Transcript: Interview with Philippines LGBT activist RJ

Photo by J Gerard Seguia – Pacific Press – LightRocket via Getty Image

Transcript of an interview first broadcast on June 18th, 2022 (available here).

Audio edited by DJ Panda. Transcript by John Smith.

Ani White: Kia ora, welcome comrades, to Where’s My Jetpack?!, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. I’m Ani White. And today we’re talking to RJ about LGBT struggles in the Philippines. RJ is an LGBTQIA+ rights advocate based in  Mindanao, the second largest island grouping located in the southern Philippines. While waiting to jumpstart his fieldwork, he’s involved in LGBT organizing in Mindanao and helping rebuild an LGBT movement.

So welcome to the show, RJ.

RJ: Thank you for having me.

Ani White: Yeah, thanks for coming on.

So can you tell us about the general situation for LGBT people in the Philippines?

RJ: Well, as for the general situation, I think everyone knows that the Philippines is considered as or dubbed as a gay or LGBT friendly country in Asia. But the LGBT movement really wants to contest that claim because they also live in danger. This claim is, I think, mostly hinged on the idea that there is no enabling policy that will protect us. Of course, here in the country, hate crimes are increasing as well. Cases of HIV and AIDS are increasing as well, and bullying and discrimination. These things are the realities that we face on a daily basis. I’m located in Mindanao and I think the same situation is reflected here in our island. I can even claim that the situation here is more intense.

Moments ago, I tried to tinker on some data. So, as per that recent survey, there is a negative 38 net disagreement when the people, or survey participants, were asked a question about whether or not they would support civil union for LGBT. But I also think beyond this number, it is important to stress that there is some intense religious persecution here in Mindanao compared to the rest of the archipelago. Just last year, eight LGBT members in the province of Mindanao were bombed. One died, seven were critically injured. But of course, that’s just one picture that was captured in the media. There are still many situations that are unfortunately not covered on the national television or print media as well.

Ani White: Can you tell us about Pride Month in the Philippines, which this episode will be broadcast on?

RJ: Pride Month happens every two months. I had the chance actually, to attend the national Pride March both in June 2018 and 2019. That was when I was in Manila. Each of these Pride Months – you were there, right? *laughs*

Ani White: Yeah, I was there. And unfortunately, I just missed the Pride march.

RJ: It’s just one of the few instances where LGBT activities are broadcasted in media. Pride marches every June in Manila. The participants or the marchers, I think, there is an estimated number of at least 50,000 marchers per Pride March annually. But also, if my memory would serve me right, the first Pride March happened in June 1994. It was organized by Progressive Organization of Peace in the Philippines, or Pro Gay Philippines, and the Metropolitan Community Church in Manila. I think most of the countries or LGBT organization globally, Pride Month’s scheduled every June to pay homage and to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that happened in June 1968.

Moving back to the Pride March, Pride March would happen for an entire day. So this activity somehow offers this ideal community of belongingness, where everyone is happy and everyone is free to voice out their sexuality. Also, I would like to say that outside the venue of the Pride March, you can also see bigots and misogynists calling us out for our supposed sinfulness and the decadence. But outside the venue as well, you can see protesters and militants. Some of these militants are members of some segments of the left in the Philippines. They protest Pride. They criticize the glitter and glamour of the festivities and somehow denounce how middle class and liberal Pride has become. I wish I can offer more texture about it, but I was really just trying to recollect some of my experiences about Pride March, because that was about four or five years ago.

Here where I’m located right now we also have some initiatives. We are currently speaking and establishing partnerships with some local LGBT organizations and we really wish to replicate that same activity here in Mindanao.

I am sorry for the noise.

Ani White: No, that’s okay. It’s life going on. It’s been a funny thing during the pandemic, everyone is seeing more of people’s lives when you’re meeting online, hear [rather than see] more in this case.

But actually, similar issues that we have in other countries, like Australia and New Zealand, where obviously there’s the homophobes protesting. But then you do also have people protesting about the sort of pinkwashing and military and corporate dominance of Pride Month. There’s some commonalities there.

So you’ve been involved in, as you said, some online meetings and organisng with local groups in Mindanao and I understand nationally as well. So how’s that been going?

