MANILA — Pride marches around the world are often celebratory, staged events — but not this year in the Philippines.

On June 26, dozens of LGBT activists marked Pride month by marching, while adhering to social distancing, on the Presidential Palace in opposition to a proposed Anti-Terror bill. They were met with police violence. Riot police rammed into the crowd with shields, dispersing the gathering and arresting 20 participants on charges of illegal assembly and non-cooperation in a health crisis.

Bahaghari, the LGBT group leading the protest, said that demonstrators were placed in cramped jail cells without being tested for Covid-19. They were held for five days before being released pending further investigation from the courts.

The demonstration was the latest battle in a long struggle for LGBT rights in the Philippines.

Pride is a protest

Bahaghari’s chairperson, Bernadette Neri, said the state repression of LGBT activism remains present. She condemned the violent crowd dispersal and arrests as a product of the strongman rule of President Rodrigo Duterte.

“It is saddening that this is still happening 51 years after the Stonewall riots in New York. Arrests at a Pride march are indicative of the current Philippine government, prioritizing its Anti-Terror bill over listening to its own citizens,” Neri said.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

A Pride march in Manila, Philippines, June 21, 1997.

For Neri and other activists, Pride demonstrations are occasions for protest. These activists are not only concerned with personal coming out narratives, but also with the collective experience of oppressed Filipinos.

“While coming out and the discourse of gender is important, we cannot exclude this from the context of LGBT Filipinos living in the Third World, facing problems of poverty, landlessness, wages, income inequality and the lack of civil liberties. We have come a long way with Pride marches as it is now widely recognized as a form of protest as well,” Neri said

Working-class solidarity

Since the first Pride march in 1994, when a spike in the price of oil was a grievance, the yearly demonstrations have been moments of solidarity between workers and LGBT activists. In 2015, striking rum distillery workers joined the Pride march. In 2018, the march was dedicated to picketing workers at a condiment plant.

LGBT workers in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), the industry term for call centers, have organized an advocacy group, BE GLAD. Their spokesperson Arcy Parayno told The News Lens that discrimination is institutionalized in workplaces. It is designed to keep LGBT employees from securing job benefits.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Employees work at a call center in Davao city in southern Philippines, December 13, 2016.

“Some [businesses] are even prohibiting employees from cross-dressing based on their preferred gender identity. This is apart from the challenges on acquiring job tenure and security, occupational health and safety, and retirement,”Parayno said.

The trickling down of Duterte’s anti-gay posturing

President Rodrigo Duterte has made many inflammatory remarks on women and gay people, joking about rape and sexual assault. He openly mused about curing himself of being gay.

Congresswoman Arlene Brosas of the Gabriela Women’s Party told The News Lens that toxic patriarchy is at its worst when it comes from the seat of power. Duterte’s attitude has influenced “the minds and actions of other public officials” said Brosas.

The congresswoman pointed to a recent case in which local town officials ordered minors violating a curfew to dance and kiss each other against their will, while officials streamed the abuse on Facebook.

Legislation on hold

There is a bill before the Philippine Congress aiming to prevent and penalize acts of discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. It has lingered in Congress for 20 years. Known as the “SOGIE Equality Act,” its newest iteration was written primarily by Brosas.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Militant Philippine LGBT activists display anti-Rodrigo Duterte placards as they march around Marikina city in the annual celebration of Pride march Saturday, June 30, 2018 in suburban Marikina city, east of Manila, Philippines.

“There is much more opposition to it [the SOGIE Equality Act] now. There are religious groups, and other powerful figures in Congress like the Speaker of the House,” said Brosas.

The Lower House is dominated by a supermajority of representatives allied with the President. “Those in power and the Congressional leadership are the bill’s primary opponents. And definitely they follow political instructions from the Presidential Palace,” she said.

This year, Bahaghari has launched a campaign to end the blockage of the bill. “If more people know about their rights and how they must be upheld, then the pressure on the government to secure this law increases as well. It’s taking 20 years of pushing for legislated protection for the LGBT, and yet the administration just needed a few months for a policy that curtails free expression,” Neri said, referring to the controversial Anti-Terror bill.

Pride marches have embraced the idea that fighting for LGBT rights and welfare requires solidarity. Neri points to “development not just in our numbers, but in the content of our struggle, interwoven with all of the abused. That’s what Filipinos can be proud of.”

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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