Anti-Discrimination Bill and COVID-19

By Jazmin Jabines, UN SDSN Youth Philippines Volunteer | Published on November 27, 2020 5:59:22 PM

Vice Ganda, an openly gay man in the Philippines, is one of the most popular celebrities in the country. He is the host of one of the country’s most well-loved television shows. He is also the Chief Creative Officer of his own make-up brand Vice Cosmetics, whose mission is to “inspire everyone to look and feel their most beautiful”. Having starred in several comedy films where his character’s sexual identity and gender expression are part of what makes his movies so popular, he’s even been called a gay icon by some.

Surely his popularity means that the country is accepting of LGBTQ+ presence?

Although the Philippines is ostensibly one of the countries in Asia most tolerant of individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ according to a Pew Research Center study in 2019, religion remains a moral authority in the lives of many Filipinos. As the only Christian nation in Asia, with a Muslim minority comprising about 4% of the total population, religion has dominated discourse over issues such as same-sex marriage, reproductive health, and homosexuality. In fact, 83% of respondents of a Social Weather Stations survey - a record high - in the country say that religion is “very important” for them. Undoubtedly, religious motivations have long been embedded in the collective psyche of the Filipino, placing the LGBT+ community at the center of a hopeful yet precarious shift to a more progressive society.

According to the same Pew Research center study, countries whose citizens feel that religion is “somewhat”, “not too”, or “not at all” important are more likely to have a progressive attitude toward homosexuality compared to those who say that religion is “very important”. Why doesn’t the Philippines seem to follow this trend?

Let’s be clear - tolerance is not the same as acceptance. What seems real on the surface level about the country’s tolerance of the LGBT community is regrettably distinct from the lived reality of those who identify as LGBTQ+. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, the Philippines is one of the deadliest countries in the world for transgenders. Just last September, President Duterte granted absolute pardon to Scott Pemberton, who viciously robbed Jennifer Laude of her life on October 11, 2014, after realizing that she was transgender. LGBTQ+ students suffer from rampant bullying, and in some instances, physical and sexual assault. This discrimination denies LGBTQ+ youth of their right to education, and damages, sometimes permanently, their emotional and mental development.

What explains this paradox? Firstly, LGBTQ+ individuals are expected to follow strict behavioral archetypes which restrict the terms of their acceptance in Filipino society. The gay man is stereotyped as bakla, which conjures an image of a male transvestite typically working as a hairdresser or parlorista, as if this is the only acceptable posture for gay men. Lesbians are also not exempt from these archetypes. Lesbians are mostly imagined as tibo, or as a butch woman who is “tough” and “manly”. In other words, to be gay in the Philippines is to dress and act like a woman, while to be lesbian is to dress and act like a man. As the Philippine scholar J. Neil Garcia writes:

“...Filipinos have yet to see transvestism as legitimate in “serious” professions - male senators filibustering from the podium wrapped in elegant, two-toned pashminas, or CEOs strutting around open-air malls wearing power skirts and designer leather pumps. Second, and more importantly, cross dressing is very different from homosexuality; the one does not necessarily entail the other. Observed more closely, the two have very different stories to tell.”

Because of the confines imposed upon LGBTQ+ individuals, many of them may decide to shoehorn themselves to fit into the mainstream notions of bakla or tibo, because such expressions are more likely to be tolerated by the status quo. However, LGBTQ+ identity is profoundly complex. Members of this community should not be pressured to accept limited forms of expression. A world where LGBTQ+ individuals are fully accepted is a world where they can fully express their hopes, wishes, and dreams without basing them on society’s approval.

Secondly, the paradox speaks volumes about how religious motivations, largely fueled by the Catholic Church and other faith groups, have hijacked public institutions by controlling how elected legislators and regular citizens vote to affect real policy. This is true not only for matters affecting the LGBTQ+ community, but also other issues which religious groups believe fundamentally contradict their teachings. For instance, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) mobilized allies in Congress to delay the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill which was introduced in Congress in 1999.

House Bill No. 4982

The Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) bill, or House Bill No. 4982, is an anti-discrimination bill which, if passed, would institute national protections for everyone on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This much-needed bill has been pending for two decades, yet the 17th Congress in particular has become a battleground for the passage of the bill due to the efforts of Bataan 1st District Representative Geraldine Roman, Diwa Party List Representative Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, and Dinagat Islands Representative Arlene “Kaka” Bag-ao.

