Although anti-gay protesters are a familiar and ubiquitous fixture at Pride events in western capital cities, public dissent from church groups has usually been absent at Manila Pride until last Saturday.
"This is the first time we've ever had opposition," says Sass Sasot, one of the event coordinators from Task Force Pride 2008, noting the clear departure from the usual rules of engagement with the religious establishment.
"The local church community would never engage in this manner," said a local LGBT activist Ferdinand Buenviaje, alluding to the fact that despite its strength and influence the Church never resorted to such tactics here in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. The presence of foreigners leading the anti-gay group highlights how more aggressive forms of resistance to the gay movement are being spurred by outside influences, namely American-style fundamentalism.
A cross-fire ensued when members from the local branch of the progressive and gay-affirmative Metropolitan Community Church, marching under banners emblazoned with the apt retort 'Would Jesus discriminate?', took their fundamentalist opposition to task.
"We have to be aware of the globalisation of fundamentalism," warned Grace Poore, Regional Coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), who came from New York to observe the march and speak at the rally. "But with the Internet and global media there is also globalisation of the LGBT movement. We have to start looking beyond our national borders if we're going to make any progress."
Manila is widely recognised to be the home of Asia's longest running Pride March. The first gay pride parade was held in Manila - and in Asia - on June 26, 1994, the 25th anniversary of New York's Stonewall riots. Each year Filipino lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender individuals take to the streets to celebrate diversity and call for recognition and equality in the eyes of the law.
Attempts to bring this year's march to Makati, Manila's central business district and the nation's financial capital were stymied due to bureaucratic hurdles and thus it was decided to bring the event back to the emotional epicentre of the Manila gay and lesbian scene, the Malate area of old Manila city.
"We originally wanted to hold the march where the corporations could participate and hear our message," explains Sasot, "but having it in Manila puts the march in the seat of power of the Philippines," referring to the fact that Malate is in the same municipality as many major government offices and Malacana�g - the Presidential Palace.
Mustering support for such an event is always one of the biggest challenges for organisers who usually have to rely on the sweat of hard working volunteers and contributions from local pink businesses. While the Pride industry is capable of generating massive spectator turnouts and lucrative "pink dollars" in the US, Europe and Australia, some people question the affectivity and relevance of Pride marches within the more reserved and less confrontational Asian context.
"Pride marches may have been initiated by Americans, but being gay and lesbian is universal to Asians, Americans and Europeans," Sasot observes. "The event is a way for us to celebrate our pride and express ourselves with dignity."
The fiesta, or festival, is an integral part of Filipino culture and although Pride may be a borrowed theme, the urge to bring the community together to celebrate and help elicit positive change naturally strikes a cord for a people who are famous for their exuberance and hospitality.
December's cooler weather bode well for a good turn out and organisers estimate around 2000 people attended the event, which for the first time also included a beauty pageant. Numbers swelled exponentially as night fell and the official street party took over the crossroads of Nakpil and Orosa Streets, Malate's pink quarter. A total of 40 organisations - NGOs, political parties, corporate floats and citizens' groupings - from around the country registered their participation in the march making it the biggest procession to date.
While a diverse group of veteran LGBT rights activists make up the core of the participants, there was a strong turn out of first-timers and students ready to heed the call.
"I've been to New York Pride three years in a row and this is my first time to attend Manila Pride," says Mike who's just returned to the Philippines after completing his studies in the US. "I think there's more acceptance here than in other places. I used to live in southern US and experienced more discrimination there than back here."
Sam, a law student who was marching while carrying a sign outing herself and fellow marchers as 'Pride March Virgins' felt that the time to act had come. "I feel invisible and I need this event to say something," she confided. "If I don't do this now, I never will."
The situation for Filipino LGBTs, relative to their Asian neighbours, may look seemingly rosy, but that's only on the surface. A lively and open media paired with guaranteed freedom of speech most certainly gives the Philippines an advantage. But despite significant headway made with the enactment of anti-discrimination laws for people living with HIV back in 1988, the passing of an 8-year-old bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation still remains elusive.
The question remains: what is the main barrier for non-discrimination of LGBTs in the Philippines?
"What is insidious is the power of the Church and the relationship between church and state," IGLHRC's Poore frankly exclaims, "that's despite the fact that there's meant to be a separation of power."
The government of the day depends on the support of very vocal, organised and powerful bishops to maintain the political status quo. It's rare that laws that impinge on the moral teachings of the Church are passed - divorce is still illegal, government mandated family planning and contraception programmes are a constant, unresolved battleground and abortion is unconstitutional. Hence as long as the Vatican persists with its stance that homosexuality is immoral, a roadblock will remain in the path towards equality for Filipino gays and lesbians.
Compounding this obstacle is a certain inertia that has overcome the long-standing national LGBT movement. In-fighting, factionalism and divergent interests have all but crippled a once loud and strong voice. Poore, with her global perspective, described the LGBT landscape in the Philippines as "fractious" and sadly lacking a singular, unified voice.
A new solution to this stalemate had its very first outing at the Pride March when a revitalised network of groups and individuals pushing for LGBT rights came to the fore.
Scores of people rallied under the banner of 'Project Equality' at the head of the march. The entire parade would have been relatively silent had it not been for Project Equality's unified clarion call: 'Walang masama sa pagiging bakla. Pantay na karapatan ipaglaban' echoing through the streets amid the sound of house music anthems and distant traffic. The group was making it bluntly clear in Filipino saying that there's nothing wrong with being gay and calling everyone to fight for equal rights.
Project Equality's spokesperson Jonas Bagas is confident that this new grouping will fill the void that currently exists in the LGBT rights movement by taking action on several fronts. At a national level, the group said they would consider bringing their case before the Supreme Court, a move that was recently supported by the Philippine Government's Commission on Human Rights Chair Leila de Lima.
At the same time, Project Equality also recognises that people are often more compelled to act when things are brought closer to home. "We will also go local," Bagas said in a statement at Project Equality's official launch one day prior to the Pride March. "We have seen in the last four years the openness of local governments to legislate LGBT rights at the local level." Evidence of this grassroots action was present at Manila Pride.
Residents from the Province of Albay were in full force at the march and had good reason to celebrate. A municipal ordinance in this eastern province within the Philippines' Bicol region was passed in August making it the first comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance in the country. The Albay ordinance protects the rights of LGBT residents, not only in employment but in all facets of civil life. The fact that this breakthrough comes from one of the archipelago's poorest regions, is a testament that poverty and economics are no barrier to upholding human rights for all.
So while the Church may cast an ominous shadow over the general political landscape in the Philippines, this state of play is nothing new for Filipino baklas and badings (both local lingo to mean gay men), tibos or tomboys (the all inclusive term for lesbians) - they've had the Church hanging over them all their lives. Filipinos are renowned for their resilience and a more tangible sense of hope will most certainly come from taking small, but pivotal steps, each of which will bring them closer to their dream of enjoying the same freedoms as the rest of humanity.
Laurindo Garcia is a freelance writer and former news and current affairs reporter, now based in Manila.