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Phl records highest number of reported HIV cases since 1984 with over 30 Filipinos infected daily in March

In March 2017, the HIV/ AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines reported 968 new HIV cases, the “highest number of cases ever reported since 1984.” For Bisdak Pride Inc.’s Roxanne Omega Doron, “We should reexamine and reevaluate our national HIV response if it is still relevant,” stressing that “now having 30 cases per day cases means that we need to work more since the data suggest an alarming trend that has, in fact, been going on for years now.”

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Another month to highlight the worsening HIV situation in the Philippines; and how existing efforts continue to be lacking, if not actually failing.

In March 2017, the HIV/ AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP) of the Department of Health reported 968 new HIV cases, which is 32% higher compared to the same period in 2016 (735). According to HARP, this was the “highest number of cases ever reported since 1984.”

The first HIV case in the Philippines was reported in 1984. From January 1984 to March 2017, the number of HIV cases reported to HARP totaled 42,283.

“Let’s be blunt: We are not doing enough to deal with the (worsening) HIV situation in the Philippines,” said Michael David dela Cruz Tan, publishing editor of Outrage Magazine, the only LGBT publication in the Philippines, which also has HIV-related efforts. “Enough of the sugarcoating and patting of the backs of those who are currently in the HIV advocacy; we may risk burnout, but we have to do more and act even faster if we want to see all our efforts make a dent at all in this continuously worsening social problem.”

This development is alarming, according to Roxanne Omega Doron, who helms Bisdak Pride Inc., a Cebu City-based LGBT organization that also has HIV-related efforts, including conducting community-based HIV screening (CBS).

“Thirty (people getting infected with HIV) per day is something we need to worry about – economically, socially and even politically,” Doron said. “While HIV incidence is decreasing in a significant majority of countries around the world, ours is increasing. Demographers even call it demographic anomaly, and rightfully so.”

Most (96%) of the 968 new HIV cases reported by HARP were male. The median age was 27 years old; with half belonging to the 25-34 year age group, while 33% were youth aged 15-24 years.

Region-wise, the most number of reported cases were from the National Capital Region (NCR) with 309 (32%) cases, Region 4A with 135 (14%) cases, Region 3 with 107 (11%) cases, Region 7 with 76 (8%) cases, and Region 11 with 52 (5%) cases. An additional 289 cases (30%) came from the rest of the country.

For Fritzie Estoque, chairperson of the Misamis Oriental-Cagayan de Oro AIDS Network (MOCAN), existing efforts continue to be lacking. “No, we are not doing enough,” she said.

For instance, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has D.O. No. 102-10 (HIV Workplace Policy) requiring all private companies to conduct HIV education to all employees and officers, while the Civil Service Commission has Memorandum Circular No. 11 s. 2013 that provided guidelines in the implementation of workplace policy and education program on HIV and AIDS. Now, if only these orders were fully implemented… then by this time, we’d be reaping the benefits that these orders ought to have sown,” Estoque said.

Estoque added that there’s always a gap with “the grand plans, and what’s being implemented.”

DOLE Region 10, where MOCAN is directly involved in the awareness aspect of the implementation – may be certain of the need to implement the ordinance there, but “it seems to us that other companies don’t bother to comply because complying isn’t strictly implemented.”

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MODES OF TRANSMISSION

Reported modes of transmission (MOT) were sexual contact (942), needle sharing among injecting drug users (IDU, 22) and mother-to-child transmission (4). Eighty-seven percent of infections transmitted through sexual contact were among males who have sex with males (MSM).

It is worth noting that from 1984 to 2009, the predominant MOT was male-female sex. But starting 2010, the trend shifted to male-to-male sex as the main MOT; this has continually increased since then, so that from January 2012 to March 2017, 82% (27,709) of new infections were through sexual contact among MSM.

Different regions also have different predominant MOTs. For instance, almost half (47%) of the MSM ever reported were from NCR; almost all of the IDU were from Region 7; and 39% of females who engaged in transactional sex were from Region 3.

Tan already earlier noted the “inevitable pending return to mainstream population of HIV infection”. While the current trend seems to signify that “the Philippine sis mimicking largely (particularly former) Western trends, where HIV infection seemed to have focused particularly on gay men, we will buck this ‘trend’ because MSM do not necessarily only have homosexual sexual contacts. And when they start having sex with women, the risk for infection is also there.”

For Tan, this is worth highlighting because there were instances when Outrage Magazine made rounds in other parts of the country, where there are actually so-called service providers that refuse to offer HIV testing to women, claiming that their ‘priority’ is only to serve MSM. This is true, for instance, in select (and well-funded) community-based HIV screening (CBS) programs that only target MSM, and “even openly refuse to test women who want to know their HIV status.”

“It’s almost like we recognize that many MSM are at risk for HIV infection due to their unsafe sexual practices, and yet we refuse to acknowledge that they have other sexual partners aside from men,” Tan said. “Again, if left sans proper responses, we’re setting the stage for things to just worsen.”

MOCAN’s Estoque also lamented the “over-emphasis on key affected populations (KAP)/key populations (KP), considering that if people are HIV ignorant, then they won’t know that any one can get infected with HIV.”

This is why she’s pushing for better HIV education, instead of “just focusing on voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) and treatment.” “Why not invest in the education aspect as a prevention measure?”

SPECIAL POPULATIONS

Four pregnant women were, in fact, diagnosed with HIV in March, with two cases from NCR, one case was from Region 4B, and another one from Region 7.

Perhaps also worth noting is the encumbrance of HIV among the young.

In March, 315 (33%) cases were among youth aged 15-24 years. Most (96%) were male; and almost all (312) were infected through sexual contact (30 male-female sex, 200 male-male sex, 82 sex with both males and females). Three were infected through needle sharing among IDU.

Under-19 adolescent Filipinos also figured in the March data. Forty-five adolescents aged 10-19 years were reported to HARP, and all of them were infected through sexual contact (three male-female sex, 31 male-male sex, 11 sex with both males and females).