RJ: It’s slow, and sometimes it feels like going back to square one. But you can also see many organizations and human rights advocates really trying to exhaust the online platform to speak about the constraints, about our community. Those things that we’ve experienced during the pandemic range from issues like sexually charged punishments, whenever we violate curfew imposed by the local government unit, then access of HIV antiretrovirals and access of food and financial assistance to LGBT couples, to cases of hate crimes that occurred during the pandemic.

But then you would also notice that these discourses that we launched in the online platform about LGBT issues and advocacies, these issues would go beyond our experiences during the pandemic. So what we do is that we often would make touch points on the structures that enabled our operation, that disabled our operation rather, like hetero-patriarchy, heterosexism, and the oppressive economic climate that really contribute to our oppression and marginalization. Since last year, we have various online Rainbow Sessions on the LGBT situation and issues. We were also lucky to be invited to speak about Philippine LGBT politics in the online classes in some universities. We were also invited by some civil society organizations to panels for human rights issues on the side of the LGBT community.

Ani White: Do you have any comments on President Duterte’s strange relationship with LGBT politics? [Note: Duterte was president at the time of recording, see closing comments on recent election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr].

RJ: *laughs* Yeah, like any candidates and political entrance, when President Duterte won the presidential race in 2016, he issued promising statements for LGBT empowerment. Well, on our side of the LGBT community, we actually took it as a surprise, because during his campaign, the LGBT community was not excused from his harsh jokes and satire. Around this time as well in 2016, a trans woman was elected in the House of Representatives. To some, they see it as an opportunity and renewed hope to finally pass the SOGIE Bill, which for decades has been dormant in Congress. But until now, no SOGIE Bill was passed. Of course, this would not come as a surprise, given the tandem of various factors to mention such as dangerous pronouncements of political leaders who cite religious convictions not to support LGBT policies. Also, of course, we also recognize factors such as politicians dialling back on their support after the election, strong lobbies from the religious institutions and conservatives, and the absence, in general, of LGBT leaders in government.

President Duterte is also known for his ambivalent remarks, in the past years, he also dialled back on his support. And as of the moment right now, we are so busy, because right now, until May 2020, it’s known as the national election period here in the Philippines. So once again, you can see politicians promising to support LGBT once they gain a seat in the government. But I don’t know how reassuring that is or if we should be reassured about it. Regardless, right now, our organization is launching a social media campaign to encourage LGBTQ members and allies to vote on the side of Pride. So currently, we call this campaign – #IVoteforPride – to encourage the electorate to choose politicians and leaders who will champion our advocacy and causes in government.

Ani White: You’ve mentioned you come from the island of Mindanao. Can you tell us about the general political situation there, not just for LGBT people, but just the general sort of context there?

RJ: I’m trying to remember, there’s this document that was issued or published by the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines. There are some recommendations that they issued, and one of those is to veer away from the urban based LGBT movement and try to zero in on the rural and some marginalized LGBT issues that are not the focus of international campaigns. I think that’s very reflective, and that is really important, especially when you contextualize LGBT issues in Mindanao. I am not sure if my thinking is correct, but I really have this feeling that Mindanao LGBT reality is not so much represented in the national LGBT advocacy and things like that. There are so many things that we need to pitch in to the national LGBT campaign, so many narratives that we need to share. Right? Because I guess a while ago, I’ve shared to you issues, or really problems, such as hate crimes – and not just ordinary cases of hate crimes. These are LGBT violences that is not just instigated by private individuals but we suspect some of the revolutionary groups are even involved in LGBT persecution. I am not sure, and I am not sure if they will really say yes to it, but we have records and experiences whereby some Moro revolutionaries a decade ago detained Moro lesbians or Muslim lesbians in their community, just by knowing that two lesbians were involved in romantic relationships.

All of these things, unfortunately, are not captured and are not properly documented. And it’s really one of the things which we here, coming from local LGBT groups in Mindanao are trying to work on.

Ani White: I think it’s quite true internationally; the impression of the LGBT situation in the Philippines is very urban-based. We see the Pride marches, but we certainly don’t hear about the situation for people in places like Mindanao. I think the worst we often hear is about Duterte’s strange comments like, he mentioned being ex-gay, which is very strange. That’s about as far as we get in terms of hearing about homophobia and other forms of similar oppression in Philippines.