The bill is both punitive and preventive. On one hand, the bill seeks to punish individuals who discriminate against individuals on the basis of their SOGIE. For example, an employer who differentially treats an employee on the basis of the employee’s SOGIE could be held liable. In other instances, organizations which deny rights to LGBTQ+ members, such as the right to access public service, right to use establishments such as public restrooms or restaurants, and right to apply for professional licenses would be held liable. On the other hand, the bill also aims to prevent the discrimination of people based on their SOGIE, by instituting the inclusion of SOGIE frameworks in all services and police station activities.

The passage of the SOGIE bill is of crucial importance. It seeks to protect everyone from discrimination on the basis of their SOGIE. While LGUs may implement ordinances to stop certain forms of discrimination, a national law would carry definite force by mandating equality on the basis of SOGIE at the highest level, instead of the LGBTQ+ community having to rely on the benevolence of progressive city leaders. Equality remains a myth when LGBTQ+ must actively fight to be treated equally in the eyes of law, instead of equality being the default.

Moreover, the passage of the bill would have a normative effect. A national law that enforces the equal treatment of LGBTQ+ would deconstruct wrongful notions about those who deviate from the gender binary and heteronormative norms. For example, the trans community has long suffered from myths and misconceptions about who they are. As a result, many trans individuals have been made to feel as though they’re walking on a tightrope - remarkable enough to be seen as a novelty, but not acceptable enough to be seen as normal.

Religious Opposition

Many of those who strictly oppose the passage of House Bill No. 4982 in the Senate have used their religious beliefs to justify their stance. For example, Eddie Villanueva, an evangelist and founder of Jesus is Lord Movement, believes that the bill “imperils freedom of speech and religion”. Villanueva also believes it would be wrong to prohibit educational institutions to deny schooling to trans children, because according to him, schools should be allowed to consider trans individuals by their sex assigned at birth. His stance is also shared by Senator Vicente Sotto III, the incumbent Senate President. Last November 4, Lyndon Cana of the Coalition of the Concerned Families of the Philippines suggested that the term “LGBTQIA+” is unclear and may support pedophilia and necrophilia. This drew the ire of Geraldine Roman and netizens who were deeply offended by this statement. In the same hearing, Eddie Villanueva came to Lyndon Cana’s defense.

However, there are some religious leaders who support the passage of the SOGIE bill. For example, Bishop Solito Toquiero from the National Council of the Churches Philippines said that their institution supports the SOGIE bill. In fact, there are religious denominations that have been established or are led by members of the LGBTQ+, such as the Metropolitan Community Church, The Order of St. Aelred, and Ekklesia Tou Theou, which conducts same-sex marriages and other ceremonial functions. Unfortunately, these religious groups remain the minority.

In a secular state, religious freedom should not be weaponized to deny the equal treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals. Religious freedom does not justify imposing religious beliefs over others, especially when it comes to matters involving their inalienable rights. For instance, publicly funded agencies should be open to the public, meaning no group of people can be denied access to public services which are taxpayers’ funded. Even businesses should not be able to deny services to the public, because businesses are only able to exist in the first place by the licenses granted by the state and by the business environment that is supported and regulated by public agencies.

The Impacts of COVID-19 to the LGBTQ+ Community

Last May 2017, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Commissioner for Human Rights from the Council of Europe, the UN Committer of the Rights on the Child, and other UN independent experts called on states and other stakeholders to “urgently take into account the impact of COVID-19 on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender diverse (LGBT) persons when designing, implementing and evaluating the measures to combat the pandemic."

The intersectionality of LGBTQ+ identity with socio-economic mobility, which in turn affects issues such as healthcare access, homelessness, and poverty, makes LGBTQ+ individuals particularly affected by the pandemic. LGBTQ+ individuals who live in poverty are more likely to have higher rates of infection, more likely to have serious complications from COVID-19, and suffer the disproportionate economic impact brought on by the pandemic. Moreover, the special powers granted by governments to police may be used to discriminate against LGBTQ+ communities wholesale under the guise of public health.

