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Commentary

Political sectarianism and the Sogie bill

/ 05:10 AM September 08, 2018

Sen. Joel Villanueva has vowed to block the Sogie Equality Bill in the name of religious freedom. The bill, which seeks to penalize discrimination and abuse on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (Sogie), has been languishing in Congress for two decades now.

The 17th Congress gave the bill a new life after the House of Representatives approved the measure on final reading, while in the Senate, for the very first time, the bill passed committee scrutiny and is now up for plenary debates.

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Villanueva’s involvement in the bill is rather curious. At the height of an Ombudsman probe on his reported involvement in the Napoles pork barrel controversy, which dampened his otherwise immensely successful Senate bid, Villanueva coauthored the Sogie Equality Bill that Sen. Risa Hontiveros filed. This surprised many, given that Villanueva’s evangelical base opposes the bill. No less than his father, Jesus is Lord founder Eddie Villanueva, lobbied actively against the bill during the previous term.

But he coauthored the bill anyway, arguing that LGBTs, as a vulnerable sector, need to be protected from discriminatory practices and human rights violations “in the workplace, schools, hospitals, and other establishments and institutions.” There were no qualifiers, no caveats in his arguments, only progressive assertions on human rights amid the negative news reports about him.

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In September 2017, the Ombudsman found Villanueva guilty of grave misconduct and gross dishonesty in the multimillion-peso corruption case, and he was ordered dismissed from public office. By December, the Senate decided to defy the Ombudsman’s order, saying that only Congress has the power to discipline its members.

Shortly after, Villanueva changed his stance on the bill. Early this year, Villanueva warned that the bill sets a dangerous precedent for a Catholic country like the Philippines, arguing that religious groups are opposed to it because it violates religious freedom. In his interpellation of Hontiveros, he recycled the flawed arguments from the religious sector, especially on how the bill would force religious institutions to change their views on same-sex relationships and how it would grant special rights to LGBTs.

Villanueva’s inconsistencies and duplicity came to fore in his recent interview with Karen Davila on ANC. After pandering to LGBTs by saying he is “super close” to many LGBT personalities and he supports equality, he raised fundamental objections on the bill. He appeared surprised, for someone who has coauthored the bill and therefore has presumably read its content before attaching his name to it, that the bill seeks to penalize individuals and institutions “for denying LGBTs.”

He said he could not have possibly caused delays in the bill, because he only debated on the floor three times. But he conveniently failed to mention that he reserved to interpellate for at least 16 session days and only  appeared on the floor thrice, as the LGBT rights network Lagablab noted, and is therefore prolonging the period of debate deliberately and unnecessarily by not showing up.

His arguments border on the absurd and unreasonable. He claims that the bill would unfairly punish religious designers who refuse to sell their wedding outfits to same-sex couples, or could set a precedent for 12-year-old boys to claim that driving license rules discriminate against them on the basis of age.

When asked about the issue of cross-dressing in the workplace, Villanueva said we should respect company rules, when in fact, as the champion of the anticontractualization bill, he should know that company rules are imbued with public interest and are subject to government regulation.

In his rush to undermine the bill, Villanueva is betraying how little he thinks of the Philippines as a modernizing society and country. He’s ignoring how the tide has changed, and how a vast majority of Filipinos are supportive of the bill. Many Philippine-based companies have adopted diversity policies and programs that are inclusive of LGBTs.

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Villanueva has opted to raise absurd claims on the bill to fan differences and energize his base, instead of exercising his responsibility to uphold the Constitution’s promise of equality. And there lies the real farce—a senator who’s blocking a bill in the name of morality has no qualms engaging in deceitful tactics and divisive sectarianism.

Jonas Bagas is a Bangkok-based Filipino gay activist and a long-time advocate of the Sogie Equality Bill.

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TAGS: Joel Villanueva, opinion, Senate, Sogie
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