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Lesbian in an Arab world

In the Middle East, homosexuality is a taboo subject, and members of the LGBT community endure hardships on a daily basis. So, why would an American lesbian want to move there, living and working in a Muslim society? That’s exactly what Chivvis Moore did, and after 16 years in the region, she’s sharing her story in her book, “First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God”. She now chats and shares snippets from her book with Outrage Magazine.

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“My life felt better balanced than it had before. And yet—I was a lesbian,” writes Chivvis Moore. “I had to decide what to do with that aspect of myself during the year I was in Egypt and later, when I lived in countries even more homophobic than my own.”

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Outrage Magazine: Describe your experience living in an Arab country without understanding a word of the language. How were you able to become a part of the foreign culture and lifestyle?

Chivvis Moore: The morning I stepped off the boat and onto the North African shore, my first impression was of sun so stark that I squinted in the brilliance reflected off buildings of bright white stone. The second impression, just as strong, was of people’s kindness.

On a sun-drenched Alexandria street whirling with glittering vehicles that caught and recast the light as the cars spun by, a white-uniformed policeman waved white-gloved hands in a high-walled booth inside a circle of traffic. Wading toward him through the swath of cars, I took out the miniature phrase book Jean had given me, circled the sentence “Where is the railroad station?” and reached up to hand him the book. He took it in one hand and read, but as he lifted his other arm to gesture, pages fluttered out of the paper binding and scattered down into his little booth. Traffic handled itself as he vanished to pick them up, then pointed me in the right direction.

A few blocks on, a young man guided me to a bus, amid the whirl of honking cars, bright light, the smell of dust and, most remarkable, everywhere more people than I had ever seen together at one time. I was passed, hand to hand, bus to train, all the way from Alexandria to Ramses Station in Cairo.

High on a pedestrian walkway near the train station, I must have looked as lost as I felt, for a man stopped and spoke to me. After politely asking in English if he could help me, and learning where I was from, he asked, “Do you know Ralph Nader?”

“I’ve certainly heard of him,” I said, whereupon he introduced himself as one of Ralph Nader’s Lebanese cousins, then escorted me the short distance to the Everest Hotel, which I had been looking for, and which, it turned out, he owned.

The next morning, stepping out into the busy Cairo street, I could not identify the proper bus to take. Which number should I try to read—the one on the front of the bus? the one on the back? the one on the side of the bus nearest the front, or the one on the side of the bus by the rear door? All the numbers were different and all, naturally, in Arabic. What had I expected? I burst into tears.

Instantly, I found myself surrounded by a little crowd— merely to window-shop in Cairo can result in a pileup of people equal to the size of a respectable demonstration in a medium-size US city—none of whose members spoke English. One woman pointed at her own cheeks and shook her head: I must not cry! From this little crisis I was extracted by the sympathetic Coptic owner of a coffin shop who sat me down among the coffins and gave me soda in a green bottle. Someone else hopped on a bus with me, accompanied me to downtown Cairo, and delivered me safely at the hostel I had marked on my map.

By the end of that first day in Cairo, I was hot, exhausted, and overwhelmed. I had never seen a city so enormous or so packed with people. Cairo’s sounds were deafening to someone who had been living in the suburban United States: hawkers cried their wares, music competed in tone and rhythm as it blasted from various speakers, and cars honked, as if compulsively, with each of the minute shifts in speed and direction drivers made constantly to avoid smashing into other cars. I was hungry and had no idea what I might eat. I settled on a piece of bread and a hard-boiled egg bought from two sellers in the street. I was delighted to have arrived, but where was I? I dropped onto my bunk in the women’s dormitory and did what I usually did when the world was too much: I slept.

The next morning, when I when I set out to take a bus on my own, yet another of Egypt’s seemingly endless supply of helpful young men accompanied me until I found myself aground amid the traffic spinning in an impressive Parisian-type roundabout. There I was offered differing (and sometimes contradictory) sets of directions by numerous people— men, women, and children—to whom I showed the scrap of paper on which Halim had written his family’s address in both English and Arabic. Each person peered at the writing and, either unsure of the address or unable to read, carried the little paper over to someone else to study. Each person who could read the paper and who presumably had some knowledge of the neighborhood would then lead me hither and thither with such goodwill that the experience was a happy one, although I ended up several times on wrong streets, and on the correct street at last, still had difficulty finding Building #2.

From that time on, stepping into any street in Egypt felt like lowering myself into a rushing river. If I allowed myself to float amiably where the stream led, I would be safe, entertained, and supported. At first, I received so much help that I began, ungraciously, to wonder if, when I did know my way around, I would ever have a moment to myself as I walked the streets. But I found, when I learned which bus to take, which road the right one, that all my helpers melted away. It seemed Egyptians were far more sensitive to a stranger’s needs and states of mind than I, certainly, had ever been to those of a stranger in my own country.

With Egyptians who had received formal education, I was able to speak French—in my case, a fortunate memory from high school, for them, a holdover from the days of the brief French occupation of Egypt. A few spoke English. In the carpentry shop, though, and on the street, gesture and a lot of guessing were the principal tools we all relied on to make our meanings known. There was not a day that year in Cairo that I was not warmed and lightened by the expressions in people’s eyes—the middle-aged woman, dressed all in black, who sat on the sidewalk and from whom I bought the English-language newspaper each morning, the tea seller who greeted me with his gentle smile when I passed his shop each day. Countless and precious, such moments kept occurring, day after day.

That was language. But as for my acceptance into Egyptian culture and daily life, for this, I owe a debt I can never repay – to Halim, the young Egyptian I met in Berkeley, who gave me his family’s address in Cairo, and later walked with me throughout the city, day after day, offering me priceless insight into Egyptian culture and Islam; to Halim’s family, who welcomed me, urging me to “come visit every day”; to Hassan Fathy, who greeted this stranger who walk unannounced into his home one day and made her welcome ever after; and to the master carpenter, M’alim Hassan, who took me into his shop and adopted me as his daughter in the neighborhood of Islamic Cairo and in his home. Without these people, my experience in Egypt that year would have been as outsider, as tourist, and I would be the poorer.

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Outrage Magazine: How were you able to live in a world that largely shunned your sexuality?

Chivvis Moore: From a world of lesbian feminist tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was plunged into a world of men as well as women, during that first year in Egypt. I found much to appreciate and admire. I was surprised to feel this way in the Middle East, where most women have less freedom than women in the West. I was privileged to be treated as that anomaly, an “American woman,” not subject to the rules Egyptian women were, and I was astonished by the ease with which this treatment was given. At work there was none of the condescension, barbed putdowns, or even open hostility I had experienced in the company of many male carpenters in America. No one tried to humiliate me or scare me off the job, the way one carpenter had, by chasing me with a forklift, and another by jumping on the scaffolding that supported us, trying to make me fall, when I worked in the carpenters’ union in Oakland, California. No one asked me why I wasn’t home with my husband and children or claimed that men would fall and injure themselves because of the distraction of my female presence on the job. My life felt better balanced than it had before.

And yet—I was a lesbian. I had to decide what to do with that aspect of myself during the year I was in Egypt and later, when I lived in countries even more homophobic than my own.