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Ninety-five people (or 10% of the total number of cases for the month) who engage in transactional sex – or those who report paying for sex, regularly accept payment for sex, or do both – were infected with HIV. Almost all (98%) were male whose ages ranged from 18 to 64 years; the two females were from 20-31 years old.

It was only in December 2012 when HARP started reporting on those who engaged in transactional sex. And since then, a total of 3,788 cases reported in HARP from were people who engaged in transactional sex. Ninety-six percent (3,625) were male and 4% (163) were female.

NO ONE SHOULD DIE FROM AIDS – YEAH, RIGHT!

Twenty-seven Filipinos dies from AIDS-related complications in March; all of them were male. Eighteen (67%) of the reported deaths belonged to 25-34 year age group, eight (30%) were from 35-49 year old age group, and one case from 15-24 year age group. All were infected through sexual contact (three male-female sex, 16 male-male sex, eight sex with both males and females).

Since 1984, when the first HIV case was reported in the Philippines, a total of 2,124 deaths were already reported. The number is believed to be inaccurate, however, due to under-reporting.

For Tan, “internationally, there’s this notion that no one should die from HIV anymore. “In an ideal world, this is all good. But in a setting like the Philippines, this is also a very naïve perspective.”

In the Philippines, there remain many issues that lead to AIDS-related deaths, e.g.:

  1. Delayed detection (often “blamed” on the PLHIV, with this blaming neglecting that there are still unresolved issues related to stigma and discrimination).
  2. Bureaucratic deterrent to make new approaches the norm (e.g. rollout of well-funded CBS takes years; ignorance of U=U, thus non-inclusion among existing solutions).
  3. Lack of information about HIV and AIDS that often lead to stigma and discrimination (e.g. PLHIVs getting kicked out of their homes after their family members discover their status).
  4. Inability to get tested (e.g. there are fishermen and farmers who have no access to HIV testing facilities; minors who are unable to get tested sans consent from their parents/guardians).
  5. Inconsistent HIV services offered even by government-owned treatment hubs (e.g. viral load is not available in many of treatment hubs outside of Metro Manila).
  6. Mismanagement of available resources (e.g. existing projects allocate for some implementers to stay in posh hotels to hobnob with some well-compensated ‘ambassadors’; while some PLHIVs unable to access ARVs because of inability to pay PhilHealth).

On the latter (i.e. access to life-saving antiretroviral medicines), in March, 784 PLHIVs started on ART. Three of them died within the same month.

Over 19,370 PLHIVs were on ART as of March, most (97%) of them males. The number continues to be less than half the 42,283 number of reported PLHIVs in the Philippines. Ninety-five percent were on first line regimen, 4% were on second line regimen, and 1% were on other regimen.

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Stephen Christian Quilacio, former head of Cagayan de Oro City-based Northern Mindanao AIDS Advocates, believes there’s a “continuing effort to reach out everyone”, adding – somewhat sardonically – that “if we believe we’re doing just fine with whatever we’re doing now, the numbers of Filipinos getting infected should have been dwindling, not increasing.”

ALL HANDS NEEDED

Tan stressed that, “just as we repeatedly say, all efforts that eye to stop the worsening HIV situation in the Philippines matter,” he said. “But we need an urgent and very realistic reassessment of the services we’re currently offering to see what works and what doesn’t; or for that matter, who works and who doesn’t. Remove those that/who aren’t working. Remove politicking and even profiteering in releasing existing funding. Amend the law (RA 8504), and start implementing it. Start implementing (and funding, for that matter) new approaches re HIV (e.g. CBS, U=U, PrEP, PEP). Stop the profiteering happening in the HIV advocacy. Deal with elitism in HIV advocacy (e.g. gaining traction in social networks is all good and well, but reach out to those who do not even have access to the Internet). Reconsideration of how we deal with the sex industry. If we act like it’s business as usual, then we’re f***ed.”

Quilacio seconded this, adding more succinctly the “need to go beyond only the popular approaches to instead put into place those that truly work.” On this end, he advocates the “funding of ‘right’ advocates, not opportunists who are benefiting from the HIV cause. Reaching out to grassroots communities that continue to be neglected by ‘popular’ campaigns that may generate lots of media mileage and funding but are actually very limited. Inclusion of responses to the needs identified by PLHIVs themselves, such as psychosocial support, legal counsel (particularly for those who are discriminated against), and others.”

For Quilacio, “solving problems is always possible. But we can’t just keep talking about solving this issue, yet fail to actually deliver the solutions.”

Bisdak Pride Inc.’s Doron is similarly advocating for prompt reconsideration of efforts. “We should reexamine and reevaluate our national HIV response if it is still relevant,” he said, stressing that “now having 30 cases per day cases means that we need to work more since the data suggest an alarming trend that has, in fact, been going on for years now.”

More specifically for Doron, “the national HIV response should be recalibrated to include various groups, sectors and areas.”

MOCAN’s Estoque hopes for “bigger participation of so many neglected sectors – e.g. religious sector to come up with a ‘genuine Christian response’ in solving the HIV epidemic.” Similarly, she hopes for government to have “ngipin (contextually: political will and will power)” when implementing HIV-related programs – e.g. local AIDS ordinances should be properly implemented, AIDS Councils should be made active, and the Department of Health should go beyond media savvy. “Hindi na sapat ang mga pa-konswelo lang (Consolation efforts no longer suffice),” Estoque ended.

A registered nurse, John Ryan (or call him "Rye") Mendoza hails from Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao (where, no, it isn't always as "bloody", as the mainstream media claims it to be, he noted). He first moved to Metro Manila in 2010 (supposedly just to finish a health social science degree), but fell in love not necessarily with the (err, smoggy) place, but it's hustle and bustle. He now divides his time in Mindanao (where he still serves under-represented Indigenous Peoples), and elsewhere (Metro Manila included) to help push for equal rights for LGBT Filipinos. And, yes, he parties, too (see, activists need not be boring! - Ed).

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Ilagan City in province of Isabela enacts SOGIE-specific anti-discrimination ordinance

General Ordinance 198-2019 finds the “need to prohibit… discrimination against people on the basis of actual or perceived SOGIE on the areas of work, accommodation, education, provision of goods, facilities and services, memberships in organizations, and the administration of local laws and programs.”

