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NGOism versus activism

Michael David C. Tan writes about the need for LGBTQIA activists to go back to the basics by getting in touch with their roots – i.e. the people they supposedly serve – while acknowledging their privileges, and not assume that these privileges are universal. “That’s why we exist; that’s why we’re here to begin with,” he says.

The author, raising the issue of grassroots activism at the 2014 WorldPride Human Rights Conference PHOTO COURTESY OF ANGIE UMBAC, RAINBOW RIGHTS (R-RIGHTS) PROJECT INC.

They are supposedly doing “grassroots” activism.

And by “grassroots”, they mean that they spent “a lot of money to fix – to beautify, and make it very accessible – our all-new Website.”

This way, as was stressed, ”we can ensure that we reach the people we’re serving all over the world, particularly those in hard-to reach areas.”

That was the claim of an international LGBTQIA organization in one of the sessions of the 2014 WorldPride Human Rights Conference in Toronto, Canada.

While there were Western conference participants who praised this move, I couldn’t resist raising my hand to ask: “How do we define ‘grassroots’ activism?” This is because in the Philippines, many of the LGBTQIA people at the grassroots live in areas that do not even have electricity, much more access to technology and – yes – the now “beautiful and very accessible” Website of the organization that purports to serve them.

I was dismissed with: “Well, we can’t serve the entire world.”

And then the promotion of the new Website continued, particularly since – through the Website – people from the hard-to-reach areas can now, supposedly, apply for scholarship grants to travel to attend international gatherings.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand that we do what we can with what we have.

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I can but use Outrage Magazine as an example.

We continue to largely use English, even if we’ve been told that using Filipino (or the other Philippine languages) ensures that what we write will be – as one reader oh-so-poetically put it – tagos sa puso (goes straight to the heart).
But we’re limited by who are willing to write for us gratis.
We’ve repeatedly reached out to advocates from outside Metro Manila to better represent diversity, but – alas – without the ability to compensate, we’ve been repeatedly rebuffed. (This, too, I understand. People need to eat, firstly; so they need to earn to feed themselves and their loved ones. Everything else – including advocacy – comes only next to surviving.)

We continue to under-represent sectors from within the LGBTQIA community – something that trans advocate Sass Rogando Sasot reminded us early on/years ago, after noting how gay-skewed we continue to be.
But – again – we’re limited by those who are willing to write for us gratis.

I am not coming up with excuses; there’s no need to. But – again – I acknowledge our limitations, even as I advocate that we continue working because the work we do need not stop just because we encounter difficulties.

The issue worth highlighting is the lack of recognition of the privileges – of OUR privileges – and assume that our lives are the norm for everyone/for the people we claim to serve.

Because, in truth, it is not.

That’s why there’s the need for us to do something. That’s why we exist; why we are here to begin with.

REAL grassroots players abound.

In the Philippines, and just off my head, there’s GALANG Philippines Inc. that conducted a study among impoverished members of the LGBTQ community because they were deprived of their right to access public services. There’s Rainbow Rights (R-Rights) Project Inc. that, in 2012, hosted the first-ever Outgames in the Philippines among poorer LGBTQ community members in Caloocan City. There’s The Well, a support group for PLHIVs, that meet in – get this – food courts due to the lack of available space to gather HIV-positive men who have sex with men who need psychosocial support. There are community-based lesbian organizations in southern Philippines that have become go-to alternatives for its members who have to face discrimination day in and day out (For instance, Tumba Lata). And then there’s Red Ribbon Project that actually provides people/manpower to support newly-diagnosed people living with HIV when they visit treatment hubs (recognizing that, on a personal level, it could be difficult; and acknowledging the red tape in place).

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There are numerous issues we’re touching on here.

In an international scale, how people from the West continues to dictate much of the discussions affecting our lives, even as they claim to represent us.

On the national level, how those in cosmopolitan places dictate much of the discussions affecting the lives of those in the outskirts (as Japanese trans activist Mameta Endo told me, in Japan, for instance, “LGBTQIA communities outside Tokyo hate that notion that Tokyo is the center of LGBTQIA activism in Japan”).

On how so many “leaders” continue to uphold (instead of remove) their blinders – e.g. when the ARV stockout happened in the Philippines, one staunch HIV advocate in the Philippines actually insinuated that she worries about the over-emphasis on this issue because there are other HIV-related issues to deal with (such as the amendment of the Republic Act 8504), easily forgetting the urgency of having the meds (i.e. without the meds, the PLHIVs die, period).

But the issue can be simplified.

You cannot claim to represent who you do not even see.

In New York, after a panel discussion to tackle the intersectionality of religion and LGBTQ (nay, human!) rights, I approached an LGBTQIA leader I met two years ago.

“I actually sent you an email, and I didn’t hear from you,” I said.


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“I re-sent; and this time, the email bounced.”

“Hmmn… I don’t know what’s wrong because my email’s the same.”

“Well, that’s what happened,” I said.

“You know what,” she said as she turned to this quiet person not far from where we were standing, “you can talk to (—) here who will link you with someone who you can maybe speak with.”

And with that, I – a member of the very community she supposedly serves – was handed to her personal assistant.

The founder of Outrage Magazine, Michael David dela Cruz Tan completed BA Communication Studies from University of Newcastle in NSW, Australia; and Master of Development Communication from the University of the Philippines-Open University. He grew up in Mindanao (particularly Kidapawan and Cotabato City), but he "really came out in Sydney" so that "I sort of know what it's like to be gay in a developing, and a developed world". Conversant in Filipino Sign Language, Mick can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (DUH!), shoot flicks, community organize, facilitate, lecture, and research (with pioneering studies under his belt). He authored "Being LGBT in Asia: Philippines Country Report", and "Red Lives" that creatively retells stories from the local HIV community. Among others, Mick received the Catholic Mass Media Awards in 2006 for Best Investigative Journalism, and Art that Matters - Literature from Amnesty Int'l Philippines in 2020. Cross his path is the dare (guarantee: It won't be boring).


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