“I guess before I labeled myself as an LGBTQ advocate, I was a women’s rights advocate first,” said genderqueer Olivia (Libay) Linsangan Cantor, a faculty member (Assistant Professor 1) of the University of the Philippines Film Institute and contributing writer of The Philippine Online Chronicles‘ (POC) Pinoy LGBT channel. “It’s because growing up, I witnessed inequalities in my living spheres which were not giving justice to being a woman in Philippine society. Be it in school, the church, even in my own family, I see this gender imbalance. In the process, I didn’t even know the definition of a feminist but I was already being a feminist at that time pala.”
Before Libay turned 24, she “discovered that I prefer women than men. This was when the concept of lesbian-feminism was introduced to me. I guess it’s not a far cry from what I have observed growing up as a feminist. Only this time, another layer was added to the feminist struggle: that of being a lesbian. In essence, you really don’t just ‘become’ an advocate of any sort unless you make it a point in your life to fight the social injustices and inequalities you see/hear/experience in your life and in the lives of others, even in a very simple manner, such as trying to educate people about gender inequalities or standing up to a person with macho thinking, things like that. Advocacy doesn’t have to be grand, or grandstanding.”
It can be said, therefore, that “the same thing that triggered me to be a women’s rights advocate: when I saw and felt social injustices for myself, this time because I identified as a woman-loving-woman already.” Libay sees the need to stress the key word “love” in that phrase, since for many “narrow-minded people”, this is just equated with “sex/lust, with abnormality, and with hate,” she said. “And when I saw that many women like me were experiencing the same thing, I thought something should be done in order to correct these misconceptions and lies.”
It was then when Libay saw organized groups of women – and “not just your stereotypical stone butch type of women – organize because they were lesbians. I met lesbians who were mothers, who were professors, who looked like your average girl next door. I saw that when I was introduced to the Baguio-based org Lesbond in 1997. And the same year, during the Manila June Pride March, I met and saw other groupings based in Manila. And then in 1998, there was this Asian Lesbian Networking Conference in Quezon City, where I saw other Asians and Westerners of Asian descent who were lesbians. I realized that I am in good company, and that there’s more to being a lesbian than just ‘merely’ being with a woman. I learned issues, concerns, and human rights being denied us. I guess those events culminated into my becoming an advocate.”
Libay believes there are “different approaches to doing advocacy work. I am not like the usual hardcore (usually fulltime) advocate/activist out there. I try to do my advocacy directly in the work that I do, or integrate it in the arts I am involved in.” For example, “I think the biggest challenge still lies with how people are being misinformed about queers because of the way we are depicted/represented in media. My being a queer advocate goes hand in hand with my being a media advocate. We should still do something in this sphere because media’s far-reaching effect is undeniable. So whenever I work on TV or in print, I try to incorporate that kind of awareness either directly or indirectly depending on the medium.”
Libay and her peers even tried to come out with the very first LGBT lifestyle glossy magazine in the Philippines, an effort she said is “right up my alley”. A move like this “doesn’t fly sometimes,” she admitted, so that she decided to keep the content she produced for the defunct publication in a blog.
“Some exes in the past castigated me for being so out in the open in my blog. But what if, in a random search, some lesbian who feels lonely and who is looking for others like her to connect with find linkages through my blog? What if, in my random writings about lesbian lives, they also get encouraged to face their own lesbian life? You know, small stories could matter like that. And I have gotten many emails in the past from lesbians who tell me these things, like how my ‘simple blogging’ over the years have affected them in some manner. Sometimes they even write to me for advice about their situations, usually about love, of course. Some readers I even met and became my friends eventually,” Libay said. “This is why I write the stories I write – to be read by people who may have use for them, who may find something of value in my thoughts, who could use these thoughts and elevate them to better thoughts for their own good. Whatever helps.”
Libay believes that “there are still a lot of issues we have to face, but I think what we need to sort out first is how we work with each other, and how we will engage those within the LGBTQ community but who are outside the advocacy circles,” she said. “There are more people outside than inside, and that has to be addressed.”
Libay noted that “sometimes there is some kind of inner discrimination happening here, an advocate/non-advocate divide, and advocates just tend to stay within their side of this line. We shouldn’t be exclusionary like that because we’re all in this together.”
On how to reach everyone, Libay admitted that “that’s a challenge. That’s why I think it’s crucial to kind of segment our efforts first and then come together later on in a clearer forum/arena maybe where we can intersect our issues to achieve a common goal.” For Libay, a good example is in the pressing need to address the HIV situation, “but in the gay/MSM community first perhaps, and then bringing this campaign to a wider audience. I’ve seen this happen (e.g. The Red Whistle), and this could be a start.”
