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8 Dec 2008

Manila beams with pride, despite debut of anti-gay protesters

For the first time in its 14-year history, the generally festive atmosphere that emanates from the annual Manila Pride March was tarnished with placards and calls for "repentance" from church-based anti-gay protesters.

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.

Top pf page: Members of the gay-affirmative Metropolitan Community Church retort anti-gay protesters with 'Would Jesus discriminate?' banners at the 2008 Manila Pride March on Dec 6. Photos by Laurindo Garcia.

"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.



1. 2008-12-08 14:34  
Well done Manila!

You tell those cruel Catholics what Robin Tyler said:

If homosexuality is a disease let's all call in queer to work!

or Graig Kilborn who said:

I'm against gay marriage. Marriage is a sacred union between a man and a pregnant woman!

or Jay Leno:

The Kinsey Institute says gay men have bigger sex organs - that's the origin of gay pride.

or Judy Carter:

If all gay people are going to hell, how the ones in heaven gonna get their hair done?
2. 2008-12-08 22:39  
the gay pride parade is an event brought about by personal opinions. there should be freedom to express these opinions as long as these opinions do not step on our fellow man and harms others.

we are still and are humans just like those others around us. we need the understanding of others not their judgement. if what we are is a sin? then wouldn't being straight also be a sin? if being queer, a personal choice made by others, is considered a sin; then shouldn't being straight be also, since its also an opinion?

we humans are not judges of others. only God can judge us and the condition of our souls. just like others, gays, lesbians or others have also the soul that all straight people have. what causes sin is the way we live our lives, isn't it?
3. 2008-12-09 02:42  
American Fundamentalist should keep their hate-mongering in their own backyard!
4. 2008-12-09 10:55  
i joined the Manila Pride March, my very first time, and i saw everything first hand (i was marching with Metropolitan Community Church - Philippines) and i noticed that the anti-gay protesters don't have any church to be identified (or affiliated) with and i suppose, these are just self-proclaimed morally straight people where none knew what the Bible or any of the verses they deliberately misquoted meant...they need to read the Bible, holding a mega-phone and wearing unfab placards won't convince me.

i enjoyed the march not because of the crowd but because i felt so at home with the diversity...i am officially out and proud!!!
5. 2008-12-09 17:30  
Well, is Jesus are gay too? What about the pope?

Why Jesus and Pope wear dress but not pants like a man?
6. 2008-12-09 20:09  
Mabuhay ang mga Bakla, Lesbiyana, Silahista, at Muherista sa Pilipinas!

Rev Ceejay Agbayani. MDiv
7. 2008-12-10 02:54  
Thank you for all the congratulatory messages and for those who participated in the 2008 Manila Pride March.

We look forward to a bigger celebration next year as 2009 is the 15th Anniversary of the First Pride March in Asia, the 15th Manila Pride March and the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York.

The success of the 2008 Manila Pride is an apt offering to all Asians--together let us keep the flame of empowerment, freedom, equality and non-discrimination burning. I am glad to have been part of the organizing of this march and to sashay with international participants (and yes, they are Asians). Let me thank them, you know who you are.

On behalf of my organization, Philippine Forum on Sports, Culture, Sexuality and Human Rights (TEAM PILIPINAS), we are looking forward to seeing more Asia-Pacific participation next year.

Best regards,

Bruce Amoroto
Task Force Pride (TFP) Philippines
2008 Membership and Participation Committee Head

Coordinator-President, TEAM PILIPINAS
8. 2008-12-10 11:37  
Very nice reporting here - never been to Manila, or the 14-year-old Manila Pride March, but this article makes me feel I know all about the issues and the activists.
9. 2008-12-11 23:24  
This was my first ever gay pride and I marched with my group, Guys4Mountains.
10. 2008-12-13 00:59  
Beware of those Amwrican fundamentalists, they should stay home,and mind their own business. Long live the Manila Pride March. You are not alone.
11. 2008-12-15 14:41  
'Would Jesus discriminate? Very apt.

Would it not be stronger to quote to them the very bible which they insist are the very words of God. "love thy neighbour" "God made man in his own image" There are doubtless others.

The other thing that has to be remembered, also alluded to above is that the organised church - by whatever name - is an organisation seeking to maintain power. Seekers after power will do anything to keep it - from murder to thought manipulation to denial of anything that they see as threatening.

12. 2009-01-17 19:23  
"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."

--- Thanks for raising this issue. This is a sad reality that the movement/community has to face.



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