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There but not there (A closer look at forced LGBT invisibility)

Roxas City in the Province of Capiz as a study of forced LGBT invisibility in the Philippines.

ROXAS CITY, PROVINCE OF CAPIZ – Sometime in 2016, 19-year-old Roxas local Kyla* started “walking” the streets of the city and sell herself as a way to make a living. It wasn’t that hard of a decision, she said with a wide smile, summing up her decision with “nasasarapan na ako, kumikita pa ako; reklamo pa ba ako (I’m already having fun, and I earn from it; what’s there to complain about)?”

But behind the smile-shrouded somewhat simplistic justification are layers after layers of LGBT-related issues touching on each other.

WORKING THE STREETS

Kyla was already in college when she stopped going to school. “Walang pera (No money),” she stated in a matter-of-fact way. At that time, she said she looked for a job to make a living, and then she came across the other sex workers who ply themselves in the plaza in Roxas City.

Kinaibigan ko sila (I befriended them),” she said, adding that while no one specifically told her to enter the sex industry, she was told “kayang-kaya mo ito (this will be an easy job for you).”

The rest – as the cliché goes – is history.

It wasn’t that hard of a decision to do sex work, Kyla said with a wide smile, summing up her decision with “nasasarapan na ako, kumikita pa ako; reklamo pa ba ako (I’m already having fun, and I earn from it; what’s there to complain about)?”

Nowadays, Kyla works almost every day, servicing up to three to four clients a day. It’s needed, she said, if she wants to earn “an okay living.” She charges P150 for oral sex; P300 for anal sex. And no, she insisted, she will not “top” (play the insertive role when having sex) “kasi babaeng babae ako (because I play the stereotypical role of a woman).”

The expanse of the city’s plaza – from the narrow street in front of Land Bank of the Philippines to the front of the city hall/church of the Immaculate Concepcion to the front of the provincial capitol – is sort of divided according to the SOGIE of the sex workers, with transwomen, women and men plying the areas, respectively. At times, though, the workers congregate, such as when dealing with common threats.

There are perils that come with the job, obviously.

Mga pulis, nanghuhuli (Policemen detain us),” she said. “Lahat ng dahilan ibibigay nila – bagansiya daw, menor daw kami, at kung ano-ano pa (They give various reasons when they arrest us – from the anti-vagrancy law (already legally rescinded, though obviously not known by many), to us being minors, or whatever).”

It is not uncommon seeing “some of us scamper,” she said.

And then there are the verbal abuses hurled at them, at times escalating to risks of getting physically abused “usually ng mga lasing na pumupunta sa plaza para maghanap ng aliw (by drunk men who come to the plaza to look for fun),” she said. Again, the scampering happens.

Of course, “naiisip din naming parati na ma-Jennifer Laude (the thought of experiencing what slain transwoman Jennifer Laude experienced also enter our minds),” she said. One time, she recalled a client who wanted to tie her up, and cut her arms with a blade. “Trips na nakakatakot (Fetishes that can be scary).”

Kyla knows of the necessity of using condoms to prevent getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). When asked where she gets her supplies of condoms and lubes, she said “binibili ko ang condoms, pero… ano’ng lube (I buy my condoms; but… what’s lube)?”

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At 19, Kyla, by the way, isn’t the youngest among these sex workers.

A regularly cited plaza “character” is 16-year-old Ronnie*, also a freelance sex worker who is said to similarly work the streets of Roxas City. As narrated, similar to Kyla’s case, Ronnie’s life exemplifies forked concerns.

This Ronnie is said to be the eldest of 10 kids. His father, at 49, is a mang-uuling (coal-maker) in one of the barangays some five to six kilometers away from downtown Roxas City. His 39-year-old mom stays at home to look after all the other kids. He was 13 years old when he stopped going to school to start working for a construction company. Usually, he’s tasked to mix concrete, carry stuff from one area to another, or – generally – just do as the foreman would tell him. For this, Ronnie supposedly takes home around P2,500 per week. As a minor, Ronnie isn’t legally employed; and as such, his pay is under-the-table. Everything he earns, he sends back to his mom.