You’re doing research on how Indigenous people name themselves in terms of gender and sexuality in Mindanao, and I’m aware with the pandemic that you haven’t been able to do as much field work as you’d like at this point. But do you have any preliminary comments on that?

RJ: Well, there is really a poverty of research that is conducted on the non normative genders and sexualities here in the Philippines, and that’s the type of academic conversation that I want to participate in. My research would basically probe about how the Indigenous self governance structures either facilitate or constrain the gays and lesbians in the community who are also members of that particular Indigenous community. At the same time, I am also interested to document and to know how the agency or whether or not the agency is practiced by the Indigenous gays and lesbians in relation to the structure. But going beyond my research problem, I would also like to really document practices of gender and sexuality that are not captured as far as the LGBT politics is concerned.

There is really this claim coming from scholars that the term LGBT in itself may be colonising or it may be dangerous, especially when you interface that kind of identity to local Indigenous nonnormative gender and sexuality. Say, for example, here in the Philippines, basically, we have local terms here, such as baklâ, such as bayot. And the dangerous thing about that is that these terms baklâ and bayot, are dangerously translated into ‘gay’. But that’s not basically the case, especially when you also try to scan into theories such as psychosexual inversion and things like that. So there’s a lot of things that the LGBT scholars here in the Philippines should problematise. So basically, these are some of the aspects that I would try to participate in or that my research will try to look into.

Ani White: I think that’s true throughout a lot of the Asia Pacific, that there are many forms of gender and sexuality and that there’s this contested question of whether LGBT Pride is the appropriate kind of framework for all these many forms of gender and sexuality that have existed.

Sort of expanding on that, how have imperialism and colonialism affected the politics of gender and sexuality in the Philippines? Which I know is a big question.

RJ: Just trying to integrate some of the situations in Thailand and Cambodia, generally, the basic mood or attitude that you could collect from the non-LGBT folks here in the Philippines is that they would say that there is no LGBT in the Philippines. That LGBT or being LGBT is somewhat un-Filipino. But that is really, I think, questionable, given that historical records would provide some counter factuals on the gender nonconforming shamans that are also present here in the pre colonial Philippines. It’s also present in the pre colonial Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, anywhere in Southeast Asia. But colonialism has really tried to transgress over this picture. Scanning over some of the literature, by the time the Spanish colonizers came here in the Philippines, that was actually the time when the transgender or the gender-crossing shamans were transmogrified into terms such as baklâ, which is a very derogatory term for our community. And until now, we’re really suffering from that bad legacy and that dirty legacy of the term from the colonisers. So I would say that, on the side of colonialism, it has really provided a historical constraint, especially looking now, centuries after we have struggled to really manifest our agency as members of the non-normative gender and sexualities.

At the same time, I cannot just convict the colonisers for that kind of legacy. I think that the national independence movement circa the 19th century are also complicit about that kind of problem for their inability or their failure to really integrate as well the non-normative genders and sexualities or sexual identities here in the country. At some point, I think an education community is also very much [needed] because just looking into the list of heroes and heroines here in the Philippines, you will notice that they really deliberately erased the non-normative hero and heroines that we had during Spanish colonialism. Case in point, we were supposed to have Ponciano Elofr – a transgender shaman – during, I think 1898, who led the revolt in Negros. Things like that.

I think the general mood about imperialism, the cases that we often hear the discussions about, the harsh role of imperialism in any country also applies here in the Philippines.

Ani White: What’s the situation with the pandemic? You’ve touched on this. The general situation with it and how has that affected LGBT people?

RJ: During the pandemic you can really see first, as far as the financial and the food assistance is concerned, only zeroed in on heterosexual families. The LGBT families are really out of the picture, cannot really access these kinds of assistance. But also, a while ago, I mentioned about severe punishments that were given to LGBT individuals who violated the curfew, social distancing and health protocols. I don’t know if you’ve read some news about my country, but last year or in 2020, we had local leaders who would push or who would force LGBT individuals to do some sexually charged activities, such as kissing as a way of punishment. A while ago, we also talked about how the HIV positive queerblings of my community can’t even access antiretrovirals during the pandemic.