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The rainbow rises up north.

Ilagan – officially the City of Ilagan – a first class city and capital of the province of Isabela, enacted its own anti-discrimination ordinance based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Authored by City Councilor Rolando Tugade, General Ordinance 198-2019 stated that the office of the Sangguniang Panglungsod “finds the need to prohibit, so far as is possible, discrimination against people on the basis of actual or perceived SOGIE on the areas of work, accommodation, education, provision of goods, facilities and services, memberships in organizations, and the administration of local laws and programs.”

According to Yonidick Pascua, president of City of Ilagan Gay Association, who pushed for the passage of the ADO, having the same is important “para mapangalagaan ang bawat LGBTQIA person,” he said. This is also needed, he added, to show respect to the rights and “dignidad ng bawat LGBTQIA person; para sa pagkapantay-pantay (na trato) bilang tao sa lipunan.

Passing the ADO was challenging, said Pascua.

Marami pa rin sa ating mga kababayan ang lubos na hindi naiintindihan kung ano ba talaga ang SOGIE,” he said, adding that this is – nonetheless – exactly why the ADO is needed. Fortunately, for him, City Mayor Josemarie L. Diaz and Vice Mayor Kit Bello backed the ADO.

With the ADO, “inaasahan natin na magiging mas ligtas ang bawat LGBTQIA person (dito sa Ilagan); inaasahan natin na mas lalong magkakaroon ng lakas ng loob at mamuhay ng mas panatag ang bawat LGBTQIA person, at inaasahan natin ang mas masaya at makulay na pamumuhay ng bawat LGBTQIA person dito,” he said.

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Aside from the aforementioned acts prohibited by the ADO, also deemed unlawful is “discrimination through verbal or non-verbal ridicule and vilification,” where it is declared “unlawful for any… person to vilify or ridicule any person on the based of perceived or actual SOGIE which may result in the loss of self-esteem or sense of safety and security, or the infliction of psychological harm through: contemptuous imitating or mockery; and uttering of abusive and slanderous statements.”

Persons who violate the ADO may be jailed for up to 60 days, and/or fined up to P5,000.

With the ADO, the city mandates its barangays to “develop a system to record and document reported cases of discrimination and violence against LGBTQIA persons, and provide assistance to victims.” But the ADO also establishes an LGBTQIA council.

Yakapin po ninyo ang LGBTQIA people, itaguyod ang SOGIE para sa proteksyon ng bawat LGBTQIA person at bigyan sila ng pagkakataon na mamuhay ng mapayapa at ligtas sa pamamagitan ng pagpasa ng ADO,” Pascua said. “Ang mga LGBTQIA people ay kasama sa lipunan kaya nararapat laman na yakapin, tanggapin at bigyan ng respeto.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MS DINDI TAN

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Behind the bars on LGBTQIA life in prison

In the Philippines, it remains hard to monitor wrongful accusations (and eventual wrongful convictions); much more on how badly this affects members of the LGBTQIA community. Outrage Magazine interviews a gay man who experienced this, and what he went through as a minor behind bars.

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Photo by Dmitry Yakovlev from Unsplash.com

It was a tiring day for then-16-year-old Harry (not his real name). He just got home from two consecutive weddings, and so – right after arriving at their house in San Jose City in Nueva Ecija – he asked his mother if he could skip school to just rest.

Harry’s mother indulged him; but she also asked Harry to look after a younger sibling as she had to do some errands. On her way out, Harry saw his mother speak to the nine-year-old son of their neighbor outside their house; he said he was just wandering to catch a dragonfly.

With his mother gone, and before getting some sleep, Harry decided to harvest some mangoes from the tree beside their house. And while atop the tree, he noticed that the nine-year-old boy was no longer in the street. After getting down from the tree, he went inside their house, locked the door, and then slept.

It seemed that only a few minutes passed, but Harry was woken by knocking on their front door. He got up to open the door; it was the nine-year-old boy’s mother, asking about the clothes Harry wore to one of the weddings that day. When Harry moved to go inside the room to get the pants he wore, the nine-year-old boy surfaced from inside the room.

Anong ginagawa mo diyan (What are you doing there)?” the mother asked her son, flabbergasted.

He said “tinitingnan ko lang ‘yung kapatid ni Harry (I was just looking at the younger brother of Harry).”

Harry joined the conversation, saying he didn’t know that the boy was even inside.

The boy’s family went straight to the police station, accusing Harry of child molestation. Harry was eventually taken into custody.

Though he was only 16 then, Harry was detained at the lock-up facility of the Philippine National Police (PNP). This is – by itself – a violation of Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice Law of 2006, which sets the minimum age of criminal liability at 15 years old. This means that those between 15 to 18 years old (and Harry was 16 when the alleged rape happened) may be detained in youth centers and go through rehabilitation programs, while those under 15 years old are exempted from criminal liability and undergo intervention.

After a month with the PNP, Harry was transferred to the custody of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), an agency of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), mandated to direct, supervise and control the administration and operation of all jails in the Philippines.

Though he was only 16 then, Harry was detained at the lock-up facility of the Philippine National Police (PNP). This is – by itself – a violation of Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice Law of 2006, which sets the minimum age of criminal liability at 15 years old.
Photo by Ali Yahya from Unsplash.com

RAINBOW INCARCERATION

Here’s a sobering fact: the incarceration rate of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people is up to three times than that of the general population. Sexual minorities (or people who self-identify as LGB and people who do not identify as LGB but reported a same-sex sexual experience) comprise: 9.3% of men in prison, 6.2% of men in jail, 42.1% of women in prison, and 35.7% of women in jail.

Note: As is often used, “jails” are facilities that hold inmates awaiting trial or serving short sentences, while “prisons” are facilities for those serving their (often longer) sentences.

Now this is worth stressing: Even if this has already been (partly) studied overseas, this continues to be largely ignored in the Philippine context.

