Bemz Benedito may have been one of the founding members of Ladlad Partylist, the only LGBT political party in the Philippines, but she is first to admit, to “say that I was apathetic and inactive then. I can honestly say that I was a nominal founding member and I was just ‘forced’ (to join) because of my admiration to Danton Remoto.”
However, sometime in the early part of the naughties (2000s), a life-changing experience happened to Bemz. “I was a researcher then and a graduate student at the Ateneo de Manila University, and I was involved with indigenous peoples’ rights and mining advocacies at the Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC),” she recalled, and that “sad day when I was sexually harassed and discriminated against in my work came.” It was Ladlad that helped Bemz with her case, and “since then it was a complete turnaround for me.”
“Kaya sinasabi ko kapag umiikot ako sa mga na-re-recruit namin para sumali sa Ladlad na huwag sana silang gumaya sa akin na maging biktima muna bago pa sumama sa laban na ito na magkaboses tayo sa Kongreso at magkaroon ng mga batas para sa atin,” Bemz said. “Mahirap ‘yung dadaan ka pa sa diskriminasyon bago ka makilahok sa usapin at sa adbokasiya. That is always my pitch now. That we don’t need to be a victim in order to know and assert our rights. It was my fault then that I held that notion that LGBT community is not as important as other marginalized and vulnerable sectors like IPs or women.”
Now the first congressional nominee of Ladlad for the 2013 national elections, Bemz believes there are key issues the Filipino LGBT community should focus on. Foremost, for her, is “representation in congress so that we can participate and articulate our issues, interests and concerns as a legitimate sector in society that is marginalized and underrepresented.”
There is also a need for “massive information and dissemination drive on LGBT concepts and issues to the grassroots. Kadalasan kasi, kami-kami lang na advocates at dito sa imperial Manila ang nakakaintindi ng mga konsepto ng pagiging lesbian, gay, bisexual and more so sa transgender. Kailangan maipaliwanag sa kanila ang mga konsepto, ano ang mga karapatan nating mga LGBT, at bakit kailangan natin ng mga batas at programa upang mapalakas ang hanay ng LGBT. Sa mga probinsiya tinatanggap na lamang nila na sila ay third class citizens at ito na ang kapalaran nila. So we have to change that perspective and inform them that Ladlad exists, and what we intend to do for them.”
Yet another priority is the need to “pass the anti-discrimination bill so that we have a protection against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. We need to lay this as a ground work for other pertinent bills, such as gender-recognition and civil unions or domestic partnerships protections.”
And then, of course, there is also the need to “create livelihood and programs for the abused, poor and (differently-abled) LGBTs since there are no specific programs in the local government units that are targeted on LGBTs,” Bemz said.
To achieve these, challenges abound even within the LGBT community. “It disappoints me that there are several divisions inside the community – the feeling of intellectual exclusivity that one person or group is more knowledgeable on LGBT issues than others; the internal homophobia and transphobia (you should have seen the emails, text messages I got when I spoke on behalf of Ladlad on the Miss Universe organization’s acceptance on transgender women, I received a lot of hate messages from our community calling us ‘ilusyonada, ambisyosa at hindi na’yan ang equal rights at tanggapin niyo na bakla din kayo’); and the betrayal and dishonesty are also hurtful,” Bemz said. “But I think this happens to all communities and we just have to be more loving, accepting and forgiving. At the end of the day, our advocacy is greater than our personal differences.”
The LGBT community is a source of inspiration, all the same. “What inspires me is the trust, love and friendship that I’ve gained in my short but worthy nine years (and counting) of advocacy on LGBT rights through Ladlad,” Bemz said. “There are setbacks, sad moments and failures, but it is so inspiring to see younger LGBTs telling me that they appreciate the little steps that I’ve taken to advance our cause. To touch and empower one person is an inspiration that is difficult to quantify. And it inspires me that I am part of this party (Ladlad) that is continuously making history not just here in our country but in the world.”
Bemz held Ladlad’s national secretary position for seven to eight years, before becoming its chairperson. “I hope I don’t sound mayabang, but what happened in the recently concluded Ladlad National Convention was that parang naging bailiwick ko ang buong bansa to represent the LGBT Filipinos. I am overwhelmed by the support from NCR, Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao Ladlad members. I didn’t expect this because internal strife was (affecting the group); but if you work hard, God will reward you. So nasa pakikisama din ‘yan at makikita ng mga kasama mo kung ano ang totoo. I am so humbled by the whole experience.”
Bemz added: “As you know, Danton Remoto (Ladlad founder) is a difficult shoe to fill in, but I think my work will speak for myself.” With her active participation, Ladlad successfully appealed for the Supreme Court to overturn the earlier decision of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to bar the LGBT group from joining the 2009 elections because – as its commissioners said – LGBTs are “immoral”.
“I have been devoted to Ladlad for the past eight years and I’ve served this party with my heart and soul by performing so many tasks and positions. I can proudly say that I’ve never used this organization to enrich myself or for any personal interests,” Bemz said.
For Bemz, “my future plans are anchored in Ladlad now. Danton and I have to lead our campaign to ensure three seats for Ladlad in 2013. This is an ambitious one, but we are optimistic that this is possible and we will make history.”
And how does Bemz want for the LGBT community to know, and remember her? “Know and remember me as someone who tried her best to serve her community with utmost passion, sincerity and respect,” she said. “I am not the best and there are others who are doing longer and better than I do, but be it remembered that here was a transgender woman who worked hard in her little ways to represent the LGBT community as one sector fighting for equal rights.”