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When hookup apps can save lives

Technology has been blamed as expediter of the spread of HIV particularly among the young in the Philippines. But what is not as discussed is how the same tool can actually be used to curb the increase in HIV infection.

IMAGE BY EDAR FROM PIXABAY.COM

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The first time Quezon City-based 22-year-old Xander* “met” a person openly living with HIV was through a gay geosocial networking app. “He ‘advertised’ in his profile that he lives with HIV,” Xander recalled, adding that “this surprised me because he didn’t hide his HIV status, as I expected people living with HIV (PLHIV) would.”

After a chat, it was this HIV-positive person who encouraged Xander to also get himself tested. “Not that I may have HIV,” Xander said sheepishly, “but as he said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather know?’”

As it turned out, that person Xander was chatting with was also a peer educator, who encourages other men who have sex with men (MSM) to get themselves tested for HIV. That same person eventually accompanied Xander to a nearby social hygiene clinic (SHC), “providing not just information about HIV, but – I suppose – a hand I knew I’d need whatever the test result may be,” Xander said.

Xander’s experience – i.e. “Chatting to pick up, getting laid… and getting tested for HIV,” he laughed – highlights the continuing evolution of the use of gay geosocial networking apps. And this is even if the latter (that is, with it serving as a tool for change) often overshadowed by the former (i.e. hooking up).

“HIV largely affects the gay and bi community, and I believe gay and bi men in the Philippines could immensely benefit from education and other necessary interventions to curb the rise of the epidemic,” Evan Tan said. And here, “a platform like Blued can be used as an effective tool.”
PHOTO BY PORAPAK APICHODILOK FROM PEXELS.COM

WORSENING SITUATION

In June 2017, the Department of Health’s (DOH) HIV/AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP) reported 1,013 new HIV cases in the country, bringing the total reported cases from January 1984 (when the first HIV case was reported) until June 2017 to 45,023. Also in June, most (93%) of the newly infected were male. The median age was 27 years old (age range: one to 73 years). And half of the cases were from the 25-34 year age group while 32% were youth aged 15-24 years.

The number of people getting infected with HIV in the Philippines continues to grow. If, in 2008, the country only had one case reported to HARP every day, it now has 30 new HIV infections every day.

It therefore comes as no surprise that on August 1, the Department of Health (DOH) held a press conference to announce the undesirable news that the Philippines now has the “fastest growing” HIV epidemic in Asia Pacific. Citing data from the UNAIDS Report on global HIV epidemic, Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said that new HIV cases among Filipinos more than doubled from 4,300 in 2010 to 10,500 in 2016, so that the Philippines “has become one of eight countries that account for more than 85% of new HIV infections in the region.”

Most of these new infections occur in 117 “high burden areas”, including the National Capital Region (NCR), Rizal, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Bulacan, Cebu, Davao, Tagum, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Zamboanga, General Santos City, Koronadal, Butuan, Iloilo, Bacolod, Puerto Princesa, Tacloban, Naga, Lucena, Angeles, Mabalacat, Tarlac, San Fernando, Cabanatuan, Olongapo, and Baguio.

And most of these new infections involve the young, particularly men who have sex with men (MSM), who start engaging in risky sexual behaviors at a tender age, with the first sexual encounter happening at 16 years old.

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The trickier part comes with the finger pointing on who (or what) to blame.

And here, a big chunk of the supposed culpability is pointed to access to Internet and social media, as well as use of new information technologies, often cited as among the most flagrant factors facilitating early sexual engagement among young people. This point has been stressed by, among others, the Commission on Population’s regional studies conducted through the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) and Demographic Research and Development Foundation (DRDF), using the data from the 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality (YAFS 4).

But with the talk about – or even blaming of – technology as expediter of the spread of HIV particularly among the young in the Philippines, what is not as discussed is how the same tool can actually be used to curb the increase in HIV infection.

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IT’S BUT A TOOL

Putting the blame on technology may not be surprising, even if very simplistic. After all, it may help facilitate having multiple sexual partners and other high risk behaviors, but it is not necessarily the catalyst for these behaviors.

