Perhaps one of the most astonishing phenomena of the late 20th and early 21st century is the issue of the rights for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and Queers (LGBTQ). I say astonishing because this issue touches far deeper than it being simply a question of human rights into more fundamental aspects of us as humans, like long-established norms and even the question of how much of ourselves is ethical to “adjust.”
Philippine culture has been shaped by two forces: the conservatism of the Christian faith brought by the Spaniards, and the permissiveness of liberal democracy, a “gift” from the Americans.
The conservatism of religion calls on the faithful to renounce anything that turns away from the tenets of one’s faith, and one of the most closely held of these tenets is the one regarding the roles of men and women in the Community. In fact, religion only makes allowances for the two sexes that, according to Genesis, God made: Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Anything “in-between”, or outside these two sexes is considered an aberration at the very least. The ancient tale of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is an eloquent testimony to what my religion thinks should be done to something as “deviant” as homosexuality.
On the other hand, liberal democracy calls on the universal application of certain rights regardless of, shall we say, “initial conditions.” A freedom lover would insist that it is not the preference that is at question but the person itself, that the rights enjoyed by heterosexuals are as much applicable to homosexuals as anyone. That liberal democracy could allow those with a vastly different view on sexuality than that of a centuries-old norm so much opportunity and freedom, and thereby show that they contribute as much – some say even more so – to society’s betterment as any heterosexual is freedom’s rebuttal to the rigid viewpoint of religions regarding the so-called “third sex.”
LGBT in Asia’s first democracy
It is in this context that we now look at the Philippine situation regarding LGBT. Asia’s first democracy has always been an interesting case study in that it seems to challenge every prevailing norm you could think of. Even set beside the two other biggest developed democracies of the continent – India and Japan – there is no other Asian nation that grants its people with so much freedom. And what freedom government sees fit to withhold from the Filipino, the Filipino himself will take for his own.
Asia’s predominantly Catholic country – more than 80% of the population or 85 million are Roman Catholic – is regarded as a bastion of the Church dogma in the far east, with parish priests and bishops exercising power and influence far greater than some local political leaders. The Church here, whether the all-powerful Catholic one or the much-smaller but equally-influential Protestants, has influenced and blocked legislation that democracies would consider as necessary for development.
And there is the “macho” culture. In the Philippines, a man crying in public is already considered to be a sign of weakness. The concept of what it means to be a “real” man in the Philippines evokes the image of a sweat-drenched, shirtless guy displaying his beer-bellied dad bod or muscles for all the girls to swoon over and loudly shouting his manly virtues while swigging a bottle of pale pilsen, preferably with a woman around the other arm.
But lo and behold, there are tolerance and a growing acceptance of LGBTs in contemporary Philippine society. In 2013, the Philippines is ranked as the 10th-most gay-friendly country in a global survey covering 39 countries. Many of today’s young adults have in their close circle of friends at least one gay. 73% of Filipinos believe homosexuality should be accepted by society according to a pew research survey. Indeed, many even among the young men of the country regard their gay friends fondly, noting the fact that they are fun to be with and are a big help in plumbing the depths of female psychology.
In fact, the late Supreme Court Justice, Isagani Cruz, who wrote for the most read broadsheet in the Philippines made his observations on what he perceived to be increasing acceptance of homosexuality in Philippine Society although there is contempt on his observations. He attempts to describe the development of what he calls: “new sense of values that have rejected our religious people’s traditional ideas of propriety and morality on the pretext of being ‘modern’ and ‘broad-minded.’”
Isagani Cruz seems to believe and observe that the change on the attitude towards homosexuals started to change after the Santa Cruzan (a religious parade) of homosexuals became fashionable. He goes on about how after this event the numbers of homosexual began to increase and warns the reader of homofication of Philippine Society. Asking in the last paragraph: Is our population getting to be predominantly pansy? Must we allow homosexuality to march unobstructed until we are converted into a nation of sexless persons without the virility of males and the grace of females but only an insipid mix of these diluted virtues? Let us be warned against the gay population, which is per se a compromise between the strong and the weak and therefore only somewhat and not the absolute of either of the two qualities. Be alert lest the Philippine flag be made of delicate lace and adorned with embroidered frills.
Yes, there are psycho-cultural barriers that cannot as yet be crossed. Permissiveness and acceptance of gays in today’s Philippines is, in a sense, regulated by an invisible line of “proper” behavior. Even some of the most progressive young men of the country still sneer at the antics of “parlor” gays, and even non-homophobic men will flinch at too much intimacy from their gay friends. In short, homosexuals are all right if they announce themselves as so, and limit themselves to the roles that society allows them.
