POLITICS

Rey Valmores-Salinas on the state of the LGBTQ+ rights in the Philippines

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The Bahaghari Philippines chairwoman on what it means to celebrate Pride as a response to cultural and material violence faced by the LGBTQ+ community, and why Pride has always been and will always be a resistance. Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

This Pride month, we talk to one of the modern faces of queer resistance in the country’s struggle for gender-based equality. Rey Valmores-Salinas, writer and activist, serves as the Chairwoman of Bahaghari Philippines.

Bahaghari describes itself as a national democratic mass organization that caters to the interests of the Philippine LGBTQ community with a specific focus on broad economic, political, and cultural struggles. The organization is responsible for many progressive efforts and push backs, such as fighting for the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill as well as publicly condemning and demanding accountability for gender-based violence enabled by imperialist forces, such as the killing of Jennifer Laude in 2014.

Rey Valmores-Salinas, writer and activist, serves as the Chairwoman of Bahaghari Philippines. Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

Today, the organization is often featured at the frontlines of many progressive queer movements, most notably, the pride march in Mendiola in 2020 that saw the arrest of 20 members of the LGBTQ+ community, dubbed as the “Pride 20.” With the pandemic featuring increased militarization and the new Marcos presidency, celebrating Pride has certainly taken on a new form. In this interview, we spoke with Rey Valmores-Salinas about self-discovery, advocacy work, and what it means to celebrate Pride as a response to cultural and material violence faced by the LGBTQ+ community.

Let’s start with a few personal things. Can you walk us through your childhood? At what point did you realize that you were a trans woman and what kind of support system did you have upon navigating that self-discovery?

I was born in Tacloban and it’s a very conservative place. My family was also very conservative so growing up, sinasabi nga sa akin na sobrang happy ng tatay ko na "Oh my god, ‘yung anak natin lalaki!" — kasi nga, [we come from] that typical macho mindset. I think all of us who are part of the LGBTQ community have gone through that stage na we deny it from ourselves. We deny that we are queer or we are gay. At the time kasi, I was having crushes on guys and then I would deny it; also because, dahil nga conservative ang family, if I were caught being feminine, there would be violence at home, to put it bluntly. So growing up, talagang repressed.

Because the prevailing culture in Tacloban was very conservative — even in school, I would experience bullying. I remember when I was a kid, I was too afraid [in grade one] to recite in class kasi I was living with constant anxiety na what if I say something and I appear feminine. Baka isumbong sa magulang ko tapos may mangyayari na naman sa bahay. And I’m sure that was not a unique experience for many members of the LGBTQ community.

"When I discovered ‘yung term na 'transgender.' I understand na hindi siya super laganap pa sa Pilipinas — in all communities." Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

In 2014, we were hit by typhoon Yolanda. I was in Tacloban. Yolanda was the strongest typhoon to hit landfall in history at the time, so a lot of the communities there were devastated. I was studying kasi in Philippine Science High School so we moved to Quezon City sa main campus and then eventually, I went ahead with college sa UP Diliman. That was where I started to experiment more. I started wearing make-up. I started growing my hair out. Also, because my parents were separated and I went with my mom, and then pumunta pa ako sa college in Quezon City, so there was more independence, I would say. And that gave me the opportunity to explore and to do some self-discovery.

At the time, because like I said, I was attracted to boys, society has this really weird thing na if you are a transgender, if you’re a trans woman, for example, and you happen to be into guys, there might be a point in your life where you feel na talagang gay man ka lang. For a long time, that’s what I thought I was: na I was just gay. Pero it felt as though there was still something wrong.

So ‘yun nga, I started to delve into make up and grow my hair out. Eventually, that was when I discovered ‘yung term na “transgender.” I understand na hindi siya super laganap pa sa Pilipinas — in all communities. There might be many spaces na talagang maingay ang terms ng LGBT, but for me, it was one of the first times na narinig ko ‘yun. When I was in college, that was when I found out na teka, babae ako. Eventually, after I graduated and when I joined Bahaghari — at the time, I was studying Molecular Biology. When I graduated, I got a job sa Ateneo med school and then I joined Bahaghari, that’s when I saw na teka, there are a lot of people like me and not just people “like me” but people like me who are fighting. People like me who are saying na we are not going to accept things as they are. So that was when I really got involved with not just discovering myself, but also in advocacy for other people like me.

Belonging to a marginalized sector especially in the global south is hard as it is. How did you come to discover your calling as a cultural worker and organizer for the masses, working in the frontlines for one of the country’s most progressive queer movements?

