Shades of Grey: Gay marriage and the Filipino LGBT movement - J. Neil C. Garcia

All is not black and white… and we want to explore the shades of grey. Feminism is diverse and we don’t always agree totally with one another, though we may share a similar perspective. While we don’t want to silence other viewpoints, we want to focus on the finer distinctions between arguments used by people who are on the same side of the table. 

The issue of same-sex marriage or ‘gay marriage’, as it is popularly called, has been in the news quite a lot. It is a topic that arouses quite inflamed opinions both within the LGBT community as well as in the larger society. These for and against arguments will continue, and it is not the purpose of this column to resolve them. 

Here’s what we asked J. Neil C. Garcia: Should people have the right to marry someone of their own gender? Should people require legal sanction to do this? What larger questions does this issue raise about relationships?

J. Neil C. Garcia 

Marriage as an ‘avowed’ political issue has enjoyed a relatively short career in the history of LGBT advocacy in the Philippines, which, as we know, has been engaging in institutional politics for more than a decade now. It’s important to note that the current LGBT legislative agenda no longer includes gay and lesbian marriage, and the reason is, predictably enough, strategic more than anything: in a country where the medieval Catholic church continues to have the last word on matters of public morality, the leaders of the national LGBT movement abdicated early on the dream of winning the war, and instead opted to focus their energies on small but hopefully winnable battles. 

A sketch of the ‘difficult’ history of the legislative agenda might prove instructive. In 1995, a congressman from Quezon City filed a bill in the Lower House that sought to include the LGBT sector in the party-list elections. A ‘citizens’ alliance’ of various LGBT organisations was mulled for this purpose, but like this initiative, it never prospered. Three years later, a party-list organisation that ran (and won) in the national elections, sought the help of several LGBT organisations in developing its agenda for the community, which it decided to include in its platform for governance. Obviously, this was a milestone. The groups that were consulted later constituted the ‘lobby’ that would push for the passage of the anti-discrimination bill. A year later, after extensive discussion and planning among around a dozen LGBT organisations from some of the major cities and provinces in the country, the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network (or LAGBLAB), was formed. 

In the lower house of Congress, the lone representative from a poor province northeast of Manila filed the Lesbian and Gay Rights Act of 1999. This was a rather comprehensive proposal that indeed included provisions for gay and lesbian domestic ‘partnerships’ (a euphemism for the decidedly more contentious word ‘marriage’). This was the first bill of its kind ever to be filed in the Philippine Congress, and it was greeted with horrified dismay by both senators and congressmen alike. Its draft was promptly critiqued by LAGABLAB and other LGBT organisations, simply because it was much too ambitious too soon. Moreover, well-meaning though its proponent was, the truth of the matter was that her bill simply didn’t emerge out of any kind of consultative process with the LGBT community itself. 

In 2001, after several months of intense consultation with members of LAGABLAB, the anti-discrimination bill was filed in both houses of Congress. This bill was a significantly watereddown version of the earlier bill, and instead of championing the too-controversial cause of gay and lesbian marriage, its chief provision was to penalize those who would discriminate against any Filipino citizen by virtue of his or her sexual orientation. To promote passage of this bill in both houses, as well as to raise awareness in the country on the LGBT anti-discrimination cause, LAGABLAB launched a popular campaign, which it called ‘Stop Discrimination Now’. This campaign was supported by the Philippine arm of Amnesty- International, as well as by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the Lesbian Advocates of the Philippines, and by other progressive civic organisations and individuals. House Bill 6416, or the Antidiscrimination Bill, was passed in 2004 by the House of Representatives, but the Senate failed to approve it before it adjourned its eleventh session. 

In 2006, during the twelfth session of Congress, three antidiscrimination bills and three anti-same-sex marriage bills were filed in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. The most that happened to these bills was they were referred to the pertinent committees. Though quiet on the issue of marriage, one of the senate bills was in fact pretty comprehensive, being the counterpart of the house bill that was sponsored by three partylist representatives, and that had already been approved by the House Committee on Civil, Political and Human Rights. On the other hand, the other two bills in the upper house sought to prevent Philippine recognition of marriages contracted by Filipino transgenders and/or gay men in the Philippines or in countries which legally recognize such unions. Their primary provision was to amend the Family Code, by confining the definition of marriage to “natural-born males and females only.” They were filed in reaction to recent court rulings that had allowed Filipino male-to-female transgenders to change their legal sex. 