Overseas, various studies have already looked at the effectiveness of dating and hookup apps and sites in distributing HIV prevention information to gay, bi and MSM. And – surprise! – the apps have been found effective.
PHOTO BY JESHOOTS FROM PIXABAY.COM

According to Evan Tan, country marketing manager for the Philippines of Blued, apps are among those that are dissed as “just for picking up”. But he thinks that this very notion needs to be reconsidered, with these technological innovations deserving a better look.

A study that looked at the acceptability of smartphone application-based HIV prevention among young MSM noted that over 90% of 12-29 year olds are online and utilize the Internet as a primary source of information gathering, communication, and social networking. More specifically, young MSM have been found to heavily use Internet search engines, gay-friendly chat rooms, and pornography websites for information on sex behavior, sexuality, and sexual health.

“We know very well that technology can do so much more,” Tan said, adding that in Blued’s case, for example, “we stay true to our mission of building a better community by spearheading (CSR) efforts.”

In the Philippines, for instance, Blued works with The LoveYourself Inc. (TLY), a non-government organization promoting HIV awareness and testing. Tan himself personally spoke with TLY’s head, Vinn Pagtakhan, to help the NGO set up a Blued profile. And now – with the help of TLY’s head of community relations Paul Junio, the NGO has a team of counselors who provided answers to HIV-related queries gathered from TLY’s official Blued profile (TLY’s official Blued account: LoveYourselfPH).

“HIV largely affects the gay and bi community, and… I believe gay and bi men in the Philippines could immensely benefit from education and other necessary interventions to curb the rise of the epidemic,” Tan said. And here, “a platform like Blued can be used as an effective tool.”

EFFECTIVE APPARATUSES

Overseas, various studies have already looked at the effectiveness of dating and hookup apps and sites in distributing HIV prevention information to gay, bi and MSM.

Putting the blame on technology may not be surprising, even if very simplistic. After all, it may help facilitate having multiple sexual partners and other high risk behaviors, but it is not necessarily the catalyst for these behaviors.
PHOTO BY EDAR FROM PIXABAY.COM

In 2016, for instance, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined paid ad analytics from gay-specific dating and entertainment apps (including Scruff and GAY FM), and it found that users on these apps were twice as likely to click on HIV prevention ads than they were on general apps (0.30% versus 0.15%).

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A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases supports CDC’s findings, claiming that over 63% of participants exposed to HIV prevention information through online dating sites reported getting tested 12 months later. In comparison, only 42% of participants who did not receive similar intervention messaging reported getting tested.

Sexual Health also published a study that found dating apps for gay men effective in giving give out HIV self-test kits to men at risk of HIV infection, thereby reducing the spread of HIV. In this study, the link of the service provider that advertised in a gay app received 4,389 unique hits in four weeks, with 333 HIV test kit requested.

Similar scientific studies continue to be deficient in the Philippines, though anecdotes abound particularly from service providers on how tech has helped make their jobs better.

Ronnel*, 32, Xander’s peer counselor, has accounts in “more apps than I can count,” he smiled. In his profile in these apps, “I provide information about HIV and AIDS, and how those who want to know their status can get tested for free. It’s very straightforward… I suppose no different from the candid approach to finding partners nowadays.”

Although Ronnel also goes to various locations (for instance, bars or “eye balls” of “clans”), he claimed getting most of his clients mainly through these apps. “Perhaps the anonymity (also) helps,” he said, though mostly “these MSM are part of hard-to-reach populations whose major mode of joining the PLU community (“People like us”, a colloquial term used by MSM to refer to themselves – Ed) is through these apps.” And so for Ronnel, “yes, nakakatulong talaga ang apps (the apps truly help).”

APPS BEYOND PICKING UP

This successful use of app in dealing with HIV also motivated Blued’s efforts in other countries.

In China, Blued closely partnered with UNAIDS, WHO, the Chinese Association of AIDS/STD, and the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association to deliver health information, promote HIV testing, and carry out HIV-related care programs through Blued. It also has live broadcasts on HIV and AIDS prevention through the Blued Live feature, with each Blued live broadcasting program reaching over 5,000 online audiences. It similarly utilized the platform to be an online HIV testing reservation system. In 2016, 22,857 people received intervention, 6,362 got tested (of which, 30% have never been tested before), and 311 were diagnosed to be HIV-positive and who were able to get access to life-saving HIV medication.