LGBTQ+ persons are at increased risk of serious complications from COVID-19. In 2018, the Philippines had the fastest-growing HIV infection rate in the Asia-Pacific region. According to Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS regional support director for Asia-Pacific, 83% of new HIV cases among males who have sex with males and transgender women who have sex with males. While men who have sex with other males are not necessarily gay, the fact remains that the LGBTQ+ community represents a significant portion of those who suffer from new HIV infections. The hostile environment against LGBTQ+ people in the country makes it more difficult for them to seek treatment or admit to their friends and family about their illness. Hence, LGBTQ+ members who suffer from HIV may have compromised immune systems that place them at a higher risk of developing worse symptoms of COVID-19. There are also other factors that place LGBTQ+ persons at increased risk, such as higher rates of tobacco use and cancer.

During the pandemic, police are given the discretion to enforce special measures onto citizens to aid public health directives. Unfortunately, unrestrained law enforcement enables the police to act on their prejudice and discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals with impunity. LGBTQ+ individuals are at risk of being humiliated, embarrassed, and dehumanized by the police.

On April 5, the barangay captain of Pandacaqui in Pampanga, Christopher Bombing Punzalan, documented in a Facebook live video his orders to 3 LGBTQ+ to kiss and dance, and he mocked that they were searching for prostitutes when in fact two of them had left their house to buy biscuits for their grandmother from a nearby store.

Furthermore, because of stay-at-home policies, LGBTQ+ youth who live with unaccepting family members are also at increased risk of physical and emotional abuse and may find it difficult to reach out to friends or other family relatives because of the stigma. Trans and gender-nonconforming students may also rely on campus housing in the absence of familiar support and/or a permanent address. Without this, as well as the free mental health services that universities often provide, LGBTQ+ youth are at increased risk of homelessness and poor emotional well-being.

The impact on the LGBTQ+ community during COVID-19 is widespread and global. LGBTQ+ individuals in South Korea have been used as scapegoats to justify the arrest and detainment of those participating in queer festivals and other LGBT events. Inflammatory statements not only exacerbate the fear of the LGBTQ+ community, but also endanger their economic and physical security as this encourages law enforcement to disclose private information about them such as their age, gender, and workplace. In Uganda, the police have also used directives to combat the spread of COVID-19 to disproportionately cause harm to LGBTQ+ communities. On March 29, the police arrested 23 people living in a shelter for LGBTQ+ individuals because they were guilty of a “negligent act likely to spread the infection of the disease”, even though there was no order that limits the number of residents in a private home or shelter. In reality, the police raided the shelter after receiving complaints from neighbors who were homophobic about the residents’ presumed sexuality.

The pandemic highlights the existing structural inequalities of our pre-COVID society. LGBTQ+ individuals are disproportionately represented among the poor, homeless, and those in the informal sector, making them more vulnerable to the worst impacts of COVID-19. In other words, LGBTQ+ individuals are doubly marginalized. Governments should provide them economic relief and ensure they are not left out of government aid, as well as hold the police accountable when they unduly discriminate against LGBTQ+ persons.

In particular, the May 2017 report calls states to:

“pursue all means necessary - including conducting research, adopting legislation, public policy, and ensuring access to justice mechanisms - to ensure that this public health emergency will neither exacerbate existing misconceptions, prejudices, inequalities or structural barriers, nor lead to increased violence and discrimination against persons with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.”

Importance of Anti-Discrimination Measure Amid COVID-19

The Philippines has a long way to go before LGBTQ+ persons are treated equally in the eyes of the law and of society. The success of celebrities such as Vice Ganda is not sufficient proof that the Philippines is a progressive society. If the Philippines were serious about its acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, it would recognize the urgency of passing the Anti-Discrimination bill. In the time of COVID-19, the passage of the bill would help stop the discrimination that LGBTQ+ individuals experience from the hands of the police, their employers, and establishments.

Delaying the passage of the bill will serve only to endanger the physical, emotional, and mental security of those who have long felt like outsiders in this society. And until it’s passed, don’t believe those who say that the Philippines is accepting of LGBTQ+ - but it has the opportunity to prove to the rest of the world that it is getting there.

Data Churner:
Sabrina Carlos
Program Intern
UN SDSN Youth Philippines

Graphic Designer:
JC Fermente
UN SDSN Youth Philippines