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Shaun Kirven: Equality through a human rights lens

Meet Shaun Kirven, who first came to the Philippines in 2012. “I don’t think of myself as an LGBTI advocate. I find those acronyms now to be too limiting; I prefer to think that for the most part my work is focused on two fundamental rights, the right to equality and the right not to be discriminated against,” he says.

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Shaun Kirven first came to the Philippines in 2012 and served as the expert on International Humanitarian Law of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) based in Cotabato City in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, which monitors the implementation of the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“I don’t think of myself as an LGBTI advocate. I find those acronyms now to be too limiting; I prefer to think that for the most part my work is focused on two fundamental rights, the right to equality and the right not to be discriminated against,” Shaun Kirven says.

“I don’t think of myself as an LGBTI advocate. I find those acronyms now to be too limiting; I prefer to think that for the most part my work is focused on two fundamental rights, the right to equality and the right not to be discriminated against,” Shaun Kirven says.

Before coming to Mindanao, he did human rights work in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Argentina, Belgium, the UK, Spain, South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, and the US.

Shaun’s international human rights activism, particularly on LGBTI issues, is deeply anchored on two fundamental rights.

“I don’t think of myself as an LGBTI advocate. I find those acronyms now to be too limiting; I prefer to think that for the most part my work is focused on two fundamental rights, the right to equality and the right not to be discriminated against,” Shaun said.

Shaun remembers starting fighting for equality and non-discrimination when he was in university in the UK.

“I could pinpoint one meeting with a local group of the Socialist Workers Party in my university town where I challenged a homophobic statement. The group fell silent. I felt almost guilty. A friend squeezed my hand. I didn’t look back,” Shaun said.

ACTIVISM AS A PROCESS

He recalls his journey on human rights activism as a formative process that came in stages from his childhood to his teenage years.

“I don’t think we start out concerned for the rights of others rather at looking at ways we can feel better within ourselves. At least most of us… (internalize) a lot of other people’s misconceptions and hatred of our sexual and gender identities. Advocacy, I think, comes a later stage. If I were to begin with becoming an advocate, I would be ignoring some of the most formative processes in my early and teenage years that led me to the point of activism,’’ Shaun said.

Shaun’s formative years were spent in a small fishing town in the UK, where men were “real” men and teenage boys were expected to become so.

“I was bullied in and out of school because I was effeminate. It was the 80s, the post punk era of the new romantics was in fashion, men on TV wore make up and dyed their hair. Emulation was not wise in that small town. Parts of this very quintessential English town became out of bounds because of the way I expressed my teenage self,” Shaun said.

ON SELF-EXPRESSION

Shaun dissociates himself from the term “gay.”

“I don’t think this adequately represents either my sexuality or the way I express myself. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue now with femininity or the feminine, and by extension gay men’s expression of self that doesn’t fit with masculine stereotypes our society’s construct. If I am honest to myself, I did as a teenager – conscious of the way others thought of me – shy away from open expressions of what I understood as camp,” Shaun said.

Growing up different from most of his peers, Shaun admits that the very real threat of violence curtailed much of his youth, and yet he found ways to resist.

“I resisted in the only way I knew, and that was to harden the outer image. Flamboyant clothes gave way to rags, diamante earrings gave way to piercings, mostly done at home with a needle and wine bottle cork, 80s hairstyles gave way to harder punky Mohicans,” Shaun said.

In his new found self-expression, Shaun started to meet other people who experienced exclusion and who have a different take on justice.

“I was an anarchist. I moved to Madrid to live in a squat and learn Spanish. I ate my lunch in the Casa Communista. I began to read. I went back to school and read social and economic history. I learnt about Marx. I loved Marx. I marched. I protested. I felt almost free. Anarchist and Marxist communities are not very tolerant of difference. My sexuality, though providing for some great sexual adventures, remained largely hidden and desires mostly unacted upon. It took me a long time to reconcile my political beliefs and my sexuality and challenge the obvious discrimination that those proposing change employed,” Shaun said.

