In response to requests from the LGBT community for government response to the recent police raids on several gay establishments, the Presidential Human Rights Committee (PHRC) held a small dialogue between the Philippine National Police (PNP) and members of the gay community on the morning of July 18.
From our side, we had myself representing the legal rights NGO Rainbow Rights Project (R-Rights); Raymund Alikpala, fourth nominee of the LGBT partylist Ladlad; and Anthony Liam, proprietor of Hilom spa, and who also used to run the now defunct Queeriosity Palace. The PNP was represented by Police Senior Inspector Jessie Perez, Atty. Dangal Masigla and Melvin Raguso from the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office. Serving as the facilitator was Undersecretary Severo Catura of PHRC.
The dialogue was the result of several follow-ups made by R-Rights a few days after Club Bath, a gay sauna in Pasay, was raided on April 15 (for an anonymous firsthand account of the raid from the point of view of the victim, visit this site). The meeting was set and reset during May, and Anne, the PHRC staff who arranged for the meeting, kept apologizing as the PNP hierarchy was in a flux and the PHRC was also busy preparing for the Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council, which was in the last week of May.
It felt like everyone at the PHRC forgot about the commitment. And then another raid was staged, this time it was the Fahrenheit Cafe in Cubao, covered by Manila Gay Guy (check the coverage here). We were traveling to Baguio City to participate in their gay pride parade, when word of the raid reached us via Facebook. We also received news that Ladlad made arrangements to find lawyers to support the victims.
We can say we have a long history of police raids of gay bars, since way back when gay bars were fluorishing under the Marcos regime. Just last year, in the aforementioned Queeriosity Palace, also in Pasay City, about 70 gay men were jailed until they were able to cough up cash in exchange for their freedom. Yet, despite the repeated experiences of abuse of thousands of gay men and transgender women at the hands of cops who manhandle, arrest, extort money from them, and threaten them with lawsuits and jail terms, we have had no Stonewall event.
It seems that even now, when we are in the new millennium, gay Filipinos still find it difficult to fight back in a mass struggle to oppose police brutality. Gay men that I have rescued from jail for being picked up by the police since like 10 or 12 years ago would be angry at first, cry for justice, and ask me what legal steps they can take to get justice.
But in the end, two or three days later, they would change their minds, after realizing how futile it is to stand their ground – all that paperwork, the office hours lost to appearing in courts, and the crushing reality of facing the sneering public, the judge, et cetera just to see that the police get some lessons in redress of grievances.
Six months before, R-Rights was working with PHRC, and we co-sponsored the first inter-agency forum in December 2011 (proceedings of the workshops can be found here). Representatives from the LGBT community provided basic knowledge to government agencies – such as the Department of Foreign Affairs, the DILG, and the Commission on Human Rights – that can be used as tools for incorporating LGBT rights in their policies and practice. Usec. Catura challenged us to tap the PHRC if we want to promote LGBT human rights in government. Taking up his challenge, R-Rights called up his office to see if we can get some results.
And so fast forward again to this week, when the meeting finally materialized in Malacanang, with the gay representation not really expecting concrete results from another dialogue. Nonetheless, we decided to give it a try, and maybe the cause of defending the rights of gay men will somehow inch forward.
Liam, whose story you read from the link I posted above about Queeriosity raid, started off with the assertion that the bars he operates provide safe space for men to socialize, and not, as the police raiders claim, engage in transactional sex as alleged by their threats to apply the Anti-Trafficking Law against the patrons, owners, and staff. He went on with a litany of modus operandi that he said seemed to have become more perfect and lethal over time, as the cops learn new ways of avoiding getting sued if the victims file complaints.
Liam said that even if spa owners have organized into a unified organization and deal directly with the offices of their mayors in carrying out HIV prevention programs, rogue cops still threaten them with the Anti-trafficking Law, particularly by seizing or planting condoms as evidence of commercial sex in the bars. Liam added that police from other jurisdictions do the raiding, and they wear no uniforms or nameplates, and introduce themselves with fictitious names. The arresting units refuse to talk about their objectives, show no search warrant, and refuse to listen to staff who try to show them the business permits.