So I mentioned earlier that I was studying Molecular Biology and I worked at the Ateneo med school around the time I joined Bahaghari. At that time, I went to the US a couple of times and I was supposed to push for my PhD kasi I was supposed to work in a lab na ang principal investigator told me na he was looking for a PhD student. I was supposed to pursue that entire track of being a molecular biologist working in the lab full time. This also coincided with the time na in Bahaghari, I started to see na, halimbawa, sa urban poor communities, what conditions were being faced by the LGBT in the urban poor sector.

I remember we would talk to them and we would ask “ano po ‘yung problema na hinaharap niyo?” For us, we were used to hearing discrimination, gender-based violence, diba? And those things do come up a lot. Pero ang namangha talaga ako na marinig mula sa mga bakla sa mga communities, they would say na “bahain ‘yung lugar namin, pag umulan lang, baka masiraan kami” or “may demolition dito, mawawalan kami ng tahanan,” “wala kaming maayos na trabaho” — essentially, walang dignidad ang pamumuhay. And seeing all of that really made me realize na I have to stay. There is still so much that needs to be changed. Kaya I made the decision na manatili dito sa Pilipinas and to pursue full time organizing.

"LGBT issues are people’s issues and people’s issues are LGBT issues. There is no need to differentiate them. There is no need to separate them." Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

The first time I saw you mass lead was for a mobilization in UP Diliman to protest the railroaded passage of the Anti-Terror Law back in 2020. As the Chairwoman of a progressive LGBTQ+ org, Bahaghari, what does it mean to you to fight for broad political struggles that don’t narrowly and specifically concern the LGBTQ+ community alone?

I guess it boils down to how we define LGBT issues. As an organization, Bahaghari is an LGBT [organization] and we’re fighting for the causes of the LGBT community. What are those causes? When we say LGBT issues, definitely it pertains to gender-based abuses, violence, and discrimination. Essentially, the cultural aspects of violence against the LGBT. But is hunger not violence against the LGBT? Is poverty not violence against the LGBT?

The main essence of what we do in Bahaghari is that there is no need to compartmentalize. We don’t have some kind of rainbow shield that means we’re suddenly immune to all of these national issues that we’re facing. For example, a really key illustration of this is the case of Jennifer Laude.

Jennifer Laude was killed in 2014 by a US soldier, Joseph Scott Pemberton. People often say that “it could have been just anyone who killed her kasi tutal, may hate crimes naman sa Pilipinas.” It is true na may standing cases of violence against us, there’s always that fear. There’s always that threat. But we have to ask: why is that US soldier here? Pemberton was here because of the Balikatan Exercise. He was here for the military operations between the US and the Philippines. And in case people are not familiar, everywhere na mayroong military bases sa Pilipinas, the soldiers create demand for red-light districts. It has been documented that around these military bases, talagang dumarami ang kaso ng karahasan laban sa kababaihan at sa mga LGBT kagaya ni Jennifer Laude.

Even then, he [Pemberton] was not even put to jail. When he was convicted, first of all, the court admitted his excuse that it was trans panic defense, so it was lowered from murder to homicide. If I’m not mistaken, maximum of ten years lang. But he was not even jailed. In the Philippines, convicted prisoners go to Bilibid. What happened was, because we have the Visiting Forces Agreement, he was placed in a special facility where no one can enter except US soldiers and select Philippine officials. We even had eye witnesses na nakatira doon malapit sa area na nagsasabi “nagbabasket ball lang naman yan si Pemberton sa umaga.” He was not even jailed, he was not even put to justice — and that is because of the skewed military agreements that we have, including the VFA, the EDCA, and other treaties between the US and the Philippines. And we see na todo-todo ang epekto nila sa lahat ng tao at sa lahat ng Pilipino, but more so, disproportionately affected ‘yung mga LGBT kagaya ni Jennifer Laude.

One big essence is that we have these national issues that affect all of us and they affect the LGBT disproportionately. Kaya there is a need for us to stand for all issues that people face and, we say this a lot, LGBT issues are people’s issues and people’s issues are LGBT issues. There is no need to differentiate them. There is no need to separate them.

In the same year, you were one of 20 members of the LGBTQIA community who were arrested in Mendiola for marching during Pride Month. The PNP, as an institution, is known for its macho-feudal qualities. What was your experience not only as a queer activist but as a trans woman dealing with the arrest?

Let’s contextualize why we were holding a Pride march at the time, last 2020. First of all, it’s not Pride month without a Pride march. So we made it a point na “okay, even if we have all of these restrictions, we have to at least show that we are not going to be erased.”