HUMAN RIGHTS LENS

Shaun’s drive for fighting for human rights has been a cumulative process that for him was triggered by a point in his life when enough became enough.

“I hated the feeling inside that being bullied left me with. That feeling that I was helpless and totally exposed to the threats of violence and intimidation. Home life wasn’t much different. The only place that felt secure, safe was me. The resilience behind the piercings, crazy haircuts, the rags and the ‘fuck you’ attitude was what kept me going. By this time I also had tattoos and like many of my chosen community, a healthy appetite for drink and drugs. I justified my youthful self-obsession because I had been bullied, ridiculed, hated,” Shaun said.

In Shaun’s university years, he was sent abroad to study. He traveled through Central America and met other lesbian and gay organizations that made him realize that experiences apart from a few cultural exceptions were fundamentally similar.

“I swapped my ideological view of change for a human rights perspective. Anarchism and Marxism had never made good bedfellows, to be honest I think I thought at the time I was saving myself a big headache. I was wrong. Viewing the world and the need to change through a human rights lens has not been an easy job,” Shaun said.

LEARNING FROM FEMINISMS

Shaun believes that the LGBTI movement has a lot to learn from feminisms.

“I use the plural as I don’t see the schools of thought fitting comfortably under the singular. Much like the feminist movement the LGBTI movement has suffered separatism and conflict but we have not learnt to embrace that difference in an enriching way,” Shaun said.

Shaun understands that much like women, the LGBTI movement has put up with much challenges over the years, hence the over-concentration on identities.

“What we don’t seem to realize is that if we looked beyond our noses, stopped staring at our own navels, feminisms and queer theory have given us the tools to deconstruct the power bases of those who deny us our rights to equality and non-discrimination,” Shaun said.

Shaun points out two issues of the movement’s work that need to be looked at with greater rigor.

First is marriage equality.

“Wasn’t marriage created by patriarchy and institutionalized by politico-economic regimes such as capitalism and communism? Isn’t the access to social benefits an argument only for those privileged middle class people living in the West? People who have bought the capitalist model and placed it alongside their 52-inch interactive TV. What would Marx say about the gay channels on Netflix if he were around? Something about opium for the gay masses maybe? We are not the same as anyone else, so why pretend to be? We – above all the LGBTI community – should be pushing the diversity agenda,” Shaun explained.

The second is third gender.

“Queer activists have been trying to rid the world of the binary gender construct that most feminists and a growing number of masculinists would agree have prevented people from reaching their full potential as human beings. Now we have people actively campaigning for legal recognition of a third. Along with the third comes the other status box to be ticked in official documents that proponents say will facilitate travel abroad and prevent violent responses from state security forces. Aware that I speak from a position of cisgendered privilege here, I have discussed this at great length with trans activists both for and against the third category. I am not convinced,” Shaun discussed.

The experiences of migrant worker populations from some developing countries show how LGBTIs are affected.

“If we take the case of Nepal or even the Philippines, which have huge migrant worker populations comprised of, I would imagine, a large number LGBT folks, is being able to mark ‘other’ on your passport actually going to help you gain employment in a foreign country? 4.5 million people are without citizenship in Nepal. The other status on trans folks passports will benefit it is said around 10 people linked to NGOs. Transwomen migrant workers looking to work in the Middle East are going to continue to bind breasts and travel as close to their male gender marker as possible. If I could track down the Filipino transwomen in Afghanistan, I would love to ask her if ‘other’ status on her passport would actually help. Doing away with gender markers altogether surely is a better way to go,” Shaun discussed.

DESIRE TO BE “NORMAL”

Shaun expresses disappointment on how far the LGBTI movement is from being what he understands is a community.

“Despite all the noise about how wonderfully we are doing really, we haven’t moved an inch. Some 20 years later I am reading the Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, (and) this book is making me more and more angry at the way companies go to war with women’s bodies and minds. As a confirmed ‘Clinique boy,’ I was somehow rather shocked at my own naivety. As with everything I read, a discussion with a friend ensued who stated that the book is old and outdated by now and they went on to suggest that I read another more modern take on the corporate war against being woman,” Shaun said.