Also, while gays are more or less accepted or at least tolerated, lesbians as a rule are a “different” phenomenon and regarded by most young Filipino men as “competition” for the affection of women, especially when the said object of affection studies in an exclusive-for-girls school.
Lesbians are seen as aggressively trying to woo women, especially in the non-coed schools, becoming not only direct competition for the men but as a fundamental challenge to male ascendancy, especially as the pretty ones somehow say yes to a lesbian rather than to the many “natural” men courting her.
Questions of legality
So one shouldn’t be surprised that Asia’s first and most vibrant democracy has no specific law for LGBTs. In a legislature dominated by archetypical males and usually cowed by the power of the Church, any legislation seeking to advance homosexual rights in the Philippines dies a quick and rather painful death.
In 2010, Ang LADLAD, political party for gays and allies, tried to participate in the Party-list elections only to be disqualified on “moral grounds”. The Commission on election believes the group advocates immorality and that homosexuality is a threat to the youth. The Supreme Court granted a temporary restraining order and overturned the COMELEC ruling a month before the election. They did not gather the 2% vote threshold and were not able to win a seat. Prof. Danton Remoto, Ang Ladlad’s leader and one of the leading lights of gay literature in the Philippines, sought to contest a seat in the Senate but was declared a nuisance candidate. Geraldine Roman, in 2016, became the first transgender person to be elected to Congress although people would say that her surname helped her get elected.
To date, several anti-discrimination bills, and same-sex marriage bills are filed and awaiting action before Congress.
But to be fair, there are NO laws in the Philippines that specifically make being a homosexual an illegal act or condition unlike in many of its neighbors. In fact, many of the country’s present laws, like the Labor Code and the Revised Penal Code, are sufficiently open-ended with regards to gender issues that they can be made to work for homosexuals as much as for heterosexuals. For example, the non-hiring of a homosexual on the basis of his/her sexual preferences can be brought to court as an abridgement of the Labor Code’s provisions of equal opportunity for hiring. At the very least, no public school from Primary to college-level can deny entry to any person who openly declares their homosexuality. No establishment can deny service to a person based on their sexual preferences. Sexual conduct or affection between two adults in private is not a crime but if it occurs in public it may be subject to grave scandal or Art 200 of the penal code.
But at the same time, because of the lack of laws protecting homosexual rights, or recognizing their unique situation, time and again we can find stories of discrimination. In one of the most celebrated cases of sexual discrimination, a known gay comedian was not allowed by the management of a bar to enter the premises. The reason used was that he breached the dress code, since this comedian openly wears female clothing. There was also a case of a transwoman who tried to enter the ladies’ room of mall but was prevented from doing so by a restroom attendant and when an argument ensued she was brought to the security office and debates started among the public and officials whether the country should acknowledge the truth of trans people.
That bastion of Philippine macho culture, the Philippine Military, is clear about its views on homosexuality. Former Armed Forces’ Chiefs of Staff, General Arnulfo Acedera, once commented that the AFP cannot have “in-betweens” in its establishment. “What we need are men or women,” Acedera said. “From where I sit, I don’t know of any gays at present in the service, but if indeed there are, they must be advised to get out.” Although forced to apologize for his remark, Gen. Acedera clearly enunciated the view of the military regarding the Third Sex.
And if same-sex marriage finds so many hurdles to acceptance in the many parts of the world, then it is nigh-impossible perhaps to see any legislator even hint at revising the definition of marriage in the Philippines’ Family Code. In fact, at least three anti-same-sex marriage bills have been introduced to bar recognition of same-sex marriages contracted abroad or elsewhere. The Family Code, the one in the Philippines responsible for the regulation of all matters pertaining to the family, particularly that of marriage, is perhaps the best example of the immense influence the Church has in its foremost Asian outpost. The Family Code, after all, was modeled after the Canon Law of the Catholic Church.
Then Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte announced that should he win the election he would consider legalizing same-sex marriage if a proposal is presented to him. In 2017, then Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez filed a bill to legalize civil unions between same-sex couples. It did not reach third reading and was refiled the following Congress. In March 2017, a year after Duterte won the Presidential election, the President said that he personally opposes same-sex marriage. In a 2018 SWS survey, only 22% supported same sex unions, 61% are against and 16% undecided.