Rey Valmores-Salinas during the Pride 20 arrests in 2020. Photo by JL JAVIER

So we went there, we called for the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill, but also, what was the political context at the time? They were railroading the Anti-Terrorism [bill] and so we also brought that call na ibasura ang Anti-Terrorism bill. First of all, we went to Mendiola — it is a historic protest site kasi it’s at the mouth of Malacañang. If you say things there, maririnig siya kaagad ng pangulo. And ‘yung nakita namin na grabe ang crackdown ng pulis, it was difficult to see na may kasama kami na it was their first time to join a protest, it was their first time expressing themselves as LGBT, and then the first thing they see is ang panggigipit ng pulis. It begs the question: why is that even necessary? Is it wrong to say that we should have a SOGIE Equality bill? Is it wrong to say that Filipinos should be protected against discrimination? Is it wrong to speak out and use your democratic right to dissent to say na unconstitutional itong Anti-Terrorism bill? There’s nothing wrong with that, diba?

When we were illegally detained, doon pa lang, the police immediately invented some narrative. Sinabi nila na we sprayed an unknown liquid — whatever that is — to start the commotion. I remember ang sinasabi ng kaibigan ko, his name is Andrew, noong sinasabi na ng pulis na “umalis na kayo” sinabi niya “sir, sige po. Kahit one minute lang para makaalis na kami” para sa organized dispersal. Tapos when they brutally arrested them, talagang binunot nila bigla at isa-isa kaming nilagay sa police van. Masakit siya personally, pero sa akin mas masakit makita na ‘yung ibang mga kasama doon who just wanted to speak out, who just wanted to be visible, na ganun ang mararanasan nila from the police who were supposedly serving and protecting the people.

When we got to the detention sa police department sa NPT, we were detained illegally for five days. That’s when I experienced plenty of transphobia. They were forcing me to be in a male cell, pero nilaban ng aming attorney and ‘yung lahat ng female detainees doon. But that did not stop us from experiencing more gender-based violence, for example: I apologize for being crass, but while we were being detained, ‘yung mga female na detainees in one room, there was one police officer who was masturbating while he was watching us. Ganung klase talaga ng torture ang pinaranas sa amin. May iba pa sa amin na hinihiwalay tapos gusto nilang i-interrogate; ‘yung ganoong klase ng panggigipit na matatanong mo talaga, “bakit? Bakit gagawin yan?”

And it also reflects the issue of political repression. The police know that what we’re calling for is an end to the Anti-Terrorism bill. It is a national issue pero we see na for the LGBT who speak out, may added layer pa ng gender-based violence mula sa pulis. Again, it reflects on how disproportionately affected ang mga LGBTs sa mga national issues kaya may kahalagahan ang pagsasalita. That was our experience in Pride 20. Siyempre, that did not stop us from marching again. Kaya every year thereafter, naglunsad tayo ng Pride march and this year, we’ve also organized a Pride march. We’re also walking in the streets again to show that we’re not afraid.

"The main essence of what we do in Bahaghari is that there is no need to compartmentalize. We don’t have some kind of rainbow shield that means we’re suddenly immune to all of these national issues that we’re facing."

With the pandemic increasing militarization, how much more vulnerable would you say are our queer brothers and sisters?

The pandemic in the past two, three years, diba it is a health-based crisis? But what did our government pursue? It is a militaristic response instead of a health-based response. Instead of pursuing mass testing, even until now, a lot of people don’t know where to go pag magpapa-test sila or if they do know, alam nilang sobrang mahal and they would rather not be tested anymore. Marami pa ring ganoong cases.

Instead of pursuing a lot of these scientifically-backed measures to address the pandemic, what happened was we had militaristic lockdowns. During those lockdowns, marami kaming nakita sa urban poor communities, for example, LGBT couples, they've been together for decades but the government does not recognize them as a family because we don't have marriage equality yet. What happened was during the distribution of the social amelioration program, ‘yung ayuda, they were excluded kasi they're not considered a family. Meron ding ibang mga LGBT na they were not recognized as formal breadwinners so they were also denied ayuda. Diba, so social service 'yon. We saw during the pandemic multiple cases of state-sponsored violence against the LGBT. During the lockdowns, parang pananakot 'yung ginagawa. What happened was there were LGBT na supposedly quarantine violators sa Pampanga and they were molested by the barangay captain. Vinideohan sila, pinilit silang maghalikan, pinilit silang sumayaw. That's one case. There are plenty of others. Halimbawa, during the lockdown meron kaming kakilala mula sa Marikina, quarantine violator ulit kuno, and then sinabihan siya ng pulis, "Ipapa-rape kita sa lahat na nakakulong dito."

The militaristic lockdown really opened plenty of cases of gender-based violence that are state-sponsored. These are people who were empowered by a president who jokes about rape, who joked about being "cured" dahil dati raw siyang bakla, pero "na-cure" daw siya, as if to say sakit ang pagiging bakla. It had repercussions. Siyempre, matagal nang ganun ang military natin, ang ating kapulisan, but to have a president who really emboldens them to do that? Lalong tumindi.