One study – “Incarceration Rates and Traits of Sexual Minorities in the United States: National Inmate Survey, 2011–2012″, co-authored by Ilan H. Meyer, PhD, Andrew R. Flores, PhD, Lara Stemple, JD, Adam P. Romero, JD, Bianca D.M. Wilson, PhD, and Jody L. Herman, PhD and published in the American Journal of Public Health – found that sexual minorities are not only incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, but that once incarcerated, they are more likely to experience mistreatment, harsh punishment and sexual victimization.

Sexual minorities (or people who self-identify as LGB and people who do not identify as LGB but reported a same-sex sexual experience) comprise: 9.3% of men in prison, 6.2% of men in jail, 42.1% of women in prison, and 35.7% of women in jail.
Photo by Denny Müller from Unsplash.com

A LIFE IN FEAR

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Nung first time kong pumasok sa loob ng selda, binuhusan ako ng isang pulis ng tubig habang natutulog pa ako (The first day I got detained, a police officer splashed water on me while I was sleeping),” Harry recalled. Dazed and confused, and not knowing who the person was (because she was not wearing uniform), “tinanong ko siya kung naka-detain din ba siya; hindi ko alam na pulis siya. Nalaman ko lang nung bigla niyang pinakuha yung batuta niya (I asked if she was also a detainee; I had no idea she was a police officer. The moment she asked for her club/cudgel, everything just came to me).”

There was a time when Harry was almost transferred to Boystown (a facility for offending minors), but his mother pleaded for this not to be done since he would then be too far from home and she would be unable to visit him regularly. And because he did not entirely understand what was being discussed, all Harry said he could do was cry, “too scared of everything.”

Bullying/getting maltreated was a “norm” particularly for those who just enter prison.

In Harry’s case, he was beaten – an act, he was told, was “a way to welcome new inmates.”

Ano yung ginagawa ng mga jail officers? Wala lang din. Wala silang ginagawa kasi minsan parang sila na din yung nagsasabi o nagbibigay ng memo na i-welcome yung mga bagong inmates (The jail officers are not acknowledging this issue. They are not doing anything about it because there are times when they, themselves, are the ones who give orders to welcome new inmates in that way),” Harry said.

Inside the jail, minors are supposed to be separated from the adult inmates. But this policy is also amendable, depending on the whims of the warden. In their case, an inmate who was also a minor tried to escape because he wanted to celebrate his birthday outside the prison, but “after that incident, the (minors were already treated as adult inmates), included with the adult prisoners.”

Men and women have separate sections; but transgender women are mixed with men.

Wala silang sariling lugar doon sa kulungan. Isinasama sila sa mga lalaki kasi para sa mga tao doon, lalaki pa din sila (There’s no designated place for them. The jail officers still see/treat them as men),” Harry said.

Also as big as a risk for new inmates like Harry was getting raped.

Meron talagang rape na nangyayari sa loob. Lalo na sa mga bagong pasok. Yun din minsan ang parang pinaka-welcome ng mga inmates na lalaki sa mga inmates na bakla. Kahit ayaw mo, talagang pipilitin at pipilitin ka (It is undeniable that rape occurs inside the jail. They specially do it to the newcomers. This is how straight inmates would welcome gay people in their cell. Even if you don’t want to, you will be forced)” Harry recalled.

Harry was not exempted from this experience because, “sabihin ko man na ayaw ko, hindi pa din sila pumapayag na huwag kong gawin. Pag sinabi ng isang inmate na gawin namin, wala na lang din akong magawa kundi sumunod na lang (Even though I didn’t want to, I would never have a choice. If a straight inmate asked for it, you just have to obey them),” Harry said. “Na-experience ko yun as a welcome sa akin nung pagpunta ko don (I experienced it as a welcome greeting when I first got there).”

At 16, Harry was raped in jail by a 23-year-old.

Pag na-gustuhan ka nila, may mga grupo don tapos lalapitan ka nila. Papapasukin ka nila sa lugar nila tapos gagalawin ka nila. Mapapasunod ka na lang kesa masaktan ka (If you caught their interest, groups of boys would approach you and ask you to join them in their cell to rape you. You won’t have any other choice because if you refuse, they will hurt you),” he said.

This maltreatment, by the way, is not exclusive to members of the LGBT community in jail/prison, since “there, no matter what your gender is, they will hurt you if they wanted to.”

Though these may – no doubt – be known to those running the country’s jails/prisons, Harry said that they didn’t have access to any contraceptives and/or protection while inside the jail/prison.

Hindi sila nakakapag-provide ng ganun. Kahit minsan nasusubukan namin magkaroon ng sakit, hindi din kami nabibigyan ng kahit anong gamot. Itinatawag lang namin sa mga magulang namin yung mga ganun (They can’t provide things like that. Even at times when we were sick, no medicines were made available to us. We still rely on our relatives outside),” he said, adding: “Saka pa lang nagkakaroon ng aksyon pag parang mamamatay na yung tao (They only really act when someone is already really close to dying.)”

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There was a point in time when Harry said he almost gave up. But he kept telling himself that “hindi yun ang panahon na dapat akong mawalan ng pag-asa dahil naniniwala ako noon na darating at darating yung oras na malalaman talaga kung ano yung totoo (That was not the time for me to just give up. I had faith that the truth will come out),” Harry said.

In Harry’s case, he was beaten – an act, he was told, was “a way to welcome new inmates.”
Photo by Pavlofox from Pixabay.com

FLAWED SYSTEM

Much has already been said about prison management in the Philippines.

To start, and as noted by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), critical and chronic overcrowding has long been a perennial topic when discussing the country’s jail facilities. BJMP runs 415 detention facilities in 17 regions, and on average, its jailhouses report 380% overcapacity. In Metro Manila alone, the BJMP’s total cell area of 22,318 square meters, designed for 4,749 detainees; but it currently holds 21,868 detainees (a congestion rate of 361%).

The surprising – and somewhat senseless – thing worth noting here is that between 85% and 90% of the more than 94,000 inmates in the custody of BJMP are awaiting or undergoing trial.

“This makes the Philippines the Southeast Asian country with the highest number of pretrial and remand detainees and the second highest in all of Asia. Prolonged detention without charge or trial violates international human rights instruments, including Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Philippines ratified in 1986. Moreover, it ‘shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody,’ but rather released with guarantees of appearing for trial,” HRW stated.