Now, as shared, since Ronnie’s less-than-P2,500-per-week earning is not enough to feed his nine siblings and his parents (his dad only earns from P500 per week for making coals), he was said to have been “forced” to look for another way to earn. And so – only last year – when a close friend told him to “kadto sa plaza kung way kuwarta (go to the plaza if you’re broke),” Ronnie was said to be introduced to the sex industry.

And there, in the plaza, regulars talk about how the 16-year-old approached a transwoman, allegedly asking her if she wanted “nga muduwa (to play).” She supposedly agreed to pay him P200 to “play”. He supposedly “topped” her sans protection.

Information like this bring to the fore how the issues of the likes of Kyla and Ronnie aren’t as clear-cut as they seem.

There’s sex work, long considered as the “oldest profession in the world”, though – perhaps particularly in contexts like the Philippines – it continues not to be given proper attention; or if at all, always in maligned ways. That there’s propensity to dismiss this as just “due to poverty”, there’s more to the issue than meet the eyes.

Republic Act No. 10364 (Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012), which amended the earlier RA 9208, declares unlawful “prostitution”, here defined to refer to “any act, transaction, scheme or design involving the use of a person by another, for sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct in exchange for money, profit or any other consideration.”

Kyla may have been “forced” into her line of work by her circumstance, but she’s first to say “dili ko prosti (I’m not a prostitute); I’m a sex worker.” That distinction, at least as far as the country’s law is concerned, is non-existent, so that Kyla and people like her are involuntarily forcibly obscured.

A SIDE NOTE: Not surprisingly, when RA 10175 (Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012) was passed as a law, among the sectors whose silence was notable was the LGBT community, even if some of its provisions may be deemed anti-LGBT or at least not informed by realities in the lives of LGBT people. For instance, Chapter II (Punishable Acts) of RA 10175 considered as an offense “cybersex”, which was defined as “the willful engagement, maintenance, control, or operation, directly or indirectly, of any lascivious exhibition of sexual organs or sexual activity, with the aid of a computer system, for favor or consideration.” Again, sex work – not just prostitution – happens online (also involving LGBT people), which the law fails to even consider.

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The case of Ronnie is even trickier, obviously, because he’s a minor.

Speaking to Outrage Magazine, local (and grassroots) LGBT leaders Charmel Catalan and Simplicio Vito Jr. claimed familiarity with “hate crimes sa (in) Roxas City.” Among commonly (and frequently) shared such stories include: the bashing of a trans woman na napag-tripan (because some people just felt like it); sex work-related ill-treatment; and killings.

A related issue is HIV.

It is worth noting that the HIV/ AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP), for one, only started to include those who engage in transactional sex (or those who report that they pay for sex, regularly accept payment for sex, or do both) in 2012, as if it’s a completely new development. But even with the delayed inclusion, a total of 3,941 HIV cases were already reported in HARP from December 2012 to May 2017. Ninety-six percent (3,769) were male and 4% (172) were female. For May 2017, in particular, of the 105 reported cases of HIV infections engaged in transactional sex, most (92%) were male whose ages ranged from 16 to 60 years (median: 28 years).

Suffice to say – or, for those who’d argue, even if it’s just insinuated – that the young: already actively engage in sexual relations, and put themselves at risk (for instance, HIV infection) with their behavior/s. Kyla and Ronnie may well be good examples here.

Particularly because there are community-reported cases like minor Ronnie, Outrage Magazine reached out to the City Social Welfare Development (CSWD) while in Roxas City to specifically ask about local efforts pertaining trafficking of minors here, but no one wanted to speak on an official capacity AS OF PRESS TIME. Instead, the non-official statement given was to “look at the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 (RA 9208)”, which the CSWD supposedly follows; and to “only interview us when the proper authorities already agreed for this interview to take place because we’re always busy”.

Still, in the first quarter of 2016 alone, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) reported 2,147 cases of child abuse, with more than one–fourth of these cases said to be sexual nature. This number was nearly half of the total 4,374 child abuse cases reported in the entire year of 2015.

Surprisingly, a local Roxas City government official (who only gave an answer on this issue on the condition of anonymity) alleged that “walang sex workers sa Roxas City (there are no sex workers in Roxas City).” Officially, she purported, the stance is that “these sex workers came from places like Iloilo City. They take the last trip to Roxas City, work here, then take the first trip out of Roxas City to return home after the night is over.”

This, obviously, belies the very existence of the likes of Kyla and Ronnie.

