Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What the Baguio Brouhaha has Shown Us

They really think this helps??
If the June same-sex commitment ceremony held in Baguio City showed us anything, it showed that the Philippines still has an incredibly long way to go on matters of LGBT rights.  Not just on marriage equality, but even on the most basic level of understanding and tolerance.

The threads of comments that appeared on Philippine online newspapers, in tweets, and even on this very blog, were a taste of the vitriol that still exists at the grassroots level.  Many were downright cruel and amounted to anonymous online gay-bashing; some were statements based on ignorance, coming from people who genuinely just don't know any better.  Some were based on fiercely held personal religious convictions that people are entitled to, and are unlikely to change.

Upon reading, hearing, and seeing the reactions of the likes of bishops Cenzon, Cruz, and Bacani, I was neither surprised nor impressed.  If all they can do is hurl insults at their fellow man (such as calling LGBTs and straight Christians who support them "mentally defective" and "abnormal," and calling simple commitment ceremonies "kadiri" (gross)), they make themselves look far worse and childish than my words ever could.  But when I heard two members of the Baguio City Council publicly chastising the couples, watched them sign their names on an "anti-same-sex marriage petition," and then read of the Council's investigative steps to declare the same-sex couples involved as persona non gratae (unwelcome persons) within Baguio, I was sickened.  I literally had a sick feeling in my gut.

It's one thing for the leaders of a religious group (i.e. the Catholic Church), whom everyone knows is very conservative in its stance, to make statements against progress.  This, sadly, isn't surprising or unexpected.  But for this to be done by elected officials, who are supposed to represent all people in an impartial manner and show no favoritism or religious promotion, this went beyond the realm of reasonable.  It sent a shiver down my spine to see members of the city council, together with the Evangelical pastors of Baguio, look into the TV cameras and shout "No to same-sex holy unions!"  The intolerance was simply disgusting, and even frightening, and I think most Europeans would agree with me.

For me as a European, it conjured up painful images of Europe's past.  Seeing both religious and civil leaders standing shoulder to shoulder in a public display of intolerance toward a minority group was eery to say the least.  It reminded me of generations past which saw similar actions against Jews, Gypsies, and yes, homosexuals too.  Perhaps that is why the actions of some of Baguio's elected officials and religious leaders were so disturbing to me.

It made me wonder:  how can the Philippine LGBT community make progress in such an environment?  How on Earth can progress happen in the Philippines?  I mean, talk about swimming upstream!  For me this is something so foreign, for lack of a better term.  Where I'm from, the political, social, and religious environment is totally different from what it is in the Philippines.  Even still, I think there might be some tips that Filipino LGBTs can pick up from the gay rights movement and its progression in the Nordic countries.  There are HUGE cultural differences of course, but I think the strategy that worked in snowy Scandinavia can work just as well in the tropical Philippines.

Dawn of a New Day

In 1989 everything changed, and I'm proud to say that Scandinavia led the way.  That was the year that Denmark enacted the modern world's first same-sex registered partnership law.  Since then, country after country has passed laws recognizing same-sex partnerships.  Today, in 2011, 97% of Western democracies offer varying degrees of legal recognition of same-sex relationships, be it through gender-neutral marriage laws, civil unions, or simple cohabitation rights.

My country is one of those that has marriage equality (i.e. same-sex marriage is legal through the enactment of a gender-neutral marriage law).  This didn't happen overnight.  The road leading up to that proud day when parliament passed the law was a long one, and the LGBT community didn't always agree on everything.

The country's first gay rights organization was founded in 1948, and all the way up through the 1970s the sole mission of the group was to fight for the rights of the individual.  They had no aspirations of legalizing same-sex marriage; it wasn't even on the radar.  This, to me, bears similarities with the Philippines' LGBT rights groups today, namely Pro-Gay Philippines and LAGABLAB.

When rights for same-sex couples were first proposed in the late 1970s, there was disunity among gay rights groups.  Many felt it was unattainable, others that it was too soon to push for, and others felt the time was right to go full steam ahead.  The sticking point in society as a whole was what it would mean for the institution of marriage -- it was almost seen as a "radical leftist socialist view vs. the traditional religious view."  It was seen as challenging the marriage system, rather than joining into and becoming a part of the marriage system.  This too reminds me of the present state of affairs within the Filipino LGBT community; a "stop-go" situation where some are saying yes and some are saying no.