In general, I think the bad side of the pandemic is you can really see the fangs of the government as far as oppression and marginalisation are concerned. But at the same time, I cannot also discount the fact that even during these constraints [of] the pandemic, we have been also working well. In our case, what we were doing is that we really established partnerships with some LGBT organizations outside of Mindanao, something that we failed to do prior to the pandemic. So it’s promising as well.

Ani White: Do you want to expand it all on the 2022 elections and how that’s all going?

RJ: I think that’s sort of a problem. As far as the 2022 elections, I cannot see coalition among LGBT organisations. There are no organised initiatives that the LGBT community has done or are doing in relation to the election. So what you can see right now are sporadic, individual initiatives from the LGBT organisations. I think our organisation is also complicit in that. We have launched a social media campaign for elections, but that’s basically planned by our organisation alone. We see that as a blind spot. Weeks before the elections, we are trying to rectify that mistake to establish partnerships with some of the LGBT organisations here in the city and also outside of Mindanao. We are lucky to be part of a radar of one of the first LGBT organisations in the Philippines. Currently, we will be setting up a meeting, hopefully next week to discuss about our partnership. Also, during this time, our organisation is part of… trying to build alliances with some of the LGBT organisations in the country and to apply the intersectional lens and how [to view] these issues using the intersectional framework.

So all of these things we are currently doing. But yeah, in terms of the LGBTness in the election, that’s something that we all, LGBT organisations are guilty about for failing to really launch or really organise a coalition in relation to this upcoming election.

Ani White: Are there relationships between the LGBT movement and international groups?

RJ: I cannot speak for some LGBT organizations. I am aware that there are some LGBT organizations who had networks in Southeast Asia. We are trying really to work on that, hopefully. And I think we can say that our organisation is already part of their radar. But as far as our organisation is concerned, there is really a failure on our part to establish partners or LGBT partners outside the Philippines, which is a bit of a slap because one of our principles in the organisation is internationalism. I really hope that you would help us.

Ani White: I don’t know if it’s just your failure. I think it’s a failure of some other groups internationally.

What are your observations on socialist participation in LGBT struggles in the Philippines?

RJ: Well, for one, if you think social democracy or groups that espouse social democracy are socialists, then you can say that in terms of policy and advocacy, they are the ones who really lobbied and really sponsored the SOGIE Bill and Anti Discrimination Bill starting in early 2000. So that’s one concrete participation of socialist leaning organizations in LGBT struggles. During the Pride March you could also hear these groups talking about or injecting the factor of colonialism, the factor of imperialism, and how it’s detrimental not to include these terms and these problems during the Pride March. I think that’s one. But the progressive LGBT organizations in general are really germain and they’re really important because – this might be a biased response – but I can really see that when you talk about the political dimension, the critical dimension, and LGBT advocacy, all of these things can be attributed or can be identified mostly to the initiatives of the progressives.

Ani White: What are the main things you think groups you’re involved with will be campaigning on in the next little while?

RJ: Anything related to LGBT empowerment or that can be considered as subversive in the country. On the side of our organisation, what we will be doing is maybe apart from supporting the national policy advocacy, to really have a national sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression Bill, what we will do in the coming months or in the coming year is to really lobby for the SOGIE Bill and ordinances at the local level. Our organisation really had this discussion months ago or in the past. We also saw that it is quite difficult to achieve SOGIE law or policy at the national level. So what we can do is to lobby for ordinances at the municipal towns or the village level to protect our LGBT values.

Ani White: Since most of our listeners are in English speaking countries, can you recommend any English resources on the political situation in the Philippines, LGBT or otherwise?

RJ: There is one book that I shared with you when you were in Manila, Philippine Gay Culture, authored by J. Neil Garcia. He also authored various journals or articles about the LGBT in the Philippines as well. There is also one book from Martin Manalansan, the title is Global Divas: Filipino Gaze in the Diaspora.

I also find one book interesting, and it’s still in the mail right now. I’m waiting for the book. It’s more recent. I think it was published last year. The title of the book is More Tomboy, More Baklâ Than We Admit. So loosely translated as more lesbians and gays in the Philippines that we admit. There are many books that I can recommend, but mostly they come from the same authors like J. Neil Garcia, Martin Manalansan.

When you would like to talk about or know about the LGBT situation in the Philippines, you can just read from the credible sources that we have here in the country. We should also be very cautious about the sources that we subscribe on because it may contain misinformation. There are so many fake news sites right now, so I recommend that you look into websites of Rappler, The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, these are major online and newsprints in the country. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question.

