Ging Cristobal posed a series of questions to a roomful of 50 people in Quezon City, in the Philippines, during a recent training.
She asked about people's gender identities including, “How many here were born male and identify as female?” to which a transgender woman raised her hand and was met with a murmur of applause in the village hall.
By speaking in a mix of Tagalog and English, known as “Taglish,” and layering them in a manner of deductive reasoning, Cristobal explained the concepts of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE). These concepts are not always easy to understand, as some terms like “transgender” and “cisgender” do not have direct translations in the Filipino language. (Cisgender means someone whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were identified with at birth.)
Cristobal, OutRight International’s project officer for Asia, is working on building an LGBTI-friendly network — the "I" in LGBTI stands for "intersex" — starting at the very basic, grassroots level of the village. At the recent meeting, her audience members were village council officers who serve as guardians and executors of Quezon City's Gender-Fair Ordinance.
About 15 other cities around the country have passed their own anti-discrimination ordinances but none have quite followed through with the vigor and determination as Quezon City, a bustling metropolis about 9 miles from the Philippine capital of Manila.
Cristobal has already conducted SOGIE workshops in almost half of Quezon City’s 142 villages. The training includes educating village officers on the different ways that violence and discrimination may be inflicted on LGBTI individuals, as well as the redress mechanisms that are available to them. Quezon City has also set in motion a Pride Council to oversee the implementation of LGBTI services, including a related hotline.
“I’ve always looked at LGBTI rights from a human rights perspective,” said Quezon City Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte, who made an appearance during the SOGIE orientation to plaster rainbow decals on the village hall's windows. The sticker certifies it as an LGBTI-friendly space where any of the officers trained by Cristobal will be ready to extend assistance with sensitivity and respect.
Afterward, Belmonte posted a rainbow sticker on tricycles, motorized carriages that are a popular mode of transportation in the Philippines. Belmonte explained to drivers that the sticker signifies their agreement to bring any LGBTI person who needs help to the nearest village hall also marked with the colorful visual.
Initiatives like this make it easy to see why the Philippines has a reputation for being a gay-friendly country. Pockets of various cities — including Quezon City — are lit up by gay bars, and gay beauty pageants are enjoyed in almost every village across the nation. Hints of gender equality are also present in national legislation. There is the Ladlad political party whose platform is gender rights and equality. Two women have served as heads of state — and both came to power by overthrowing a sitting male president. Last year, the country elected its first transgender congresswoman.
But looking deeper, there is little acceptance in places where it matters the most. A 2012 study of 59 transgender, lesbian and bisexual women conducted by the advocacy group, Rainbow Rights Philippines, said that participants felt a “significant level of invisibility and devaluation.”
The discrimination and stigmatization people described ran across three groups: family, religious institutions and law enforcement.
“In terms of LGBTI rights, we are a bit of a confusing case. The sector is fairly well-represented. ... At the same time, we have high rates of violence against LGBTI individuals,” said Sharmila Parmanand, a Filipina who is a gender studies PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.
Parmanand highlights the fact that LGBTI youth are bullied and discriminated against by peers and teachers in the country’s massive network of religious schools. Sodomy and homosexuality are not criminalized, but there is little legal protection available as there is no national law that prohibits discrimination on account of gender identity, orientation or expression.
Gender-fair laws, if any, are instituted at the city level, as in the case of Quezon City.
Ana P. Santos/PRI
In the family, study participants said they experienced verbal, emotional — or sexual abuse, which was usually perpetrated by male family members, like a brother or an uncle. Religious institutions used corrective therapies and rituals for “conversion,” and law enforcement officers targeted and criminalized LGBTI individuals.
OutRight International conducted similar studies across four other countries: Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. According to OutRight International’s cross-country report, LGBTI individuals face violence and exclusion in every sphere of their lives and experience high levels of family violence and widespread discrimination in education, health and work sectors.
The group specifically notes that LGBTI people's attempts to lodge complaints and seek redress were hindered by the lack of understanding and acceptance among authorities.
History of language
Jazz Tamayo of R-Rights said the lack of understanding is fueled in part by a language gap.
In Filipino, pronouns like sya ("he/she") and nouns such as asawa ("spouse"), anak ("child") and kapatid ("sibling") are gender neutral and have no gender-indicator equivalent or substitute. Filipino, for example, only has asawa for spouse — and no separate word for “wife” or “husband.”
