Before ‘same-sex unions,’ let’s talk about the Anti-Discrimination Bill first

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How will the 'same-sex union' online poll affect public policy? And how crucial is it for the local LGBTQ+ community to bring it into the spotlight? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On May 17, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to pass marriage equality into law. A few days later, Congress released an online poll on its website asking citizens whether they are in favor of legalizing “same-sex unions as civil partnerships” in the Philippines. Suddenly, social media was abuzz with varying opinions on the poll.

Conservatives expressed their staunch disapproval, pushing the poll’s results to lean heavily towards “no.” Meanwhile, within the LGBTQ+ community, there was no general consensus on the poll. Some were angered by the phrasing of the options (Why was “personal opinions” an acceptable basis for answering “no”?). Others were wary of the use of “unions” rather than “marriage.” There were also those who, though dismayed by the results but hopeful for change, clamored for more LGBTQ+ members and allies to vote.

But how much do these online polls affect public policy anyway? And how crucial is it for the local LGBTQ+ community to bring it into the spotlight?

According to Jeff Crisostomo, communications officer of outgoing Representative and Governor-Elect Kaka Bag-ao of Dinagat Islands, the online poll has “very little to no” bearing on policy. Gov. Kaka Bag-ao is the principal author of the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB), also known as the SOGIE Equality Bill.

The online poll is a feature added to Congress’ website by the IT department. Once in a while, the site runs a poll on hot topics on social media, such as the lowering of the age of criminal liability.

“Congressional offices don't get the final results of the poll,” he says. “We never get to discuss poll results from the websites in any committee hearing, much more in plenary debates.”

Crisostomo adds that though the poll itself may not affect policies, the conversation around it might spark discussions in Congress. However, it must be taken into account that data and survey results are not necessarily the basis of decision-making.

“For instance, death penalty. Kahit mas maraming hindi pabor base sa surveys ng SWS at PulseAsia, pinasa pa rin ito ng Kamara,” he says.

What then can members of the LGBTQ+ community do now? “Personally, I believe that we must fight for the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill first,” says Crisostomo. “We need to ensure the protection of basic rights for all persons regardless of their SOGIE.”

Many LGBTQ+ advocates stand by this as well, including Atty. Jazz Tamayo of legal literacy NGO Rainbow Rights Philippines. In fact, advocates worry that in the clamor for same-sex unions/marriage, the SOGIE Equality Bill, which already is in dire straits, becomes further ignored.

The bill was passed in the lower house in 2017, but it has since languished in the Senate. It’s the longest-running bill in the period of interpellations, and with the 17th Congress coming to a close this June, the 19-year-old bill’s fate remains in limbo. It will have to be filed again, bringing the fight for an anti-discrimination law back to square one.

Tamayo tells me that when the discussion is centered on “same-sex marriage,” lobbyists are often forced to go on a defense — fielding questions on morality, religion, divorce, etc. — instead of talking about the merits of the bill. This makes it much more difficult to get people on board with the SOGIE Equality Bill.

“Bakit pinupush ang Anti-Discrimination Bill, o ang SOGIE Equality Bill pero bakit hindi gaanong maingay tungkol sa marriage equality?” Tamayo asks during Pride Speaks, a discussion on LGBTQ+ activism organized by Metro Manila Pride. “Kasi may paniniwala kami sa advocacy na ‘yung SOGIE Equality Bill, it cuts across the board. Mas marami kasing nakaka-benefit doon.”

“Mayaman o mahirap, single o hindi, pwede kang gumamit ng batas kasi mapoproteksyunan ka niyan sa trabaho mo, sa eskuwelahan mo,” she adds. “Hindi ibig sabihin na hindi importante ang marriage equality. Ang ibig sabihin lang, in terms of prioritizing, mas mahalagang may trabaho ka, diba?”

With all this in mind, how can members of the LGBTQ+ community participate in lobbying for the SOGIE Equality Bill?

Shatter myths about the LGBTQ+ community

“Call out stereotypes, break myths about both the LGBT community and about the proposed bill,” says Tamayo.

“SOGIE Bill does not give special treatment or special rights. What it's trying to do is correct an imbalance [in the law],” she stresses, pointing to the provisions in the bill that state that under the law, LGBTQ+ individuals will gain protection against hate speech and SOGIE-based discrimination in private and government workplaces, schools (including parents/legal guardians), and in obtaining assistance and services. The bill also prohibits forced medical or psychological evaluations and harassment in handling of criminal cases.

Tamayo also suggests that artists and creative groups can take the initiative to tell stories that portray LGBTQ+ individuals in a realistic, non-stereotypical, and positive light. This is also a way of reaching out to LGBTQ+ youth and individuals in the closet and telling them that life as a queer person does not always have to be tragic.

Contact your district representatives/senators

“I think it is best to share narratives of discrimination with the legislators, district representatives man or senators,” Tamayo says. “Tag them [online], tell them about why ADB is needed, how it could have helped [you] had it been passed, how it could help [you] against discrimination.”

For Crisostomo, this also means reaching out beyond social media. “Palagay ko mas epektibo pa rin ang direct lobbying at mass actions. So far, the debate has been confined to social media, and for me, I don't think that we should stop there.”

Push for Anti-Discrimination Ordinances (ADOs) in your own localities

ADOs are local ordinances that prohibit discrimination and enforce certain penalties in specific barangays, cities, municipalities, or provinces. “Advocates and LGBT persons should push ADOs in their own localities, para in the interim na wala pang ADB, mas dumami ang areas na merong ADOs, may remedies,” says Tamayo.

However, it should be noted that no ordinance is the same, and not all ordinances have implementing rules and regulations (IRRs).

Push for anti-discrimination policies in the workplace

A study conducted by the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce and research firm Cogencia found that out of 100 Philippine-based companies, none of them implemented SOGIE-based anti-discrimination policies. Pushing for SOGIE-inclusive policies in your workplace doesn’t just protect LGBTQ+ employees within that company, but sets an example for other companies as well. Another thing individuals can do is to urge executives and higher-ups to speak up and release statements in support of the ADB.

Participate in data gathering efforts

Data gathering efforts help equip legislators to strengthen the bill further. It also gives lobbyists more information about the community to push lawmakers into acting on the bill. At the 2018 Metro Manila Pride March and Festival, surveys conducted among attendees showed that discrimination in the form of physical and verbal abuse is still very much a reality today.

Go outside of your immediate circles

It’s vital to note that most attendees of the Metro Manila Pride March and Festival — and therefore most survey respondents — are from a younger, urban, middle-class demographic. At Pride Speaks, Bernadette V. Neri, an assistant professor at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature at UP Diliman and chairperson of LGBT organization Bahaghari Metro Manila, talks about the importance of recognizing this imbalance in representation.

“Ang hirap humanap ng LGBT advocacy na hindi city-centric at labas sa middle-class,” she says. “Nagmimistulang walang ibang LGBT. Pero hindi naman ito totoo.”

“Tayo sa lungsod, ‘yun ang hamon sa atin ... gaano ba natin kakilala ang ating sector na labas nga doon sa tayo-tayo lang? Kasi doon talaga [tayo] magiging mas buo, mas magkakaroon ng dibersidad, ng pagkakaiba ng karanasan. Kung makakalap natin 'yun at makakapagsama-sama tayo, mas mabunga ang paraan ng pag-oorganisa ng ating sektor.”