TOAt first glance, the deeply Catholic Philippines may seem surprisingly friendly to the LGBT community. In a nation of 110 million people, more than 110,000 attended the Quezon City Pride festival last week, making it by far the largest LGBT congregation in Southeast Asia. The country also ranks first in the region for LGBT social acceptance, according to a 2021 global index, and has made significant strides over the years toward greater inclusion and equality.
And yet, for more than two decades, a bill that would criminalize discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or sex characteristics (SOGIESC) has languished in the Philippine Congress. Year after year, it has become almost an annual tradition for LGBT legislation to be reintroduced and repealed, leaving LGBT people in many parts of the country without legal recourse when discriminated against.
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While many cities across the country have already instituted local ordinances to make SOGIESC-based discrimination illegal, Irish Inoceto, a Filipina LGBT activist and former clerk at the Philippine Supreme Court, tells TIME that they “have no teeth at all.” “and that she has seen firsthand how overdue and obviously necessary such a national law is.
Commuters watch from a bus as activists take part in a protest to kick off Pride month in Quezon City on June 2.
Ezra Acayan—Getty Images
Last October, Inoceto received a Facebook message from an 11th grade student, just weeks before students were required to return to classrooms after two years of COVID-driven remote learning. The student, a transgender woman in Iloilo City, about 280 miles southeast of Manila, met Inoceto through one of the routine LGBT rights seminars that Inoceto facilitated in Iloilo City, where he used to reside. The student, who had attended some classes in person during a hybrid-remote period, told Inoceto that the school principal personally summoned her to tell her that men should not wear bras; she also said that a school security officer was watching her uniform. Meanwhile, another student from the same school who also identifies as a transgender woman similarly approached Inoceto to tell her that the principal rounded up all the students in her grade and stated that bakla (gay men) with long hair must cut it short or be excluded from school.
“The length of my hair is not the basis of my education,” the latter student, now 19 and who requested anonymity for fear of further discrimination, tells TIME.
The situation led Inoceto to write to the school on behalf of both students. He cited Iloilo City’s own anti-discrimination ordinance that was passed in 2018, but says his letter was ignored. Only after visiting the principal in person did Inoceto finally get the school to back down on its attempts to curb both students’ gender expression. Any relief for Innoceto, however, was short-lived. Her ordeal thrust her into the national spotlight and set in motion a saga that would ultimately force her to flee the country, where she continues to advocate for the passage of the national anti-discrimination bill.
Inoceto, now 46, has spent half his life watching Philippine lawmakers fail to create a national anti-discrimination law for the LGBT community. Legislative records show that the first version of what would later become known as the SOGIE Equality Bill was introduced in the Philippine House of Representatives on January 26, 2000. Successive Congresses have seen the bill advance through of the legislative process to varying degrees, only to meet the same fate: at best, the entire lower house could pass it, only for the upper house, the Philippine Senate, to let it bog down in deliberations.
The most recent version of the bill in the Senate would prohibit discriminatory practices based on SOGIESC, such as denying admission or expelling someone from schools, or imposing harsher-than-normal disciplinary sanctions on students. If approved, violators can pay a fine of up to 250,000 Philippine pesos ($4,535) or be imprisoned for up to six years.
Although the Philippines does not recognize such unions, 29 same-sex couples were symbolically married in Quezon City on June 25.
Ezra Acayan—Getty Images
The mass “wedding” ceremony was held as a protest against the lack of comprehensive legislation for gender minorities in the nation.
Ezra Acayan—Getty Images
But the bill faces strong political resistance, particularly from Christian fundamentalists who, despite constituting a minority of the population compared to the overwhelmingly Catholic majority in the Philippines, represent a potent political force in the country: the Megachurches have drawn a fiercely loyal following and fostered political power through endorsement elections and running their own candidates.
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Opponents of the SOGIE Equality Bill have been accused of promulgating disinformation online and in the halls of Congress to obstruct its passage.
Two of the most vocal figures in the legislative efforts to block the bill are father-son duo Eddie and Joel Villanueva, a representative and a senator, respectively. The elder Villanueva, who is also the founder of the Jesus is Lord megachurch, described the bill as “imported”, saying it does not represent Filipino values, while the younger Villanueva accused the bill of being a precursor to the “same-sex marriage”.
Reyna Valmores, president of the Philippine LGBT rights group Bahaghari, has attended the bill’s deliberations in the Philippine House of Representatives as a specialist. She tells TIME hearings can often feel like a “circus” of misinformation. “We have elected officials talking about how the SOGIE Equality Bill is going to legalize bestiality, it’s going to legalize having sex robots and other such nonsense.”
Members and supporters of the LGBT community participate in the Metro Manila Pride March in Pasay on June 25, 2022.
Sta Rosa Jam—AFP/Getty Images
“It is a matter of debate in Congress,” says Valmores. “But for many people, it’s a matter of survival.”
Shortly after helping the two students in Iloilo City, Inoceto began to be targeted nationwide, highlighting some of the extreme measures taken by prominent opponents of LGBT advocacy in the country.
His name appeared on broadcasts by Sonshine Media Network International, a television station owned by Apollo Quiboloy, a Filipino megachurch leader who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list on charges of sex trafficking women and children. Two hosts of a network show, Lorraine Badoy and Jeffrey “Ka Eric” Celiz, claimed that Inoceto was a member of the local communist insurgency group and has been using LGBT themes, such as his opposition to the gender haircut policy. , to recruit students from the Iloilo school. (TIME spoke to several students who denied being recruited by Inoceto in any way.)
The sudden attention was confusing and terrifying: “I’m an activist, but I’m not a big activist,” Inoceto tells TIME. “I work after hours and on weekends on my defense. So I was like, ‘Why me? And why the problems with transgender students?’”
People protest the clemency granted to a US Marine who was convicted in 2014 of killing a Filipino transgender woman, in Quezon City, on September 8, 2020.
Ezra Acayan—Getty Images
Red tag, a McCarthyism-like tactic of falsely labeling people as communists that was historically used in the Philippines to silence government critics, sometimes even leading to the deaths of victims, has been used increasingly more against LGBT advocates in recent years. (Bahaghari’s Valmores has also been red-tagged.)
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After the broadcast, the country’s Human Rights Commission issued a statement expressing concern about the presenters’ comments, adding that the narrative they used “only serves to perpetuate the already disadvantaged situation of LGBT people who with They often face stigma, discrimination, and discrimination based on gender. violence in our society.
But that was not the end. Inoceto saw his face hanging on canvas in the city and his identity spread on social networks. He even says that his mother was visited by people claiming to be police officers and asked her to stop his LGBT activism.
Concerned about the risks to her safety and that of her family, Inoceto says she has applied for political asylum in France, where she currently is. She is convinced that if the SOGIE Equality Bill had already been passed, she would have been protected from her harassment. “From the beginning I was discriminated against (against) because I was working towards inclusion,” she says.
Still, despite all the obstacles and dangerous misinformation being brought to bear against the LGBT movement, Inoceto remains hopeful that the Philippine anti-discrimination bill will eventually pass, but not without sustained pressure on the groups standing in the way. on their way. “After all, rights are fought for and won after so much fighting,” he says. “We just need to be stronger. In the meantime, we continue to fight the good fight.”
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