Already, Blued has collaborated with NGOs, universities and international agencies to conduct more than 40 online surveys to explore the changing trends of high risk behaviors over time. Nearly 30 papers and reports have been published from these collaborations.

In China, “our long-term goal in the country is to establish an app-based platform for comprehensive HIV and AIDS prevention programs at national level, and to form national technical guideline by implementing scientific researches,” Tan said.

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Outside China, Blued also collaborated with organizations in Vietnam, including with the ICS Center in Ho Chi Minh and ISEE in Hanoi. Meanwhile, in Thailand, Blued is working with APCOM, a coalition of non-profits and various organizations in the Asia and the Pacific, to create HIV awareness campaigns for the gay community. APCOM is behind TESTBKK, an HIV testing campaign that was adopted in the Philippines also by TLY.

Beyond HIV-related efforts, Blued supports LGBT-related endeavors. In Vietnam, for instance, it is a major supporter of the upcoming Vietpride 2017, which will be held this 22nd to 24th of September.

“We continue to look for more ways to strengthen our existing initiatives,” Tan said. “We believe that LGBT empowerment and the HIV advocacy are causes that are very important to champion for us, especially as members of our community are highly affected by HIV and LGBT stigma and discrimination.”

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MORE THAN JUST A MEAT MARKET

Tan said that the impetus for the establishment of Blued is helping define its current direction.

Blued was launched in 2012 by Geng Le (a.k.a. Ma Baoli), a married former police officer in northern China. He secretly managed Danlan.org, a website for gay people, for 12 years. But his superiors eventually discovered the website, leading to Geng Le losing not only his job but also his family. It was this that drove him to create Blued

Blued now counts 27 million users (majority of them in its country of origin, China), making it the largest gay social network in the world. Every day, Blued sees active use from 11 million pax.

In the Philippines, Blued has about half a million users, with most between 19-32 years old. A big bulk of the current members come from Quezon City, San Juan City, Makati City, Banugao, Bacoor and Bacolod.

“Blued’s existence has been pivotal in shattering barriers for the gay community in China. Our vision to create a more inclusive community has led us to other spaces where we can offer our help,” Tan said. This is why “we are working with various organizations (to benefit) the gay and bi community. The seed to help was there from the very start, and not just grafted into our other efforts as an afterthought.”

Barriers continue to exist not just for gay and bi men, as well as other MSM (and even the other members of the LGBT community. In fact, over 70 countries still have laws that make same-sex relations a punishable offense.

For being LGBT, you can be sent to jail for 14 years or more in 66 countries (including Chad and India); and at least in 12 countries (including Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen), one can be punished by death for homosexual acts. A hundred countries (including Australia, Indonesia, Northern Cyprus and Russia) legalized homosexual acts; but other anti-LGBT restrictions continue to exist (e.g. ban on adoption and same-sex marriage/civil union).

For Tan, technology should be seen as a tool that can link instead of divide.

With the talk about – or even blaming of – technology as expediter of the spread of HIV particularly among the young in the Philippines, what is not as discussed is how the same tool can actually be used to curb the increase in HIV infection.
PHOTO BY RELEXAHOTELS FROM PIXABAY.COM

And at least in the case of 22-year-old Quezon City native Xander, this proved to be the case.

His (latest) HIV test was non-reactive; but he was encouraged by the peer counselor to get himself tested again at least after three months, “just to be sure,” Xander said.

He stays in touch with that same counselor, “not just if I need information – such as where to get (free) condoms and lube, or about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – but also to recommend friends who want to get tested.” In this sense, Xander said that he’s glad “na gumagamit ako ng (that I use) apps in the first place,” he said. “Sabi nga (As they say): ‘Technology can be your friend, not an enemy’.”

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*NAMES CHANGED FOR THE INTERVIEWEES’ PRIVACY

MAIN IMAGE BY EDAR FROM PIXABAY.COM

The founder of Outrage Magazine, Michael David dela Cruz Tan is a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. Though he grew up in Mindanao (particularly Kidapawan and Cotabato City in Maguindanao), even attending Roman Catholic schools there, he "really, really came out in Sydney," he says, so that "I sort of know what it's like to be gay in a developing and a developed world". Mick can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (DUH!), shoot flicks, community organize, facilitate, lecture, research (with pioneering studies under his belt)... this one's a multi-tasker, who is even conversant in Filipino Sign Language (FSL). Among others, Mick received the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) in 2006 for Best Investigative Journalism. Cross his path is the dare (read: It won't be boring).

