Citing a basic principle in social justice that those who have less in life should have more in law, Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero reiterated his support for the LGBT community, a sector he said that continues to be neglected and is also repeatedly stigmatized.
In an exclusive Outrage Magazine interview, and because the LGBT community is not a one-issue sector, Escudero – who is running for Vice President in the 2016 national elections – discussed other issues concerning the LGBT community aside from same-sex marriage (He is, by the way, for civil partnerships), including the languishing anti-discrimination bill in both Houses of Congress, development of a gender recognition law in the Philippines, worsening HIV situation in the Philippines, inclusion of LGBT people in existing and/or policies being developed, and how the LGBT community can push for its issues.
ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAW, NOW NA!
In 2014, Escudero co-authored Senate Bill 2358 (Anti-Discrimination Bill, along with Presidentiable Sen. Grace Poe), which eyed to make any form of discrimination a “crime against humanity and human dignity”.
For Escudero, “simpleng batas yun na hindi naman dapat kontrahin ninuman (It’s a simple law that should not be hindered by anyone).”
However, Escudero said, “binibigyan ng kahulugan ng iba (others assume it has a different intention)” even if these assumptions are not stipulated in the proposed bill.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), for instance, has repeatedly expressed its opposition (which turned into partial support) against an anti-discrimination bill as it could open the door for the legalization of same-sex marriages in the Philippines; a position shared by others in Congress (e.g. Sen. Vicente Sotto III).
For Escudero, an anti-discrimination law simply states that “pantay-pantay ang bawat tao anuman ang kanilang sexual orientation, anuman ang kanilang paniniwala (everyone is equal irrespective of sexual orientation, or whatever their beliefs).”
Considering that passing an anti-discrimination law continues to be challenging, Escudero said that it is important to open the minds of the people, “lalo na ng ating mga mambabatas (more particularly our lawmakers),” he said.
Escudero added that often, this becomes an election issue, but afterwards, politicians forget about it. And so “mahalaga at imortante ang pagkakataong ito kung saan pinipili natin ang ating mga mambabatas… na alamin ang bawat isa (kung) ano ba ang kanilang posisyon sa bagay na ito, isusulong ba nila ‘yan o hindi (elections are valuable and important times when we select our lawmakers… to ask each of them what their position is on this matter, and if they will advocate for this or not).”
Escudero even suggested having a covenant that will specify this support; and that the LGBT community can use the same to remind politicians of their promise once they get into power.
“May karapatan ang botante na hilingin yun sa mga kumakandidato at tanungin yun sa mga nagnanais manilbihan sa pamahalaan (Voters have the right to ask for this from political candidates, and ask for the same for those who want to serve in the government),” he said.
DEVELOPING A GENDER RECOGNITION LAW
In 2012, Escudero received flak from some in the transgender community in the Philippines.
With Senate Bill 3113, Escudero sought to amend RA 9048, which authorizes the city or municipal civil registrar or the consul general to correct a clerical or typographical error in an entry and/or change the first name or nickname in the civil register without need of a judicial order.
Senate Bill 3113, however, expressly states that no petition for a change of gender by a person who has undergone sex change or sex transplant will be entertained.
The Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), then helmed by Naomi Fontanos of GANDA Filipinas, violated the rights of trans Filipinos as human beings.
“But upon close inspection, you will see that RA 9048, the law that they seek to amend, is actually antitransgender in the first place, and… SB 3113 affirm(s) the transphobia inherent in RA 9048,” Fontanos was quoted as saying.
At that time, Escudero said that “there is no such intention (to violate anyone’s right). It simply seeks to facilitate and make easier corrections based on error and easily verifiable without that need to go through a complicated and expensive court process.”
Also, in a letter of clarification coming from Escudero’s office, the proposal from the trans community cannot be accommodated “since doing so would make the bill itself unconstitutional.”
The proposal, instead, was to have a “measure similar to or a magna carta may be drafted given the uniqueness of your position in Philippine society.”
Now aware of the transgender community’s need for a gender recognition law, Escudero said he was actually fascinated the first time he heard of this – “Fascinated in the sense that it’s advanced human rights; it’s advanced in the sense that everything in your license, everything in your birth certificate can now be determined by the person himself. Nothing to be determined by the accident of birth. That is advanced citizenship, and I am all for it,” he said. “Pabor ako at gusto kong makita ang ating bansa na may ganyang uri ng paggalang sa karapatang pantao (I am in favor of this and I want to see our country have this kind of respect to human rights).”
Escudero is, nonetheless, cognizant that this may not yet be timely considering that even the anti-discrimination bill is not progressing. However, for him, “hindi yan rason o dahilan para hindi simulang isulong (that’s not reason for people not to start pushing for this).”
WORSENING HIV SITUATION
In December 2015, the Department of Health’s (DOH) Epidemiology Bureau reported 650 new cases of HIV infections, which was 28% higher compared to the 2014 figure. Ninety-seven percent were male, with the median age of 27, and with more than half belonging to the 25-34 year age group, while 28% were youths belonging to the 15-24 year age group.
This continues the upward trend in HIV infections in the country, already shamed for being one of only a handful of countries where HIV infections continue to increase.
And with 88% of the sexually transmitted cases of HIV infection in the Philippines involving men who have sex with men (MSM, involving gay and bisexual men), HIV continues to be an issue for the LGBT community.
