Monday, June 4, 2012

Dueling Messages From the Top

The past few weeks have been interesting ones.

I'm not an American, neither am I Filipino, but I've spent quite a bit of time in both the U.S. and the Philippines.  I've been fairly amazed by the recent contrary messages on marriage equality that have been sent from the White House on one side, and Malacañang on the other.

President Barack Obama has announced his full support for the right of same-sex couples to marry, sending a resounding message of equality around the world.

The shockwave hit the Philippines, too.  Within hours, it seemed, Malacañang was sadly distancing itself from the statements coming from the White House.

"I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally," President Obama stated.  "[O]ver the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together [....] at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married."

First Lady Michelle Obama also publicly voiced her stand on the matter, saying, "...for Barack and me, it really comes down to the values of fairness and equality we want to pass down to our girls.  These are basic values that kids learn at a very young age and that we encourage them to apply in all areas of their lives.  And in a country where we teach our children that everyone is equal under the law, discriminating against same-sex couples just isn’t right.  It’s as simple as that."

Malacañang Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, however, when fielded with media questions on the matter the day after Obama's statement, dodged the question as if reporters were throwing bags of poop at him.  "Legally impossible in the Philippines," was the response.  When pressed further, Lacierda simply stated that "Gay marriage is not for the Philippines.  Our laws are very clear... our definition of marriage is a union between a man and a woman."

What message is being sent by these two presidents to the citizens of their respective nations?  The scenario of the dueling messages from the White House and Malacañang made me stop and think.

Gay and lesbian kids and teens in America are now, perhaps for the first time, hearing from the top that they deserve to be treated normally and equally; that they can have just as much chance and just as much right to get married and build a home with whomever they fall in love with.

Gay and lesbian kids and teens in the Philippines, however, are still hearing from the top that even though they're free to do as they please, they will not be treated equally before the law; that they do not and cannot have the right to get married like the rest of their friends and neighbors; that the value of who they are as a person is just a little bit less than the value of "normal", straight citizens.

Not only is such a message damaging to the impressionable self-worth that young people form of themselves, but it is also fuel for bullies.  It gives a pass to intolerance and exclusion.  We are quick to blame the bully for his or her behavior, or perhaps, and rightly so, the parents.  But we must also look at the wider picture.  When the law treats citizens differently and perceives some citizens as different, and when elected officials continue to devalue certain forms of love and certain forms of families, whose lead do we think the bullies are following?

Young people, like all people, simply follow the example they are given from the top.  Any time certain citizens are excluded, the outcome is always damaging.  When the law doesn't reflect equality, society won't reflect it either.

The Philippine Constitution is a beautiful document.  It contains an impressive Bill of Rights which, in Section 1, states "...nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws."  That is a guarantee of equality before the law.  But the problem is that where the issue of marriage equality is concerned, the emphasis is placed on one's gender, on one's sexual orientation, whereas marriage laws should be about one's humanity, as "any person", in line with Article III Section 1.

As young Filipinos grow up, it becomes ever hard for those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender to develop a healthy self-esteem and embrace who they are.  This is because the law doesn't embrace who they are.  Section 1 of the Bill of Rights becomes conditionally operational and is precluded from being relied upon in certain circumstances (i.e. "this applies to everyone, including long as I'm straight").

The Family Code goes even further by operating to deny a right:  the right to marry.  What message does this send down the line to the common tao and impressionable youth?  It's a powerful message that comes from the top -- from the very document that Filipino heroes fought to establish for all Filipinos.

Homophobia is currently enshrined in many nations' laws, much as racism was years ago.  While many of the younger generation see through the bigotry of the older generation, many do not.  Laws that support bigotry make it easier for those who, either in their own minds or as proxies of their parents, spew intolerance based on difference.  Those same laws could also convince some who would otherwise support equality to go against their intuition and develop a belief that there is something wrong with the "other."

Personally, based on his candid comment at last year's Asian Society Forum in New York, I don't think President Aquino has a problem with marriage equality.  Privately he's probably supportive of the concept.  Unfortunately things don't get better when presidents are privately progressive and publicly silent.  We need more from our leaders.  Even my 95 year old grandmother can sit in her living room and be supportive of this or that.  It's our public position that pushes change...especially if we're elected leaders.

Vice Mayor Duterte
There are those in the Philippines, though, who are starting to speak out for fairness.  From the deep south city of Davao, Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has recently voiced his support for marriage equality.  "Being married and marrying the person that you love is a matter of choice," Duterte said.  "Gays are supposed to have the [same] rights and freedom as heterosexuals, including the freedom to marry and build a family."

“I look at them as human beings and not on their gender,” he said.  “If people want same-sex marriages, gay marriages, it is their choice.”  While acknowledging that Philippine law currently does not have marriage equality, Duterte went on to say that, “If there is a law (bringing marriage equality), I will support it and go for it.” 

Rodrigo Duterte, PLEASE RUN FOR PRESIDENT!  His statements were a refreshing, progressive breath of fresh air from a Philippine political landscape that is all too often stuck in the mud of the dark ages.

With more leaders like Duterte in the Philippines, the playing field could start to be leveled and the mainstream could start to be corrected.  Then, maybe then, we'll start to see that we're not so different after all, which is precisely what Article III Section 1 of the Philippine Constitution has been saying all along.

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