FEATURES

Now illegal to discriminate against LGBTQIA people in Marikina

Marikina City joins the list of local government units (LGUs) that now has an anti-discrimination policy that eyes to protect the human rights of its LGBTQIA constituents. Offenders may be penalized from P1,000 (first offense) to P2,000/P5,000 (second and third-time offenders), along with imprisonment of up to 15 days.

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The rainbow cometh.

Marikina City has joined the list of local government units (LGUs) that now has an anti-discrimination policy that eyes to protect the human rights of its LGBTQIA constituents.

The host of Metro Manila Pride parade since 2017, the city was also – for a while – under scrutiny for claiming to be pro-LGBTQIA but with (seemingly) limited LGBTQIA-related efforts topped by the once-a-year parade held in June.

But the ordinance introduced by councilors Paul Dayao, Mario de Leon, Manuel Sarmiento and Zifred Ancheta eyes to make it a policy of the city to hold non-discrimination of LGBTQIA people (at least there).

Discriminatory acts included in the ADO include: employment- and school-related discrimination; refusal to provide goods/services/accommodation because of a person’s SOGIE; and by subjecting (verbally or by writing) people to ridicule because of their SOGIE.

Offenders may be penalized from P1,000 (first offense) to P2,000/P5,000 (second and third-time offenders), along with imprisonment of up to 15 days.

The ordinance introduced by councilors Paul Dayao, Mario de Leon, Manuel Sarmiento and Zifred Ancheta eyes to make it a policy of the city to hold non-discrimination of LGBTQIA people (at least there).

Surprisingly, while the ADO is creating an Anti-discrimination Mediation and Conciliation Board to deal with ADO-related violations, no LGBTQIA organization/party will be among the board members.

The ADO is awaiting the signature of Marikina Mayor Marcy R. Teodoro, though this is already expected. In 2018, Teodoro told Outrage Magazine that hosting Pride is a way to show the city’s support to Metro Manila’s LGBTQI community, particularly since his office in particular supports this community’s push for a nationally enacted anti-discrimination policy. In the end, Teodoro said, “we want to be known as an inclusive community. We can only do that by recognizing everybody as all equal to each other.”

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Sexuality continues to change and develop well into adulthood – study

Substantial changes in attractions, partners, and sexual identity are common from late adolescence to the early 20s, and from the early 20s to the late 20s, indicating that sexual orientation development continues long past adolescence into adulthood. The results also show distinct development pathways for men and women, with female sexuality being more fluid over time.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Unsplash.com

Traditional labels of ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘straight’ do not capture the full range of human sexuality, and whether a person is attracted to the same, or opposite sex can change over time.

This is according to a study, published in the Journal of Sex Research, which analyzed surveys from around 12,000 students, and found that substantial changes in attractions, partners, and sexual identity are common from late adolescence to the early 20s, and from the early 20s to the late 20s, indicating that sexual orientation development continues long past adolescence into adulthood. The results also show distinct development pathways for men and women, with female sexuality being more fluid over time.

“Sexual orientation involves many aspects of life, such as who we feel attracted to, who we have sex with, and how we self-identify,” said Christine Kaestle, a professor of developmental health at Virginia Tech. “Until recently, researchers have tended to focus on just one of these aspects, or dimensions, to measure and categorize people. However, that may oversimplify the situation. For example, someone may self-identify as heterosexual while also reporting relationships with same-sex partners.”

In order to take all of the dimensions of sexuality into account over time, Kaestle used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which tracked American students from the ages of 16-18 into their late twenties and early thirties. At regular points in time, participants were questioned about what gender/s they were attracted to, the gender of their partners, and whether they identified as ‘straight’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’.

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The results showed that some people’s sexual orientation experiences vary over time, and the traditional three categories of ‘straight’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘gay’ are insufficient to describe the diverse patterns of attraction, partners, and identity over time. The results indicated that such developmental patterns are better described in nine categories – differing for both men and women.