Shaun’s retort is that 20 years on, apart from a few figures, the book is still relevant and that for him is extremely saddening.

“All the gains we have made in the LGBT movement have not stopped this war against our bodies and minds. We have just become willing targets of patriarchy and capitalism due to our desire to be ‘normal’,” Shaun said.

INCLUSIVITY IN PRIDE

Despite all the differences in the LGBTI movement, Shaun is inspired of the ways people can still come together and do some amazing work.

“I recently went to Brighton Pride, by mistake, with my mother in tow. It was her first Pride march. While she delighted in the fun people were having, I could not get away from corporate slogans all over people’s bodies. What I took away from that day was my mother’s almost childish sense of freedom that this march gave her. Her sense that she belonged not because of her identity but because she, like so many others, believes people should be free. Inclusive Pride marches that are truly welcoming of everyone who wants to be there really are the manifestation of our movement’s spirit. If we can do that without the corporate branding, even better,” Shaun said.

For his proudest moment, he walked in eight-inch stiletto heels to prove a point.

FUTURE PLANS

After decades of human rights work, Shaun speaks of a simple legacy.

“I have been working on my ego for some time with limited success but with still enough to know that people don’t get remembered. I would like to think that during my time, I have loved and been loved and shown love in the face of hatred,” Shaun said.

For future plans on his human rights work, Shaun continues his activism in the Philippines and in Asia.

“I am super interested in engaging with a broad bodily rights and bodily autonomy campaign with the Coalition of African Lesbians. That is going to take up most of my spare time. Closer to home, I will be wearing my Proud T-shirt on my first day in the office in Cotabato City when I take up my new job with the Regional Human Rights Commission,” Shaun ended.

Shaun Kirven is currently the United Nations Development Programme expert on human rights at the Regional Human Rights Commission based in Cotabato City in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines. He continues to serve on the boards of LOOM-Nepal (a feminist organization) and Protection Desk Nepal (a local organization that works on protection of human rights activists).

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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VP Robredo extolls LGBTQIA community’s spirit; recognizes a lot of work still needs to be done

Vice President Leni Robredo expressed her support to the LGBTQIA community, even as she acknowledged that a lot of work still needs to be done, including passing an anti-discrimination law that will protect the human rights of LGBTQIA Filipinos.

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Screencap from the Facebook-uploaded message of VP Leni Robredo to the LGBTQIA community

Vice President Leni Robredo expressed her support to the LGBTQIA community, even as she acknowledged that even as the LGBTQIA community marks June as Pride month, a lot of work still needs to be done, including passing an anti-discrimination law that will protect the human rights of LGBTQIA Filipinos.

In a messages posted on her Facebook page, Robredo noted the uncertain times. “many of the things we once cherished and held on to are now being questioned and challenged,” she said in mixed Filipino and English. “Sa kabila nito, marami pa ring bagay ang di nagbabago at nagpapatuloy: tulad ng ating laban para sa patas na karapatan, dignidad at kalayaan.

Robredo noted that “for many decades, the LGBTQIA+ community has been tirelessly fighting for equal rights and representation at the frontlines. It has provided a shelter to the oppressed, a voice to the marginalized, and a family to those who have been abandoned by their own communities. Ito ang dakilang ambag ng LGBTQIA+ community sa ating (b)ayan.

She added: “Sa bawat Pride March na inyong inoorganisa, isang teenager ang mas nagiging proud na yakapin kung sino siya. Sa bawat awareness campaign na inyong sinisimulan, isang komunidad ang mas nagiging bukas ang isipan. At sa bawat pagpiglas ninyo sa tangkang pag-agaw ng ating mga kalayaan, isang bayan ang mas natututong lumaban.

There are – nonetheless – members of the LGBTQIA community “who hold positions of power in our society”, such as lawyers, executives, doctors, educators, artists, policymakers and public servants. The VP hopes that they will “use your influence to change mindsets, promote acceptance, and push for reforms on the ground. Now more than ever, we need to set an example to the younger generation. Ipakita natin sa kanila, na wala silang dapat ipangamba at na malaya silang maging kung ano at sino sila,” Robredo said.

