A look into organizing Pride March in the Philippines (and why it's still a protest)

Queer community organizers talk about the challenges of organizing a Pride March throughout the country.

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For many members of the Filipino LGBTQ+ community, joining a Pride March every June is almost second nature. While queer spirit is brighter than ever in each Pride March, our celebrations are always underscored by the fact that many of us are still suffering from discrimination and oppression — something that’s lost to many of our brothers and sisters who only think of Pride as a parade.

The march is a safe space for us to express ourselves and call attention to our struggles. Last year’s Metro Manila Pride March set a record of 70,000 attendees who braved the traffic and downpour to celebrate and express their support for LGBTQ+ rights. This year, with COVID-19 still posing a threat to our health, Pride Month activities are held online. Some members and allies of the community also went to Mendiola on Friday, June 26, to hold a Pride rally and protest many issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community, including the anti-terror bill, mass testing, and jeepney phaseout. The protest — which implemented social distancing and safety measures — was reported to be peaceful according to Bahaghari National Spokesperson Rey Valmores Salinas until the police came and eventually arrested 20 of the attendees.

According to a CNN Philippines report, Manila Police District Chief Public Information Officer Lt. Col. Carlo Magno Manuel said the charges include illegal assembly, unjust vexation, and violation of R.A. 1132 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act.

Many human rights groups decried the arrests, including the Metro Manila Pride March organization which called it “unjust.” The incident also sparked an outcry online, with the hashtags #FreePride20 and “ANG PRIDE AY PROTESTA” trending on Twitter — the latter being a reminder of the core of what Pride March is about.

Members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community were arrested on June 26, Friday in Mendiola, Manila after holding a protest rally against the anti-terror bill and other pressing issues. Photo by JL JAVIER

Bahaghari National Spokesperson Rey Valmores Salinas claimed that the protest was peaceful until the police came at the scene. Photo by JL JAVIER

The first Pride March

The history of Pride March in the Philippines is a good starting point when we talk about Pride Month. There are two dates in contention for the first year of Pride March in the Philippines. First is in 1994 organized by Progressive Organization of Gays (PROGAY) and Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) where around 50 people marched from Quezon Boulevard to the Quezon Memorial Circle.

Father Richard Mickley of the Metropolitan Community Church recounted the events of the 1994 march in this Facebook post, saying, “Remember this was the first. Not everyone was ready, willing, and bold enough to expose themselves to [the] media. There was minimum newspaper coverage. But the media picked it up and it spread like wildfire. Talk show after talk show invited us. 'Mel and Jay' was the most popular talk show in the country at the time.”

It took two more years for the next march to be mounted, which is argued as the first Pride March in the Philippines because it was the first time that the entire queer community organized.

According to the article “On Community and Continuities: The Metro Manila Pride March and the Philippine LGBT+ Movement” by Teilhard Paradela (who is also one of our respondents in the interview below) of the Babaylan Archive Project, “The effect of these [prior] marches were also limited to their own constituents. These events did not necessarily lead to ‘unified’ and ‘continuous efforts to organize’ the entire Philippine LGBT+ community. The turning point for this development, as I have argued earlier, was the 1996 Metro Manila Pride March. And yet, at the same time, the 1996 edition would not have been possible without them.”

Paradela also cites John Andrew G. Evangelista’s paper “Mula sa Kinaroroonang Ideolohiya: Kontrobersya Tungkol sa ‘Unang’ Pride March sa Pilipinas,” as an exhaustive reference of the history of Pride March in the Philippines. Patrick King Pascual also outlines a more detailed impetus of organizing Pride March in the Philippines in his article in Outrage

The UP Babaylan Float on Roxas Boulevard at the 1998 Manila Pride. Photo from THE BABAYLAN ARCHIVE PROJECT

Drag queens performing at the 1996 Manila Pride. Photo from THE BABAYLAN ARCHIVE PROJECT

The debate emphasizes the complexity of writing history — in this particular case, the history of the queer movement in the Philippines. But the spirit of the queer rights movement remain the same nonetheless, and it is something that should be constantly talked about and revisited in the wake of the various human rights protests ongoing in the country and around the world.