For young men these patterns have been categorized as:

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  • ‘straight’ (87%),
  • ‘mostly straight or bi'(3.8%),
  • ’emerging gay’ (2.4%)
  • minimal sexual expression’ (6.5%).

Young women on the other hand were better described by five categories:

    null
  • ‘straight’ (73.8%),
  • ‘mostly straight discontinuous’ (10.1%),
  • ’emerging bi’ (7.5%),
  • ’emerging lesbian’ (1.5%)
  • ‘minimal sexual expression’ (7%).

Straight people made up the largest group and showed the least change in sexual preferences over time. Interestingly, men were more likely than women to be straight – almost nine out of 10 men, compared to less than three-quarters of women.

Men and women in the middle of the sexuality spectrum, as well as those in the ’emerging’ gay and lesbian groups showed the most changes over time.

For example, 67% of women in the ‘mostly straight discontinuous’ group were attracted to both sexes in their early 20s. However, this number dropped to almost zero by their late 20s, by which time the women reported only being attracted to the opposite sex.

Overall, women showed greater fluidity in sexual preference over time. They were more likely (one in six) to be located in the middle of the sexuality continuum and to be bisexual.

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Fewer than one in 25 men fell in the middle of the spectrum; they were more likely to be at either end of the spectrum, as either ‘straight’ or ’emerging gay’. Relatively few women were classed as ’emerging lesbian’.

“In the emerging groups, those who have sex in their teens mostly start with other-sex partners and many report other-sex attractions during their teens,” Kaestle said of her findings. “Then they gradually develop and progress through adjacent categories on the continuum through the early 20s to ultimately reach the point in the late 20s when almost all Emerging Bi females report both-sex attractions, almost all Emerging Gay males report male-only attractions, and almost all Emerging Lesbian females report female-only attractions.”

Kaestle said that the study demonstrates young adulthood is still a very dynamic time for sexual orientation development.

“The early 20s are a time of increased independence and often include greater access to more liberal environments that can make the exploration, questioning, or acknowledging of same-sex attractions more acceptable and comfortable at that age. At the same time – as more people pair up in longer term committed relationships as young adulthood progresses – this could lead to fewer identities and attractions being expressed that do not match the sex of the long-term partner, leading to a kind of bi-invisibility,” said Kaestle.

For Kaestle, “we will always struggle with imposing categories onto sexual orientation. Because sexual orientation involves a set of various life experiences over time, categories will always feel artificial and static.”

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Importantly, although the study found nine categories of sexual orientation development, limitations in the statistical methods used mean that more categories could exist.

The names of the categories are also in no way meant to replace or contradict any person’s current self-labelled identity. Rather, Kaestle hopes that these findings will help researchers in the future to better understand how a range of sexual orientation experiences and patterns over time can shape sexual minorities’ experience of distinct health disadvantages, and the effects of discrimination.

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Transgender people are not mentally ill, says WHO

The new classification is not expected to affect the healthcare provision to respond to the needs of transgender people, but – all the same – it’s expected to improve social acceptance among transgender people while still making important health resources available.

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Photo by Cecilie Johnsen from Unsplash.com

The World Health Organization (WHO) has decreed that transgender people are not mentally ill, with the WHO’s legislative body voting to move the term used to describe transgender people – “gender incongruence” – to the panel’s sexual health chapter from its mental disorders chapter.

The new standard of classification appears in the 11th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11); but will go into effect on January 1, 2022.

The WHO uses “gender incongruence” to describe people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth.

The new classification is not expected to affect the healthcare provision to respond to the needs of transgender people, but – all the same – it’s expected to improve social acceptance among transgender people while still making important health resources available, according to the United Nations health agency last year when it announced the intended change.

Dr. Jack Drescher, a member of the ICD-11 working group, wrote: “There is substantial evidence that the stigma associated with the intersection of transgender status and mental disorders contributes to precarious legal status [and] human rights violations”.

It is worth noting that the WHO still classifies intersex traits as “disorders of sex development”.

This is not the first time the ICD changed a classification related to sexuality. In 1990, the WHO declared that “sexual orientation alone is not to be regarded as a disorder.”