Ani White: Yes, both the academics and the news material is important.

RJ: I think Peter Drucker, there is a chapter in his book, Different Rainbows, about the Philippines. But I think the book was published around 2000. I think it’s still very authoritative in terms of the Philippine LGBT context.

Ani White: The book you got to me, the material on the history was very interesting and we’ll put a reading list up on the blog of this episode.

That’s all the questions we have, but do you have any more comments to make?

RJ: I’m really hoping that many comrades from the LGBT sector in the Philippines would hear our conversation right now. But I’m really hoping that there is a need for a more active coalition. I would really strongly call for that between and among LGBT organisations in the Philippines especially, I think there’s also a need to hype them. The initiatives coming from the progressive LGBT groups in the Philippines and some of the initiatives that are done here in the mainstream are just frustratingly liberal, frustrating middle class. So I hope in the coming years or in the coming months, coming from the progressive side would be much more pronounced.

Ani White: How can people internationally show solidarity with these struggles in the Philippines?

RJ: Number one, I think a while ago we made some touch points about the failure to really reach out to LGBT organizations outside the Philippines. So I think that’s one area that we need to enrich. Number two, well, on our side of the organization, and I think this is true to all LGBT organizations and progressive organizations worldwide, we’re really facing limitations in terms of finances. So I think that’s one way also to show solidarity. We are actually trying to do right now in our organisation is that we are rebuilding chapters, at least seven chapters of our organisation across Mindanao. We are having some issues in terms of how we can roll out. We can possibly roll that out given the financial constraints currently, even despite those constraints and limitations, we are actually working on it. We claim to be a self-organised organisation and so what drove us to really work is that we should also be self-organised as well. But really, financial limitations really just hit us hard.

I hope you can help us, especially after reorganising our chapter organisations. Before this year ends, we are planning to organize a Pride congress here in Mindanao and so I hope you could aid us in some of the aspects of the preparation. Thank you.

Ani White: Well, I wish you luck with that, and I’m sure all of our listeners do too. Thanks for coming on.

RJ: Thank you for inviting me.

Ani White: Thanks for listening, folks. If you want to support our work, please set up a monthly contribution at Goodnight and good luck.

Just an editorial note: since we recorded this interview, the national elections wrapped up with one Ferdinand Marcos Jr. being unfortunately elected to the presidency. Marcos is part of a dynasty, including the previous Ferdinand Marcos, who was a dictator over the Philippines for a number of decades, before his regime collapsed in the 1980s. RJ has sent through a statement on the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which I’m going to read out now. So:

After almost four decades of ousting the Marcoses, we have once again insulted the entire nation by putting one back in Presidency. The family’s supporters are telling adversaries to shut up, move on, and respect the decision of the over 31 million voters – while at the same time, shaming pro-Marcos netizens are shaming them on social media, and telling them to leave the country.

The return of Marcoses is not surprising. It can be attributed to careful planning to ensure their return to power. It is a gradual process of feeding disinformation to the public and careful manipulation/brutal influence of the local and national elites. The country’s poor level and quality of education also enabled this strategy to prosper. Many are not critical enough to discern this and trapped in the disinformation bubble. It is also interesting to note that the propaganda centred mostly on the fake accomplishments of Marcos Sr. and Marcos Jr. basked in the glow of his father’s accomplishments. Fake narrative in the social media such as the 1USD = 1Philippine peso exchange rate during the Marcos years, the myth of the Tallano gold, nutribun, grand infrastructures, etc proliferated in the social media primarily to deceive the people and show how after EDSA all people suffered from poverty. Social movements are also weak.

Despite all this, we will continue to work (and work harder) to resist. I think going back to the community and to really organise and be with the masses is of utmost importance. It is sad that the masses (mostly) are no longer on the side of the progressive. It is insulting but echoes and informs the failure of the movement.


Recommended reading:

  • Philippine Gay Culture – J. Neil
  • Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora – Martin Manalansan
  • More Tomboy, Mora Bakla Than We Admit: Insights Into Sexual and Gender Diversity in Philippine Culture, History, and Politics – Edited by Mark Blasius and Richard Chu