In essence, the state of LGBT advocacy in the Philippines bears similarities with where LGBT advocacy in Scandinavia was 35+ years ago.

Successful Tactics

Attitudes toward the LGBT community in the Nordic countries progressed quite rapidly, thanks to an active LGBT rights network and a well educated citizenry that is aware of the biological causes of sexual orientation.  The policies taken to achieve equality have, however, been incremental:  first discrimination protections, then cohabitation rights, then partnership rights, then gender-neutral marriage.  Adoption rights and access to biotechnology were also added in steps, during the time period when registered partnerships were in force.

This step-by-step strategy proved itself to be very successful, allowing society at large to adjust to the changes.  People don't really like change -- they get nervous.  That's why going in increments is very effective.

Interestingly, the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s had a significant impact on the prospect of partnership rights for same-sex couples in the Nordic countries, but not in a negative sense.  There was a new-found importance for the government to encourage stable, monogamous relationships, whether gay or straight.  While in Asia the AIDS epidemic caused a backlash of sorts against the LGBT community, further marginalizing and stigmatizing them, in the West (particularly in the Nordic countries) we saw the opposite occur.  The issue needed to be dealt with realistically, and encouraging monogamy by assuring the rights and recognition of stable same-sex relationships was a key way to do that.  And it paid off.

In my country there was some opposition from the most conservative political party (the Christian Democrats, which was and still is one of the smallest parties), but eventually even they came around to the gradual changes.  They were opposed to the Anti-Discrimination Act when it became law in 1981, but a few years later they became supportive of it when they realized the sky hadn't fallen.  They were opposed to the enactment of the Registered Partnership Act in 1993, but by the 2000s they were supportive after having seen that no harm had been done to society.  And they were opposed to the enactment of the Gender-Neutral Marriage Act which passed in 2008, but I assure you that the time will come when they realize they were wrong to oppose that, too.

Because of this step-by-step approach, more of society and more political parties began to jump on board.  Women's rights groups and youth organizations rallied to the cause of same-sex marriage, and they were integral allies.  In these years (the early 2000s), same-sex marriage became a matter of justice, no longer just a matter of reform.  It became dishonorable for politicians to not support total equality for same-sex couples.  The conservative parties began to move to the center on the question of same-sex marriage, taking the position that it is not the government's business to be in the bedrooms of private citizens. 

In comparison we can take a look at the "all or nothing" approach of the American gay rights movement.  While it has been effective in several traditionally liberal states, it has managed to galvanize the neo-conservative opposition in less progressive regions.  It's a sort of "too much too soon" situation for some.  When people who are incredibly religious and conservative go from seeing no recognition of same-sex couples to suddenly seeing full marriage for same-sex couples, it can be seen as a cataclysmic shift in their eyes.  They absolutely think the end of the world is at hand.  Conservatives don't like to move -- they want things to stay the way they've always been.  That's the essence of the word "conservative":  to conserve the status quo, the "good old days."  (Or at least what they consider to be the good old days.)

Combating Ignorance

I do not mean ignorance as a derogatory term.  I didn't use the word "stupid," because being stupid is very different from being ignorant.  Ignorance simply means a lack of knowledge in a particular field or subject.  We're all ignorant of certain things.  I, for example, am ignorant about engineering.  You wouldn't want me to build a bridge over a river for you because I haven't a clue about how to do it.  I'm also ignorant about electrical work.  I'm not trained as an electrician, and if you ask me to install the wiring in your house I can pretty much guarantee you that your house will burn down due to faulty wiring -- due to my ignorance.

Many people are simply ignorant about homosexuality, transgenderism, sexual orientation in general, genetics, and so on.  It's not their fault.  They haven't studied the topics extensively (no, high school biology class doesn't make a person an expert), and many may not personally know anyone who is LGBT.  They only have two sources to draw from:  their religion and their culture.  Unfortunately in the Philippines, both the former and the latter are really, really, really conservative.

