Interview:Lesbian Advocates in the Philippines - LeAP! - Ging Cristobal
How did you become involved with the lesbian movement in the Philippines? Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Even before becoming involved with the lesbian movement, I was always political, but never saw myself being political with regard to my sexuality. I had lesbian friends, but none of us were comfortable using the term ‘lesbian’, ‘tomboy’, or any other term to define our sexuality, for that matter. I was just a happy lesbian in a relationship with my partner. I was a restaurant manager minding my own life, after having graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Community Nutrition. While completing my Masters in Educational Psychology at The University of the Philippines (UP), I attended a film screening on lesbian issues, after which there was a discussion of the movie. Throughout the discussion, I heard stories of discrimination from lesbians and I decided I must do something. I immersed myself in reading books and attending workshops to educate myself on the varying issues confronting lesbians in the Philippines. Because there was almost no local material written on our lives, we had to contextualise what we read from lesbians in other countries and relate it our experience. I began my work with LeAP! as the volunteer Community Coordinator and was formally asked to become the Executive Director in 2000.
Tell us about LeAP! How it got started and the ideology with which LeAP! works.
LeAP! is a lesbian, feminist, non-profit organisation. We started conceptualising the organisation in 1999 and formally launched LeAP! on February 24, 2000. We felt that there was a lack of resources for lesbians during that time and no one was making any efforts to increase visibility of lesbian issues in society. There were very few lesbian groups at that time, and they were mainly spaces to socialise. LeAP!’s main focus is mainstreaming lesbian issues in society and conducting research. Aside from that, we aimed to have a space for regular educational sessions and workshops, counseling and a safe space for lesbians where they can read lesbian materials and receive support. Since our country is still patriarchal and inequality comes from the very relationship between a man and a woman, we realised that we have to tackle the issues first as women, and then as lesbians. We believe that the discrimination we experience as lesbians is not separate from the dynamics happening between gender roles, which are still being challenged up to this day by lesbians and feminists.
Can you talk a little bit about the political, social, and cultural context in the Philippines and its influence on how lesbian rights are realised?
As far as the social and cultural context goes, we have observed that the tolerance and acceptance of our issues are gradually growing among families and society in general. However, it is still token and symbolic. It’s like, ‘We accept you and respect you, but please do not court my sister or be part of our family’. There is acceptance as long as you do not go inside people’s family circles. Among activists, there is still only token acceptance and invisibility of lesbian issues in sexual and reproductive health, human rights, and gender mainstreaming agendas.
As far as the political context is concerned, there are a growing number of supportive politicians but they, except for the Akbayan party, who have been supporting the Anti-Discrimination Bill, do not prioritise our issues. In Quezon City, which is one of the biggest cities in Metro Manila, local councilors have passed an ordinance penalising discrimination in the workplace. During that time, we were asking for support for the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB). The councilors made a resolution supporting the ADB in Congress and also made a local ordinance concerning discrimination. What is funny and sad at the same time is that every time we asked for support, most of them would tell us that we (lesbians and gays) are not discriminated against. Only after we give them a rundown on the issues we face do they acknowledge the discrimination. However, they don’t take any action to stop this kind of discrimination. They say that they hire lesbians and gays in their offices but, of course, we want more.
Also, whenever politicians fight with other politicians they still use the term ‘bakla’ (which is a local term for gay men) to describe their opponent. They use the term to degrade and put their opponent in a bad light. Overall, there is discrimination and homophobia because people are still operating with stereotypes and incorrect assumptions regarding lesbians and their lives. As lesbians, we become invisible. We are lumped together with gay men.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the Anti-Discrimination Bill? What was the motivation behind it?
In 1999, the ‘Lesbian & Gay Rights Act’, or LAGRA, was filed in Congress without consulting the LGBT groups. The Bill had many provisions such as anti-discrimination, domestic partnership, adoption, etc. We did not believe the Bill would strategically affect LGBT groups because society (and even LGBT people in mainstream society) is not informed enough as to why it is important for them to enjoy rights enjoyed by heterosexuals. That same year, lesbian and gay groups formed the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network (LAGABLAB) and drafted a new ADB. Since 2000, this version of the ADB has been filed both in the lower house and Senate. As a result of political unrest with the ‘supposed’ foiled coup attempt to overthrow the government, all pending Bills in both the lower house and in the Senate are at a standstill.
You mentioned the invisibility in sexual and reproductive health issues, the women’s agenda, etc. Could you expand on this a bit?
The NGOs focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in our country are very assertive and progressive. However, if you look into their programs, you will notice that they are still heterosexist. Whether it is through programmatic interventions or research, lesbian health is still a non-existent issue. Many NGO activists think that since lesbians are women, we also have the same needs and issues as heterosexual women. But we disagree. For example, when a woman goes to a doctor, the doctor asks if she is sexually active. If she says ‘yes’, the assumption is that the sexual relationship is with a man. There is no space to talk about or discuss other sexual activities / practices; therefore lesbians or bisexual women have no space to discuss health issues where they feel secure enough to share their most intimate details - which may have huge repercussions on their health diagnosis and treatment.
In several countries in South and Southeast Asia, some people are of the opinion that talking about lesbian issues tends to dilute other ‘priority’ issues for the women’s rights and health agenda. Is that the case in the Philippines as well?
Yes, that’s what I was told when I questioned why the term ‘lesbian’ was not included in one of the provisions in the current Reproductive Health Bill in Congress. The Bill mentions marginalised women, the girl-child, physically challenged women, aged women - but not lesbians. