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Cris Lopera: Pushing for LGBT rights outside the metros

Cris Lopera became an advocate in the 1990s, first working on HIV-related efforts for men who have sex with men. He eventually helped establish Social Health of Inter-ethnic Network for Empowerment of SOCCKSARGEN, which now empowers LGBT Filipinos in General Santos City in Mindanao.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CRIS LOPERA

Cris Lopera entered LGBT advocacy in the 1990s, as one of the incorporators of The Library Foundation (TLF), which was formed as the pioneering organization in the Philippines that focused on HIV-related efforts for men who have sex with men (MSM). At that time, his contract working as a steward on board a luxury liner just ended, and he was hired by TLF as a project coordinator for an HIV program providing three-day intensive MSM and transgender training to young professionals of Metro Manila.

“There was (then) a mysterious disease that affected mostly gay men that further ostracized the gay community,” Cris recalled, adding that at that time, “like many young gay persons, I was struggling with my own sexuality.” Incidentally, he also had “misconception about the disease, thinking it was only foreigners who got infected.”

And then he had an affair with a Caucasian co-worker, and he credits this affair for helping “opening my mind to new realities, and better understanding about gay men and HIV. Slowly, I embraced and accepted my sexuality, and I became an advocate of gay men’s health.”

Cris is proud of his tie with TLF, largely because “during that period, it was very rare for NGOs or any agencies to work for MSM and transgender health issues.” TLF’s program proved so successful, in fact, that it was eventually extended for several years and resulted to cover more than 50 batches (average of 25 to 30 persons per batch) of graduates, most of them young gay professionals.

TLF helped push for LGBT advocacy – something that Cris recognizes. “The so-called movement and creating of space for LGBT Filipinos started in Metro Manila and other major cities of the country,” he said. However, just because it started in metropolitan areas, doesn’t mean it should end there. And so Cris eventually found himself in General Santos City, where he helped establish Social Health of Inter-ethnic Network for Empowerment (SHINE) of SOCCKSARGEN in 2009.

With the support of Ang Ladlad, General Santos City hosted the 2009 LGBT Regional Consultation. The participants of the gathering campaigned for the LGBT political party, but after the 2010 elections, they continued having meetings, brainstorming on the next activities of the group.

Two events led to the formalized establishment of SHINE- SOCCKSARGEN: 1) In 2010, the group participated in the capacity training initiated by the former TLF (then renamed TLF SHARE Collective) to MSM and transgender community-based organizations (CBOs); and 2) In 2011, the executive director was hired by the AIDS Society of the Philippines as BCC Coordinator of General Santos City for the Global Fund Round 6 HIV and AIDS program.

These gave the opportunity for the core group to organize community-based MSM and transgender organizations at the barangay level, thereby expanding the membership and creation of MSM and transgender CBOs. “With the clamor from local barangay gay and transgender groups for capacity training and HIV and AIDS education, the core group decided to formally organize and come up with the vision, mission and goal (of an umbrella organization) in the SOCCKSARGEN area,” Cris said. By 2011, SHINE-SOCCKSARGEN was officially registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

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There are issues that Cris believes LGBT Filipinos need to pay attention to. For one, “(we need to) address the discrimination and human rights abuses committed to LGBT people, especially to young LGBTs. (Secondly, we need to) mainstream SOGIE and LGBT education to the general population. (And thirdly, we need to focus on) HIV and AIDS, and LGBT health issues,” he said.

Attaining the community’s goals is not necessarily easy, since even within the LGBT community, there are challenges. For instance, “(we have to continue facing) the sociocultural and religious factors that perpetuate the discrimination and the way people think, act and treat LGBT people,” Cris said. The situation is worse for those living outside the metropolitan areas, since “the LGBT human rights situation in Mindanao and non-urbanized/industrialized areas is worse compared to the central Visayas and northern parts of the country.”

But Cris remains hopeful. “It inspires me to see the young LGBT people, especially the young transgender men and women, who now seem to have a safer space and are comfortable in expressing their sexuality despite the hostile environment,” Cris said.

Even after more than 20 years (and counting) of LGBT advocacy, Cris has no plans of stopping any time soon. While the so-called LGBT movement may have started in metropolitan areas, he believes that “after three decades of organizing and consolidating forces, it is about time to create and respond to the LGBT needs in the countryside, especially in Mindanao and other remote areas,” he said.

Cris’s dreams for the future include: the creation of a village for senior LGBT Filipinos; The creation of a safer place to nurture young LGBT’s dreams and aspirations; establishment of a research and study center on SOGIE and human sexuality; aiding in the organization end empowerment of LGBT CBOs; and eventual passage of relevant local and national laws for the protection of the rights of LGBT, thereby promoting equality.

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