And so the situation of the LGBT has really [taken] a horrible turn. Whether it's in the realm of human rights, state-sponsored violations, and even when I talked about ayuda, the realm of social service, economic aid. The mandate of the government is to ensure that we all live a dignified life. Kahit sa trabaho, in 2021, around 45% of the Filipino workforce lost their jobs or became underemployed — so may trabaho, pero hindi sasapat kita nila to live and to feed their families. What more if you're an LGBT worker na as it is, you're facing discrimination in hiring? Talagang doble pasanin para sa LGBT at lalong humirap ang buhay ng LGBT under pandemic and under the failed leadership of President Duterte.

As we transition to the new presidency, one that is closely allied with the current administration, how should the queer community respond to national issues like the US military occupation that enabled abuses such as the killing of Jennifer Laude, among others?

First of all, let's make it clear. You mentioned that Duterte is closely allied with Ferdinand Marcos at the moment. [His daughter ran] a ticket together and alam natin na meron talagang malawakan na dayaan. We saw nearly 2,000 vote-counting machines that got shut down on the day of the elections, which translated to around one million disenfranchised voters. There were many documented cases of illegal campaigning. There were a lot of cases where there was electoral violence. We saw on the ground cases of vilification and red-tagging which are part of electoral fraud. Sa madaling salita, ang halalan, dinaya. Let's start there.

This is a stolen election, and this is a stolen presidency. In other words, illegitimate and magiging pag-upo given everything that we've seen. And in addition to that, the decades in the making disinformation and historical revisionism campaign by Marcos, this is an illegitimate presidency. And now we often say na it's going to be a new administration. It is not a new administration. It is merely a continuation of the bloody administration we have now. And in fact, it's only going to be worsened. It’s only going to be a lot bloodier for many Filipinos, especially those who dare speak up.

The Pride month that we have right now, it is historic kasi the inauguration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is going to be this month as well, on June 30. And I think that the LGBT community has a huge responsibility and a huge voice in exposing the realities that we face, not just during the election, but also the reality that we will be facing in the future moving forward. This should be the time that we as a community band together and assert our demands.

Bongbong Marcos famously, or infamously had no platform whatsoever, let alone anything being said about the LGBT community. That already tells us how much of a priority we are. Which is to say, we're not a priority at all. And so now, we should amplify our concrete demands to future President Marcos. For example the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill, what is Marcos's position on that? Pursuing Marriage Equality, what is Marcos's position on that? Having genuine healthcare for all, including transition-related care for transgender people — what is Marcos's position on that? We need to lay out all of these demands and challenge him to pursue these demands.

And siyempre, we should not allow President Duterte to just get away with it, to get away with the six years of immense torture towards all of us. Evading accountability for his crimes. It was the main reason that Duterte even got into an alliance with Marcos in the first place. He knows there is a standing case in the International Criminal Court (ICC) because of the 30,000 people who were killed in his drug war, including Heart de Chavez, a transgender woman who was merely placed in the drug watchlist and was killed by state forces. Because Duterte wants to evade accountability for that, he allied with the Marcoses so that he would be shielded supposedly from whatever justice is supposed to be exacted on him.

Bilang LGBT, kailangan hindi rin natin palampasin 'yon. Hindi natin pampalampasin si Duterte sa anim na taon ng pagpapahirap at macho-pasista na pamumuno. Hindi natin palalampasin si Ferdinand Marcos sa dinaya niya na halalan. At ihahabag natin ang lahat ng demands natin bilang LGBT para sa susunod na administrasyon.

"The passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill, what is Marcos's position on that? Pursuing Marriage Equality, what is Marcos's position on that? Having genuine healthcare for all, including transition-related care for transgender people — what is Marcos's position on that? We need to lay out all of these demands and challenge him to pursue these demands." Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

Lastly, as an important figure in the queer struggle, what does Pride mean to you and how should we celebrate it?

For me, looking back at the history of Pride, what was the first Pride march ever? The very first and widely agreed upon Pride march was led by people in the Stonewall Riots — these were literally LGBT persons of color who were fighting against the immense discrimination they faced. And on top of that, also resisted state repression, racism, fascism. That really bled into the entire world, that kind of movement they generated. And it's being continued now through the yearly marches that we perform.

For me, Pride is not just about any singular figure. Pride is not about having some kind of savior to provide us with our rights. Pride is about remembering that our rights are not given to us, but rather fought for — collectively. That is what happened in Stonewall. And I think given the situation that we face right now, I think there is value in us going out and celebrating our diversity, celebrating who we are despite a world that tries to erase us. But for as long as this erasure and this violence continue, Pride will also continue to be a resistance. Pride will also continue to be a protest. That is the core of what “Pride” means.

We are proud to be a part of the LGBT community. We are proud to be our genuine, authentic selves. We are proud to resist and change and want to change a culture so that we can create a country and a world where there is genuine equality for all.