Family is important in every culture across the globe, and the Philippines is no exception.  But in the Philippines the "pamilya" takes on a life of its own, backed up by the weight of fiercely held traditions and the very influential Catholic Church.

In the West we have our families as well of course, but each individual is as important as the collective family, and the independence of each person in the family is highly respected and encouraged.  In the Philippines, as in other Southeast Asian cultures, we see the opposite structure of the family.

In the Philippines it is not uncommon to have the entire family living under one roof, complete with adult children (who may even have children of their own) and grandparents.  This is rooted in a great respect for the family elders, as well as financial practicality:  many people contributing to expenses minimizes the burden.  While in the West our parents show us to the front door and say "good bye" when we turn 18, in Southeast Asia the parents encourage their children to stay at home for as long as possible.

By Western standards, Filipino families and parents can be seen as overprotective and even intrusive.  But this is because the Filipino concept of self is wrapped in the identity of the family.  Quite opposite to the European/American view, the Filipino view is that the family as a whole is far more important than individuality.  Just as in the rest of Asia, Filipino culture has a guilt/shame system in which doing something bad or innapropriate brings shame upon the entire family, not just the individual, causing the family to lose face.  This is a concept that is completely foreign to me as a European, and took some time for me to properly understand.

In line with what is being addressed in this blog -- homosexuality and gay rights -- the Filipino family plays an undeniably large role in how these issues are perceived and dealt with.  How cultures see and define marriage and family can be quite different from each other.  By Western standards the Philippines has a very rigid concept of the family and marriage.  I found that out when I went to a college one day.

I was asked to be part of a round table discussion on this matter with a Filipino college class.  The responses and logic some of the students put forth really took me by surprise.  I remember one student saying, "Why would someone get married if they don't want or cannot have kids?"  A second agreed, saying, "Yes, that's the whole purpose of marriage:  children."  I remember scratching my head as I listened, because what they were saying was so foreign to me.  I hadn't been in the Philippines very long at that time, so I was still trying to sort through the ins and outs of Filipino culture, including the Filipino definition of family.  I found out that day that it is quite different from the definition that I had always known.

As I now know, in the Philippines a married couple is not considered a family until the birth of a child.  It is a very child-oriented culture.  It is unthinkable to most Filipinos to not have children.  There is great pressure -- both societal and familial -- to get married and start reproducing, for that, essentially, is the raison d'etre for living.  As one male student put it, "You're not a man if you don't have children."

My response to him was a bit sarcastic but nevertheless true, that, biologically speaking, if you have a penis between your legs you're a male, whether you have offspring or not.  Culturally he may have a differing view, but biologically his argument was of course nonsense.

Many of those students, and indeed many Filipinos, are what we call sociologically as institutionalists.   An institutionalist defines family as a "traditional," biological, procreative and child-rearing structure and emphasizes the biological relationship among family members.  They focus on the presence of a biological mother and father and biological offspring to define family.

Many Westerners (myself included) are interactionists.  An interactionist defines family based on the voluntary assumption of family-related role behaviors.  For interactionists, it is performance of family roles that is important, not the biological or marital relationship.  For example, I was raised being taught that there are many different types of families, each one equally valid and equally worthy of dignity, respect, and protection.

Procreation is not the primary purpose for modern marriage.  Marriage is (and forever should be) centered on two people caring for each other.  Look at the Book of Common Prayer of 1662.  This is where we get the wedding vows we still use today.  In it you'll find talk of love, commitment and fidelity between two people, but there is no mention of children, sex, inheritance, or personal fulfillment.
If the justification for marriage is nothing more than procreation and the rearing of children, then what shall we do with heterosexual couples who cannot have children or do not want to have children?  What shall we do with heterosexuals who wish to get married but are beyond child-bearing age?  Shall we forbid them from marrying?  Of course not, because marriage is so much more than simply making babies; it is about sharing love, trust, and partnership, and building a life and home together.

In Norway we have many types of families (single parent, cohabiting couples, non-married couples with or without children, step families, same-sex couples with or without children), and each one is treated equally by society and the government.  In the Philippines, generally only one type of family is recognized by society and the government:  that of one man, one woman, and children.  Very rigid and exclusive compared to the modern Western definition of family.  I'm not saying that one way is superior to the other, because that's certainly not true.  And that is precisely the point:  family is defined by culture, as is marriage. 

An interesting blog entry about why same-sex marriage should not be allowed in the Philippines was recently brought to my attention.  There are a handful of arguments put forth, none of which make very much sense biologically, sociologically or anthropologically, but this is what the (Filipino) author said:  "Relying on Civil rights of individuals could not defend a married life of the couple, try to think of a couple with same sex, can they last as married couple for 5 years without cheating each other? How can they make their union into family, they could not raise a child." [sic] 

I'm not even homosexual but that statement upset me.  It is based solely on the author's own bias and feelings, and unworthy of a true argument. 

"Can they last as [a] married couple for 5 years without cheating [on] each other?"  Try asking Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, two women who had been together for 56 years before they were finally allowed to get married in California in 2008.  Or Gene Harwood and Bruce Maro who were together their whole lives, a monogamous gay couple for 70 years.  Or Axel and Eigil Axgil of Denmark, the world's first legally registered same-sex partners, who were together for 46 years until death did them part.  Or Kim Friele and Wenche Lowzow, one of Norway's most famous married same-sex couples, who have been together for almost 40 years.  My point is that it is offensive to suggest that same-sex couples cannot remain faithful the way that opposite-sex couples can, simply because they are same-sex.  It is spoken out of ignorance.