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First Pride parade held in Antipolo; eyed to showcase LGBTQIA existence

Antipolo showcased LGBTQIA Pride, with the city’s LGBTQIA community holding its first-ever Pride parade. According to Shane Marie R. Parreno, the parade was also an opportunity “to give members of the (local) LGBTQIA community to come out and take comfort in knowing that they are not alone”.

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All photos courtesy of Shane Marie R. Parreno

Rainbow pride in Antipolo.

Antipolo showcased LGBTQIA Pride, with the city’s LGBTQIA community – supported by ally communities – holding its first-ever Pride parade.

According to Shane Marie R. Parreno, co-founder of Transpinay of Antipolo Organization, which helmed the event, the idea behind the first Pride was “simple” – i.e. “Para mas malinaw na ipaalam sa lahat na we exist (To clearly show to everyone that we exist).”

But beyond this, the parade was also an opportunity “to give members of the (local) LGBTQIA community to come out; and that those who may be afraid because they are part of the LGBTQIA community (can take comfort in knowing that they are not alone; we can face the bullying and discrimination together),” Parreno added.

While eyeing to make the Pride parade a regular/annual event, there are also already plans to continue the dialogues with local politicians to push for an anti-discrimination ordinance.

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March 9 of every year declared as LGBT Day in Municipality of Itogon

An executive order was passed in Itogon, a first class municipality in the province of Benguet in northern Luzon in the Philippines, declaring the ninth of March of every year as LGBT Day.

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Touched by the rainbow.

An executive order was passed in Itogon, a first class municipality in the province of Benguet in northern Luzon in the Philippines, declaring the ninth of March of every year as LGBT Day.

Executive Order No. 03, signed by Atty. Victorio T. Palangdan in April, noted that “section 3 of Republic Act 9710 state that ‘All individuals are equal as human beings by virtue of the inherent dignity of each person. No one should therefore suffer discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, age, language, sexual orientation, race, color, religion, political or other opinion, national or social or geographical origin, disability, birth or other status as established by human rights standards.”

Under the EO, activities are being eyed to be held for the local LGBT community, including – and going beyond the one-day Pride parade – “knowledge sharing or technology transfer on good grooming, personal hygiene, beauty care, interior design, floral arrangements, et cetera, such that the knowledge and skills derived therefrom could be transformed into livelihood or income generating activities by the participants.”

The aforementioned professions/fields are – nonetheless – still stereotypically linked with the LGBTQIA community, at times limiting professional opportunities.

The EO also enjoins barangay officials to actively support the programs and activities of the LGBT community particularly in celebration of the LGBT Day.

The Municipal Social Welfare and Development Office is tasked to monitor and evaluate the success/failure of the EO.

READ:  Bacolodnon pride

Founded in 1951, and is the largest municipality in Benguet by land area, Itogon is a mining town with a population of approximately 59,820 people occupying a total land area of 449.73 square kilometers (173.64 square miles).

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What it’s like to be a queer woman in Brunei…

Generally speaking, “living in Brunei as a woman – no matter what background, what orientation – everyone knows that being a woman is hard… and its definitely not any easier being a queer woman.”

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As a queer woman in Brunei, Naz always expressed herself in a stereotypically masculine manner. That is, she has short hair and doesn’t always present herself in what’s deemed “feminine”.

Perhaps because of this “classic assumption that a girl is queer or a tomboy by the shortness of her hair”, Naz was sexually harassed at work. And when she told the story of her harassment to her sister, the latter just (dismissively) told her: “He probably knows you’re gay so its ok for him to touch you.”

This dismissiveness, this disregard is (apparently) but an example of how – in Brunei – women (and particularly queer women) “tolerate sexism and homophobia everyday,” said A.B., who produced and directed “The Visible”, a documentary that looks at how women are treated in Brunei. Included in the interviewees is a queer woman and a transgender woman.

Brunei made the news recently, of course, with the implementation of a dated, and even barbaric law that will see the stoning to death of members of the LGBTQIA community, along with adulterers. The laws, parts/elements of which were first announced in 2013 and adopted in 2014 (and have been rolled out in phases since then), will be fully implemented this month. Ruled for 51 years by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the Southeast Asian nation plans to implement a severe interpretation of Islamic sharia law. Under the strict laws, adultery, sodomy, robbery, rape and insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad would all be punishable by death. Those who are caught having gay sex or committing adultery would be executed by stoning.

