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Reach the people

For Michael David C. Tan, “no matter how well-meaning efforts to promote human rights of LGBT people may be, if the people supposed to benefit from these efforts do not know of their existence, how can they benefit from them?” For more LGBT people to get involved in the struggle, “we need to get the words out. Simply, people need to be informed for them to be empowered.”

I had a serious – albeit unexpected – talk with someone I haven’t seen for years.

“Call me Kirsten.”

That, in not so many words, was how this friend said she now wants for me to address her. I knew her from way, WAY back – first in Cotabato City, as another former student of Notre Dame University, where we she was just “an effeminate gay man who now and then ‘cross-dressed’ for fun when with other gay friends”; and then later in Metro Manila, where she became “as butch as can be – pa-mhinta (‘straight-acting/looking’) as it was what was accepted”. And then she moved to the US, and I did not hear from her again. At least until yesterday, when she called me, claiming to have come across Outrage Magazine’s number.

Babae na ako ngayon, ‘te (I am now a woman, dear),” she said. And as a woman, she now identifies as Kirsten.

The chat led to her telling me about the desire to help the trans community in the Philippines.
Particularly since, now living as a woman, she experienced the good (she’s now married) and the bad (discrimination abounds) that come with being different.

And among others, her experiences highlighted what – we both agreed – the failure not just of the society in general in accepting gender non-conformity, but (for me arguably just as big of an issue) the failure of the LGBTQI community (and its supposed leaders) to be inclusive, to reach the very members that belong to the community.

There was one time, as Kirsten recalled, when – about to board her flight from Davao City to Manila – she was frisked by a lesbian guard in the female queue in the boarding area. And when this lesbian saw that she was frisking a transwoman, after seeing Kirsten’s documents that still had her male name, she started yelling at Kirsten to “umalis ka sa pilang ito, lalaki ka (get off this queue, you’re a man)!”

“I was so embarrassed. All I could do was tear up,” Kirsten said.

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Davao City, I informed her, has an anti-discrimination ordinance (ADO) – something that, supposedly, protects the human rights of gender non-conforming people. Though, apparently, having the laws that protect us do not automatically guarantee protection – Cebu City, after all, is on the same footing.

This is perhaps reflective of how, in LGBTQI advocacy, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But I personally think that we don’t only have the mainstream society to blame for this, but also LGBTQI advocates who (let’s be honest here) fail in serving LGBTQI people because, knowingly or not, they only end up establishing systems similar to those that put the LGBTQI community at a disadvantage. We fail when (borrowing that line from Kevin Reynolds’ Rapa Nui) we become who we seek to destroy.

For instance, if you hear many leading Metro Manila-based LGBTQI activists talk about the Anti-discrimination Bill (ADB), they sound (and actually act) like they are doing all LGBTQI Filipinos a favor. But I have spoken with LGBTQI people from various places all over the Philippines (e.g. in Mindanao, Cotabato and Davao City; and in Metro Manila, even those in Tondo, Mandaluyong, Quezon City, and Makati) and none of them even know about the ADB already filed in Congress. And note that the title of the most recent version of ADB specifically mentions people with disability, but there is no version of the ADB in Filipino Sign Language (FSL) so that Deaf LGBTQI Filipinos can understand it (thus participate in pushing for its passage, considering it could prove beneficial to them).

No matter how well-meaning our (grand) efforts may be, if the people supposed to benefit from these do not know of their existence, how can they benefit from them?
How can we use something we do not know exists?
How can we support what we do not know is there?

Kirsten’s case in Davao is proof of that. And so are the cases in Cebu City. And – also brought to my attention – so are the cases in Dagupan, where (apparently) an ADO exists with LGBTQI people not even aware that it does (so that discrimination still happens).

Yes, even supposed LGBTQI allies are just as guilty.

Consider politicians who assume that simply sponsoring an anti-discrimination policy is already more than enough.
There are NGOs serving the LGBTQI community while being helmed by non-LGBTQI people, choosing to mingle largely (if not only) with non-LGBTQI people.
Leaders of HIV-focused organizations claiming that men who have sex with men (MSM) are disinterested to get tested, even if many MSM remain unaware that there are actually services available for them (and for free at that!).
The continuing lack of awareness about PhilHealth’s coverage of ART (i.e. treatment for Filipinos living with HIV).
Et cetera.

But for me, the burden lies more on LGBTQI leaders.
For those supposedly serving LGBTQI Filipinos who need to start reaching out.
Inform other LGBTQI Filipinos how they are being served.
Enlighten them of existing tools they can use to better their lives.

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This is the only way to make as many people as involved in this struggle.
Because the struggle for the human rights of LGBTQI people is not some elitist gathering, so it has to be made inclusive if we want it to succeed.

Note that:

Many of those who supported Ladlad (in the last two elections) are still waiting for (even a single) word about what really happened to the LGBTQI organization following its failure to get a seat in the House of Representatives.
There’s the silence that cloaks the failures in the systems that should be looking after the plight of Filipino PLHIVs (many of them members of the LGBTQI community).
No one I know can tell me if bars frequented by gay/”bi” men have taken steps to curb theft happening inside their premises.
And yes, there is still the continuing ignorance about the ADB.

Simply, people need to be informed for them to be empowered.

We need to get the words out.

While Kirsten expressed gladness that “at least I know now about the ADO in Davao City,” she was the first to say that “it came quite late. I did not deserve to be shamed for being a transwoman – and this would have been remedied had information about the city’s ADO been widely known.”

And she is, of course, right.

Activists pushing for a more equitable society use “STP” to stress the call to “serve the people”.

But in the end, we all need to first reach the people to STP.

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