A comparative analysis of LGBT politics in the Philippines and The Netherlands.
Living in Manila this summer I tried to connect with a LGBT serving church I found in Quezon City. I was hoping to do some volunteer work with them and help them out wherever they needed it the most. I expected that the LGBT scene in Manila was painfully non-existent. I had difficulty finding their organizations on Facebook and Google and had a hard time meeting up with any of the LGBT people in Manila itself. Reasoning from my Dutch perspective, I believed that the LGBT people were increasingly invisible and discriminated against outside of the ‘enlightened’ Western-European world. This reasoning is part of the self-complimentary image the West has of itself, the critique on this condescending attitude is called Homo-Nationalism. Homo-nationalism entails, that acceptance of homosexuality and queerness is given as proof of far developed and enlightened attitude towards society. Those that do not accept homosexuals are condemned as backwards, especially Islamic societies. The selection process of groups that are assumed to be condemning have racist, islamophobic, and xenophobic undertones.
What I found in Manila is something completely different from what I expected. The LGBT scene was very alive:, transgender people have prominent places on television, feminine expressing gay men where visible on the street, and a lot of movies are queer themed, such as the movie Zombadings (2011) (Gay Zombies). Also, Quezon City, the part of Metro Manilla I lived in, had several neighborhoods with queer beauty parlors and queer clubs. The LBGT scene is so far developed that it even developed its own language, a mixture of Tagalog and English, which differs as much as Friesian differs from Dutch. Besides, the gay-culture is very rich. For example, numerous pageantries are held throughout the year, with beautiful costumes, dances, attracting large crowds. Basically, the LGBT scene was huge, while I expected it to be non-existent.
I was able to find a LGBT serving church in Quezon City (QC) almost around the corner from where I stayed with Julliete. The church service started in the afternoon, in a small yellow room on the second floor, on Aventura Avenue, one of the main roads in QC. The Church, called Metropolitan Community Church Quezon City, was a warm, friendly space where an inclusive gospel was preached to a group of 30 people. I immediately felt comfortable enough to ask for a volunteer position, which they surprisingly had. A Rainbow Camp was coming up, which was a weekend retreat for gay and transgender men of ages ranging from 18 till 30 years old. The weekend served as a way to create a network in the LGBT world in which information could be channeled about HIV-AIDS prevention, gender expression, human rights, pedophilia, and church inclusivity. The Rainbow Camp has focused on including members of many different clans, so that the Campers will be able to influence many people in the LGBT scene as possible. These clans are the structure of LGBT life in Manila. These are text message based groups that range from serving for social contact, education, and or for sexual contact, in so called liberated clans. The information I will present below commenting on the painful issues found in the LGBT world, is all based on what I learned during that specific weekend.
The higher visibility rate of this particular scene did, however, not result in a problem free LGBT scene. Several forms of discrimination were found, and an overt focus on sexual contacts made it difficult for some man to navigate the scene and have long lasting relationships. One of the prominent problems I found is rooted in the unequal appreciation of masculinity and femininity. In the Philippines gay men either express themselves as feminine or masculine, which is expressed through clothing, attitude, and preferred sexual roles. Gay men who are so masculine that they appear straight are called discreet men. These men are deemed the most attractive and thus acquire more prestigious roles in clans. Transgender women, drag queens and feminine gay men are found on the other spectrum. These men and transgender women are deemed far less attractive, and are less respected. Transgender women oftentimes take up the role of clowns or entertainers.
This notion also extends itself to television and movies in which transgender women are quite visible, but only to very restrictive roles of entertaining and clowning, not for example to a role of newscaster. When movies portray either transgender or feminine men, they do this in a ambiguously, sometimes disrespectful way. For example, the movie Growing Up (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros) presents a young gay boy growing up assuming a feminine role in the households and falls in love with an older policemen. The movie shows his struggle living in a broken family and ends with him growing through the hardships he endures. Part of this growing up is losing the “childish and playful” feminine expressions and becoming a more masculine men. This movie portrays being trans- or feminine as a childish game. The movie Zombadings has a more ambiguous attitude towards transgender women. The movie involves a mad men who invents a machine, the gaydar, that can detect transgender and kill them by leaving them as dead drag queens. This form of self-mockery is a typical humor in the LGBT scene called camp or campy humor. However, outside of this LGBT context the movie can be very hurtful in reinforcing the idea that transwoman are scary, strange, and outsiders. The acceptance of transgender women should not be understated though. Their job possiblities have recently been enlarged, and they are no longer restricted to working in a beauty parlor. This can be seen in the advancement of several transgender women in callcenters. Furthermore, not all transgender women are on television for the purpose of laughter. BB Gandanghari is known to have played in movies both as a women and a transgender woman, of which both acting roles are very well received. Although, transgender women have larger visibility in the Philippines compared to the Netherlands, the trans women are not yet completly accepted into society.
It seems very strange to me coming from the Netherlands that there is widespread visibility of transgender women, since that is very uncommon for the Netherlands. One of the reasons for this difference is found in precolonial history. In precolonial societies communities were led by three persons. One of these was a women who was deemed to be in-between God and men. She specialized in healing and connecting to spirits. When this position was not filled by a women, a feminine men, or transgender women would fill up the place. Because of that transgender women had a honored position in society. It might be very well because of that, that there is more visibility and a larger degree of acceptance of normalcy for transgender women.
The dislike of the feminine aspects of a person is, according to the pastor of the MCCQ, rooted in a hatred or dislike of women, or women-like features, and thus also correlate to the position of women in Pilipino society, and the position of women in the LGBT scene. An interesting theory that is very plausible, is that the colonial contact is the starting point of hatred and violence against women. In the precolonial society a balance was found between both genders, through the three person rule. However, when the Philippines became colonialized, the Christian missionaries got rid of the, in the western eyes, “witch-like” women and transgender women, which destroyed the power balance between both genders. Pinoys translated this tradition into seeing transgender women as closer to commiting immoral acts.
As can be seen the differences in gender and LGBT politics between the Netherlands and the Pinoys are huge. There were several lesson I was able to took from the immersion in the culture of the Philippines. First of all, I saw with my own eyes that our understanding of queer, gay, transgender, masculine, feminine are very different. This for me takes away the presumed naturalness and normalcy of our conceptions about these topics. Finaly, it taught me not to assume that non-western societies are less developed in their acceptance of LGBT people. Also the global problems of discrimination of LGBT does not follow a singular path too acceptance, and does not fit single solution. If we want to offer a helping hand, we better listen very carefully to what the local people have to say.