Among lesbian feminists in the San Francisco Bay Area, it had by then become a matter of both pride and honor to refuse to hide your sexual orientation. Lesbians and gay men were standing up to denigration and abuse. To some of my friends in California, not to do so was not only unhelpful but also cowardly. No doubt some of them would have felt the same way in countries other than their own.

But I did not. My identity as a lesbian is only one part of who I am, and I felt strongly that I was in Egypt to learn, not to try to change another culture. Equally important, though hardly commendable, I was afraid that the Egyptians who cared about me would be appalled and reject me if they knew I was a lesbian. When attractions arose, as they did from time to time in later years in other Arab countries, I let them go. Halim knew; and in later years I told friends in Palestine who had lived for a time in the US and who I guessed would be more accepting. Mostly, though, my silence limited my friendships. It did not feel good not to be completely honest about who I was.

Many years later, in Syria, and then in the West Bank, in Occupied Palestine, I also said nothing about my sexuality. Shortly after I arrived in Damascus, in 1992, I learned that a young man had been made to leave the country because authorities learned he was gay. At that time, I decided that, if challenged, I would not deny that I was a lesbian, and that if I were required to leave that country or any other because I was a lesbian, I would not feel guilty or ashamed. I would not return to the feelings I had felt so many years as a teenager and a young adult, before I was able to embrace my lesbian identity.

Shortly after I arrived in the West Bank and began teaching at Birzeit University, a colleague, one of just a couple of Americans on the staff, told me one day without preface that a foreign teacher had been fired from the university some years earlier for being gay. I took the information as it was intended – as a warning – although the teacher, who later became a friend, said nothing about her thoughts on my being a lesbian.

It was clear, though, that in any Arab country, any relationship I might initiate with an Arab woman would put that woman at risk in her own society. I had no intention of entering in any such relationship. Having had chronic fatigue for years, I found that no hardship; I wouldn’t have had the energy for an intimate relationship even had I been living in the United States. As the years went by, I did tell several women colleagues at the university that I was a lesbian, but I told these women because they had spent time in the United States, and I judged that they would not be horrified at my news. At least I thought it was news; one friend asked me at one point why I thought people did not know I was a lesbian. It had not occurred to me; perhaps it was generally known.

I do remember at a party early in my time at the university a woman colleague saying that, unlike most Arabs, she didn’t like the music of the famous Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum.

“I hear she was a lesbian,” another woman commented, whereupon the first speaker said, to my surprise,

“Oh, well then, that makes me like her after all.”

I have always wondered if the comment were directed toward me, to let me know I was welcome, no matter what my sexuality. I may never know. Or I may learn, after this book becomes available in the West Bank, what people really thought of me all along.

So the question ‘How was I able to live in a world that largely shunned my sexuality?” is not one I can really answer. The world did not know of my sexuality, as far as I know. Certainly I was not comfortable knowing that there were lesbians – and gay men – who had to hide their sexuality from their families and from society as a whole. In 2007, I attended the first public conference put on by the Palestinian lesbian organization “Aswat,” meaning “voices,” founded by Rauda Marcos in 2003. Significantly, the conference was held in Haifa, inside Israel, and not in the West Bank or Gaza. Since then, as far as I know, the organization has continued to function openly in Israel, but not in Palestine.

Outrage Magazine: How would you describe the role of women in the Arab and Muslim culture and religion?

Chivvis Moore: We talked, of course, about the role of women. Heba brought up.

On my second day in Cairo in 1978, I met a woman named Nahid. In striking contrast to the Western image of the helpless, unthinking, beaten-down Arab woman, Nahid was a natural homegrown feminist, the first of the many women I met during my years in the Arab world whom I respected and admired for the strength, inner fortitude, and self-esteem that I came to see as characteristic of Arab women.

In Egypt in 1978, as in many Arab countries today, most women had harder lives than women in the USA. They were poorer, had less opportunity for education, and did more physical work, without the aid of washing machines and dryers, gas stoves, and dishwashers. Fewer families have cars than families in the US; shopping is more difficult, traffic and stores more congested, most buildings have no lifts. . . . The Arab women I met in Syria, Egypt and Palestine, in 1978-79 and later, in 1991-2008, confronted the whole array of challenges that all women, except the wealthy, have to face—having to work outside the home and yet do all the work inside the home as well.

“The life of a woman in Egypt is dûr [hard],” Nahid said that first day I met her.

But from Nahid and the other women I met, I got the distinct impression they valued and respected themselves more than I or many women in my own society did. With freedoms more limited than those of women in the USA, Arab women, it seemed to me, nevertheless carried their heads more proudly, seemed surer of themselves, and appeared more comfortable in their own bodies. I wondered if we in the USA had to a greater extent internalized our oppression than women who in fact had far less freedom of choice than we.

What of the separation of the sexes we hear about in the Arab Muslim world? The first day I went home for lunch with M’alim Hassan, the carpenter for whom I was working in 1970s Egypt, he and I were served by a woman who vanished into another part of the house. But I heard voices, and I sensed a lively, self-contained women’s world existing somewhere in another part of the house – a world I was not allowed to see.

On a second visit, I felt as if I had passed a test, even though again we ate alone, because I was introduced to M’alim Hassan’s wife, a lovely, imposing woman. Her gray hair was pinned to the top of her head, and she wore no head covering, since no unrelated male was present. She was tall and carried herself with grace and authority; and from the gentle deference with which her son and husband treated her, I gathered she was both respected and much loved. She spoke little to me on that visit, or any other time I saw her, but her manner was not unfriendly; rather, she seemed self-contained, “intact,” the way M’alim Hassan wanted me to be. The only other woman I saw that day was a young woman I glimpsed in another room, who was taking keen and vocal interest in the Zamalek soccer game showing on TV.

Had I proved myself worthy of being seen by the women of the house? Apparently so, for one afternoon soon afterward, I was invited to leave the dining room at M’alim Hassan’s home, and enter the kitchen at the end of the hall.

There, sure enough, were the women and girls of the house, washing up after our lunch and preparing more food—and they were doing much of it on the floor, on a portion slightly raised from the rest. Food was cooked on a two-burner stove set on a table. Dishes were washed by one woman squatting on the floor of a little shower stall. Another rinsed, rising and bending with each dish, and a third stood outside the shower staff and placed the wet dishes on the rack. A low table was brought out at which Madame and at least four other women ate, sitting on the floor. I learned that the name of the young woman who had let us in the door the first time I came was Tahani. When everyone had finished eating, she washed the floor clean and dried it all, even the water sitting along the low part, near the wall.

And what of the issue of veiling, which in recent decades has galvanized many Westerners, including governments and non-Muslim feminist writers, many of whom assume the custom is not only a patriarchal imposition but also indicative of a regrettable lack of self-esteem in women who elect to cover their heads?

In the United States, showing more skin is considered modern, and therefore preferable; many American women wear high-heeled shoes, low cut dresses and short skirts. Long dresses and veils worn by Muslim women are considered traditional, backward, repressive. Why is that?