“The Filipino language is so beautiful in its being gender neutral. Maybe our ancestors had imagined a society where gender is no longer important. But in the setting that we have now, where some sectors are invisibilized, having terms that are recognized and accepted is a necessary step — especially for the transgender community,” said Tamayo.
The language gap is further reinforced by laws and workplace policies that define correct and acceptable behavior. These are mostly written in English and are usually not translated to Filipino.
Tuting Hernandez, linguist expert and founder of Babaylan, one of the first gay organizations in the Philippines, does not see the language gap as much of a problem, though. “Language is always changing and will accommodate current realities in society.”
Hernandez sees attempts to reclaim certain words like bakla ("gay") that used to have a negative connotation as an indicator of the LGBTI community pushing back against stereotypes to create their own meanings. “In the community, some of us greet and call each other with bakla.”
But he said that the mainstreaming of words like bakla should come with the similar recognition of other words found in Philippine dialects like bayot ("gay or effeminate"). Currently, some words are still used to insult or taunt.
Presidential toxic rhetoric
Gender advocates and experts do agree on one thing: President Rodrigo Duterte’s toxic rhetoric is damaging to women and the LGBTI community.
Duterte, who was elected in July 2016, has earned his own reputation of being a blustering firebrand who won’t hesitate to hurl a tirade of insults at foes and critics. He used the word bakla as a pejorative against male critics like the former US ambassador to the Philippines and the head of the Commission on Human Rights. Both men criticized Duterte’s brutal crackdown on illegal drugs.
Duterte has also used language to portray himself as a traditional macho male who flaunts his sexual entitlement and desire for women. One of his jokes involved an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and killed.
Duterte said that she was so beautiful that he felt sad and wistful — because he should have been first in line to rape her. At one event, he alluded to Vice President Leni Robredo’s legs. He later defended his comments as an attempt to pay her a compliment. Addressing soldiers, he said that female rebels should be shot in the vagina because “they are nothing without it.”
"He is the personification of toxic masculinity, misogyny and sexism all rolled into one," said Naomi Fontanos, the executive director of GANDA or Gender and Development Advocates Filipinas, a nongovernmental organization advocating for gender rights and recognition of transwomen.
“We are genuinely at risk of seeing our fragile gender-equality progress erode under his term. It is very likely that he will undermine many of the gains we’ve made in terms of women’s reproductive rights and women’s control over their sexuality,” said gender researcher, Parmanand.
A bill that outlaws discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity expression and prohibits banning access to government services on the basis of being gay or transgender is currently pending in Congress.
It was first filed 17 years ago, but it wasn’t until last year that the bill reached the plenary level.
“There is really no acceptance yet, only tolerance. It’s a case of extremes. There is no neutrality or middle ground yet,” said Cristobal about the LGBTI experience in the Philippines.
But there are moves to carve out that middle ground and bend the needle towards acceptance. Apart from the local ordinances to create safe spaces for LGBTI individuals like the one in Quezon City, some schools and public establishments have set up gender-neutral bathrooms. Some multinational corporations and call centers have conducted SOGIE workshops and training and have policies to ensure gender diversity in the workplace.
Even some government institutions, where change is usually slowed by bureaucracy, are making an effort. The Civil Service Commission issued a memo on gender-fair language mandating the use of nonsexist language in all official memos and correspondences.
The Department of Education has also issued a policy on gender fairness to combat bullying of questioning LGBTI adolescents.
Changes are coming but slowly. There is one place where change can’t come fast enough: the family.
Amber Quiban, a 22-year-old transwoman who lives in Quezon City, was disowned by her family when her father’s co-worker showed him her Facebook account where she was dressed as a woman. For years, Quiban lived a double life as a transgender woman at her university and as a man when going home to visit her parents during school breaks.
“My mother slapped me. My brother beat me when they found out,” said Quiban.
Ana P. Santos/PRI
Quiban was present at a rally earlier this month calling for support for the passage of the SOGIE Bill. The rally was comprised mostly of young people like Quiban who want to create a truly gender equal and safe country for LGBTI individuals.
Hopefully, the family will come around, too.
“It was so painful when my family disowned me. They’re supposed to be the first people who will accept you for who you are ... I’m mad at them but I know that once they say they accept me, I will forgive them,” said Quiban.
Ana P. Santos reported from the Philippines.