Here, we talk to a few community organizers who have participated in the first few years of the Pride March in the Philippines as well as the current organizers of Pride March across the country to talk about why, first and foremost, pride is a protest. Answers are edited for brevity.

How did you learn about the Pride March? What was the initial experience like?

Giney Villar (founding member, Women Supporting Women Center; co-host of the Tita Tibx Podcast): When we received the invitation, we talked about what it meant for us, what our participation would be and mean, and how it furthers the cause. Groups decided individually and we coordinated this in our bigger then loose collective. Prior to the march, security was a concern for us as we were doing this for the first time. Steps were taken to protect everyone — out or not — during and after the march.

During the march, it was exhilarating even as we kept an eye on our ranks. We also took notes as it was a learning experience.

Perci Cendaña (UP Babaylan and former National Youth Commission as the Commissioner for Luzon): I first learned about Pride in our student organization in college, U.P. Babaylan, when the org decided to send a contingent to the first Lesbian and Gay Pride March in Malate in 1996.

It took a lot of encouragement and motivation to convince the student members to attend the march because many were still struggling with coming out to our families and communities outside the university. The greatest fear then stemmed from being seen on T.V. or print by our relatives in the province.

An orgmate came up with the brilliant idea of marching with a giant rainbow flag. The flag, while being a statement, doubled as our shield against cameras. For those of us who are not yet out, we used the flag to hide our faces in the presence of the media. Two sisters were assigned as “spotters” who would issue a warning when there are cameras. The not-so-covert warning code was “mga bakla, media alert.”

The 1996 Pride gave us our first glimpse of the bigger LGBTQIA+ community outside of the university. It was our first close encounter with groups and people that are like us. Even if there were only over a hundred participants then, the feeling of solidarity was so amazing and inspiring for young activists like us then.

Teilhard Paradela (member, Babaylanes and director, Babaylan Archive Project): My first Pride experience in 1996 was exhilarating. Being there, I had one major realization. And I still remember this until now. That I was part of a broader community. I think LGBTQIA+ Filipinos nowadays take it for granted that there is a community. But, in the 1990s, this was a big unknown. Sure, there were disparate networks, but a community? I could imagine a community, but I had not engaged this community in a tangible sense. When I saw the organizations and individuals — around 500 people — congregating, then I knew that, yes, there was a small, vibrant, and emerging queer community in Manila. And I was part of it. And we were having our coming out party as a community. So that was big for me.

I had been active in lesbian and gay networks since 1993. I was a resident member of UP Babaylan. I had met leaders of other queer organizations such as Giney Villar and Anna Leah Sarabia and Oscar Atadero in various functions and meetings. So I was already plugged into this network. This made it easy for the ReachOut Foundation, an NGO advocating for HIV-AIDS prevention among MSMs (men who have sex with men), and the main organizer of the 1996 Manila Pride, to invite us to the planning meetings, and then of course to the march itself.

Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas at the 2013 LGBT Pride March organized by Task Force Pride (TFP) Philippines. Photo courtesy of NAOMI FONTANOS

The big rainbow flag brought by UP Mindanao Mentefuwaley shared and raised by different participants of Davao Pride March 2016. Photo courtesy of MELISSA CLAIRE BARRERA

Naomi Fontanos (executive director of Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas and former co-coordinator, Task Force Pride Philippines - 2008): In 1996, several gay and lesbian organizations came together to organize the Pride March. This loose network would be formalized in 1999 into Task Force Pride (TFP) which became the official organizing network of the Pride March in Manila. I learned about the Pride March being active in that circle then. I'm not exactly sure if the first Pride March I attended was in 1998 or 1999 but it was unforgettable. It was exhilarating to be out in the streets and realize you belong to a community bigger than your own organization. The Pride March made the idea of community more meaningful for me.