Certainly, women in some Arab Muslim countries are required to veil, either by their families or by society, and it’s hard to imagine at least some women not finding the all-enveloping outer garment, the burka, cumbersome and unwelcome.

But when I lived in Arab countries, I knew Muslim women who had taken up wearing the veil, although not required to wear it, in order to indicate their difference from western ways. Others said they veiled to shield themselves from unwelcome advances from men on the street. Still others covered themselves because they believed that God required of both men and women a certain modesty in dress, as set forth in the Qur’an.

Most who make judgments about Arab women’s lack of freedom blame it on Islam.

But they don’t know anything about the religion. They have neither studied it nor lived in Muslim countries.

For one thing, the critics are equating Islam with the violent and repressive rhetoric and practices of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But most Muslims want as little to do with the values of ISIS or the Taliban as you or I. Why is Islam held responsible for the injustices in Muslim societies in ways Christianity is not held responsible for the evils in our own? The Qur’an is open to as many interpretations as the Torah and the Christian Bible.

Second, even when people complain about customs that are common to a number of Arab countries, such as the lesser percentage of women in public positions of responsibility, they do not understand that it is not Islam that decrees and perpetuates such inequality, but the men who have always had the power in those societies to make the laws and to justify them by means of their own interpretation of texts formulated centuries ago. Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion, and in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, many of its tenets were progressive in their treatment of men and women, of all human beings. But, just as the founders of the US decreed a Black man to be worth less than a white man and ruled women unfit to vote, the men who ruled Arab countries kept rights for themselves. Nor do critics of Muslim societies ever note that the country we destroyed in our two Gulf Wars boasted the most educated and privileged women of any in the Arab world.

Third, as a number of Arab Muslim women scholars have made clear, there are women activists in every Arab country working to change laws so in keeping with alternative interpretations of the ancient texts and working in myriad ways for women’s right to choose the life they want to lead. There is not a country on the planet where women are not themselves working to change the practices that hurt them – early marriage, “honor killings,” clitoridectomy, trafficking of women and children, and conditions that make prostitution the only viable way of providing for themselves and their children. Arab and Muslim women are working to change their societies just as American feminists are working to change ours. 

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Outrage Magazine: Why is it important to learn about other cultures?

Chivvis Moore: The short answer to that question is that the more we learn about cultures other than our own, the kinder we will be.

Most significantly, the more we understand, the less likely we will be to arm and prepare for and conduct war. The less likely to think of war as a business like any other.

What resources we could free! How peaceful the world that would result! We could finally go about being creative in ways that would bring health and happiness to humankind. No more refugees. No longer the Mediterranean a sea of death.

Before and during and since the most intensive US war in Afghanistan, it was repeatedly written in the media that Afghan women are badly treated in Islam. It was said that the US was making war to “save Afghan women.” After we made war on Iraq, and admitted that ours were the only weapons of mass destruction around, we said we were bringing democracy to Iraq.

But how could war make life better – or more equal, or more democratic — for anyone who suffers it? We who have not suffered war in modern times need to learn, not only about other cultures, but also about the effects of war on the human beings whose countries we are today attacking.

Where there is understanding there is compassion, and respect. It seems to me that could make all the difference.

Chivvis Moore is the author of First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God. She lived in the Middle East for 17 years, working in Egypt, Syria, and Israel, before teaching at Birzeit University in the West Bank. Before her journey to the Arab World, Moore earned a BA from Harvard University and worked as a journalist with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Daily Review in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Features

73% of Filipinos think ‘homosexuality should be accepted by society’

Among the countries surveyed in the whole of Asia (i.e. India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and South Korea), the Philippines had the highest number of respondents who said they were accepting of homosexuality.

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Constant rainbow support?

While people in the Asia-Pacific region continue to show little consensus on the subject, at least 73% of Filipinos surveyed say homosexuality should be accepted. This is the same figure as the one reported by a similar survey conducted in 2013, making the Philippines the only participant country that did not change its perception from 2013 to 2019.

This is according to a new Pew Research Center report conducted in 2019 involving 38,426 people in 34 countries. This is a follow-up study to the one made in 2013.

To ask them how they perceived homosexuality, the participants were asked: “Which one of these comes closer to your opinion? ‘Homosexuality should be accepted by society,’ or ‘Homosexuality should not be accepted by society.'”

People who said they don’t accept homosexuality was pegged at 24% (versus 26% in 2013).

Among the countries surveyed in the whole of Asia (i.e. India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and South Korea), the Philippines had the highest number of respondents who said they were accepting of homosexuality.

But countries in Asia-Pacific (and Oceania) showed extreme results – e.g. aside from the Philippines’ 73%, more than three-quarters of those surveyed in Australia (81%) say homosexuality should be accepted, but only 9% of Indonesians agree.

According to Pew Research Center, the survey shows that “while majorities in 16 of the 34 countries surveyed say homosexuality should be accepted by society, global divides remain.”

Mimicking the figures from APAC (and Oceania), other parts of the world also highlighted this global divide re homosexuality – e.g. 94% of those surveyed in Sweden say homosexuality should be accepted, but only 7% of people in Nigeria say the same.

Now, if it’s any consolation, across the 34 countries surveyed, a median of 52% agree that homosexuality should be accepted (versus 38% opposing it).

Other findings include:

  • In 17 years, Pew Research Center found that many of the countries surveyed showed a double-digit increase in acceptance of homosexuality, such as in the cases of South Africa and South Korea.
  • Those in Western Europe and the Americas were found to be more accepting than those in Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • At least for a number of countries, more women than men support homosexuality.
  • Younger generations were found to be more accepting. In 22 of 34 countries surveyed, younger adults are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to say homosexuality should be accepted by society.
  • In most countries surveyed, those who have greater levels of education are more likely to say that homosexuality should be accepted in society than those who have less education.
  • Religion plays a role in the response of those surveyed (e.g. in some countries, those who are affiliated with a religious group tend to be less accepting of homosexuality than those who are unaffiliated). As per the research, in most cases, the affiliated comparison group is made up of Christians; and yet “even among Christians, Catholics are more likely to accept homosexuality than Protestants and evangelicals in many countries with enough adherents for analysis.”
  • Political ideology plays a role in acceptance of homosexuality (i.e. those on the political right are less accepting of homosexuality than those on the left).
  • Attitudes on this issue are strongly correlated with a country’s wealth (i.e. people in wealthier and more developed economies are more accepting of homosexuality than are those in less wealthy and developed economies) – e.g. in Israel, 52% of higher income earners say homosexuality is acceptable in society versus only three-in-ten of lower income earners.
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Features

At what cost? HIV service disruptions at the time of Covid-19

One of the biggest casualties of Covid-19 may be the delivery of other services, such as HIV testing. In the Philippines, HIV prevention services were reduced by 20% to 30%, and HIV testing services reduced by 20% to 80%. And sans clear B&W guidelines, community-based service providers continue to be at a loss.

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Unsplash.com

Ashley Galvinez, board member of the Sta. Catalina Active LGBT Organization in Zamboanga in Mindanao, used to get screened for HIV every month (to every three months). “I’ve been doing this since I became sexually active,” she said to Outrage Magazine via video interview.