For Escudero, the government should not pretend that there’s no problem. He believes that DOH and PhilHealth should have active roles here, such as in information dissemination, particularly in preventing HIV infection since “mas mura pa rin kasi yun kesa gamutin natin ang ating kababayang maysakit na. HIV or AIDS or anumang karamdaman, sana preventive ang mas pagtutuunan ng pansin (prevention is still cheaper than treating our fellow Filipinos who already have HIV, AIDS or any other ailment, so preventive efforts should be prioritized).”
But since there are already Filipinos with HIV, and since services continue to be lacking, Escudero is critical with the current responses.
“The services continue to be lacking because, I think, the government is trying to ignore it, the government is trying to look the other way, the government refuses to accept that there is a problem. The first step in resolving any problem is admitting that there is a problem. That the problem is increasing. That the problem is not so small that you can simply sweep it under the rug. It’s something that must be confronted by the government head-on,” he said.
Escudero added that this may also form part of the anti-discrimination efforts of the LGBT community since this affects its members and “pinipili marahil ng gobyerno na huwag masyadong tingnan, huwag masyadong pansinin ito. Pero para sa akin ang sakit ay sakit, ang buhay ay buhay at obligasyon ng pamahalaan na tiyakin at subukan at sikapin na iligtas ang buhay ng bawat mamamayan niya (maybe the government is choosing not to pay attention to this, not to give this as much attention. But for me, an illness is an illness, life is life, and it’s the government’s duty to ensure and try to save the lives of all its people).”
INTERCONNECTION OF LGBT ISSUES WITH PHL ISSUES
Perhaps to be taken as recognition (knowingly or not) of the interconnection of LGBT issues with other mainstream social issues, Escudero – with Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago – called for a review of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US following the killing of 26-year-old transpinay Jennifer Laude in the hands of American serviceman Joseph Scott Pemberton.
Now, with policies still being developed, Escudero said that the ideal is to include minority sectors – e.g. in the case of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, for instance, which affects many LGBT people in Muslim areas.
Escudero said that the government’s panel’s decision to speak only with one group (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF) is the reason why Senate couldn’t pass it. “Dahil wala silang ibang kinausap, inakala nila na sila na lang ang mga nagmamay-ari ng lahat ng talento, galing, talino at magandang intensyon para sa ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) o BBL area (Because they didn’t talk to others, they assumed that they have the exclusive right over all talents, goodness, intelligence and good intentions for ARMM or BBL area),” Escudero said.
SHOULD LAWS BE MADE TO CHANGE CULTURE, OF SHOULD CULTURE BE RECEPTIVE BEFORE LAWS SHOULD BE MADE?
Considering that a law can only do so much if the culture of intolerance perpetuates, Escudero was asked which should be prioritized: making laws (that may have a hard time getting implemented) or changing hearts and minds before laws are made.
“It’s a ‘chicken and egg’ thing. Minsan nauuna ang kultura at sumusunod ang batas; minsan nauuna ang batas at sumusunod ang kultura (Sometimes cultural change comes first before laws; and sometimes laws are made and cultural change follows),” he said.
Escudero said that for him, there are two principles to note here.
On the one hand, Escudero questions why it is okay to have personal relationships with LGBT people, but “pag usaping pangkalahatan na – komunidad at bansa na ang pinag-uusapan – bakit kailangang mag-iba yun? Kung tanggap at normal at okay sa pang-personal na lebel na relasyon, bakit biglang mag-iiba (when the issue shifts to community or national level, why do relationships with LGBT people change? If relationships with LGBT people are okay at the personal level, why should these change [at any level])?”
On the other hand, “ang batas inimbento, ang gobyerno inimbento para protektahan ang minoriya, para protektahan at pangalagaan ang karapatan nung konti, nung naaapi, nung marahil hindi kasing-kaya ipagtanggol ang kanilang sarili kumpara sa mas nakakaraming sektor o miyembro ng isang lipunan. Kung ganyang pananaw ang ating gagamitin, walang dahilan para hindi ipasa ang gender recognition law o anti-discrimination at iba pang batas na ang layunin ay bigyang pagpapahalaga at proteksyon ang sektor ng LGBT na maliwanag ay nasa minority ng ating lipunan (at) matagal nang hindi pinapansin at niyuyurakan at kailangan na pantayin ng batas (laws are inventions, the government is an invention to protect the minorities, to protect at look after the rights of the few, those who are oppressed, maybe those who cannot defend themselves compared to most in society. If that is the lens that we use, there’s no reason that laws like gender recognition and anti-discrimination or others that will give importance and protect the LGBT sector that is clearly not given attention and whose rights are trampled, and therefore should be made equal by law),” Escudero said.
For Escudero, “those who have less in life should have more in law.”
CALL FOR PARTICIPATION
Escudero says that for the LGBT community to continue pushing its issues, it has to know that “hindi illegal mag-lobby sa Kongreso (it is not illegal to lobby in Congress).”
Escudero said that often, when people speak with politicians, many immediately become suspicious that influence-peddling is happening. But he said that this is just “bahagi yun ng karapatan ninyo bilang mga mamamayan na paalalahanan ang inyong mga kinatawan (it is part of your right as citizens to remind your representatives).”
Escudero advocates having an LGBT representative in Congress; and for LGBT people to “makilahok kayo sa bawat usapin (join all discussions)”, with the latter, he said, gaining ground as more LGBT people come out to help change minds.