Gabriel Umadhay (head, office of LGBT Affairs of Iloilo City and former president, Iloilo Pride Team): When I was in college, I was always involved in human rights advocacy. It was then I learned about Pride Marches. I have always dreamed [of marching] with my brothers and sisters on [the] streets and [sharing] myself to the world. Our first Pride March was [on] October 2016 and participated by only 200 people. I could not deny it that I felt fear but at the same time excited. The march was evangelical, in the sense that this was the first time I [shouted] to the streets who I am and what we can become if we have acceptance.

Melissa Claire Barrera (head organizer, Pride March 2016 representing Dakila Davao): It was in the university grounds of U.P. Mindanao where I first attended a Pride March. Studying in a progressive university like U.P. Min was instrumental in my understanding of different societal issues such as the struggles of LGBTQIA+ and how they intersect with economic and socio-cultural issues — they do not only have the right to exist but also the right to exist with dignity, which means the state and our society must grant them access to basic social needs such healthcare programs for LGBT families, and civil liberties such as being allowed to marry. The experience was, of course, very liberating. That’s why my colleagues in Dakila — a collective of artists and cultural workers — and I initiated the plan to bring the Pride March in the city center of Davao where a lot of other members of the LGBT community and allies will be able to participate. It was on June 1, 2016 when the first city-proper Pride March in Davao happened.

Hadji Balajadia (Ateneo de Davao Psychology Department, co-convener Davao City Pride Council and LGBT Davao Coalition): Pride parades in Davao were so common in the late ‘90s. My political awakening to the significance of the Pride March, as a symbolic and a performative act, in widening democratic spaces in the country can be traced back in my activism days in the ‘90s at Ateneo de Davao. In the context of the LGBT movement in Davao, we were initially organized with the aid of the strong women’s movement, until the lesbian and gay organizations were formed.

Political organizing was so aggressive between and among adolescents, specifically among the out-of-school youth in the urban poor communities. The dominant ideological line in that decade considered the nascent LGBT movement only as subordinate to the proletariat-peasant Marxist-Lenninist-Maoist revolutionary struggle for national liberation. In fact, in those days, the yearly Pride March was called “Gay” Pride March, reflective of the prevailing hegemony of gay male psychology at that time. Dabawenyos were both amused and shocked by this new form of activism.

Even on the ground, pride activism, as an expression of identity politics, was always received with utmost caution by ideological interest groups as they are feared to dilute the socialist critique against capitalism. In the early 2000s, I had a chance of joining other social democratic groups in a Pride March which culminated in Quiapo. Rainbow flags colored the streets; everyone was in high spirits (natdems, socdems, libdems, and neoliberals); placards boldly bearing our messages of equality, non-discrimination, inclusion, and diversity drowned the few mockery which were hurled at us as we marched along the road to Plaza Miranda. The solidarity speeches did not only edify the LGBTs, but also reminded us of our collective struggle for a society that equally cares for all and includes all, I mean all!

The general atmosphere was festive yet defiant; a mixture of fiesta and a protest. As a neophyte in the movement, I was just observant most of the time, yet deep inside, I realized that we are hastening the unfolding of LGBT history in the country and I am part of a larger movement; a movement so colorful, yet so silenced and “invisibled”.

Teachers and students from the Ateneo de Davao University, University of Mindanao, and Mindanao State University-Marawi during the Davao Pride March 2018. Photo courtesy of HADJI BALAJADIA

A rainbow flag at the 1997 Manila Pride. Photo from THE BABAYLAN ARCHIVE PROJECT

Nicky Castillo (overall co-coordinator, Metro Manila Pride Organization): I learned about the Pride March through my college org, U.P. Babaylan! When I first heard of a Pride March in the Philippines I was so amazed because I thought that was something that only existed abroad. I don't even have full memories of my first Pride because I was so nervous. I only remember flashes of it. Arriving late in Malate. Getting overwhelmed because I couldn't find my orgmates. […] I felt safe and happy and I felt that I just belonged. I felt at home in a sea of strangers. This is a feeling that I always look for when I attend Pride Marches and when I read feedback from the attendees at our Pride March.

What is the most essential part of being in the Pride March?

Giney Villar: That you understand why you are doing it. You may not have full freedom or rights, but being at Pride means you are claiming the space and fighting for the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of who you fundamentally are.