But then the world was struck by Covid-19, and the country was placed under lockdown. And this already-regular part of her health monitoring was stopped.

Kaya sa bahay na lang muna; tiis-ganda,” she said, adding that she was still scared she could get infected with HIV or get sexually-transmitted infections.

The fear of Galvinez isn’t unfounded.

This May, UNAIDS noted with the World Health Organization (WHO) “the need for urgent efforts to ensure the continuity of HIV prevention and treatment services in order to avert excess HIV-related deaths and to prevent increases in HIV incidence during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be important for countries to prioritize shoring up supply chains and ensuring that people already on treatment are able to stay on treatment, including by adopting or reinforcing policies such as multimonth dispensing of antiretroviral therapy in order to reduce requirements to access health-care facilities for routine maintenance, reducing the burden on overwhelmed health-care systems.”

“Every death is a tragedy,” said Winifred Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS. “We cannot sit by and allow hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young, to die needless deaths.”

This is in no way limited to the Philippines, too.

UNAIDS similarly noted that “if efforts are not made to mitigate and overcome interruptions in health services and supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to more than 500,000 extra deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, including from tuberculosis, in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020–2021.”

In 2018, approximately 470,000 people died of AIDS-related deaths in that region.

“The terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General was quoted as saying. “We must read this as a wake-up call to countries to identify ways to sustain all vital health services.”

To be specific, disrupted HIV-related services could include:

  • Difficulty in accessing antiretroviral medicines
  • Reduced quality clinical care owing to health facilities becoming overstretched
  • Suspension of viral load testing
  • Reduced adherence counseling and drug regimen switches
  • Interruption of condom availability
  • Suspension of HIV testing
Ashley Galvinez used to get screened for HIV every month (to every three months). Covid-19 stopped this.

ALSO IN NEED OF FOCUS

According to Ms Jaya L. Jaud, community HIV outreach worker for the Zamboanga City-based Mujer LGBTQ+ Org., HIV is also a pandemic, and this is something “na dapat ding tutukan.”

Jaud added that there is a need to face reality that HIV cases are increasing in the Philippines.

From October to December 2019, there were 3,029 newly confirmed HIV-positive individuals reported to the HIV/ AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP). Sixteen percent (474) had clinical manifestations of advanced HIV infection at the time of testing.

By end-2019, the country was registering 35 new HIV infections per day, up from only one case per day in 2008, seven in 2011, and 16 in 2014.

EMPHASIS ON COVID-19

In Antipolo at the outskirts of Metro Manila, Darwin Tenoria, case manager at Antipolo Social Hygiene Clinic, said that they are already trying to return their HIV-related services to how they were before Covid-19.

“It doesn’t mean that our (HIV-related) services stopped,” he said, but these services were instead only modified. For instance, the actual HIV testing is the same (e.g. blood extraction, et cetera); but the pre- and post-test counseling were amended (via installation of dividers, practice of social distancing, as well as use of face shields and/or masks) so that the counselor and the client are protected.

But at least, Tenoria said, “we have some foot traffic.”

According to Ms Jaya L. Jaud, community HIV outreach worker for the Zamboanga City-based Mujer LGBTQ+ Org., HIV is also a pandemic, and this is something “na dapat ding tutukan.”

HALTED COMMUNITY-BASED SCREENING

Tenoria, at least, works in a health facility.

But – as far as HIV testing and/or screening is concerned – it is the community-based screening (CBS) that has been greatly affected, many actually stalled.

CBS is the HIV screening process done by the likes of Jaud, wherein a volunteer/screener goes to communities to offer HIV testing and screening. This is particularly beneficial to those who live far from a testing facility or those who may not have the time to visit a testing facility.

In idea, this seems like a good idea particularly at the time of Covid-19 because the lockdowns meant people have no means to access health facilities.

But according to Gregory Rugay from the CBS team of Northern Sanctuary MCC in Baguio City, “screening itself has totally stopped at the moment.”

Instead, the focus has been to link to treatment, care and support those who have tested reactive or positive before Covid-19 lockdowns.

“It is kind of tricky,” Rugay said, “because those who have been calling us, wanting to be tested right away, are people who have symptoms (akin to Covid-19) like fever, colds… and difficulty of breathing. With the pandemic going on, you are at a loss on how to treat this kind of issue because their symptoms can also point to (having) Covid-19.”

Darwin Tenoria, case manager at Antipolo Social Hygiene Clinic, said that they are already trying to return their HIV-related services to how they were before Covid-19.

WANTED: COMMUNITY-BASED SERVICE PROVIDERS

Rugay’s fear has merit… even if, obviously, the services he used to be able to freely offer is still needed.

On May 18, UNAIDS stated that “the role of community-led organizations must be appropriately recognized and supported in the context of COVID-19. They must be factored into all aspects of planning, design and implementation of interventions to combat both COVID-19 and the efforts required to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on other health areas, including HIV and tuberculosis.”

And so UNAIDS recommended, among others:

  • Including community-led health care service providers into lists of essential service providers
  • Policies allowing community-led services to continue operating safely
  • Ensure that community-led organizations are provided with personal protective equipment and training to protect them and their clients in service delivery

LACK OF CLARITY?

In terms of CBS, “they do not have specific guidelines,” Tenoria said. “There’s no clear guideline on how to mobilize CBS.”

This is even if three months have passed since the Covid-19 lockdown has started.

Jaud agrees, saying that “there’s no protocol – e.g. in using personal protective equipment (PPE).” What happens now is – at least in her case – they rely on the practices of the city health office, as well as the practices of NGOs.

Still waxing positive, Jaud said that the Department of Health (DOH) may have not focused on this because – obviously – Covid-19 was the focus for a while, and because there may have been this assumption that because there are a lot of NGOs/CBOs in this field already, they may already know what to do.

In Baguio, Rugay himself was told by someone offering CBS that CBS is actually stalled.

He admitted, though, that he can’t imagine himself offering CBS now particularly if doing so would mean he would be exposing himself to Covid-19, and thereby exposing his loved ones to the same when he returns home.

Tenoria said that “perhaps we need (something written in black and white), on what will be the direction (under) the ‘new normal’.”

He admitted that there were shortcomings particularly when the country – and the world – was initially responding to Covid-19. “Medyo napag-iwanan talaga yung HIV program.”

But now, there ought to be guidelines (beyond the initial one developed by DOH, though that one only focused on accessing antiretroviral medicines). For Tenoria, clearer guidelines will also provide clarity to both service providers and those accessing the services particularly as these may align protocols.

HIV BOOM ABOUT TO HAPPEN?

As it is, all lung-related cases in Antipolo are now considered as suspected Covid-19 cases, said Tenoria.

This is worth noting because tuberculosis (TB), for instance, is an opportunistic infection (OI); and it occurs more often/more severe in people with weakened immune systems (like someone with HIV).

So even if a person with HIV who may not have Covid-19 may have lung-related issues, he/she is required to be isolated. This, then, leads to another (and related) issue: The limited capacity of health facilities in the Philippines.

Tenoria admitted as much, saying that looking for facilities for PLHIVs is harder because isolation rooms are being dedicated to Covid-19 patients.

