Galang=Respect for Filipino Lesbians, Part 1

One of Galang’s neighborhood groups at a meeting

Recently I spoke with women in Galang, an organization founded in 2008 in order to empower lesbians, bisexual women, and transsexuals (LBTs) among the urban poor and “to advocate on their own behalf with regard to education, legal and political awareness and economic independence.”  

In order to “ground” this topic in its environment, I suggest that readers watch Galang’s two short videos before reading the text. These are “Mama Cash video GALANG English”  (Link) and “Galang in the Grassroots” (Link) Many thanks to Galang for the use of your materials. The staff of Galang also took me along to a Lesbians for Rights event where I could take photos.

Gyky G. Tangente and Maroz R. Ramos

I spoke first with Gyky Tangente, a staff member in the Galang office on Xavierville Avenue in Quezon City. I said that twenty-some years ago I was surprised when an African-American, lesbian friend returned from a vacation in the Philippines very excited about how “gay-friendly” the place was. She was comparing what she heard from out-of-the-closet men she’d met here with the closeted gays and lesbians in South Korea, where we were both working.

Gyky’s story

I wonder whether you’re familiar with the Pew research about how “gay-friendly” the Philippines is. The Pew survey looked at the correlation of religion and LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] acceptance and determined that the Philippines was one of the most LGBT-accepting countries.

One of the top ten.

But religion is very powerful here. [The population is roughly 80% Catholic, 6% is Christian of other denominations, 5% to 10% Muslim, 3% Buddhist or Taoist, about 2% adherents of a traditional Filipino practice like shamanism and less than 1% non-religious. Divorce is illegal.] Most research shows that countries where religion has a powerful impact are very conservative, as opposed to liberal countries where religion is not so powerful. Maybe one of the reasons why the Philippines ranked so “gay friendly” is that LBGT people are quite visible in the media—although only as stereotypes. There are no national laws protecting their rights. So some people say, “You’re not really suffering from discrimination here. You’re not being killed like people are in other countries just for being who you are. You don’t need anti-discrimination legislation.” We want legal recognition that we have the same rights, including eventually the same rights for same-sex couples as heterosexual couples.

I would say the number-one barrier to equal rights is religious fundamentalism. The country is very conservative, and the separation of Church and State is not…

Is non-existent.

Yes. Actually, the arguments used against the anti-discrimination statues as misleading as those used against the Reproductive Health Bill. [The RH Bill provides for access to family planning, education and devices, but not abortion. Even after passage, the bill is still vigorously opposed by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines despite the fact that the population is increasing among the poor at a desperate rate.  Tactics used by the CBCP are similar to those used by extreme “pro-life” groups in the US.]

The churches use their control over people to turn them against the HR Bill and the Anti-Discrimination Bill, which when passed into law will prevent discrimination against LGBTs and also people with SOGIE issues (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity or Expression). Actually, there are two versions of the anti-discrimination law. One prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation identity, and the other one includes age discrimination against older people, indigenous people, racial minorities, and LGBTs, so it’s more comprehensive. One legislator said that he would support this bill if the language about LGBTs were removed. It’s ironic that someone would support an anti-discrimination bill only if some people were excluded.

I think Galang is making an important contribution by looking at economic rights. When we first began looking at the plight of LBTs among the urban poor, we saw different dimension, different layers of discrimination, one based on sexuality and one based on social class. This makes people very vulnerable, which was really evident in the research Galang did. I should also include gender because of course the Philippine is still very patriarchal. If you’re born female you will be treated as a second-class citizen. Have you ever heard the expression “the third sex”?

Yes. In connection with people in Thailand. A friend of mine was talking about how open, uncloseted and creative his gay students were and how they were accepted as the “third sex”.

Unfortunately the term is also used in Philippines. It’s even deeply embedded in the LGBT communities.

And exactly what do people mean by that?

Well, there’s the first sex—male—and the second sex—female. The “third sex” means “not part of the male-female dynamic,” an outsider, ranked third in the hierarchy. That’s why it’s so important to provide capacity building activities. [Community capacity building is defined as the process of developing and strengthening the skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources that organizations and communities need to survive, adapt, and thrive in the fast-changing world.] People need to realize that human beings are all the same, that we have the same rights as everyone else and of course that we have to fight for those rights.

We also need comprehensive social protection policies for everyone. [Social protection is about people and families having security in the face of vulnerabilities and contingencies like health care and safe working conditions. The very poor, those struggling just to survive, are the most in need of protection and the least protected.]People are left behind because of how we define family, how we define marriage. Unlike for instance in the States, where the Supreme Court acknowledged that marriage is not only between a man and a woman, in the Philippines we have a law actually defining marriage as between a man and a woman. It’s very problematic. What we need to do is revise those words.

We had the Defense of Marriage Act, which did the same thing, until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. I would imagine that in the Philippines same-sex marriage is a long ways away.

Exactly. Even with the anti-discrimination bill it’s been about twenty years.