Teilhard Paradela: Expressing our political claims as a marginalized community. And we did and continue to do so in creative and effective ways. I don’t subscribe to this question of whether Pride is a protest or a party. It could be both. And it is both. Because marking yourself as queer in this homophobic and transphobic country is always already a political act.

Naomi Fontanos: There is nothing like the electricity that runs through a Pride March and I feel this partly explains why people who experience it tend to come back year after year. Pride is part of the politics of joy for many of us who, in the words of Audre Lorde, "were never meant to survive."

Melissa Claire Barrera: The most essential part of being in a Pride March is learning from the LGBTQIA+ community itself. Our existence is a protest and we must be able to articulate our struggles so we may be able to engage and educate potential allies.

Gabriel Umadhay: Belonging to a crowd. Providing an avenue for people like me to feel safe, accepted, and celebrated. These were all the essential elements we always consider in organizing Pride Marches. It is important that participants feel safe when they march. That is why planning is very crucial. Acceptance to whatever they bring without buts encourages love. Finally, the sense of being celebrated is top most essential. To be seen as a valuable unit of society and not as a disease that spreads.

Hadji Balajadia: The Pride March for me is essentially about remembering and celebrating. By remembering, I mean to say, we call to mind our long history of LGBT struggle for equality around the world, specifically 51 years ago at Stonewall, and our individual stories as LGBTs. We connect our individual stories to this global LGBT story of struggle. So, there’s that sense of “solidarity feeling” — that I belong in this movement, I identify with these diverse peoples, and I resonate in their powerful stories.

Ram Botero, self-taught artist, trans woman, and advocate for trans recognition and rights, giving her speech on how precolonial history transgenders were venerated through the story of Ikapati, the trans goddess in Philippines, and how we should remember these stories to empower the queer community in continuing the struggle. Photo courtesy of MELISSA CLAIRE BARRERA

Hadji Balajadia with Ateneo de Davao students joining the 2016 Davao Pride March. Photo courtesy of HADJI BALAJADIA

What is the most challenging part of organizing a Pride March?

Teilhard Paradela: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pride Marches in Manila were organized by the community. Because we had a diverse group of people with strong views, finding a consensus was really tough. Meetings were often contentious. Maraming away — nakakaloka. But at the same time it was a great training ground for us in facilitating meetings, addressing different perspectives, and running inclusive organizations. At masasabi mo talaga that the marches were community-led kasi almost everyone ultimately was represented in the decision-making and other processes.

Perci Cendaña: Raising funds was always tough especially in the early years when corporate sponsorship was very elusive. I cannot forget this scene from a post-parade program held in Plaza Miranda. Leah Navarro was singing the finale, “Isang Mundo, Isang Awit,” [and] people were dancing like there’s no tomorrow. Everyone was having a great time except the heads of the finance committee who were in one corner struggling to come up with the needed amount to pay the sound system provider.

Melissa Claire Barrera: Within the community there are still different notions and discriminations against each other that must be addressed, such as the discrimination against trans women, the notion of trans man vs. tomboy vs. lesbian, etc. I think many in the community are still struggling to emancipate themselves from the incorrect concepts about gender, sex, and sexuality brought by the still very patriarchal society in the Philippines.

Nicky Castillo: Providing a safe area for tens of thousands of people to gather and march is one of our top priorities and it costs a lot of money. As a non-profit organization we try to raise money through community-based funding but this is never enough. So, we rely heavily on corporate funding. However, since we are also a human rights organization, we are also limited as to who we can accept money from.

To supplement this, we also need to ensure that we receive enough assistance from the host city to be able to stage as safe an event as possible. All this while being an organization run completely by a small pool of volunteers. It's a tricky balancing act and it's definitely something that we are still improving.

How does the march differ from then and today?

Perci Cendaña: More than two decades ago, it was unimaginable for a Pride old-timer like me that time will come when thousands would come to Pride. I’m very glad that being in Pride has become a badge of honor.