Of course: Those who test reactive but who have no OIs are luckier, as they are automatically enrolled into the system so they can immediately access ARVs.

For Rugay, “at this moment, there’s nothing we can do for (PLHIVs whose detection is late).” But for him, what the HIV arm of DOH should do is “step up in preparing itself for (a possibility of a) barrage of late detections once they figure out how we do screenings again. Are they prepared/equipped to have all those patients come in?”

FROM THE D.O.H.

A June 10 letter signed by Usec. Dr. Myrna Cabotaje from Department of Health (DOH) to Outrage Magazine noted the impact of Covid-19 on HIV program implementation. Specifically: Prevention services were reduced by 20% to 30%; HIV testing services reduced by 20% to 80%; viral load testing reduced by 42%; and ARV refill services reduced by 5%.

These impacts were due to: geographic concerns, transportation issues and strict checkpoints.

As Tenoria already noted, a guideline was actually developed by DOH. But its main focus was on PLHIVs (particularly, access to ARVs by those already diagnosed to have HIV), and not on those who have yet to be tested.

But Cabotaje’s letter stated that data from HARP for January-March 2020 shows 552 new HIV cases. Meaning, according to HARP, “HIV testing, mostly facility-based, were still provided.”

For January-March 2020, 682 PLHIVs were also initiated on ART.

Asked about protocols re HIV testing, DOH stated that “at this point, HIV testing protocol based on current capacity of both the government and CBOs is centered on ether facility-based testing or community-based HIV screening. Our current HIV projects, e.g. Global Fund HIV grant, thru Save the Children, provided essential PPE to our field workers for them to continue performing their prevention and testing work.”

The likes of Jaud in Zamboanga and Rugay in Baguio are, obviously, not recipients of the aforementioned PPEs.

Moving forward, DOH is also looking at self-screening as an approach to HIV testing, although “the country is still currently testing this approach in a limited manner.”

No timelines were mentioned in the letter.

GOOD PRACTICES

Exactly because HIV-related efforts seemed to have relied on localized practices, some good practices have emerged.

In Naga City, for instance, Tenoria noted that HIV testing is offered with Covid-19 testing.

Still in Zamboanga, when goods are distributed, safer sex kits are included.

And still in Zamboanga, Jaud started tapping clients online; and this is even if this effort remains limiting because not everyone is active online.

“It’s difficult because gatherings of a big number of people are not allowed,” said Jaud. Her target population – i.e. transgender women in Zamboanga – frequently avail of HIV screening when they have gatherings. But now, “tapping social media has been helpful.”

Worth noting is how this immediately limits Jaud’s service delivery – i.e. because she know of the risks related to Covid-19, the clients she now serves are limited to people she knows/are friends with.

“It is kind of tricky,” Gregory Rugay said, “because those who have been calling us, wanting to be tested right away, are people who have symptoms (akin to Covid-19) like fever, colds… and difficulty of breathing.”

PROGRAMS STILL NEED TO CONTINUE

In the end, Tenoria said that people in power hopefully realize that there are still programs that need to be run. “Just as we say in HIV (advocacy), ‘No one should be left behind’.”

This is because sans the needed support, Rugay said people involved in CBS are limited. And so he urges those who want to get tested to, instead, go to health facilities, particularly if they may also have symptoms linked with Covid-19.

Konting pasensya lang sana,” he said, until “we have clear protocols and figure it out how to make it safe for everyone concerned.”

“We (still) encourage everyone to get tested for HIV,” Tenoria said. But those who want to get tested will have to coordinate first with health facilities to schedule testing. Still, this “should not be a hindrance for you to access services (even during this pandemic).”

For Jaud, “we have to capacitate outreach workers (like myself)”. This may be via supplying with gears (e.g. PPE), training, and – yet again – laying down of protocols to use.

Back in Zamboanga, Galvinez said that government offices should give attention to community-based health workers like Jaud, who’s also “a frontliner. They’re ready to help, and serve the community.”

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Outrage Mag’s MDCTan recognized for ‘Art that Matters for Literature’ by Amnesty Int’l Phl

Outrage Magazine head Michael David dela Cruz Tan was cited by Amnesty International Philippines as a human rights defender whose works help bring changes to peoples’ lives, particularly via the establishment of the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

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Outrage Magazine head Michael David dela Cruz Tan was cited by Amnesty International Philippines as a human rights defender whose works help bring changes to peoples’ lives, particularly via the establishment of the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

Tan – who received “Art that Matters for Literature” – is joined by co-awardees Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Organization; Bro. Armin Luistro, FSC, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Individual; and Lorenzo Miguel Relente, Young Outstanding Human Rights Defender.

These awards are part of “Ignite Awards for Human Rights”, given to human rights defenders (HRDs) in recognition of the impact their work bring in changing peoples’ lives through mobilization, activism, rights-based policy advocacy and art. First of its kind, it is Amnesty International Philippines’ top honor given to human rights defenders in the country.

According to Tan, getting the recognition is an honor, particularly as “it recognizes our work in highlighting the minority LGBTQIA community in the Philippines. But this also highlights that for as long as there are people whose voices are ignored/left out of conversations, those who are able to should take a stand and fight for them.”

In a statement, Butch Olano, Amnesty International Philippines section director said that “this season’s recipients come from varying human rights backgrounds, from press freedom and right to education to gender equality and SOGIESC rights, but they share one dedication, that is to fight for basic rights of Filipinos. They truly ignite the human rights cause, speaking up against injustices and exposing inequalities on behalf of those who, otherwise, will not be heard.”

Olano added: “Amnesty International Philippines strongly believes that our individual and collective power as a people working towards transforming and uplifting each other should be given due recognition and appreciation despite the political turmoil the country has been experiencing for a few years now. It is necessary to shine a spotlight on those individuals who continue to pave the way for collective action.”

Michael David C. Tan – who received “Art that Matters for Literature” from Amnesty International Philippines – at work while providing media coverage to members of the LGBTQIA community in Caloocan City.

The nominations for Ignite Awards 2020 was opened exactly a year ago (May 28), and it took the organization a year to finalize the nominations and vetting process together with its Selection Committee and Board of Judges chaired by Atty. Chel Diokno.

May 28 also marks Amnesty International’s 59th anniversary.

“When people lead in taking a stand for human rights especially in difficult situations, it emboldens many others in their struggles against injustice. Our Ignite Awardees’ commitment is all the more remarkable because of the alarming levels of repression and inequality that ordinary people are experiencing amid this pandemic. Throughout and certainly beyond the immediate crisis, these human rights defenders will continue to stand up on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society. Together, we will call on the government to ensure access to universal healthcare, housing and social security needed to survive the health and economic impacts of Covid-19, while ensuring that extraordinary restrictions on basic freedoms do not become the new normal,” Olano said.

Michael David C. Tan – also a winner for Best Investigative Report in 2006 from the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) – has continuously tried to highlight “inclusive development”.