AGAINST LGBT PERSONHOOD

Beyond the streets of Roxas City, however, are other LGBT-related stories that fail to gain mainstream traction.

Speaking to Outrage Magazine, local (and grassroots) LGBT leaders Charmel Catalan and Simplicio Vito Jr. claimed familiarity with “hate crimes sa (in) Roxas City.” Among commonly (and frequently) shared such stories include: the bashing of a trans woman na napag-tripan (because some people just felt like it); sex work-related ill-treatment; and even killings.

When validated, particularly the killings, no SOGIE of the people involved were mentioned to the police, so that these were not treated as crimes committed particularly against LGBT people. As such – and instead – “kami-kami lang nakaka-alam (it’s only us who know),” Vito said.

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From the local LGBT community, “siguro (perhaps) two to three cases of LGBT-related hate crimes happen every year,” Vito said.

That this creates fear in the local LGBT community is a given, Catalan said. “But after a week or two, balik normal (things go back to how they were),” she said. “May magagawa ka ba (It’s not like there’s anything we can do about this)!?”

BEING LEFT BEHIND

Ma. Fe S. Salgado, Health Education & Promotions Officer III of Roxas City, lamented the different – not just slow – responses related to HIV in Roxas City, and even the Province of Capiz.

In April 2017, the Province of Capiz already had 107 accumulated cases of HIV infection. “The number has been rising,” Salgado said to Outrage Magazine, “so we’ve been alarmed.”

It is this that drove the local government unit (LGU) to establish its own (satellite) treatment hub so that they can start “at least giving antiretroviral medicines (ARVs), provide counseling and treat common opportunistic infections (OIs).”

But there remain numerous challenges in their HIV-related efforts that also highlight forced invisibility if not of LGBT people, then at least of LGBT issues.

For one, when giving lectures about HIV in local educational institutions, “we’ve been forced to amend the key messages,” Salgado said. The ABC of safer sex, for instance, now no longer reflects A=Abstinence, B=Be mutually faithful, and C=Correct and consistent condom use. Instead, there have been instances when “C” was made to refer to “Close relationship to God.” This approach, Salgado said, “negates the fact that young people –including men who have sex with men – are already exposed to sex even at a young age. (Sans provision of knowledge,) they are not recognized and therefore not served.”

There’s also the issue of not being updated re current HIV-related approaches. People living with HIV in these parts of the country are referred to Iloilo City, where the treatment hub accredited by the Department of Health (DOH) is located. But there, there are practices that remain backward – e.g. allegedly not giving ARVs to PLHIVs unless they reach the AIDS stage, and even if the (inter)national policy is to start treatment as soon possible (not only when someone gets sick); and alleged withholding of giving life-saving services due to the continued delays in releasing confirmatory results from Metro Manila.

Metro Manila’s HIV practices may already be deemed backward in various aspects when compared to Western practices (e.g. availability of newer ARVs, PrEP, U=U). But outside Metro Manila, “mas malala yata (it may be worse),” Salgado said.

Sadder still, these issues do not enter mainstream discourses; and that non-inclusion highlights the invisibility.

Roxas City may be said to be developing; but are LGBT people being left behind?

AND LIFE GOES ON…

Kyla thinks she’ll continue working the streets “hanggang may ma-save ako; mag-aaral siguro ulit (until I save enough; perhaps I’d go back to school),” she said. But at 19, “tingan natin. Hindi pa siguro agad-agad (we’ll see; it may not happen immediately).”

She said she knows the risks; “kahit na di pinag-uusapan o ayaw pag-usapan (even if no one talks about them or no one wants to talk about these issues).”

From the city hall, stories swirled about an attempt to tackle at least one of the LGBT-related issues. A councilor – Dr. Cesar Yap – is said to have expressed interest in filing a local ordinance to provide restrooms for LGBT people. Outrage Magazine went to the city hall, including in the office of Dr. Yap and the office of the secretary of the Sangguniang Panglungsod; but not a single person knows of the existence of such an ordinance.

At night along Roxas St., Kyla said “you’d see us. Andito lang kami. Pero kung makikita niyo lang kami (We’re just here. But only if you really see us).”

*NAMES CHANGED TO PROTECT THE PRIVACY OF THE INTERVIEWEES

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