Naomi Fontanos: I think fundamentally the organizing has changed. Whereas in the past there was an official organizing network composed of LGBTQIA+ organizations called Task Force Pride (TFP) which organized the Pride March from 1999 up until 2015, now organizing follows a different model.

Nicki Castillo: In 2017, some older activists told me that, because there were more individuals marching than orgs, it was much more difficult for them to find familiar faces in the crowd. I was worried that this was a negative thing for them but they reassured me that this was a good problem to have because it meant that we were growing.

Melissa Claire Barrera: The difference then and now is, I think, the hands-on involvement of the local government which is both a win and also sort of a restricting factor in the movement. Firstly, it is a win because the involvement of the local government means that LGBTQIA+ people are becoming more visible and acknowledged in society, and this is one step closer to having them granted their (inherent) rights.

However, if I may quote my former professor who was in Pride March 2016 and who also attended the march in 2018, “…political messages were not allowed at the march. I assumed that must have been a concession in order to prevent very partisan messages promoting Bong Go, or even those expressing support for the president despite his misogynistic remarks. But to totally ban placards promoting equality for the LGBTQIA community seemed to me a counterproductive measure in a Pride March”.

The only thing I know about the 2019 Pride March in Davao was that they named it “Davao Pride Festival” and they had a Sabayang Pagbigkas contest among LGBTQIA+ groups and I think that’s telling enough.

Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas at the 2015 LGBT Pride March organized by Quezon City. Photo courtesy of NAOMI FONTANOS

“I am an ally. Kaisa ninyo ako,” said Marikina City Mayor Marcelino Teodoro to an eruption of cheers from the crowd at the 2019 Metro Manila Pride. “Kaisa ninyo ang Marikina City sa inyong laban upang ipasa ang SOGIE Equality Bill o Anti-Discrimination Bill.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Do you think some of the issues you have been fighting for then have been addressed?

Gabriel Umadhay: In Iloilo City, we have championed many LGBT-related concerns. We [now have] our ADO (anti-discrimination ordinance). I have a seat in our local government to represent the community. We have effective programs in partnership with LGU for funding. We have a gender code that is sensitive to LGBT rights. These are good but we believe we still have more to push.

Giney Villar: I cannot say that we, meaning past and current activists, can take full credit for changes in our environment. But yes, I will say that it was a significant contribution — engaging in the legislative process, participating in international movements, organizing and holding discussions with communities, organizing Pride events have helped soften the ground and gained momentum for the fight for LGBT+ rights.

Naomi Fontanos: Yes and no. I remember the first Pride March I helped organize was in 2000 and the theme that year was Fight Discrimination Now. Twenty years later and we are still fighting to pass the anti-discrimination bill (ADB).

However, we should also recognize the achievement of the community in getting anti-discrimination ordinances passed in 26 local government units (LGUs) and that is due in large part to the tireless work of LGBTQIA+ activists on the ground who themselves have been touched by the pride resistance movement.

Hadji Balajadia: LGBT issues are generally human rights and social justice; issues of inclusion, non-discrimination, equal opportunities, voice, and space. These issues do not disappear overnight. What we are dealing is a culture which consigns the LGBTs as second-class citizens in a society which claims to be democratic and free; and we also wrestle with a (false) consciousness on diversity and diverse people legitimated and perpetuated by powerful institutions such as the family, religion, the media, schools, and even the law.

Teilhard Paradela: Our community has become more mature, more sophisticated, and more committed to our central issues. So I think we will eventually get there. I am an academic historian so my tendency is to take the longer view. And I am actually quite optimistic with our ultimate success, mainly because of our next generation of queer leaders and advocates.

Nicky Castillo: While it's good to celebrate [the] wins, there's still so much that needs to change. For as long as the lives of trans women like Jennifer Laude are lost to anti-trans violence, for as long as LGBTQI+ people are discriminated against in receiving disaster relief aid, barred from work opportunities, sanctioned in schools, and subjected to forced medical and psychological "treatment" then we need to continue to fight.

Perci Cendaña: I wish that our community will never be complacent and will be unrelenting in our advocacy for human rights, diversity, and equality.