In addition to that, just for the record, a recent study in the UK found that 2.5% of same-sex partnerships formed in that country between 2005 and 2010 ended in divorce, while 5.5% of opposite-sex marriages during the same time ended in divorce.  It seems, based on this example at least, that gay couples take their commitments very seriously -- statistically speaking even more-so than straight couples.

"How can they make their union into [a] family[?]  [T]hey could not raise a child."  It's really not that complicated.  For starters, a union based on love between two, unrelated, consenting adults of legal age is in fact a family.  So they are already a family, regardless of offspring.  Secondly, same-sex couples can raise kids, too.  Some have their own biological children (via in vitro fertilization and/or surrogacy), or they may adopt a child in need of a loving home.  The author then stressed her point with an exclamation point, saying "It will never be called a family!" 

Sorry but it already is called a family.  (Ref. European Union Fundamental Rights Agency.) 

The views demonstrated above are examples of something known as ethnocentrism.  Each society has different cultural assumptions that form the basis of its code of behavior.  To assume, as I believe the students and the author of the statements above do, that another culture has the same understanding and opinion of the world that you and your culture has is ethnocentrism.  A culture will generally regard its own habits and customs as being natural, and consider those of others as unnatural, because what has been practised and reinforced since birth will always seem natural to a person.  This is understandable but also unfortunate.  It is always a good thing to think outside the box we've been born in, and come to see that "different" doesn't always mean "dangerous."

I do not, however, think the acceptance of same-sex families is a dead end street in the Philippines.  Far from it in fact.  My optimism comes from the simple fact that Filipinos do value family so much, and rather than being a hindrance to acceptance of non-conventional types of families, I think that fact may actually be a boost for acceptance and equality in the long run.

Take Latino families as an example.  Latino families in South and North America have a very similar family structure to Asian families.  Something that brings Latino and Filipino families even closer in this regard is the fact that both cultures are largely Catholic, which further shapes their views and concepts of family.  Findings of a July 2010 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 57% of Latino Catholics in California believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.  This may raise eyebrows at first glance, but when we dissect it, it really isn't too big of a surprise for three reasons: 

1.  The strong Catholic family dynamic at work.  As Bryan Cones of the U.S. Catholic magazine put it, "[The Catholic Church] must tread carefully on this issue for several reasons.  First, there are many gay and lesbian people in the church, called by God into it by their baptism.  Catholic conversation about homosexuality must always keep in mind that we are talking about members of the body of Christ here.

"Second, there are more and more Catholic families with openly gay and lesbian children, many of whom are grown and have partners and families of their own. The blood of family being thicker than the waters of baptism, the participants in the Catholic debate about gay marriage must recognize that many Catholic parents long ago accepted the sexuality of their gay children, have come to love their partners, and treasure the grandchildren they have through them." 

2.  The communal aspect of Catholicism.  Catholicism is a communal faith that highlights the life cycle process through the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, and marriage. Families experience their moral lives through communal participation in the sacraments, as well as the Latino and Filipino community’s cultural observances, i.e. community religious festivals, All Soul's Day, church feast days, etc. 

3.  Catholic tolerance versus Fundamentalist judmentalism.  Catholics allow complexity and ambiguity in moral decision-making since Catholicism is neither fundamentalist nor literalist regarding the Bible. Rather, Catholics can weigh factors such as the Bible, church teaching, and social reality affecting decision-making.  Also, Catholic priests rarely mention homosexuality or gay issues in sermons except when instructed to do so by the bishops.  This of course is in contrast to fundamentalist Protestant denominations whose ministers frequently rant about and chide homosexuality (think Baptists, Assemblies of God, Pentecostals, and many non-denominational churches).

These three points, along with polls coming out of certain Catholic communities worldwide which show a trend toward acceptance and equality for the LGBT community, offer a glimmer of hope that relates to the Philippines.  The time will come when increasing numbers of Filipinos, the majority of whom are also Catholic, will begin to come around to the idea of full equality for all Filipinos, regardless of sexual orientation.

I truly admire the Filipino dedication and devotion to family.  I admire their reverence for strong families.  I admire their rich sense of family values.  I only wish they would extend that same reverence and value to all families.  Some day I'm confident they will.


Renato said... Best Blogger Tips

Hello. You should please understand that the Philippines is not Europe and has morality as very important to the people. It is a majority Christian country and the only Christian country in Asia so the morality is very important here. TY

Erik said... Best Blogger Tips

Renato: Thank you for your comment. I understand and completely respect that the Philippines is a Christian country. I have heard many Filipinos say that, so it is clearly something you are proud of, and I respect that. The latest stats show that the Philippines is 80% Catholic, and I know that is a strong part of Filipino identity. As a point of fact, however, it is no longer the only Christian land in Asia; the Republic of East Timor is also majority Christian at 97% Catholic.

Having said that, it is fair for me to mention that Belgium is 47% Catholic, Spain is 76% Catholic, and Portugal is 85% Catholic, yet each of those countries have granted equality to gays and lesbians, including marriage equality. Additionally, France, Ireland, Slovenia, Hungary, Colombia, Uruguay and Ecuador all have same-sex civil unions, and all are also majority Catholic countries.

By the way, Norway is also a majority Christian country; we are 84% Christian (mostly Lutheran). In fact all countries that have marriage equality or civil unions today are majority Christian countries, from South Africa to Canada.

I have no problem with being spiritual, but I think that saying "we're Catholic" or "we're Christian" is no longer a good enough excuse for denying equality to all citizens. Thank you and God bless.

Roly Manansala said... Best Blogger Tips

The Philippines was touted in news as one of the world's most gay-friendly nation (see: But the headlines belie the truth. The country has a long way to go in terms of equality and acceptance - not just tolerance. But it is also encouraging that these groups are finding their voice and their place in society.

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