HRW also noted that “the injustice of lengthy detention is compounded by the horrific conditions of the jail facilities (with) many detention centers in the Philippines failing to meet the minimum United Nations standards for such facilities, including inadequate amounts of food, poor nutrition, and unsanitary conditions.”

And yes, “torture and other forms of ill-treatment are also common,” HRW similarly noted.

LIFE LESSONS

Inside jail, fighting for oneself was never really an option, Harry said, because the inmates could just – eventually – get back to you for fighting back. Giving in to just go with the flow was the attitude being in jail teaches inmates.

Though one time, Harry said he tried to fight for his basic human right of… simply existing and being treated more humanely.

One time, he recalled, a lady jail officer started pushing his chest with her fist and kept asking him if it hurts. It reached a point where the officer was already pointing a knife at him.

Sabi ko sa kanya, hindi rin ako papayag na gaganunin niya ako. Bilang isang inmate, itrato din naman sana kami na parang tao dahil hindi naman kami iba sa kanila. Kasi sabi ko wala naman kaming ginagawang masama sa kanila. Tapos sabi ko pwede ko silang ireklamo sa ginagawa nilang ‘yun (I told her that I won’t let her do that to me. I may be an inmate, but I am also a person just like her. I told her that I did not do anything wrong to deserve the way she is treating me. I also told her that I could file a complaint on how she is treating me),” he said.

That – fortunately for Harry – silenced and prevented her from doing more harm.

It was while in jail that Harry finished high school under the Alternative Learning System (ALS) program offered there.

ALS is a practical option for learning in the Philippines, offering education to those who could not usually attend and access the formal type of schooling.

It was also while in jail when Harry first found love.

Harry met another minor, and “we became BFs.”

Prisoners who are in relationships and want to have sex may ask for permission from the jail officers who then give them space to do so. “Pwedeng-pwede lalo na pag LGBT ka; pero pag babae at lalaki, medyo mahirap kasi inmate na lalaki at inmate na babae, bawal ‘yun (ipagsama) (The officers are very open to that matter specially if you are a part of the LGBT community. But if the sexual intercourse is going to be between a man and a woman, they don’t allow it).”

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Their relationship lasted for a year and three months.

Inside jail, fighting for oneself was never really an option, Harry said, because the inmates could just – eventually – get back to you for fighting back. Giving in to just go with the flow was the attitude being in jail teaches inmates.
Photo by Ye Jinghan from Unsplash.com

THE WRONGLY ACCUSED

While in jail, Harry was repeatedly told that he would be transferred to “The Mansion” (how inmates called New Bilibid Prison, located in Muntinlupa as the main insular penitentiary designed to house the prison population of the Philippines). He was scared; and he was feeling bad, though not just for himself but also his mother who – even if she just gave birth – continued to regularly visit him.

And then one day, his lawyer – while on a visit – just handed him his already-signed release paper.

Bigla po akong na-congratulate ng attorney ko dahil nai-panalo ko daw yung kaso ko (My lawyer congratulated me because we won the case),” Harry said.

Relieved, he said he just wanted to have a life outside.

It is worth noting that Harry’s case is not exactly rare. And the warning bells have long been ringing.

In 2004, Free Legal Assistance Group (an NGO that provides legal assistance mainly for human rights cases) conducted a survey of death convicts in the Philippines, and it found “significant figures that could indicate a high judicial error rate”. The survey showed that 73.9% of the convicts were arrested without a warrant, 78.3% were not informed of their constitutional rights at the time of arrest, and – get this! – 90% were not assisted by counsel during police investigation and interrogation.

Perhaps it is also worth noting that 52.2% of the convicts belong to the lowest socioeconomic class.

In 2014, Innocence Project (a litigation and public policy organization composed of human rights advocates in Ateneo, UP Law School and De La Salle University College of Law, headed by Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno) revealed that some 400 prisoners were wrongfully convicted by the court; most are charged with rape.

And in 2017, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported of the Supreme Court’s admission that seven in 10 death penalty convictions in 1993-2004 by the lower courts, submitted for automatic review, were wrongly judged. Also, during trials, 59% of the suspects were represented by lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office, but 54.1% did not have regular consultations with their trial lawyers, and 10.2% never even had a consultation.

So in 2017, during the 17th Congress, former Sultan Kudarat Rep. Horacio Suansing Jr. and Nueva Ecija Rep. Estrellita Suansing filed House Bill 5582 to create a commission mandated to review all cases in which an innocent person was convicted; identify the causes of wrongful convictions; and identify current laws, rules and procedures implicated in each identified cause of wrongful convictions. This is because, the politicians noted, “at present, there is no government entity in our country charged with conducting the independent expert review of wrongful convictions necessary to identify the primary and potential causes of wrongful convictions.”

The same bill was actually originally filed by the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago during the 14th Congress and refiled during the 16th Congress. It failed to pass the 17th Congress.

Suffice it to say, in a country like the Philippines, it remains extremely hard to monitor wrongful accusations (as in the case of Harry) and eventual wrongful convictions; much more on how badly this affects members of the LGBTQIA community.  And then – yes – add to this the extra layer of hardships experienced by members of the LGBTQIA community if/when they are sent to jail/prison, some of them experienced by Harry, solely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

THE WORLD OUTSIDE

Upon his release from jail, Harry’s first stop was his brother’s house, where they accused him of escaping. “They only believed me when I showed them the release paper,” he recalled.

Not surprisingly, the complainants weren’t too happy that Harry was released. And this was even if other stories emerged – e.g. that the family of the complainant just paid the medical exam to release a report that stated that the boy was raped; that when the nine- year-old boy was interviewed, he actually denied that he was raped; and that the complainant demanded P30,000 from his family in exchange for his freedom.

Harry was also told that if he wants to turn the tables on them and file a case against his complainants, it would be a very strong lawsuit.

But not that Harry even cared at that point in time. “Pinabayaan ko na lang. Hindi ko inisip na maghiganti pa sa kanila (I moved on. Revenge is not what I wanted),” Harry said.

