It's A Matter Of Pride: A Deep Dive Into The Development Of The Movement In The Philippines
It was early in the morning of 28 June 1969. Summertime had arrived in New York City and the temperature was as high as the nightly excitement inside the hallowed halls of the Stonewall Inn. By this time, it will still take four years before the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removes homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and a little more than two decades before the World Health Organisation officially declassifies it as a mental illness. But that evening, what could’ve been just another raid by the city police became a pivotal moment of resistance. The patrons of Stonewall began to fight back.
Legend has it that it all started with the throwing of a single brick by Marsha P Johnson, beloved equality advocate in the community. Different eyewitness accounts put the brick on different people’s hands. Still, regardless of who threw it, what remains for certain is that the Stonewall riots catalysed a modern ideology and movement that would take the world by storm.
From the stomping grounds of Pride advocates in New York, many strong organisations persistently rose in and outside the United States. The conversation blossomed beyond the Gay Liberation movement. Bigger and more inclusive Pride marches sprung up everywhere, even reaching across the seas to the Philippines. In his landmark book, Philippine Gay Culture, writer-scholar J Neil Garcia recounts a pivotal moment in local history—the June 1994 Gay Pride March. “In terms of the number of actual participants, the PRO-Gay [Progressive Organisation of Gays in the Philippines] rally may have indeed been negligible... [but] because it happened at all, the march [was] commemorated every year thereafter.”
Held on the grounds of the Quezon Memorial Circle, the modest gathering sparked a fire for years to come. “In 1996, spearheaded by the Aids-education NGO ReachOut Foundation, the Pride March enjoyed the support of even more individuals and collectives ... they would continue to organise [it] until 1998,” Garcia continues. Despite this, it still wasn’t a popular option to come out during the Nineties. “I remember how much fear I had growing up [during that time]—how aggressive and homophobic the comments of my schoolmates and teachers were in grade school and high school,” Jon-jon Rufino shares. “I had no role-models growing up, [there weren’t many] visible gay people who weren’t connected to the fashion industry. Not that I don’t owe those people the world. They broke down the barriers first! Still, I didn’t [necessarily] identify with that,” he adds. Photographer BJ Pascual chimes in, “Outside of this fashion industry bubble, so many young people—especially in far-flung provinces—get disowned by their families or become the subject of violence in their communities for simply being themselves.”
Today, we’re lucky to see many visible LGBTQ personalities not only in pop culture but in elected office and leading industries. Gender equality activist and founder of “All We Need is Love”, Queenmelo Esguerra reminds us, “We have the first elected transgender woman in the Congress of the Philippines. Proud gays and lesbians are running big business organisations as CEOs. Several magazine editors, TV personalities and advertising executives are proud LGBTQ people. In the fields of arts, theatre, fashion and design, LGBTQ people are leading.”
Pascual comments on why visibility in culture is paramount, “Seeing ourselves represented in the media—no matter how big or small—is a reminder that we’re not alone, we exist, we are valid; and just like everyone else, our stories are worth sharing.” Rufino adds, “I think the success of the movement the last 30 years or so is mainly due to people coming out. Now, almost everyone has an LGBTQ friend or relative. We’re not a nameless face anymore. We’re part of the family.”
However, perceptibility is of course just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond representation, supporting and celebrating the community are critical ways to build on what was established by generations before us. To do this, we need more safe spaces and opportunities in which discrimination cannot reside. DJ and co-founder of Unknwn Samantha Samonte says, “Countless queer people have experienced so much pain in their lives. From being outed by someone else, being denied the love of a home or family, to going through daily struggles thinking there’s something wrong with them—the hurt we live with every day is unimaginable. To have these safe spaces and to promote queer artists is like [a] warm, long and tight embrace. It’s when you’re in the right place with the right people that you begin to realise that you’re not a freak; that you’re not lacking anything; that you could flourish, express and grow without judgment or hate.”