As long as the majority of Filipinos remain underexposed to the advances that modern science are telling us about sexuality, while at the same time overexposed to very strict religious opinions, I don't see a huge amount of progress happening from the grassroots.  Couple this with the fact that Filipinos virtually never see gay and lesbian persons or couples portrayed in a positive light on TV, and with the fact that sexuality is still viewed as a taboo topic in Philippine schools, and you can see how it adds to an already uphill battle.  (As a side note, I think it is worth noting that overly dramatic lady-boys being made fun of on sitcoms are neither positive nor helpful for the gay rights movement as a whole.)

Over 78% of Filipinos feel that homosexuality is always wrong, and 1 out of 4 Filipinos say they do not want gays or lesbians as neighbors
Of related significance I'm reminded of a recent cross-national survey on acceptance of homosexuality by the University of Chicago and the Williams Institute.  It found that out of 35 countries surveyed, the Philippines ranked 34th, with just 4.4% of Filipinos stating that homosexuality is not wrong at all, just barely ahead of Turkey which came in 35th.  A whopping 78.7% of Filipinos said homosexuality is always wrong -- one of the highest percentages in the world.  Additionally it found that more education is associated with more approval of LGBT persons and same-sex relationships in 99% of countries surveyed, all except for one:  the Philippines.

Another international survey, conducted in 2001 by the University of California at Irvine, found that the Philippines was the most sexually conservative country among 24 countries surveyed on all three of the following questions:  (1) Is sex before marriage wrong?, (2) Is sex before 16 years old wrong?, (3) Is homosexual sex wrong?

This means that there is much work to be done on the Filipinos' view of LGBTs and their acceptance of same-sex relationships, and it's not going to be easy.  It not only requires a focus at the grassroots, but also at the grasstops.  The Philippines is behind the curve on this.  It's ahead of some countries (namely Muslim ones), but lagging woefully behind its democratic allies in the developed world.


Ultimately, of course, it is up to the Filipino LGBT community to decide the best course of action to take from here.  The political, religious, and cultural climate of the Philippines makes it quite unique, and it is for Filipino LGBTs to decide what they want and how they see fit to go about attaining it.  This much is certain:  the struggle will not be easy and it will not be quickly remedied.

The best advice that I can give as a straight ally of the cause is two-fold.  One is to take pride in who you are.  I mentioned earlier about the "overly dramatic lady-boys" on Philippine TV, and how, in my opinion, such portrayals neither cast the LGBT community in a positive light nor help the overall cause of gay rights in the Philippines.  This is especially true when a large portion of the Filipino populace are unaware of the distinctions between transgender persons and gay persons.

The Filipino bakla has a reputation for being funny and entertaining, this is true, and there's nothing wrong with being fun or having fun.  But, as a Filipino friend once said, "Filipinos like it when baklas join in at parties and tell jokes at comedy bars and lead the entertaining singing on videoke outings with friends, but that doesn't mean they respect them or truly accept them.  The bakla is comedy relief and is fun to be around, but not really taken seriously."

It would be nice if this could change.  As long as their fellow countrymen see them as a silly, comedic stereotype, it will be hard for Filipino transgenders to be taken seriously or truly respected.

The second piece of advice I can give is to be willing to learn from the experiences of other countries.  Not necessarily copy, but develop a strategy based on previous ones that have worked before in other lands.  The Filipino LGBT community has a great opportunity to study the way the gay rights movement has been carried forward in other places, and can pick out the most effective tactics from among them.  There are cultural differences, of course, one of which being that Philippine society never went through the sexual revolution of the late 1960s the way that Western societies did, so adaptations will have to be made to cater to the Philippine experience.

Personally, I think the Nordic step-by-step tactic toward equality would best fit the Philippines.  It's not an instant, American-style fast-food approach, but it pays off in the end.  What Filipino LGBT individuals and couples need are recognition and protection under the law.  The name by which that recognition comes isn't all that important right now.  What matters are the rights.