Harry’s relationship with his fellow minor inmate also did not prosper.

The BF is also already out of jail, Harry said, and he’s already married (to a woman). “Wala naman akong magawa kundi maging masaya na lang para sa kaniya. Pero magkaibigan kami ngayon (There’s nothing I can do but be happy for him. We’re still friends though),” Harry said.

As a freed man since 2016, Harry eventually found a job working for a local government official.

Sa totoo lang, mahirap talaga ang buhay sa loob ng kulungan kapag kayo ay papasok so kailangan talaga na mag-ingat kayo na wag gumawa ng kasalanan (My advice to the LGBT people is for them to watch their actions because it is very hard to live behind the bars),” Harry said.

And to the incarcerated: “Sana mag-ingat na lang din sila kasi kailangan din nilang maipagtanggol yung sarili nila sa lahat ng maling gawain doon sa loob (To those who are inside, they should take care and learn to fight for themselves from every wrong thing that is happening inside).”

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‘Practice what we believe without inciting hate’

With those opposing the non-discrimination of LGBTQIA people still using the Bible to promote their hatred/bigotry, there are numerous people of faith who say that practicing what we believe is possible without inciting hatred. In the end, the goal is to ensure everyone is treated equally; and for the State to sanction those who violate this concept of equality.

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The SOGIE Equality Bill is needed, said Pastor Carleen Nomorosa, program coordinator at the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), because “kinikilala niya at inaangat niya ang kagalingan at kahusayan at ang maaaring maiambag pa ng LGBTQIA people sa iba’t ibang larangan (it recognizes and elevates how good LGBTQIA people can be, and their contribution to various sectors).”

Nomorosa noted that currently, a handful of LGBTQIA Filipinos are not even allowed to share their potentials because they are hindered by their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE). “And as a Christian, as a pastor, I believe that this (SOGIE) should not hinder LGBTQIA people from… fully participating in society,” she said.

This is why, for Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the sponsor of the SOGIE Equality Bill in the Upper House/Senate, there is a need to “remind ourselves of (what unites us). That we are all against any form of discrimination. That we want what’s best for each other. And that we want to preserve our values, and the Filipino family.” So “let’s treat each other with respect, empathy and openness.”

DEALING WITH LAW’S LIMITATIONS

For his part, Atty. Lyndon Caña of the traditional Coalition of Concerned Families of the Philippines, passing the SOGIE Equality Bill will go against the existing law of the land by – to start – giving credence to gender identity. Caña is particularly cognizant of the Supreme Court (SC) decision on the 2007 case of Rommel Jacinto Silverio/Mely Silverio, where the SC stipulated that a female person is one who produces ova/egg cells; while a male person produces spermatozoa.

As background info, on October 22, 2007, the SC’s First Division junked Silverio’s plea to change birth certificate entries — i.e. name to Mely, and sex to female. This after Silverio already underwent gender affirmation surgery. The court ruled that “the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ in everyday understanding do not include persons who have undergone sex reassignment.”

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A Manila court earlier granted Silverio’s plea, but the Office of the Solicitor General elevated the matter to the Court of Appeals, where Silverio lost. The case was then raised to the SC, where Silverio lost with finality.

“While petitioner may have succeeded in altering his body and appearance through the intervention of modern surgery, no law authorizes the change of entry as to sex in the civil registry for that reason. Thus, there is no legal basis for his petition for the correction or change of the entries in his birth certificate,” the High Court said in the decision written by then Associate Justice Renato Corona.

But even the SC’s simplistic definition of what makes males and females may, however, be questioned.

And this is why, according to Prof. Revelation Velunta of the Union Theological Seminary (UTS), there is a need to: 1. Recognize that existing laws may have loopholes; and 2. Come up with solutions to deal with these loopholes.

In the Philippines, Velunta said, there is the Penal Code; which was revised. And then there was a law made to deal with rape; this was also eventually revised. “We always assume that we have anough laws,” he said. “The question then is: If we have enough laws, why do we revise (existing laws)?”

For Velunta, laws can have loopholes that may not answer the current needs. “And this is the case with the SOGIE Equality Bill,” he said.

“For every (faith-based organization that) argues that (the SOGIE Equality Bill) should not be passed, there are (also) faith communities – Christians, Muslims and others – that say that it should be passed,” Prof. Revelation Velunta said.

CONFRONTING BIBLICAL BASHING

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Velunta also said that the attempt to attack the SOGIE Equality Bill by using Biblical texts is flawed. This is – largely – because of “diversity”. To start, “we always ask: Which Bible (do we use)?”

Velunta said that there are 78 books in the Eastern Orthodox Church Bible; 79 in Ethiopian Orthodox Bible; 73 in the Roman Catholic Church Bible; 66 in the Bible used by Protestant churches; and 24 books in the Hebrew Bible. Right now, too, there are 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament; no two of them are exactly alike. And, also right now, there are over 2,000 English translations of the Bible, so that “there are more English translations of the Bible than there are English languages.”

Velunta, therefore, said that asking “what version (of the Bible)” is always necessary; or better yet, to focus instead on human sexuality diversity.

“For every (faith-based organization that) argues that (the SOGIE Equality Bill) should not be passed, there are (also) faith communities – Christians, Muslims and others – that say that it should be passed,” Velunta said. “For us, for example, we follow the example of Jesus who always took the side of the marginalized, oppressed and the poor. And in this particular situation, the LGBTQIA community is being marginalized. (They’re not asking for special favors, they) are just asking to be recognized that they are God’s children, they are created in God’s image, and being LGBTQIA is a celebration of God’s diversity, of God’s creation, and God’s love.”

For Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the sponsor of the SOGIE Equality Bill in the Upper House/Senate, there is a need to “remind ourselves of (what unites us). That we are all against any form of discrimination. That we want what’s best for each other.”

DEALING WITH CONFUSIONS

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Confusion continues to exist re the SOGIE Equality Bill, nonetheless.

For Kata Inocencio, who is with the 700 Club Asia, there is fear that their freedom to tackle homosexuality – considered a “disorder” with adultery, among others – in their TV programs will be hindered. With her ilk, Inocencio believes that being gay can be “cured”; and conversion therapy is a regular topic discussed in 700 Club Asia.

