons in society,” said Colmenares. Particular for the LGBT community, Bayan Muna filed a number of measures against discrimination “because it is just, reasonable and it is high time to do so.”
Colmenares said that the 16th Congress was able to produce a consolidated bill of the ADBs but it was not given the opportunity to be approved on second reading. However, “the committee report was a very positive indicator because a lot more bills and resolutions do not usually get to that point.”
Outrage Magazine repeatedly attempted to get the side of Sen. Bam Aquino, who sponsored the latest version of the ADB in Senate; but no response was received as of press time.
FORMING REAL PARTNERSHIPS
The influence of the Roman Catholic Church continues to be used as an excuse for the failure of the ADB to be passed. But surprisingly, in 2015, even the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) already expressed its support for an anti-discrimination legislation. A statement prepared by Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas, CBCP president, stated: “If discrimination means that certain individuals, because of sexual orientation or gender identity, are systematically denied fundamental human rights, then any measure that counters discrimination of this kind is a gesture of charity, one that reaches out to all and recognizes them in their inherent dignity as sons and daughters of God, called to new life in Jesus Christ.”
Of course, CBCP added to belabor that: 1) “the church cannot encourage persons to ‘choose’ their gender, orientation and sexual identity as if these were matters at the free disposal of choice”; 2) it still disapproves of homosexual acts; 3) it still opposes same-sex unions; and 4) that it should be allowed to discriminate (particularly when ordaining or consecrating persons).
Many in the LGBT community remain critical in the handling of the ADB – i.e. that it was not considered a priority, and so it was not actively pushed.
For Bag-ao, “at the end of the day, it is the people who should insist on government to prioritize certain measures… Public clamor must be intensified. Even if a vast majority of Filipinos are in favor of having a law that protects the rights of LGBT people according to certain surveys, we need to see that popular opinion translated into action. It’s not enough that LGBT advocacy groups are lobbying for the bill. They need the help of other sectors and straight allies.”
For Colmenares, “the ADB was neither certified as urgent nor endorsed with strong public support. This could be attributed to the society’s longstanding misconceptions and stigma on LGBT rights which are reflected in Congress itself.”
“The LGBT community should maintain and strengthen the resolve to fight for the passage of this law. They should also look at the elections as an opportunity to elect legislators who will be supportive of our common cause — which is to mold a society that is more open-minded and compassionate to all citizens regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Bag-ao said.
BEYOND THE LAW
In the absence of a national law, LGBT communities have, instead, started pushing for ADOs. There are now ADOs in the cities of Davao, Bacolod, Angeles, Vigan, Candon, Cebu, Quezon, Antipolo and Dagupan; municipality of San Julian (Eastern Samar); and the provinces of Cavite and Agusan del Norte, among others.
However, “I would like for the LGBT community to be more critical in this regard by recognizing that getting the ADB passed will not end the discrimination, abuse and violence we face in society. What we need is concomitant work to take stock of our culture and change what is oppressive about it: patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, classism, racism, capitalism, anti-TLGB prejudice, and many more,” Fontanos said.
And since discrimination still happens even in localities with ADOs, Colmenares believes in educating society about the LGBT community.
“If the common people become enlightened on the issue, more people can support the cause of the LGBT. This can be done through different means of educational discussions, and information-dissemination, either through the social or the tri-media. Solicitation of support from other people’s organization can also spell a big difference for the cause,” Colmenares said.
This was seconded by Magdalena Robinson, chairperson of Cebu United Rainbow LGBTI Sector (CURLS), which helped push for the ADO in Cebu City in 2012.
“(The ADO can help in) uplifting the welfare of LGBT people and promoting of social justice,” Robinson said. However, “there is a need to engage people (so that) our presence is felt and our voices are heard in all platforms.”
For Kate Montecarlo Cordova of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines, an anti-discrimination policy can “directly or indirectly educate thus enlighten Filipinos of the rights of LGBT people. This can, in turn, mitigate violent incidents that impede the growth and development of the members of the said community.”
Michelle Jhoie Ferraris, president of the United Gay Power Movement (UGPM), which helped push for the ADO in Angeles City in 2013, said that the ADO “serves as the backbone for the LGBT people to… be comfortable with who you are and what you can do; that is what ADO is all about.” But in their experience in Angeles City, “majority of the LGBT community members are not really aware of the existence of a unified LGBT community and of the ADO.” To remedy this, “we educate.”
For UGPM, educating helped in getting LGBT people involved. In turn, the relationship with the non-LGBT people supposedly bettered – for instance, “local politicians became more interested in working with the LGBT community especially in gender and development projects.”
It doesn’t help, too, that the localities that have ADOs do not have implementing rules and regulations (IRR), said Cris Lopera of the Social Health Of Inter-Ethnic Network for Empowerment in SOCCSKSARGEN Inc. Sans IRR, laws tend to useless, he said.
Cordova also noted the limitations of ADOs. “While we acknowledge the contribution of ADOs, I firmly believe that a national anti-discrimination law will have more impact.”
For Fontanos, though, LGBT should not choose between an ADO or an ADB. “For me, passing ADOs complements pushing for a national, anti-discrimination law. Both are important work in the struggle for social justice for LGBT Filipinos.”
It seems, though, that there is still a long road before LGBT human rights get recognized in the Philippines.
A LONG, LONG WAY TO GO…
Now based in the US, transpinay Kirsten said that “practical” steps can be taken to deal with LGBT-related issues. In the case of accessing spaces, for instance (like entry to airport), having only one line for all passengers removes the need to force people to “choose a gender contrary to their self-identity,” she said. “Gender sensitivity trainings can also help, of course.”
But beyond this, Kirsten said that LGBT people need to be empowered.
Start “fighting back,” Kirsten said. “When put in a situation you are not comfortable with, document everything as a solid evidence. Use the same when you lodge complaints. Otherwise, people will continue to be dismissive about our issues.”
Being pro-active is the same position taken by Colmenares, who said that “the commitment, participation and support of the LGBT community is the most decisive factor to be considered…. This may be through organizing themselves and reaching out to coordinate with other LGBT groups and individuals for a common objective like pushing for the enactment of the ADB. An effective campaign for such an undertaking needs a machinery to ensure that different activities needed for its passage are done and to coordinate all efforts to achieve its ends.”
“The community should not give up and soldier on. The ADB in Congress is not alone. Similar progressive legislative measures have had the same uphill battle and took a long time before getting passed into law like the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RPRH) law. At the same time, the community needs to recognize that doing legislative advocacy is hard work. It cannot be done by a handful of organizations alone. If you want your rights protected in law, you need to do your part to make that a reality,” Fontanos said.
In General Santos City, Lopera said that “the LGBT community itself needs to be strengthened.” As such, they already have efforts to empower LGBT communities, from giving trainings on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, to workshops dealing with HIV.
Ferraris agreed that the biggest challenge remains internal. “It’s not really easy to unify the LGBT community,” she said.
Cordova agreed. “Notwithstanding the need to have (an anti-discrimination law)… it is not progressing because of the lack of participation of the community to pressure government officials,” she said. “What we need is synergy. Forget organizational or individual differences and advancement but prioritize the common goal for the welfare of the community.”
And so – even while “we may have one victory at a time,” as Robinson said – for now, it is, indeed, still more with prejudice than with Pride being LGBT in the Philippines.