The Filipino gay conundrum
A recent world opinion poll coming out of Pew Research Center, in Philadelphia in the United States, and roughly the equivalent to Manila’s Social Weather Stations in national equivalence, compared attitudes in major countries of the world toward gay people. Despite the Church and numerous laws, the Philippines came out with a superhigh rating—about 73 percent positive attitude toward gays. By contrast, Indonesia, where I also live, was about 3 percent. But I find the two are far closer than the numbers suggest.
In the Philippines, the Catholic hierarchy is of diminishing relevance, while Islam—the dangerous extreme—is growing in Indonesia, similar in a way to the growth of charismatic churches in the Philippines. That makes Indonesians more fearful of expressing their actual attitudes. I find it easier to live in either country than in my home country, whose Supreme Court recently issued epochal dicta on the sanctity of marriage, whether or not between a man and a woman.
In America, liberal open-minded friends don’t give a hoot that at 40 I “came out,” but they tend to tell their friends about parts of my career and always have to mention that “he’s gay.” I have witnessed nothing of the sort here in Asia. Everyone in my barangay knows all about me after 13 years of coming and going, and I’ve never heard a peep against me on this account. Had I moved to Tennessee I’d have been ostracized, and even in Massachusetts where it was legal for me to marry a male Filipino, I’m socially categorized. Most gay men in America stick to their group socially. This is unnecessary in Manila, where I also live much of the time, and my friends range across the board. I wrote the authorized biography of former President Fidel V. Ramos, and whenever he invited me to anything, he has always included my partner.
Okay, even the Vatican seemingly has to up the ante, as when Pope Francis spoke against gay elites in the highest circles dominating too much of Church law. But note that he said nothing about whether gay is good or bad. He was declaring against all cabals, especially secret ones, in the Vatican, and in the process proved what we always knew—the utter hypocrisy of antigay rulings. Eighty-year-old men, of whom at least a third are gay, dictating the sexual behavior of people they can know little of.
I think Filipinos sense this; there are adequate equivalents in the country’s Catholic hierarchy, and abuses are just beginning to be investigated. It’ll be a torrent in time. The American Church eventually had to settle all its gay abuses by priests with a $5 billion settlement, selling off immensely symbolic property to pay the bills.
So what accounts for that 73 percent figure? It is at Scandinavian levels, or close, and comparable to that of rich industrial societies in general. Ever since I started visiting the Philippines in 1969 (eventually becoming a permanent resident in 2005), I’ve been struck by the absence of almost any comment on the remarkable number of high officials, senators, Cabinet members, etc., who are known to be gay—through the usually valid doctrine of tsismis, the national pastime.
I recall an intimate conversation with a former president, who wasn’t exactly on friendly terms with a high official, sometime senator, known to be gay. He said, “Well, sometimes in the back room we might tell a joke about him, but it’s only when his hypocrisy becomes too visible, but in practice we don’t even think about his sexual preference. We work with him, respect him, and why should his being gay have anything to do with it?” When his daughter laughed at the fact that the three principals in a project the former president had commissioned were all gay, he asked why that had anything to do with anything. All three principals had accomplished careers at different stages.
Although I’m dealing personally with an excruciating case where two young men, both professionals, fell in love and were both thrown out by their families, even formerly loving sisters, I find that an exception, no longer the rule. There are such cases in all countries. They just weren’t going to hide their powerful love for each other, though now they are dependent on friends for everything as they seek new careers in Manila.
When I decided in 2000 to live abroad and could have chosen any place in the world, I chose the Philippines not just because I had so many friends there and a professional scholarly interest in it, but because I found Pinoys the friendliest people on earth—and I’ve visited 60 countries and lived for extended periods in Africa, the United Kingdom, Southeast Asia and, of course, America. I’ve never regretted my choice.
W. Scott Thompson, author of “Trustee of the Nation: the biography of Fidel V. Ramos” and 15 other books on Asian and American politics, is a four-time presidential appointee in Washington, and professor emeritus at The Fletcher School. He maintains households in Guadalupe, Makati, and in Balas, Talisay, Batangas. He has three children and five grandchildren in America. He wrote this piece with the assistance of Oliver Geronilla, a language instructor at Han Maum Academy, Parañaque City.