The SOGIE Equality Bill, however, does not intend to infringe on Constitutionally mandated/protected rights; and earlier efforts were already made to clarify what the bill intends to do/does not cover.

Still, for her part, Nomorosa of NCCP said that “we can still practice what we believe without inciting hate, discrimination and fear against people who do not fit our notion of ‘normal’.”

Nomorosa urged non-use of the Bible to prevent LGBTQIA people from becoming productive members of society because this very act “shows hate, and not the love of God.”

Sister Mary John Mananzan: “Even if we are really against discrimination of (all people), sometimes you have to focus on groups of people that are actually suffering discrimination and violence.”

WANTED: HELP FROM THE STATE

From Cebu in the Visayas, helming the cirty’s anti-discrimination commission, Ms Magdalena Robinson said that there is a need for a national law to provide LGBTQIA people who experience discrimination a redress mechanism.

Robinson is cognizant that there are people – including members of the LGBTQIA community – who oppose giving protection to a minority sector that experiences discriminatory acts solely because of their SOGIE.

But “with our work in the (grassroots), we have really encountered (LGBTQIA people who experienced discrimination). You may not have experienced it firsthand, maybe you just heard of it, but we can’t dismiss that this is a reality for LGBTQIA people. That their identities, their relationships, their gender expressions… are used against them to attack their dignity and demean their very person. So what we want is for the State to provide (a) mechanism to exhaust legal remedies to deal with these.” – WITH ALBERT TAN MAGALLANES, JR.

EDITOR’S NOTES/ERRATUM (Sept. 11, 2019): In the earlier version of this article, Prof. Revelation Velunta of the Union Theological Seminary (UTS) was erroneously identified as “Prof. Salvation Velunta”. This has since been amended. 

Our apologies for this error.

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SC junks plea for marriage equality; but says Charter doesn’t limit marriage based on sex

The SC stated that the 1987 Constitution, from its “plain text,” “does not define, or restrict, marriage on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression,” but the petition had to be dismissed based on Atty. Jesis Falcis III’s lack of standing, violation of the principle of hierarchy of courts, and failure to raise an actual, justiciable controversy.

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The Supreme Court (SC) of the Philippines unanimously voted to dismiss on account of a technicality a historic petition to allow same-sex marriage in the country.

The SC dismissed Atty. Jesus Falcis III’ petition “on account of his lack of standing, violating the principle of hierarchy of courts, and failing to raise an actual, justiciable controversy,” SC’s spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka said in a news conference on Tuesday, September 3.

In 2015, Falcis filed a petition asking the High Court to declare Articles 1 and 2 of the Family Code unconstitutional. The provisions of the 31-year-old law limits marriage between a man and a woman. However, the 1987 Constitution does not categorically state that a marriage must be only between a man and a woman.

But it is worth noting that the SC said the Constitution does not restrict marriage on the basis of sex.

The SC stated that the 1987 Constitution, from its “plain text,” “does not define, or restrict, marriage on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression,” but the petition had to be dismissed based on Falcis’ lack of standing, violation of the principle of hierarchy of courts, and failure to raise an actual, justiciable controversy.

The SC ruled with a reminder against “premature” petitions, stating that actions done in the name of public interest “should be the result of collective decision coming from well-thought-out strategies of the movement in whose name we bring a case before this Court.”

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Otherwise, the SC added, “premature petitions filed by those who seek to see their names in our jurisprudential records may only do more harm than good.”

For the SC, “good intentions are no substitute for deliberate, conscious and responsible action. Litigation for the public interest for those who have been marginalized and oppressed deserve much more than the way it has been handled in this case.”

The SC also held Falcis and his fellow lawyers, Darwin Angeles, Keisha Trina Guangko, and Christopher Ryan Maranan, liable for indirect contempt, stating that “to forget [the bare rudiments of court procedure and decorum] — or worse, to purport to know them, but really, only to exploit them by way of propaganda — and then, to jump headlong into the taxing endeavor of constitutional litigation is a contemptuous betrayal of the high standards of the legal profession.”

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the ponente, said the issue of same-sex partnerships “may, for now, be a matter that should be addressed to Congress.”

Leonen was quoted as saying by the SC’s Public Information Office (PIO) that the SC “recognized the protracted history of discrimination and marginalization faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and other gender and sexual minorities (LGBTQI+) community, along with their still ongoing struggle for equality.”

SC also “acknowledged that same-sex couples may morally claim that they have a right against discrimination for their choice of relationships” and said “official recognition of their partnerships may, for now, be a matter that should be addressed to Congress.”

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The SC ruled that judicial adjudication entails ruling on issues “propelled by actual controversies,” adding that it can fully weigh the consequences of its decisions “only through the existence of actual facts and real adversarial presentations.”

But legislation “ideally allows public democratic liberation on the various ways to assure these fundamental rights,” the SC was quoted by the PIO. “Often public reason needs to be first shaped through the crucible of campaigns and advocacies within our political forums before it is sharpened for judicial fiat.”

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Discrimination of LGBTQIA Filipinos goes beyond CR access, say activists

51% of 400 LGBTQIA community members surveyed claimed that they experienced discrimination in public schools, 31% in the streets, and 28% in private schools. This highlights that LGBTQIA-related discrimination happens in the Philippines go beyond toilet-related access.

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All photos taken during Metro Manila Pride parade in 2019

Gretchen Diez may have self-proclaimed herself to be the “face of the LGBT movement”, but advocates of the SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression) Equality Bill noted that LGBTQIA-related discrimination happening in the Philippines go beyond toilet-related access.

Diez recently made the news because of her ordeal while trying to access the female toilet in Farmers Plaza, a mall in Cubao, Quezon City. But Diez, who has been in the limelight following her experience and not because of her involvement in LGBTQIA advocacy, now fashions herself as the sole representative of the local LGBTQIA community/as the community’s “face”.