Libay added: “The lesbians also have to face certain issues within their sphere. For instance, the problem of poorer lesbians who get discriminated in their jobs or workplace because they are lesbian. Upper class lesbians don’t have this job security problem, but they still have their own issues, especially about coming out to their families and in the workplace, as well. How could we help each other? The transwomen are a good example of how they are working within their own sphere in order to make some changes, and then translating that to a larger context by applying it to the larger LGBTQ community. Things like that.”
What could prove to be most effective, however, “is if we get the law on our side as well. Too many queers have been hurt by existing laws that harm us, or some laws are bent in order to harm us. Like the Anti-vagrancy Law used to extort money from gay men; and also the absence of laws that recognize us as legal partners, or even as common-law partners. We should at least have that. Like when partners end up not having visitation rights when their partners get sick, just because they’re not recognized by the law as an entity, that really irks me. Simple things like that should be addressed. This is why I think there should be some kind of anti-discrimination law to protect us in social spheres, and to guarantee the practice of the rights denied us,” Libay said. “We should really work on the ADB being passed; let’s look beyond color/political lines. Let’s look at lives. Queer lives. Our lives. That’s more important than politicking, ‘di ba?”
Libay is “sometimes disappointed at the lack of awareness of even just the gender-specific issues of certain sectors in the local LGBTQ community,” she said, though she acknowledged that “I know I shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be outright judgmental in that manner because we also have to understand that each sector within the community has their own specific strategies for survival in a patriarchal, homophobic society such as ours.”
However, Libay added that “if their lack of awareness already borders on hurting others, then that’s where I draw the line. For example, there are lesbians who are victims of domestic abuse by their girlfriends. Isn’t it basic human knowledge that we should love our partners and not beat them up to a pulp, just because we sometimes feel that we need to be ‘macho’ or whatever? Or if there are ‘papogi’ or ‘pa-macho’ lesbians out there who will try to steal another person’s girlfriend just to show/prove that they can, just to add to their so-called pogi points? Things like that irritate me.”
As far as LGBTQ advocacy in the community goes, there are also major disappointments for Libay. “I think we have to focus more on being issue-based rather than personality-based. Sometimes we are forgetting that we are fighting for a common cause and that it doesn’t matter whoever gets shoved in the limelight. But the light blinds some of us, and therefore we often think that we should always be in it. Visibility is really great, especially with what’s happening now in traditional media and new media technologies, but there should also be advocacy in this visibility we carry. There’s a difference between being a public figure and being a celebrity.”
Nonetheless, Libay also finds the LGBTQ community a source of inspiration.
“I get inspired by the new people I meet, those who have just come out to themselves and are searching for their queer niche in the world. Sometimes they are curious and they ask questions. That is why I entertain some who come up to me or email me or read and comment on my blog or Twitter about queer stuff. This means people are willing to discover more and learn, and I am always for that, for education and learning.
There are also those who want to start projects or are starting projects, and I also encourage that as well. Whatever helps raise our image is cool.”
Libay added: “I also get inspired by those who have been there in the advocacy circles for ages yet they are still not tired to entertain the new ones. Like I said, we need to help each other because this is all our fight, ‘young’ or ‘old’.”
Libay is most proud of “my arts and work… of recognition given by peers and esteemed individuals/organizations/institutions in the fields I am involved in,” she said.
Recently, her alma mater, the University of the Philippines, honored her with a UP Artist II award to recognize her body of work in the last five years, which involves her directing/scriptwriting work for TV, and her “handful” of short films/documentaries and literary publications. “To be honored this way as a UP faculty and a media/arts practitioner is something that elates me to this day,” Libay said. “It means my life work is being recognized and I appreciate that very much. The same goes for my earliest award as well, my two Palanca Awards for literature. That somewhat validates that I am indeed an effective writer and I am happy with that kind of validation.”
This kind of recognition is, however, “taken to a higher level whenever the recognized work of mine is queer-oriented. An example of this is when my lesbian-themed screenplay was cited for an honorable mention in a national scriptwriting competition before. That somewhat validates the advocacy, that it’s okay to write a film about lesbian lives. The same goes for my stories that get picked up for publication in book anthologies. I am happy whenever a story about the lives of women-loving-women get featured this way; this shows more visibility, and also educates others about us, about how we are. Hopefully, such exposures will lead to the eradication of discriminatory views against us. This is why I do the things I do, write the things I write.”
When all is said and done, Libay said “it wouldn’t hurt if I am remembered as that queer woman writer who writes about women-loving-women in literature, online, and in blogs. And that queer professor who also tries to inculcate proper queer awareness in the university where she circulates,” she said. Then with a smile: “Or, if that’s too much to ask, puwede na rin to be remembered as ‘that age-defying cute queer’?” She laughed. “Chos! Shucks bahala na sila, teh! Kebs. Basta happy-happy lang. Keri na anumang kembot.”
Fortunately for the LGBTQ community, Libay still intends to “just continue doing what I’m doing – write stories and essays about queer women’s lives. To just be. And to be there.”
Read Libay Linsangan Cantor’s take on life here.