There is some heated discussion right now in the U.S., for example, surrounding civil unions vs. marriage.  A slim majority of Americans right now support same-sex marriage, but an even greater majority support same-sex civil unions.  Civil unions are essentially the same thing as civil marriage, just by a different name.  Many gay rights activists dislike civil unions, however, because they create a separate-but-equal distinction for same-sex couples.  I absolutely agree; it essentially creates "Class B Marriages" for LGBTs.  This is precisely why we in Scandinavia have upgraded registered partnerships into marriages.

Civil unions are not ideal.  If you ask me, they are Class B marriages.  Marriage can easily be opened up to include same-sex couples, and that is the fair and equitable thing to do.  BUT, when there are no protections currently on the books, little public support for marriage equality, and broader support for civil unions, why not make a push for national legislation on what can be readily obtained?  Marriage equality is the ultimate goal, yes, and can eventually be obtained, but what matters most are the rights, protections, and benefits of marriage conveyed by the State, and I think the LGBT community would be wise to grab that chance no matter what name the national government gives it.

I would ask:  when push comes to shove, is it better to have rights and protections by a different name, or nothing at all?  This can be negatively labeled as compromise, yes, but compromise is generally the way things get done in politics.  Both sides must give and take.

The step-by-step path that the Nordic countries took was successful and smooth.  Cohabitation rights came first, quickly followed by Registered partnerships (civil unions), giving same-sex couples the same rights and protections of married opposite-sex couples.  After acceptance continued to grow and opposition was silenced because the world didn't end, then came a push for a truly equitable gender-neutral marriage law for all couples, merging the two equal yet separate classifications (opposite-sex marriages and same-sex partnerships) to create gender-neutral marriage equality.

This would be a good path for the Philippines to follow, too.  The Philippines is still simply too conservative and religious to handle the shock of same-sex relationships being recognized as marriages by their government.  Too many Filipinos would think the apocalypse is at hand.  We saw that exact mindset exemplified in the panicked and fearful reactions surrounding the holy unions in Baguio City, which weren't even actual marriages recognized by the government.

We all know there's no way the Philippine Congress would pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage at this point in time.  There might be two Representatives (out of 286) who would be brave enough to vote in favor of such a bill, but let's be realistic; it wouldn't even make it out of committee in the first place.  A bill to recognize registered partnerships, however, might garner many more votes because it avoids the controversial and often "religiousy-sounding" word 'marriage.'  And a bill to recognize simple cohabitation status, which could give at least a few basic rights to same-sex couples, might garner an even wider base of support.

My point:  when dealing with a less-than-progressive society, take what you can get when you can get it, and build from there through a combination of legislative action, judicial action, and tireless work.  It might be slow and it might be compromise, but at least it's a forward moving form of compromise, and forward is the direction we want the Philippines to be moving.


Emerson Soriano said... Best Blogger Tips

Religious and political ideologies that has blunted the Philippines Culture for Centuries now have created a cycle of oppression and proliferated the culture of ignorance in the minds of Filipinos that resulted to fear. I hope that our advocacy will be supported by open minded people who have move to a different progressive culture....

Erik said... Best Blogger Tips

Well said, Emerson. I think you hit the nail on the head: it all boils down to fear of the unknown, fear of anything "different," and fear of change. Knowledge and education are the only answer, my friend. Step by step it will happen!

QT said... Best Blogger Tips

Germany also has same sex marriage I believe. My auntie works in Germany, I think she said that there is same sex marriage there also and they have followed some similar steps leading up to equality also. Thanks for all the information here, it really helps!

Erik said... Best Blogger Tips

@ QT: Hi! Germany does not officially have marriage equality YET, but in 2001 it enacted the Life Partnership Act. While not technically marriage, registered life partnerships are essentially civil unions which give most of the same rights and benefits of marriage. Germany's High Court ruled last year that all the rights and obligations of marriage be extended to same-sex registered partners, and that the legislature needs to correct any existing inequalities between marriages and partnerships.

Germany is in the process of same-sex partnership evolution right now (as you noted), and will likely upgrade life partnerships into full marriage in much the same way as its Scandinavian neighbors have already done. This probably won't fully happen until the Social Democrats, the Left, and the Greens are able to once again form a coalition government, which is likely to happen after the next elections. I believe those will be in 2013.

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