During a Senate committee hearing on the measure held on August 20, mentioned was a survey conducted by Rainbow Rights Project Inc. (R-Rights) with Metro Manila Pride Inc. from 2017 to 2019, with the results showing that 51% of 400 LGBTQIA community members surveyed claiming that they experienced discrimination in public schools, 31% in the streets, and 28% in private schools.

And so Atty. Jazz Tamayo, executive director of R-Rights, the Constitution’s equal protection clause is not enough to guarantee equality. “We need laws that will specifically compel if it cannot make people understand what equality is. The fight for the SOGIE (Equality) Bill has been too long, all these cases, all these suffering… they simply must stop.”

There are also instances when State bodies end up promoting LGBTQIA discrimination. In Cagayan de Oro City in 2016, for instance, the regional trial court (RTC) sided with a school principal who ordered a Grade 4 student to wear school curtains as punishment for violating the dress code.

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“The child was made to wear school curtains as a punishment for failing to abide by (the) uniform policy. This was done to the child no less than six times by the defendant principal,” Tamayo said. “The judge ruled that the child was too young to venture into a lifestyle of a gender identity that is different from the child’s assigned sex at birth.”

The RTC judge further ruled that the mother of the child was to blame for “not guiding her child better.”

“I can imagine the chilling effect it will have for other parents who would have to file cases like this… (with) the judge just berating them about how they did not discipline their child,” Tamayo added.

For her part, Disney Aguila, president of Pinoy Deaf Rainbow Inc. (PDR), the pioneering organization for Deaf LGBTQIA Filipinos, recalled how she – herself – encountered discrimination because she identifies as a transgender woman.

Speaking to Outrage Magazine, Aguila recalled how – when she applied for a job – the HR (human resource) person of a clothing company based in Pasay City at first “praised her for looking nice”. But the same PR officer – when going through Aguila’s bio-data – saw that her assigned sex at birth was male; and “she frowned.” The HR officer asked Aguila to turn around, and then started pulling her braided hair; she then asked Aguila to have her hair cut.

When Aguila asked why, she was told that it’s because she is a “he”, based on her assigned sex at birth, and that either she presents herself as a man or not be hired. Aguila left that office without a job.

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“The level of discrimination we encounter is doubled not only because we are persons with disability (PWD) but also because of our SOGIESC,” Aguila said.

Meanwhile, Perci Cendaña – former commissioner at the National Youth Commission, and now with Babaylanes Inc. – cited the cases of: 1) a certain Jay, a Grade 12 transgender man from Pampanga, who did not finish his secondary school because when he met with his principal for college requirements, he was berated for not following the school dress code; and 2) transgender senior high school students of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines who – at first – were told that they would not graduate if they won’t follow the school’s prescribed haircut, and though they were later allowed to graduate, they did not receive a certificate of good moral character, which is a requirement for many colleges/universities for incoming students.

“The Philippine youth development plan states that youth development is defined as enabled, involved, patriotic youth realizing their aspirations. Discrimination, stigma… is a deterrent to development,” Cendaña said. “We would like to reiterate that discrimination is an issue not just of human rights but a development issue because it deters our young people from realizing their aspirations.”

“When you give us equal rights, there is no taking from you. There is no lessening of you. No one is any less a man or a woman. The SOGIE Equality Bill means simply that, an acceptance that we are different but equal,” Tamayo of R-Rights ended.

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Civil partnership bill refiled in 18th Congress

Under House Bill 2264, all benefits and protections granted to spouses in marriage under existing laws, administrative orders, court rulings, or those derived as a matter of public policy would also be enjoyed by civil partnership couples.

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ALL PHOTOS TAKEN DURING METRO MANILA PRIDE PARADE 2019

Separate but equal.

A bill proposing to allow couples to enter into a civil partnership, whether they are of the opposite or of the same sex, has been filed by former Speaker and Davao del Norte 1st District Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez in the 18th Congress.

Under House Bill 2264, all benefits and protections granted to spouses in marriage under existing laws, administrative orders, court rulings, or those derived as a matter of public policy would also be enjoyed by civil partnership couples.

At the same time, laws on marital relations, including donations by reason of marriage, legal separation, adoption, child custody and support, property division and maintenance, and spousal support, will also apply to civil partnership couples.

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In refiling the civil partnership bill, Alvarez stressed the right of all Filipinos to equal protection under the law and to freely associate themselves with others.

“This bill… hereby proposes to allow couples to enter into a civil partnership, whether they are of the opposite or of the same sex,” he said. “It aims to be a landmark effort to provide civil rights, benefits, and responsibilities to couples, previously unable to marry, by giving them due recognition and protection from the State.”

Alvarez filed the same bill in the 17th Congress, where it failed to get pass the deliberations of its mother committee.

But at that time, Atty. Clara Rita Padilla, executive director of EnGendeRights Inc., a human rights organization that fights against discrimination of women and LGBTQI people, said that Philippine law should uphold the basic human rights of everyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE).

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“LGBTQI people enjoy the same rights to equality and non-discrimination as all Filipino citizens, thus, our laws should afford LGBTQI people the same rights as heterosexuals. The right to marry is a basic human right that everyone should enjoy – heterosexuals and LGBTQI people alike. It is guaranteed by our constitutional rights to equality, equal protection of the law, privacy, religion and belief,” Padilla said.

Presently, LGBTQI couples are denied the benefits enjoyed by heterosexuals, such as the right to jointly adopt children, own conjugal properties, intestate succession, immigration, avail of tax exemption, and avail of benefits related to insurance, social security, medical, hospitalization, next-of-kin, burial, among others. These benefits have long been enjoyed by married heterosexual couples simply because they are heterosexuals.

In a 2018 Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey – done via face-to-face interviews from March 23 to 27, and which asked 1,200 respondents across the country whether or not they agree with the statement “there should be a law that will allow the civil union of two men or two women” – at least 61% of the respondents said they would oppose a bill that would legalize this in the country. Among them, 44% said they strongly disagree, while 17% said they somewhat disagree. Meanwhile, 22% said they would support it, while 16% said they were still “undecided,”

But according to Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson at that time, Harry Roque, the President is said to support civil unions but not same-sex marriage (https://outragemag.com/duterte-backs-civil-unions-not-same-sex-marriage-spox-roque/).

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