Tan – who originated from Kidapawan City in Mindanao, southern Philippines – finished Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. In 2007, he established Outrage Magazine, which – even now – remains as the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

Among others: In 2015, he wrote “Being LGBT in Asia: The Philippine Country Report” for UNDP and USAID to provide an overview on the situation of the LGBTQIA movement in the country, and where the movement is headed; and in 2018, he wrote a journalistic stylebook on LGBTQIA terminology to help media practitioners when providing coverage to the local LGBTQIA community.

Tan – also a winner for Best Investigative Report in 2006 from the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) – has continuously tried to highlight “inclusive development”. For instance, speaking at a 2019 conference on human rights and the Internet organized by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), he said that “there is a disconnect between what’s online and what’s happening on the ground. And this stresses one thing: The need to not solely rely on making it big digitally, but also go beyond the so-called ‘keyboard activism’.”

Michael David C. Tan – seen here giving SOGIESC and HIV 101 lecture to over a thousand students in Quezon Province – said that “for as long as there are people whose voices are ignored/left out of conversations, those who are able to should take a stand and fight for them.”

Along with Tan, this year’s awardees join 2018’s recipients: Sen. Leila De Lima, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender-Individual; DAKILA Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Organization; Floyd Scott Tiogangco, Outstanding Young Human Rights Defender; and Cha Roque, Art that Matters for Film.

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Covid-19 and the freelancer’s dilemma

The Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. But Covid-19 responses actually do not include them, so what happens to them now?

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Kate is a visual artist. She resigned from her day job to pursue her passion two years ago. Painting and creating origami, her income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students.  

Nicole is a freelance makeup artist. Her clients varied from celebrities to socialites to brides and debutantes… and everything in between. Nicole used to earn a minimum of P3,000 per client, with the amount increasing depending on the type of service being offered.

Lumina is a drag artist, a common face in dance clubs and in events. Aside from her “talent fee”, she also used to get “tips” from customers.

But when the Covid-19 related Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) took effect in Luzon starting last March 17, their capacity to earn a living was also put on hold. And people like them – a.k.a. “freelancers” – are many.

In May 2019, PayPal (the payment system company) reported that the Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. In fact, this is a segment that is fast becoming an influential part of the Filipino workforce and a key engine driving the growth of the country’s economy.

The terms used to refer to them may vary – e.g. In October 2019, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that of the 73,528,000 population in the Philippines, ages 15 years and over, 95.5% are employed. And 25% of them are “self-employed workers”. Freelancers also fall under PSA’s categorization.

And ECQ has been devastating to these Filipinos.

“The current lockdown left us, freelance workers, in a complete halt — events and shows were cancelled. It technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home,” Lumina said.

Like Lumina, Kate said freelancer workers are “so tied to the situation.”

“Even if I want to sell my work or earn a living, I cannot do anything right now,” Kate added.

Painting and creating origami, Kate’s income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students. Everything was affected by Covid-19.
Photo by Fallon Michael from Unsplash.com

What gov’t support?

There are supposed to be government support for workers affected by the ECQ.

In a statement released last March 17, for instance, the Department of Labor and Employment stated that they “may be able to address the pressing needs of the rest of the affected workers in the quarantined areas.” 

DOLE developed the following mitigating measures: “Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program” (CAMP), “Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers” (TUPAD), and “DOLE-AKAP for OFWs”.  

CAMP will serve “affected workers regardless of status (i.e. permanent, probationary, or contractual), those employed in private establishments whose operations are affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” TUPAD “aims to contribute to poverty reduction and inclusive growth.” The program is “a community based (municipality/barangay) package of assistance that provides temporary wage employment.” And the DOLE-AKAP specifically caters to overseas Filipino workers who have been displaced due to the imposition of lockdown or community quarantine, or have been infected with the disease.   

DOLE reiterated that the only qualified beneficiaries are the underemployed, self-employed and displaced marginalized workers. To help these people, “employment” is offered – i.e. the nature of work shall be the disinfection or sanitation of their houses and its immediate vicinity, and the duration will be limited to 10 days. The person will be receiving 100% of the prevailing highest minimum wage in the region.

Pre-Covid-19, Nicole could earn from P3,000 per client; nowadays, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda.

Another government body eyeing to supposedly help is the Social Security System (SSS), where employees of small businesses may apply to be considered for the Small Business Wage Subsidy (SBWS) Program. 

To add, the government agency is also geared up to pay some 30,000 to 60,000 workers projected to be unemployed due to possible layoffs or closures of Covid-19 affected private companies.

Some arts-focused institutions like the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) also developed their own “disaster-triggered funding mechanism” to help address the “lack of support from the government.” In FDCP’s case, the program aims to help displaced freelance audio-visual workers—from talents, to production staff and technical crew members.

But note how all efforts are mum on freelance workers.

For drag performer Lumina, Covid-19 “technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home.”

Making ends meet

And so many are left to do something they never did – i.e. rely on others just to survice.

In the case of Nicole, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda

Sobrang hirap ng sitwasyon ngayon. Hindi ko alam kung saan ako kukuha ng panggastos. ‘Yung ipon ko paubos na, tapos kailangan ko pa magbayad ng renta sa bahay at ibang bills (The situation now is very hard. I don’t know where to get money to spend. My savings are almost gone, and yet I still have to pay for my rent and the bills),” she said.

Lumina, for her part, is “lucky” because she still lives with her family, and “they have been providing for my basic needs since the lockdown started.”

Her luck isn’t necessarily shared by many – e.g. Human Rights Watch earlier reported that “added family stresses related to the Covid-19 crisis – including job loss, isolation, excessive confinement, and anxieties over health and finances – heighten the risk of violence in the home… The United Nations secretary-general has reported a ‘horrifying‘ global surge in domestic-based violence linked to Covid-19, and calls to helplines in some countries have reportedly doubled.”

To add: “In a household of six members, I think the goods that we are receiving from the government is not enough,” Lumina said, hoping that “every freelance worker also receive benefits from the government that would in a way cover the earnings that we lost.”

Bleak future?

In 2017, when PayPal conducted a survey of over 500 freelancers in the Philippines, the results showed that the country had a “very optimistic freelancer market”, with 86% of freelancers claiming they anticipate future growth in their businesses. In fact, at that time, 23% of the respondents said their business is growing steadily, while 46% said their business is stable.

But Covid-19 turned everything upside-down for many.

There are rays of hope.

Toptal survey, for instance, pointed out that 90% of companies depend on freelancers to augment their professional workforce, and – get this – 76% of surveyed executives intend to increase use of independent professionals to provide expertise either to supplement full-time talent or to access skills and experiences they lack in their workforce. 

This may be particularly true to those whose works do not involve face-to-face engagement (e.g. graphics design, BPOs).

And so for the likes of Kate, Nicole and Lumina — and many other freelance workers for that matter, whose works rely on being with people — the way to get through now is to just to make do with what they can grasp on… while trapped inside and hoping for a better future, where reliance (including in a non-responsive government) is not in the picture… 

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A number of local gov’t units include LGBTQIA Filipinos in Covid-19 responses

Various local government units (LGUs) are including LGBTQIA people both as beneficiaries and as implementers of the Philippine government’s Covid-19 Social Amelioration Program (SAP) implementation.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels.com

Rainbow hope.