Raymund Alikpala then described the new evasive tactics. In the Fahrenheit raid, only one person did all the talking and shouting, while five others went through the motions silently and avoiding physical violence, presumably to leave no traces of physical injuries. The victims were not told what laws they supposedly violate, except for repeated taunts that they are bakla, they are immoral, and that’s the reason why they have to suffer this.
“Everything was verbal, they had no firearms, no physical abuse, they even had the victims go through a medical exam to prove they were not hurt. The raiders did not take the cash register, just the log book,” Alikpala said, quoting a Fahrenheit staff he interviewed.
Afterwards, I presented the framework of human rights protection that the Philippine government is supposed to implement for all citizens and all sectors, including LGBTs. I emphasized the role of PHRC and PNP as executive agencies that are duty bearers, expected to respect, promote, and protect human rights according to international covenants that the Philippines is party to. I cited developments in other countries, where government and police forces have developed a process of looking at sexual orientation and gender identity to know that institutions like Fahrhenheit are not establishments for sex based on financial transactions, and therefore are not places for prostitution.
I also said that police raids are discriminatory in intent and serve to increase shame and stigma among gay men and this discourages them from seeking healthful and safer sex. Police raids therefore contribute to higher HIV rates and so militates against efforts of other government agencies such as DOH in the fight against HIV transmission among gay populations.
USec. Catura insisted that the meeting produce some initial outputs, as he asked what can be done at the level of the participants without waiting for the entire PNP to act. He reported that PHRC has made some follow ups with the National Capitol Region Police Office (NCRPO) about the reports they forwarded regarding the police raids on Club Bath and Fahrenheit. The official reply was the incidents were not recorded on the blotters, and no cases of human trafficking were filed.
PSI Jessie Perez then said that one deterrent that the gay community must face is to file a formal complaint. He said that based on the actions described in the Internet stories, the raiders can be charged in the Ombudsman Office with kidnapping and arbitrary detention. He said that the PNP has a correct raiding policy and can raid only if accompanied by the Bureau of Licensing and Permits if the issues were about the business papers. He suggested the use of the Text 117 that is supposed to send complaints to the PNP chief, because cops do arrest errant cops.
Liam replied that in the real world, this is not at all possible, because the victims have no choice even if they knew their rights against illegal arrests, since the cops involved proceed to hurt and coerce them into the paddy wagons for transit to the detention centers.
USec. Catura urged the gay community to file test cases to move the police to clean its ranks. He also cited the need for the LGBT community to educate their ranks with visual aids, posters and handouts that outline their human rights. USec. Catura promised to send out a communication to the PNP based on the cases of Club Bath and Fahrenheit to remind the PNP and all its police units in NCR about the conduct and engagement with gay patrons. He also asked for a review of procedures done during raids.
PSI Perez said there is already a new policy in place that prohibits arbitrary arrest that is reinforced by a memorandum circular from Gen. Bacalso that includes a penalty clause.
The discussions went on for two hours, ending with an agreement to convene another meeting to be set next month. By that time, the gay community will be provided a copy of the letter that the PHRC will send to the PNP. USec. Catura said that the process was important not only for the human rights of the gay community, but also contributes to the efforts of the administration to lessen graft and corruption in the police forces.
If you ask me for my personal take on this process, I would say I do not have much faith in moving forward. There has been several dialogues with PNP people trying to break their culture of impunity in the way they deal with gay establishments. Many of the explanations from the PNP side during the meeting were simply descriptive of the corrupt lifestyles of their comrades and there was little the leadership can do to dissuade them from the practice.
Be that as it may, I still cling to the hope that gay men who patronize saunas themselves become more assertive in the face of abusive authority figures. The PNP guys who met with us has a point when they said that one sure deterrent against bad cops is to show them some bitchy attitude and show them you won’t be cowed into submission. I can say that all customers of Filipino gay saunas seem to have this fatalistic dependence on the business owners to protect them against the police. I find that a bit of a stretch and unrealistic; your gay sauna owner has a lot of problems and they do pay a lot of bribes just to keep the saunas open.
I hope this dialogue will not raise high expectations. Our efforts trying to talk to government officials can only do so much. There is no magic wand that is a one solution to the problem of police brutality. Perhaps what we really need to do to guarantee we won’t be bothered is to make our Stonewall uprising. So in the meantime, we do these tiny steps, not sure when it will finally get rid of this discriminatory practice. We just keep taking our chances.