One of these places recently closed: Cubao City’s Today x Future—a once-bustling watering hole for people from all walks of life. Owner and partner to Samonte, Leah Castañeda, voices out her reservations on how the community has been treated. “Tolerance and acceptance are two very different things. Statements like, ‘I support them but...’ isn’t accepting. Same goes with denying the community their rights to living a full, healthy and happy life. It starts with the home where parents can teach their kids that we are no different than them. In turn, for parents to accept their children for who they are counts so much.” Openness was the credo that made Today x Future an icon throughout the years, so much so that a strong outcry erupted online when its closing was announced. “We weren’t expecting that impact at all. It gave me a sense of fulfilment and direction since I felt that I didn’t know what to do anymore after we closed. It inspired me to not give up on the Future,” Leah adds.
It’s incredible to see just how much a space can mean to so many people. It is difficult to say goodbye to a piece of land, so to speak, but sometimes, four walls can make the difference between agony and liberty. Many countries in the world continue to proscribe LGBTQ people. According to the Human Dignity Trust, there remains (as of writing) 72 jurisdictions in the world that criminalise private, consensual, samesex sexual activity, 12 in which the death penalty may still be imposed for such acts, and 15 that condemn the gender identity and expression of trans people.
See Also: 5 Local Books To Revisit For Pride Month
Leah Castañeda and Sam Samonte
Symbols are strong building blocks for any movement and the Pride cause has many of them. The rainbow flag, art, pop culture, social spaces, but none more important than the very words on paper that determine the difference between a sublime or miserable life. Author-philosopher Slavoj Žižek once wrote, “Words are never ‘only words’; they matter because they define the contours of what we can do.” And that is why Esguerra continues to fight for the passing of the SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression) EqualityBill, more commonly known as the Anti-Discrimination Bill. “After more than 20 years, we are still fighting for [it],” she says.
“There’s also a strong need for the public to be educated on gender sensitivity and awareness. The science behind the concept of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression must be taught in schools. The separation of the church and state must be determined well in our law-making and governance. A secular outlook would lead us to more progressive reforms in the country,” Esguerra adds firmly. Pascual gives his two cents on the matter, “The public is only willing to accept gay people [as long as] they are entertained [by them]. As soon as we start talking about serious things, like the SOGIE Equality Bill, people either turn a blind eye or take a step back. I think there’s still a long way to go to become truly accepted.”
Seeing ourselves represented in the media—no matter how big or small—is a reminder that we’re not alone, we exist, we are valid; and just like everyone else, our stories are worth sharing.— BJ Pascual
The law (be it legal or social) is the driving force that seeks to maintain order in any given society and sometimes, it fails to do so. That’s why it is so essential to recognise those who are disenfranchised by the powers-that-be. A lot of on-going global political crises stem from a disparity in power and social mobility. The very thought that another human being deserves prodigiously less than you sounds quite absurd, but that is exactly what the LGBTQ community often faces and continues to fight against. Pride means different things to people. Esguerra and Rufino agree it is a celebration of one’s individuality and existence. Samonte, Castañeda and Pascual add it is, at its core, a protest.
We’ve come a long way since the Seventies. Our vocabularies have grown, our senses heightened and our minds opened. We’ve built new realities with blood, sweat, tears and bricks. Pride is a bold call-to-action that urges us to see past what we know and to deconstruct the systems that have allowed our LGBTQ brothers and sisters to feel and live as second-class citizens. “I never give up hope that one day we all live in a society where everyone is treated as equals,” Esguerra says. Samonte echoes this sentiment, “I keep faith because I couldn’t be happier and proud to be one with these beautiful and strong survivors.”
Words are never ‘only words’; they matter because they define the contours of what we can do.— Slavoj Žižek
Decades past have brought us to where we are today and with the benefit of hindsight, we continue to dream of a world that not only advocates for tolerance and acceptance, but one that celebrates just how beautiful diversity can be. With every proverbial brick we yield, it is a reminder of a simple albeit ambitious thought: equality is non-negotiable.