Various local government units (LGUs) are including LGBTQIA people both as beneficiaries and as implementers of the Philippine government’s Covid-19 Social Amelioration Program (SAP) implementation.

In Metro Manila, Pasig City includes LGBTQIA partners as beneficiaries in its Supplemental Social Amelioration Program (SSAP), which builds on the SAP.

Not all citizens are covered by the SAP, so Pasig City’s LGU released its SSAP to help families get by at the time of Covid-19. A total of P8,000 will be given to each family to aid with any expenses during the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).

Based on the listing of beneficiaries from the LGU, LGBTQIA partners with a child/children” are qualified, specifically if the couple lives together and they have a child/children whose surname/s follow/s one of them. “Ito ay kinikilalang pamilya (They are considered a family).”

Makakatanggap ng P8,000 ang bawat Pamilyang Pasigueño na higit na nangangailangan ng tulong pinansyal sa panahon ng krisis.Paalala sa lahat na kailangan may xerox copy ng Valid ID na ipapakita.

Posted by We Love PASIG City on Monday, May 4, 2020

Probably also affecting LGBTQIA families is the LGU’s inclusion of solo parents among the SSAP beneficiaries, particularly single parents (of either sex) whose child/children lives/live with him/her. Not all LGBTQIA parents are in relationships, though they may also be raising a child/children and may encounter difficulties due to the novel coronavirus.

But Pasig City is not the only LGU recognizing LGBTQIA families.

In Quezon City, it was earlier reported to Outrage Magazine that, because of the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance (ADO), SAP is also given to LGBTQIA people in need.

Meanwhile, in Davao City in Mindanao, south of the Philippines, Mayor Sara Duterte said in a radio interview that “the LGBT sector would be the best to understand (issues pertaining ) being inclusive.”

And so Duterte – daughter of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte – is tapping the city’s LGBTQIA network in rice distribution, the fifth round the LGU is doing this.

This is also Duterte’s move to remove the “political structure” in aid-giving because of the “recurring problem” of those handing out aids to only help those that they know.

How to make the distribution of ayuda more inclusive? Delegate it to the LGBT Community, which knows firsthand the need…

Posted by The Shaman of Kidapawan on Thursday, May 7, 2020

Duterte said she already tasked the LGBTQIA people involved in the rice distribution not to favor only LGBTQIA people, but “find the people who (really have nothing).”

Both Quezon City and Davao City have ADOs; but Pasig City still has no non-discrimination policy to protect the human rights of LGBTQIA Filipinos.

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Keeping the faith at the time of COVID-19

Many ask where God is at the time of #Covid19, including #LGBTQIA people who – prior to this – already experienced difficulties because of their #SOGIESC, and now have a hard time with their expression of faith. But #LGBTQIA faith leaders say that this is as good a time as any to also highlight humanity and, yes, the rainbow #pride.

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LGBTQIA people are “no strangers to isolation, hardships and the stress of being alone,” said Bb. Kakay M. Pamaran, Director for Field Education of the Union Theological Seminary Philippines. And while stressing that she is, in no way, trying to “romanticize this, but I think of all people, we know what this level of isolation feels like because we’ve been there… many of us have been there.”

Bb. Pamaran was referring to the isolation/stress of being alone and hardships brought about by Covid-19, with many countries – the Philippines included – forcing people to stay indoors, else risk getting infected. The World Health Organization (WHO), itself, acknowledged that “as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly sweeps across the world, it is inducing a considerable degree of fear, worry and concern in the population at large and among certain groups in particular…”

There are those whose (religious) faith is getting them through; but there are also those who, in times like this, start questioning their faith. This includes LGBTQIA people whose lives, as it is, are often marked by religious persecution. And so for those of faith and who belong to the rainbow family… how does one keep the faith at the time of Covid-19?

RELIGIOUS FERVOR

“When people are afraid, they turn to God,” Bb. Pamaran said. “And the church, for the longest time, has been God’s mouthpiece.”

She, therefore, believes that “the church has a huge responsibility where this is concerned.”

This April, the WHO released “Practical considerations and recommendations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of COVID-19”, which eyes to provide “practical guidance and recommendations to support the special role of religious leaders, faith-based organizations, and faith communities in COVID-19 education, preparedness, and response.”

WHO’s practical recommendations include: discouraging non-essential physical gatherings and, instead, organizing virtual gatherings through live-streaming, TV, radio, social media, et cetera; regulating the number and flow of people entering, attending or departing worship spaces to ensure safe distancing; management of pilgrim sites to respect physical distancing; and actual isolation of those who get ill/develop Covid-19 symptoms.

As stated by the WHO: Faith-based organizations (FBOs) “are a primary source of support, comfort, guidance, and direct health care and social service, for the communities they serve. Religious leaders of faith-based organizations and communities of faith can share health information to protect their own members and wider communities, which may be more likely to be accepted than from other sources. They can provide pastoral and spiritual support during public health emergencies and other health challenges and can advocate for the needs of vulnerable populations.”

Bb. Pamaran agrees – to an extent.

“It is very important, it is imperative for church leaders (and) faith-based organizations (FBOs) to deal with Covid-19 in factual, scientific ways,” she said. This is because “the things you say in the pulpit or all of the platforms that are available to you must always be based on scientific, medical evidence. And you have to exhaust all possible efforts to do your research because people tend to believe whoever is speaking behind the pulpit.”

Bb. Pamaran added that “people turn to superstition if scientific answers are not available. So as faith-based leaders, it is our responsibility to fuse rationality and factual scientific inquiry in these desperate (concerns).”

AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE

According to Rev. Alfred Candid M. Jaropillo, Administrative Minister of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP)-Ekklesia in R. Mapa St., Mandurriao, Iloilo City, Covid-19 is an “eye-opener for us that human as we are, we are finite beings, and we don’t have the control of life.”

But Rev. Jaropillo added that this ought to make people see that “people have contributions to the suffering of life, and the suffering of Mother Earth.”

RAINBOW IN FAITH

As FYI: In 2015, the Pew Research Center (PRC) noted that about 5% of the 2014 Religious Landscape Study’s 35,000-plus respondents identified themselves as members of the LGB population. And of that group, a big 59% said they are religiously affiliated. But only 48% of them reported belonging to a Christian faith group, compared with 71% of the general public.

Meaning: Although many members of the LGBTQIA community may feel that most major faiths are unwelcoming to them, a majority of them are still religiously affiliated (though not necessarily as Christian, but also as part of smaller, non-Christian denominations).

Bb. Kakay M. Pamaran, Director for Field Education of the Union Theological Seminary Philippines, said that “people turn to superstition if scientific answers are not available. So as faith-based leaders, it is our responsibility to fuse rationality and factual scientific inquiry in these desperate (concerns).”

Bb. Pamaran noted that LGBTQIA people may not be going to churches because these are unwelcoming, or “they just don’t go to church because they gave up on church altogether. It was difficult for LGBTQIA people to express their faith pre-Covid-19; and now with Covid-19, it would be harder for them, I would imagine.”