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Upon hearing the implementation of this law, “I was honestly very surprised; at first I thought it was just old news being brought up again for whatever reason,” A.B. said. “But as it turned out, the law was put on hold from 2013 due to international criticism and is just now being implemented.”

For A.B., “it’s messed up because it seemed like no one in Brunei knew.” Her family, for one, “found out through international news. If you look at news articles about Brunei it’s all about the Sharia law; but if you look at news from Bruneian newspapers, there’s nothing about it. I’m living abroad and found out from friends sending me articles, it was only after a few days when there had finally been an official statement from the prime minister’s office.”

Brunei made the news recently, of course, with the implementation of a dated, and even barbaric law that will see the stoning to death of members of the LGBTQIA community, along with adulterers.

A.B. was born in Brunei, but she was raised abroad. And “it was only recently that I got to experience what life was really like for a queer woman like me in Brunei. For years I would view it from a distance, visiting for a few weeks once a year and always thinking ‘I can put up with it, I’ll be back home (in France) in two weeks.’ But moving back changed everything for me.”

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It changed because – in her experience in Brunei – women and queer women of tolerate sexism and homophobia everyday.

Naz’s case, for instance, rattled A.B., who said that “it’s unacceptable how issues like this are still predominant in Asia.”

“It’s a bit hazy with the law when it comes to that,” A.B. said, “because, in fact it is being caught in the act of (gay) sex that is banned, not just being LGBTQIA.”

If being LGBTQIA means living under scrutiny in Brunei, how do LGBTQIA people express themselves (if at all)? “It’s a bit hazy with the law when it comes to that,” A.B. said, “because, in fact it is being caught in the act of (gay) sex that is banned, not just being LGBTQIA. I always found everyone was capable of expressing themselves, to an extent; meaning, private accounts on social media (are available) but not necessarily changing the way you dress or express yourself. It’s more a ‘show don’t tell sort of situation’.”

Generally speaking, though, “living in Brunei as a woman – no matter what background, what orientation – everyone knows that being a woman is hard… and its definitely not any easier being a queer woman.”

Producing the documentary, by itself, was challenging.

“When we were in pre-production, I was unable to attend a meeting due to my family because ‘a woman is not allowed to be picked up by a man in Brunei’. During a production meeting I was stopped halfway by a family member because ‘a woman is not allowed to hang around with just men in Brunei’,” A.B. said. “So everything had to proceed with caution.”

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But even if things are challenging, “we pushed on. I was not going to let the opinions of others stop me from voicing a story that needed to be told. You find loopholes, you get back up again and keep going…”

A.B.: “I always found everyone was capable of expressing themselves, to an extent; meaning, private accounts on social media (are available) but not necessarily changing the way you dress or express yourself. It’s more a ‘show don’t tell sort of situation’.”

A.B. also noted the “bravery” of women in Brunei – in particular, her cast, who “really set an example for the women and the LGBTQIA community in Brunei, (explaining) to me that they never felt a sense of ‘danger’, just a sense of being cautious.”

Naz, for one, said that “despite the law, religion and her sexual orientation, she is still a muslim and won’t be doing anything to break the law.”

A.B. added that “it’s also important to note that no one has been executed in Brunei for anything since 1957.”

All the same, A.B. is pushing for the opening of minds.

“Being LGBTQIA is just who you are, it’s what you feel, it’s what you know, it’s something you should never be ashamed of,” she said. “The only ‘Western imposition’ is the fact that being LGBTQIA is a crime, which was brought by the British when they decided to colonize half of Asia. It’s like how our generation are standing up for gender quality; yes, in Brunei, that’s considered an influence from the West because you’re supposedly ‘going against the tradition’ of being a slaved housewife, when in reality it’s not just women of the West that have been fighting for rights, women all over the world have.”

And in the end, “it’s not really for me to say what’s right and what’s wrong (for Brunei). Brunei really is a lovely and beautiful country, but it also has a way to go… like all of Asia.”

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