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Sham tolerance of LGBTs in PH

/ 10:47 PM June 26, 2013

As the world celebrates LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Pride this month, the Philippines finds itself in the middle of global scrutiny: Where does it really stand on the issue of LGBT acceptance?

The conversation was recently triggered by a Pew Research Center survey on the perceived approval of homosexuality in over 30 countries. According to the survey, the Philippines is the only country with high religiosity that believes homosexuality should be accepted.

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Many Filipino LGBT activists quickly pointed out the context of the Philippines’ so-called acceptance of homosexuality—that it is conditional, or premised on the most visible images of homosexuals: the gay TV hosts, the bakla comedians in popular comedy bars. Outside these stereotypes, the pretense of acceptance immediately disappears.

I share the doubts on this “acceptance,” which, when probed, has many ifs and buts. We LGBTs are acceptable as long as we are decent, the definition of which is normally based on the whimsically stigmatized standards of the powers-that-be. For many private schools, decency means that LGBT teachers should promise not to recruit school children into homosexuality, or that LGBT students should not display any signs of homosexuality. I laud Filipino families who embrace their LGBT members, but they remain the exception; for many families, LGBTs are acceptable as long as they are not our children, our siblings, or our parents. For the likes of Archbishop Oscar Cruz, acceptance of homosexuality is only possible under two terms, both reflecting a rejection of one’s sexuality: celibacy, or a bakla marrying a lesbian.

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For contextualizing this so-called acceptance, LGBT activists have been accused of demanding too much or of seeing the glass half-empty. What’s tragic about these allegations is the idea that the glass of equality and human dignity can be half-empty, or that  we should just accept our second-class citizenship.

No one is saying that the perceptions on homosexuality in the country have not changed, or our situation is as dire as those in many fundamentalist states. A show like “My Husband’s Lover,” a soap opera on the love affair of a married man with another guy, is unexpectedly gaining huge following, a surprise even to its writers and producers. Albeit not without struggle, Ang Ladlad was able to run in the last party-list election. These would have been impossible here 10 years ago, or unimaginable now in, say, sectarian Malaysia.

These may reflect some changes in perceptions, but they certainly have not resulted in fundamental improvements in practices and policies. Gloc-9’s song, “Sirena,” hit the airwaves with lyrics that call for LGBT acceptance and compassion, yet in the streets of Manila, the song became a new pop-culture device for the bullying and vilification of LGBTs. In my organization’s HIV activism, it is not rare to encounter local health officials who treat HIV as a “gay disease” that requires the rounding up of gay men, forcing them to take the HIV test, and exposing them to the public as “AIDS carriers” should they turn out HIV-positive.

We are perhaps too quick to say that we accept homosexuality, yet the Philippines has no law that protects LGBTs from discrimination. Companies here have no clear policies that prohibit discrimination against LGBT employees, except for some BPOs with LGBT-friendly labor standards globally. Where is that so-called acceptance when transgenders are barred from some establishments because of fears that they would insist on using the women’s toilet, or that they would prey on straight men when they use the men’s toilet? When Charice came out, her own mother immediately said she could still control her lesbianism, which, according to a bishop, hasn’t reached the terminal stage yet—as if homosexuality were a cancer that needs to be expunged.

At a meeting of the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee last year, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima eagerly accepted a challenge from committee members for the Philippines to be a champion of LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. On our own shores, however, the Philippine government has yet to come up with a specific policy on human rights and sexual orientation and gender identity. Thus, the Philippine mission to the UN would routinely abstain on any UN resolution pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity.

There are arguably some pockets of hope that should be celebrated. In Cebu City, a collaboration between transgender activists and local government officials led to the approval of a comprehensive antidiscrimination ordinance in the city. A similar partnership is happening between civil society and the Commission on Human Rights and some units of the Philippine National Police to sensitize their employees and officials to the plight of LGBTs, and enable them to prevent human rights abuses.

But for these efforts to succeed, we must collectively admit that there is a problem: There is no such thing as full acceptance of LGBTs here, only sham tolerance, one that keeps them at arm’s length, away from full social, political and economic participation. Until we achieve full equality, we LGBT activists will persist in pushing for our agenda: not conditional acceptance, but full equality.

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Jonas Bagas is the executive director of TLF Share, an NGO working for the sexual health and human rights of Filipino gays, bisexuals and transgenders. Follow him on Twitter: @jonasbagas.

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TAGS: Commentary, Gender issues, Jonas Bagas, LGBT, LGBT Pride, opinion
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