A law to protect the Filipino LGBTQ+ community against discrimination remains elusive

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Alvin James Cariño, 25, had his most humiliating experience as a gay man about four years ago.

What was supposed to be a night of fun turned into a nightmare when Cariño attended the Christmas party of his first employer, where he worked as a part-time public relations writer. Sporting an attire that suits his gender identity—blazer and boho pants paired with high-heel boots—Cariño swayed freely and mindlessly as he always does when the right music plays. It was a night fitting for a Christmas celebration until his manager approached him.

“During that party, I was called out by my immediate head. She told me pabulong na sobrang halay daw ng suot ko (She whispered to me, saying that my attire my indecent). Nakakahiya raw sa mga boss ko (She said it was embarrassing for my bosses)—my bosses were Turkish,” he told CNN Philippines.

Disheartened and berated, Cariño left the party and just went home. As he recalled that night, he was certain of one thing: he was discriminated against for simply expressing himself.

“She messaged me on Facebook when I got home. She apologized, pero sabi nya sana daw inisip ko lang naman 'yung sinuot ko para hindi mapansin ng boss namin (but she told me that I should've thought about my attire well, so it would have not caught the attention of our bosses). Marami siyang sinabi, pero ang point nya lang ay mali 'yung ginawa ko and I should be sorry kung na-offend ko siya (She said a lot of things, but her point was that I was wrong and I should apologize for offending her),” he said.

The following day, Cariño had the chance to talk to his manager, who—as he recounted—sounded “condescending," insisting that dressing up the way he did during the party was wrong.

Umabot ako sa peak ng emotions ko (I reached the peak of my emotions), so I decided to walk out sa office. I never looked back. And since it was just a part-time job, I had nothing to lose.”

Siguro (Maybe), main lesson I learned ay dapat na-instill ko sa utak niya na mali 'yung thinking na ganoon (I should have instilled into her mind that such thinking is wrong). Pero wala eh (But I couldn't do anything), it was my first time dealing with such situation.”

Cariño’s experience loudly speaks about how the country is towards the LGBTQ+ community: tolerant but unaccepting.

Cariño’s experience pales in comparison to other scathing tales told by many other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning (LGBTQ+) community: among many other horrible stories are those of lesbian couple brutally attacked by teenagers on a bus in London, a gay couple publicly caned in Indonesia for having sex, and a young gay pair in the United States assaulted for their sexuality.

His story is one that is often downplayed, but loudly speaks about how the country is towards the LGBTQ+ community: tolerant but unaccepting.

Lack of protection

A study by the LGBT Chamber of Commerce and research firm Cogencia found out that no company based in the country implements policies meant to protect their employees from SOGIE-based discrimination.

Yet, the country still has to have a law that will address discrimination against LGBTQ+ members in the labor force.

An anti-discrimination bill, popularly known as SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression) Equality Bill, failed to hurdle the 17th Congress that concluded this month. Had the bill been enacted, it could have been a historic milestone in the country's journey towards equality.

The proposed measure was unanimously approved by members of the House of Representatives in 2017. The House version of the bill penalizes those who commit discriminatory acts against LGBTQ+ Filipinos: a fine of not less than ₱100,000 but not more than ₱500,000, or imprisonment of not less than one year but not more than six years or both, depending on the court's decision.

The bill's counterpart in the Senate, however, was stuck at the plenary.

The higher chamber's version was first filed on August 11, 2016 and sponsored by Senator Risa Hontiveros in December of the same year. Since then, the bill has undergone six interpellations and five inquiries at committee and plenary levels. In August 8, 2018, Hontiveros along with four other senators—Loren Legarda, Ralph Recto, Franklin Drilon, and Juan Miguel Zubiri—expressed support for the passage of the measure. Conservative senators Manny Pacquiao, Joel Villanueva, as well as Senate President Tito Sotto, expressed opposition to the measure and has since remained in the freezer.

Senators Manny Pacquiao, Joel Villanueva, and Risa Hontiveros; Dinagat Islands Governor Kaka Bag-ao; and Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III

It was not the first time that the measure was blocked in the Senate. A version of the measure was first filed during the 11th Congress (July 1998-June 2001) by then Akbayan Representative Etta Rosales. It was approved on third and final reading by the House, but remained pending in the Senate. In 2006, the bill reached second reading at the House during the 13th Congress.

"Why are we still debating on this? In my memory, no other bill has been kept at bay and been under the period of interpellations for this long. It was one of the first bills sponsored in 2016. Should we still debate about something as basic as equality? For three years, really?" Hontiveros, a known LGBTQ+ rights advocate, said in a statement.

Tough battle

Despite the unanimous approval among House lawmakers, former congressman and now Dinagat Islands Governor Arlene "Kaka" Bag-ao—one of the main authors of the bill in the House—recalled the struggle to convince lawmakers to accept the proposal.

"We faced arguments from congressmen who were against the bill that were also the same as the points raised by senators. Perhaps the difference was that more than half of House Members actively expressed support for the bill by signing as co-authors. I think our battles in both Houses are equally difficult," Bag-ao told CNN Philippines in a message.

Though the measure failed to get the nod of senators, she said it's already an achievement that it reached the Senate's plenary.

"While it is unfortunate that the bill wasn't approved by the Senate, it still reached its farthest point in the legislative mill... This is the first time that the SOGIE Equality Bill has seen the light of the Senate plenary where it reached the period of debate on Second Reading," she said.

For Bag-ao, a louder voice is needed among advocates, LGBTQ+ members and allies for the measure to become a law.

"We need more advocates to engage legislators. If lawmakers saw rallies the same size as Pride marches in the House and Senate, I believe that they will be forced to open their eyes, minds, and hearts to the plight faced by our LGBTQ+ citizens," she said.

"In the end, people's participation in legislation is a key factor to the success of campaigns for progressive measures," she added.

Fight not over

Hontiveros believes that the fight has just began. The SOGIE Bill, despite failing to hurdle Congress, has gained a "momentum as big as a rainbow" that just needs to be sustained, she said.

"Hope will never be silent, says Harvey Milk. And this movement will not be stopped," she said.

"From the Stonewall riots 50 years ago to the recent victories of LGBTQ+ advocates in Nepal, Israel, Taiwan, and elsewhere in the world, this wave is inevitably coming to our shores. The SOGIE Equality Bill will become a law. And it is only a matter of time," the senator added.

Hontiveros vowed to continue the fight for the bill's passage in the 18th Congress.

"We will come back in this hall bolder and louder for our rights. With hope in our hearts and justice clenched in our fists. I will remain your ally, your Equality Champ and together, we will resist,"she said.

The path to achieving a nation free from discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is certainly a long and winding road. Until such time, Cariño and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community and allies can only remain dreaming for a Philippines where everyone is respected and accepted regardless of what's between their legs.

"It's really sad that we don't have laws that protect the LGBTQ+ community. We really hope for a brighter future for the LGBTQ+ community here in the Philippines," Cariño said.

CNN Philippines' Senior Digital Producer Chad de Guzman contributed to this article.