The VP similarly recognized that teaching people to open their minds may be challenging, but “huwag sana kayong panghinaan ng loob.”

She suggested doing small steps to push for Pride, including forming support groups; reaching out to the needy; and introducing concepts re SOGIESC to relatives who may not be well-versed on the same.

Darating din ang araw na babalikan natin ang lahat ng ito at sasabihing, everything was worth the effort. Everything was worth the sacrifice. Everything worth the fight. Push lang ng push, mga besh,” Robredo added.

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Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach voices support for LGBTQIA community

Pia Wurtzbach said she’s making a stand so “that our friends and family in the LGBTQIA community have the right to take up space in our society… that their voices should be heard, that we don’t invalidate trans women as women.”

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Screencap from the Instagram account of Pia Wurtzbach

Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach voiced her support for the LGBTQIA community.

Via an Instagram post, Wurtzbach said she’s making a stand so “that our friends and family in the LGBTQIA community have the right to take up space in our society… that their voices should be heard, that we don’t invalidate trans women as women.”

She added: “We can learn to accept these concepts by having a dialogue. By listening and understanding our differences. we will grow and uplift one another as one community in strengthening equality and diversity.”

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Learning is always a two-way process.. we listen as we understand each other’s points of view. This #PrideMonth, we stand for the rights and advocacies of the LGBTQIA+ community. 🏳️‍🌈 Being an ally is someone who gives a sense of a safe and affirming space for our loving community… Let’s provide higher platforms for community members to openly discuss issues and concerns that affect us. 🙏 Here we can discuss our differences and remind ourselves that we are together on this journey, and achieve our shared goals for equality. ❤ . I know we may differ in opinions today.. but our constant discourse will make our tomorrow better because we understand one another better. This will also enable our broader community, especially those with differing views, to ponder on things that matter to our fellowmen. . Let me just make a stand that our friends and family in the LGBTQIA+ community have the right to take up space in our society…that their voices should be heard, that we don’t invalidate trans women as women. We can learn to accept these concepts by having a dialogue. By listening and understanding our differences.. we will grow and uplift one another as one community in strengthening equality and diversity. 😊🙏❤ Happy Pride! 🥰🏳️‍🌈

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Wurtzbach’s statement of support came after she co-hosted an online discussion involving Kevin Balot, who was crowned Miss International Queen in 2012. Balot reiterated her segregationist perspective, saying that when transgender women ask to join beauty pageants traditionally only for those assigned female at birth, “hindi na siya equality eh, parang asking too much na (this is no longer about equality; it’s already asking too much).”

In her Instagram post, Wurtzbach said that even if people had different opinions, it’s still important to provide platforms for community members to openly discuss “issues and concerns that affect us.”

For Wurtzbach, “this will also enable our broader community, especially those with differing views, to ponder on things that matter to our fellowmen… [O]ur constant discourse will make our tomorrow better because we understand one another better.”

This isn’t the first time Wurtzbach expressed her support to the LGBTQIA community.

In 2017, for instance, she called out the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) following a drug bust involving 11 men in Bonifacio Global City. “Because of what PDEA and the news outlet have done, some people are now associating drugs and immorality with being gay. It’s ridiculous,” she said then.

In 2018, she urged decision makers to address the causes that put young people at risk of HIV.

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‘Riverdale’ actress Lili Reinhart comes out as bisexual

Lili Reinhart – from “Riverdale” – announced that she is a “proud bisexual woman” in a post on Instagram.

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Screencap from Instagram

Lili Reinhart – who plays Betty Cooper in “Riverdale” – announced that she is a “proud bisexual woman” in a post on Instagram.

Reinhart’s revelation was linked with her post that she would be attending an “LGBTQ+ for Black Lives Matter” protest in West Hollywood in the US. Underneath a poster for the march, she wrote: “Although I’ve never announced it publicly before, I am a proud bisexual woman. And I will be joining this protest today. Come join.”