In 2019, the Supreme Court has dismissed a petition to allow same-sex marriage due to the petitioner’s “lack of standing” and for “failing to raise an actual, justiciable controversy”. The Court also held the petitioner for indirect contempt for using constitutional litigation for propaganda. But in the same ruling, the high court acknowledges that the 1987 constitution “does not define or restrict marriage on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity, or expression”.
Philippine society is not yet ready for so radical a shift. This is still Asia’s bastion of Christianity, and in a contest between politicians and the Church, the former is bound to lose heavily on culture wars.
Level of organizing
The LGBT community in the Philippines has traditionally been a vibrant one. Beginning with the Lesbian Collective’s march during International Women’s Day in 1992, LGBT organizations have themselves been coming out of the closet and have actively engaged Philippine society in various advocacies.
One of the most well-known, especially to college students, is Babaylan, the organization of LGBTs in the University of the Philippines. Babaylan – taken from the pre-colonial Philippine word for a village priestess – organized the first Gay and Lesbian Youth Conference in 1997, and the first LGBT Student Congress on June of the same year.
In 1998, discussions among several LGBT organizations and individuals eventually led to the creation of the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network, or LAGABLAB. Formally launched in 1999, LAGABLAB would serve as the lobby group of the LGBT community in the advancement of its advocacies in the Philippine legislature.
Also in 1998, the first Asian Lesbian Network Conference was held in UP, organized by Can’t Hide in the Closet (CLIC) and the Womyn Supporting Womyn Center (WSWC), with around nine countries participating.
In 2002, the Society of Transsexual WOMEN of the Philippines (STRAP) was formed, becoming the first transsexual support group in the Philippines.
Influences to popular culture and literature
As the LGBT community sought to widen the legal boundaries of Philippine society, there were more success by them in the realm of popular culture and art.
As early as 1994, gay literature classes were already being held in two of the country’s prominent universities. Neil Garcia offered a course on it in the University of the Philippines while Ronald Baytan conducted classes at the Catholic De La Salle University.
In the Ateneo de Manila, Prof. Danton Remoto would publish Ladlad, the first anthology of Philippine gay writing, which was co-edited by Garcia. Remoto would also attempt to publish a dictionary of gay terms and words, but the sheer dynamism of the language defied all attempts at its recording.
Homosexuals are found proliferating in the corollary industries of Media and Advertising. It is in these industries that homosexuals often find fulfillment because of the perception that gays are highly creative and motivated individuals. There are many homosexual film/TV directors, hosts, talents, creative heads and even some have gone as high as Vice Presidents in advertising firms. Many of the leading society pages writers and vloggers are homosexuals.
Success by the LGBT community in Media and Advertising is tempered by the reality that, onscreen, many gays are still considered as objects of derision more than as protagonists. Comedian Vice Ganda, the lead host of the noontime variety program Showtime, has parlayed her success on the small and big screen into a highly-successful venture from the comedy bar scene; Yet Vice Ganda is usually the subject of rather subtle but derogatory jokes played on her by other hosts or by the public. In other shows, this situation holds true, where gays are typically shown as adhering to the “parlor” variety, loud, crude, and lacking substance as persons.
Lesbians fare no better onscreen, usually being portrayed as trying too hard to be masculine, often ending up “reconverted” into a normal female after one ordeal or another. In fact, whereas gays are beginning to break into serious onscreen personas – many recent award-winning independent Filipino films have explored gay culture and psychology – Lesbians are rarely if ever given treatment in Philippine media. Indeed, a report that Philippine superstar Nora Aunor engaged in a same-sex marriage in Las Vegas has elicited for her many negative comments, some coming even from her own children. [PxxxT]
There was a seminal show in GMA Channel 7 (A TV Station) a few years back that tried to challenge the existing orthodoxy of Philippine media culture. The show Out started as a clone of the highly successful American program Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Two gays and a lesbian anchored the show. Eventually, Out evolved into a show that explored LGBT culture, even to the point of promoting coming out of one’s closet. After a few weeks, the Philippines ultra-conservative media watchdog, the Movie and Television Regulation and Classification Board (MTRCB) declared the show as offensive to sensibilities and Out was taken out of the air by that TV station.
‘I hate the word homophobia.It’s not a phobia. You’re not scared. you’re an asshole.” – Morgan freeman
It’s 2020, and the country needs to decide wether it wants to be a more accepting, inclusive and loving society.