Gyky makes a presentation of the Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

Are you familiar with Lee Badgett? She wrote The Economic Cost of Homophobia: How LGBT Exclusion Impacts Development. Her pilot country was India. She showed that, when LGBT people are denied access to employment, it has a negative effect on the country’s economy. I think it very important for development as a whole to have everyone be part of it. There’s also a problem with “development” per se, the definition is usually inclined toward economics as in money. In the Philippines the potential of LGBTs, especially the LBTs, remains untapped. It’s not recognized at all. If you’re poor, probably your education attainment is lower, and you’ll have a really hard time finding a job. There are financial difficulties with higher education. Or maybe people dropped out of school before finishing high school because they were bullied. So this leaves them vulnerable to a lot of abuse—getting a substandard wage and working really inhumane hours. They put up with it simply in order to survive.

Plus, especially if you’re a “butch” lesbian, you may not be seen as a potential employee because of a uniform requirement. You may be asked whether you’d be comfortable in makeup and a miniskirt. Or maybe it will just be assumed that you couldn’t wear those things.

When you apply for a job here, say some kind of office job, are you required to submit a photograph?

Yes, but if you don’t include a picture and you’re called in for an interview, you may be rejected as soon as they see you. You’ll also find small-scale places that don’t pay the standard wage. They might be hiring manual labor. The application process is usually walk-in. If you’re a “butch” lesbian you may be told, “We’re not hiring immoral people like you.” It may be considered bad for business. But I’ve heard stories about a factory which prefers butch lesbians because they believe they won’t be asking for maternity leave and they won’t have children to take care of. The presence of gender roles and stereotyping is very evident.

And they might also feel that these workers won’t have an easy time finding jobs somewhere else so they’ve got them trapped. Social class is more extreme here than anywhere I’ve ever been.

Oh, really? Well, unemployment is one issue and underemployment is another. Many of our LBT partners are employed on a short contract basis. For maybe six months a woman has a job, and then she’s out looking for another one. Or she applies over and over. It’s very hard to tell exactly how many, but most of our partners don’t have stable jobs.

Dancers at Lesbians for Rights

We interviewed Filipino LBTs who worked in Hong Kong and those who worked in the Middle East. In Hong Kong they had more freedom to express themselves, but of course in the Middle East they weren’t allowed to have very short hair because it’s very dangerous for LGBTs there.

It’s dangerous for a lot of people there.

Right. We discovered they had problems finding jobs. Even though they were college graduates they had to work as domestic helpers when they went abroad. They were unable to find jobs in the Philippines, first because of the very limited number of jobs here and second of course because of their sexuality and sexual expression. During the interviews they said they were really happy to be contributing to the family finances and they could see that their family was more accepting of them. If you give money, you have economic power. We were very happy that they found acceptance, but there’s a problem in that not being able to contribute might mean never being accepted. Those are some of the results we collected and shared. We found them both interesting and depressing.

It’s kind of sad when your family only accepts you because you’re helping to pay the rent.

Three of the posts I did on the website dealt with squatters. Both of the families were forcibly moved by the National Housing Authority and sent out to a housing development way out of town, far away from their employment. The rent to own terms was very reasonable, but they had no running water or electricity for a year. Some people were relocated to a flood plain which was underwater shortly thereafter. So I have an idea of what it’s like to be poor in the Philippines.

Dancers at Lesbians for Rights

Actually, we dealt with that in our research. One of our social protection policies has to do with the Urban Development and Housing Act, which deals with the rights of everyone, but specifically the urban poor. Maybe their houses are demolished because they’re squatters public or private land [or for some other reason. The land could be on a fault line, and the authorities might be worried about being held responsible in case of an earthquake].

Same-sex partners are not considered a family, so in the National Housing Authority survey only one of the occupants would be registered as living in the house. This means you have less priority. Top priority is given to families with lots of children, even though the law, the Urban Development Housing Act, does not define a household as a family. It’s just a house, regardless of how many people are living in it or their relationship to each other. One demolished house is supposed to be replaced by one house in the relocation area. A group of friends should have the same rights as a traditional family, particularly if they were living in their home in the squatters’ community for a very long time.

The decision lies with the individuals doing the survey. They usually take “household” to mean “family,” using the culturally-embedded definition of “family” as father, mother, children. So same-sex couples without children go to the bottom of the list. So do single parents with children because they also don’t fit into the traditional definition of a family. When the relocation houses are handed out, they’re left behind. Of course those who are close to the head of the homeowner’s association have more houses than others.

Yeah, that would be very hard.

Fun and supportive audience

In our partner LBO there are areas where people have been moved, but also areas where the squatters are allowed to stay on public and private land until the owner or the government needs it. People feel insecure with possible demolition pending. That’s when the talk about relocation sites begins.

What we’re talking about today adds a whole new dimension to my thinking about poverty in the Philippines. I found it amazing to see how much people were able to do with how little.

Let me put it this way. Thirty years ago I was in China, and I interviewed another foreigner who said, “I don’t know how people can live like that.” My first reaction was shock at this judgmental statement. But then it occurred to me that he actually meant what he said. He really didn’t know how people lived. If he had gone into one of these Chinese rooms, about the size of this office with eight people living in it, and he had seen how they had divided things off to provide privacy and how they did their cooking and hung their washing on the balcony, then he would have known how people lived. So that was my reaction to the very friendly squatters in Makati who invited me in, let me take pictures, answered my questions and fed my friends and me a nice meal.

But when you add more discrimination to their lives, it puts the whole thing on a completely different level.