Philippine President Duterte is not someone you would likely associate with gender sensitivity. He has publicly made unsettling jokes about rape victims, backed the military if they were to engage in sexual assault, brags about his many girlfriends and has insulted the country’s commissioner on human rights by calling him “gay” for focusing on the deaths of young men in the administration’s drug war. Throughout his political career the president has cultivated a machismo that evokes the worst in his supporters.

Yet a week ago, Duterte declared his intent to support same-sex marriages in one of the most Catholic-crazed country’s in the world. He said: “If that is the trend of modern times, if that will add to your happiness, I am for it.” This is a distinctively different tune from earlier this year when he said that same-sex weddings are only for the West and not Catholics in the Philippines, which in itself was a reversal of his pre-election support for LGBT tights as expressed in 2015.

The Philippines, largely through the influence of the Catholic church and a history of being feverishly devoted to religion, is the only country in the world apart from the Vatican that does not have a divorce law. Apart from this, every president and most prominent politicians have repeatedly shot down proposals for any sort of pro-LGBT legislation.

One of our most famous personalities, champion boxer and senator Manny Pacquiao once called gay people “worse than animals.” So why the sudden change in narrative from this most unlikely of sources?

帕奎奧,杜特蒂, Manny Pacquiao, Duterte


Senator Manny Pacqiao (left holding baby) stands with President Duterte (center) during the former's recent 39th birthday celebrations.

Courting popularity

A populist president he is, but Duterte has backtracked on a number of important issues that won him the favor of voters at election time. He promised to end contract schemes that prevent workers from regular employment and make them more vulnerable to abuses from their employers. His administration also vowed agrarian reform and free land distribution to farmers nationwide.

Both promises have yet to be followed up with meaningful action. In fact, workers groups have decried how the Department of Labor and Employment under instructions from the Presidential Palace has strengthened policies that allow bosses to take advantage of their employees.

Will this latest statement on same-sex marriage prove different? Unsurprisingly, his recent speech was welcomed by the LGBT community, who say that the president has gone a step further in recognizing the need for same-sex marriages as opposed to solely for same-sex civil unions, as previously espoused by staunch Duterte ally and Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez.

Naomi Fontanos, executive director of Gender & Development Advocates Filipinas, has said this is a good start for the Philippine government. A good follow up would be to pass legislation that bars discrimination at all levels of society. It cannot be discounted, even from Fontanos’ end that there are political objectives to be gained from pursuing this move.

Duterte the populist is getting less popular. A recent political surveys ­from Pulse Asia­ suggests the president’s approval rating dropped two points last quarter, and while still relatively strong at 80 percent, it has fallen from 86 percent in September 2016. The killings related to the anti-drug campaign, constant threats of dictatorship and Martial Law, a crass image and threats to bomb certain areas have done their part to dampen admiration for Duterte.

Duterte could be courting the LGBT community for the upcoming 2019 senatorial elections. He never really cared about the Church that much anyway and his fanatics would more likely follow Duterte than any cardinal or bishop in the country.

Moreover, the administration has managed to get Congressional Representative of Bataan, Geraldine Roman, on their ticket. In 2016, Roman became the first openly transgender women elected to Congress.

All in all, these surface-level progressive gestures do not have any real bearing towards actual policy. At the moment they have more to do with securing and expanding political careers than they do with forwarding an agenda for the marginalized.

LGBT commissioner controversy

In the same speech as that raising the issue of same-sex marriages, Duterte also mulled over forming a new presidential commission dedicated to LGBT concerns or appointing a member of the LGBT community to the recently vacant urban poor commissioner post. Either way, this would mark the first time a homosexual has held a cabinet position.

Former Chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor (PCUP) Terry Ridon and the PCUP commissioners who served under him were fired for allegedly taking lavish trips abroad and failing to convene often enough. Ridon countered by saying that all his trips and their respective expenditures were sanctioned by the president’s office.

Ridon rose to prominence as part of the militant section in Congress known as the Makabayan (Nationalist) bloc. After being appointed to the PCUP, there was a palpable change in policy direction. While the agency has been known as a virtually powerless rubber stamp to approve or reinforce decisions made regarding urban poor communities, Ridon to some extent challenged the trends of forced evictions and often took a pro-poor stance on a number of issues.

Ridon is the latest to fall victim to an administration facilitated crackdown on all government officials who were either in some way associated or showed sympathy to progressive movements.

Appointing someone from the LGBT community to replace Ridon would entail a landmark approach in political representation. However, such sentiment overlooks the fact that a pro-people figure was removed to do this. LGBT representation would be a good step forward, but the way things are adding up, it looks more like a move to consolidate political power by the ruling clique in government.

Catering to the interests of the LGBT community should not be at the cost of disenfranchising or closing venues for political engagement of other oppressed sectors.

Only in the Philippines

Same-sex marriages do actually exist in the Philippines, just not any sanctioned or officiated by the government. The first recorded (there are probably earlier ones) same-sex marriage in the country was conducted in 2005 by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) between two guerrillas of its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

In 1998, the CPP ratified its policy on relationships and unions between couples to include equal rights for same sex couples. The CPP is able to craft and implement its own laws partly due to its status as a belligerent entity under international law and conventions. Basically, it means that they function throughout their guerrilla zones as their own government.

It is possible that Duterte’s recognition of equal rights stems from a knock the wind out of one of his biggest opponents in the battle for the hearts and minds of the public. It remains to be seen if equal rights will receive the same less-than-reliable treatment as Duterte’s other popular pronouncements.

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TNL Editor: David Green