Rev. Jaropillo added that it is, therefore, the church’s role to “open its doors… in ministering to people who need God the most: the vulnerable, poor, women, children, the displaced…”

There are, of course, open and affirming (or ONA, the term used by the United Church of Christ/UCC) churches and/or faith-based organizations, or those that affirm the “full inclusion of LGBTQIA and non-binary persons in the church’s life and ministry.”

And they are just as affected by Covid-19.

According to Bishop Regen Luna of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit Philippines, which is based in the Province of Cavite, the mandate to socially distance meant they had to (temporarily) close, so “Covid-19 had a big impact on us.”

Among others, they had to forego masses, Bible studies, weddings, baptism, et cetera.

Ayaw din namin magkahawahan (We also do not one to infect each other),” he said.

Added Rev. Joseph San Jose, Administrative Pastor of the Open Table Metropolitan Community Church: In the context that we’re a small church, “we don’t have as much of the resources, the facilities that other churches have.”

For instance, the Roman Catholic Church and bigger Protestant churches can broadcast live their masses/worships, “we are unable to do that.”

The composition of the church membership is also proving to be a challenge, geographically speaking. Rev. San Jose, for instance, is in Laguna (approximately 100.3km from Mandaluyong, where the church is located); and members are from the City of Taguig, Quezon City, et cetera. “This is an issue with the Covid-19 lockdowns (that limit mobility of people),” he said.

Bb. Pamaran said that, largely, faith expressions involve corporate worship/gathering in one space. “Without that, faith expressions… significantly change.”

According to Rev. Alfred Candid M. Jaropillo, Administrative Minister of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP)-Ekklesia in R. Mapa St., Mandurriao, Iloilo City, Covid-19 is an “eye-opener for us that human as we are, we are finite beings, and we don’t have the control of life.”

RAINBOW LENS

But Bb. Pamaran wants people to draw something from this experience.

“It is also a good demonstration to non-LGBTQIA persons that this kind of isolation… is the normal for LGBTQIA persons even without Covid-19 as far as going to church is concerned, and in belonging in church communities,” she said.

For Bishop Luna, the pandemic is (similarly) showcasing the resilience of LGBTQIA churches.

Sanay na kami sa hirap (We’re used to hardships),” he said, adding that they now know how to “stretch the budget to sustain a small church.” This is even if their main source of income (i.e. donations, for holding of sacraments like baptism, marriage/weddings, et cetera) is affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Added Rev. Joseph San Jose, Administrative Pastor of the Open Table Metropolitan Community Church: In the context that we’re a small church, “we don’t have as much of the resources, the facilities that other churches have.”

RELATED ISSUES

Covid-19, on its own, isn’t the only problem; just as problematic are its effects on other issues.

In the case of Bishop Luna’s church-goers, for instance, “we have members who are also living with HIV.” Issues re access to life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) medicines have been reported on; particularly affecting those who have no access to treatment hubs/facilities, again because of immobility.

Rev. San Jose admitted that it’s a “personal struggle as a pastor” not being able to help out, particularly at a time when people are asking what churches are doing to help the needy. But “with our situation, it’s almost impossible for us to mobilize in the same way that other churches (have been mobilizing).”

DEALING WITH ‘NEW NORMAL’

Covid-19 introduced a “new normal” even to FBOs – here, largely dictated by going online.

Union Theological Seminary, for one, introduced online courses. Metropolitan Community Church hosts webinars and online conversations. Catholic Diocese of One Spirit Philippines has online services – though, as Bishop Luna said, holding sacraments (e.g. weddings) are still not done this way (thus the rescheduling of pre-booked events to next year). Meanwhile, Open Table Metropolitan Community Church’s Rev. San Jose records sermon/homily for Sunday online “gatherings”; which is also the time when members videoconference to discuss their faith and, yes, Covid-19.

“I think that’s going to be the trend,” said Bb. Pamaran. “This is going to be how we facilitate conversations moving forward.”

Rev. Jaropillo – whose UCCP-Ekklesia also has worship services – said that while churches now also use technology in ministering to people, “we don’t stop there. Aside from virtual worship services, we concretize the love of God through relief operations. We address two things: the liturgical/spiritual ministry through virtual worship services, and the physical need of people. Churches should have a holistic approach (to this).”

“It’s best to respond with creativity,” Bb. Pamaran said.

UNSHAKEN FAITH

At the time of Covid-19, Rev. Jaropillo said that “it’s very natural to doubt and it’s human to question one’s faith: ‘Natutulog ba ang Diyos (Is God asleep)?’ But I believe I don’t need to defend God. God understands the doubts of the people nowadays. So as a church, we need to journey with these people who are in doubt, especially at times of crises like now.”

Bishop Luna agrees.

“Some people ask why God would let something like this happen,” he said, adding that while these questions are unnecessary, that they are asked at all is “natural”/understandable. But he said that times like this offer lessons from God, and people should listen. “We believe in a loving God… We believe that God is teaching us – e.g. how to look after the environment, health, and respect of other creatures. We’ve forgotten these. We also live fast lives; we don’t even think it can end in a blink of an eye.”

For Rev. San Jose, it may be worth echoing what Pope Francis said when asked by a child why there’s human suffering. “Sometimes we just don’t know. It is what it is. There is a mystery of suffering and pain. And it would be very arrogant for us to try to answer very difficult and almost no-answer questions. The progressive faith compels us not to ask where God is, but to ask where we are and what we are doing at this time to be the channel of God’s love, comfort, hope for ourselves and for others.”

According to Bishop Regen Luna of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit Philippines, which is based in the Province of Cavite, the mandate to socially distance meant they had to (temporarily) close, so “Covid-19 had a big impact on us.”

For Bb. Pamaran: “It’s a common question to ask where God is in all these. But perhaps it’s the best time to ask where humanity is in all these. It is the best time to look into our humanity and our creativity, our innovative imaginations to pull through this.”

LGBTQIA OF FAITH

To LGBTQIA people of faith, Bishop Luna calls for prayers – “unified prayers” – while spending time with loved ones, and looking after oneself (e.g. mental health).

Ibigay natin laat ng ito sa Panginoon (Surrender everything to God),” Bishop Luna said, adding: “We believe that this, too, shall pass.”

LGBTQIA people are resilient, continuing to face hardships in life. “We can survive this, too,” he said, “and pass this with flying colors.”

It is also the resilience of the LGBTQIA people that Rev. Jaropillo wants to highlight. That LGBTQIA people find joy/laugh even in dark times is something that can be shared to cheer up communities. “Continue to shine as a rainbow, to inspire other people.”

Covid-19, said Rev. San Jose, is also a good time for the LGBTQIA people to reflect on social justice. “There is a need for us to be more active in engaging in the issues faced by the country, by our community,” he said. “There is really a great need to organize and mobilize.”

“No sector of people understands isolation more than the LGBTQIA community. We can imagine, we can grasp the loneliness and isolation that Covid-19 brings. And so try to remember how you pulled through all these years, and then try to help others do the same,” said Bb. Pamaran.

In the end, “now more than ever, the world needs color; the world needs our color. So be that… for yourself and for others,” Bb. Pamaran ended.

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