Reinhart dated co-star and onscreen partner Cole Sprouse, who played Jughead in “Riverdale.” The two had recently split.

Visibility, obviously, matters.

Earlier in June 2020, a study noted that those who have seen LGBTQIA representation are more accepting of gay and lesbian people than those who haven’t (48% to 35%). They are also more accepting of bisexual people (45% to 31%), and of non-binary people (41% to 30%).

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Emma Watson speaks out for trans rights after J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments

“Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned.”

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Screen capture from the Instagram account of emmawatson

Emma Watson – who played Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” series – is the latest actor to speak out in support of transgender rights after author J.K. Rowling made controversial comments on Twitter that were deemed transphobic.

On June 6, Rowling posted a tweet equating womanhood with being able to menstruate.

When called out, she seemed to own up to the TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or women who claim to be feminist but do not believe transgender women are female). She also backed her perspective via a lengthy post that cited a study criticized for its transphobic bias.

Claiming to have read “all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive,” Rowling wrote. “Women (are told they) must accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and themselves… But, as many women have said before me, ‘woman’ is not a costume.”

Watson appeared in all eight of the big-screen adaptations of the books by Rowling. By expressing her support for transgender rights, she joins former costar Daniel Radcliffe (who played Harry Potter), and “Fantastic Beasts” star Eddie Redmayne who also voiced their disagreement to Rowling’s warped thinking and defense.

“Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are,” Watson tweeted.

In a subsequent tweet, she added that she wants “my trans followers to know that I and so many other people around the world see you, respect you and love you for who you are.”

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Eddie Redmayne joins Daniel Radcliffe in opposing J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans comments

Eddie Redmayne joined “Harry Potter” lead actor Daniel Radcliffe in criticizing J.K. Rowling comments about transgender people. “Respect for transgender people remains a cultural imperative, and over the years I have been trying to constantly educate myself. This is an ongoing process.”

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Screencap from "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

Eddie Redmayne joined “Harry Potter” lead actor Daniel Radcliffe in criticizing J.K. Rowling comments about transgender people.

In a statement, Redmayne said: “Respect for transgender people remains a cultural imperative, and over the years I have been trying to constantly educate myself. This is an ongoing process.”

Rowling wrote the “Harry Potter” series that starred Radcliffe, and the “Fantastic Beasts” series that starred Redmayne. In a series of tweets starting June 6, where she actually owned the TERF tag (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), Rowling used the “I know and love trans people, but” argument by tweeting to her 14.5 million Twitter followers that transgender people are “erasing the concept of sex”.

Redmayne – who similarly starred in “The Danish Girl”, the 2015 biopic of Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery – said: “As someone who has worked with both JK Rowling and members of the trans community, I wanted to make it absolutely clear where I stand. I disagree with Jo’s comments. Trans women are women, trans men are men and nonbinary identities are valid.”

Redmayne continued that “I would never want to speak on behalf of the community but I do know that my dear transgender friends and colleagues are tired of this constant questioning of their identities, which all too often results in violence and abuse. They simply want to live their lives peacefully, and it’s time to let them do so.”

Radcliffe said as much earlier, when he wrote for The Trevor Project that “transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations, who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I.”

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Transgender women are women – Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe

“Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations.”

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Screencap from "What If" (2013)

Following the backlash the “Harry Potter” author, J.K. Rowling, got for statements deemed transphobic, Daniel Radcliffe wrote on The Trevor Project that “transgender women are women.”

On June 6, Rowling used the “I know and love trans people, but” argument by tweeting to her 14.5 million Twitter followers that transgender people are “erasing the concept of sex”.

In response, Radcliffe said: “Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo (i.e. J.K. Rowling) or I.”

He added that with 78% of transgender and nonbinary youth reporting being the subject of discrimination due to their gender identity, “it’s clear that we need to do more to support transgender and nonbinary people, not invalidate their identities, and not cause further harm.”

Radcliffe stressed that while certain press outlets may paint his statement as proof of infighting between J.K. Rowling and himself, “that is really not what this is about, nor is it what’s important right now.”

In closing, Radcliffe said: “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you.”

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