On the other hand, not to be caught napping, and eager to prove its concern and possibly win support from the obviously burgeoning and politicized urban LGBT community, the National Democratic Front, which continues to wage its Maoiststyle revolution in the Philippine countryside, issued reports to the mainstream Philippine press that its leaders had already allowed gay and lesbian ‘marriages’ among revolutionary fighters and kadres, up in the mountainous fastnesses of the archipelago. Needless to say, while reasons of a strategic and provisional import have forced the Filipino LGBT movement to forego it for now, the question of gay and lesbian marriage continues to be a pressing concern for many Filipino LGBTs, especially those who were brought up as Catholics, for whom—we must remember—marriage is not just a civil ceremony but rather a solemn and grace-giving sacrament. Certainly, the tragic irony here is that it is this very same religious system that will most probably thwart any and all efforts to extend this form of social and religious recognition (with all its attendant benefits and responsibilities) to Filipino Catholic LGBTs themselves. 

On a personal note, I must admit that while marriage isn’t for me—disabused as I have been by the awful, harrowing, if not ridiculous experience of my ‘properly wedded’ parents, relatives, and friends—as an LGBT cause I do support it, of course, as it’s rather likely there are quite a number of Filipino lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders who want it. The argument is plain and simple enough, and I do earnestly buy it: the majority has no right to deny such fundamental things as marriage, adoption, and other citizenship rights to the minority, even or especially when it’s a sexual minority. 

On the other hand, I also do believe that, in the long haul, Filipino LGBTs (like LGBTs everywhere) do need to move away from heterosexual models altogether, including if not especially marriage. (A close friend of mine summed it up rather mordantly over dinner one time: If marriage hasn’t quite worked for straights, why should we want it for ourselves?) My sense is that it may not be the outward form but rather the ‘substance’ of the marital bond that we need to interrogate in the end, and to my mind what lies at the core of the problem that is marriage is nothing if not our traditional notion of romance, which simply isn’t enough to sustain a relationship after all, since we all know that it is predicated on this thing called mystery. The sad reality about mysteries is that they naturally become dissipated and replaced with familiarity and intimate knowledge with the passage of time. As I see it, when a romantic relationship ends, it’s usually because expectations of both or either of the parties involved are spectacularly frustrated by the recognition of what is really and unmistakably there. It goes without saying that a relationship lasts only because when the thrill of romance has ended, both partners find the frayed and raggedly familiar altogether lovely, beloved, and dear. 

The conventional concept of romance is that it requires and therefore permits perfect strangers to hurt us (inasmuch in the conventional sense, lovers are indeed generally ‘strangers’). On the other hand, our friends who’ve known and loved and accepted us for who and what we are, are simply not good enough to be our lovers, and so can never be the object of our affection and desire? My feeling is that LGBTs need to rescue the idea of friendship from its demeaned position in this unspoken hierarchy of emotional attachments, and make it the foundation, the benchmark, of all profound relationships. As long as we’re obsessed with this traditional notion of romantic love, then we’re never going to find stability and fulfillment in our relationships, because the strangers who embody them can only fail and hurt us in the end, as all strangers must and as all strangers will. Finally, if only to make our significant partnerships endure, I feel that we must be willing to put away our silly old 

notions of romance, in favor of that true and wonderful experience called friendship, whose other name is love. 

Such a radical redefinition of love (or of friendship) may appear shocking and unthinkable at first, but what we must realize is that one of the good things about being LGBT is that since our identities fall outside the norm, we are basically free to imagine and to invent ourselves and our relationships—indeed, our ‘humanities’. What we need to remember is that, as LGBTs, we already are, by necessity, living on the edge of what’s possible. Concerning this issue (as well as all the other issues, I suppose), we must never be afraid to desire, to dream ourselves (and our loves) into being. 

J. Neil C. Garcia is a poet, critic, and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, The Philippines. He is the author of several books of poetry as well as studies in Philippine gay literary and cultural criticism. He co-edited the popular gay anthology series Ladlad, and is the founding adviser of the UP Babaylan, the first officially recognized LGBT student’s organisation in the University of the Philippines.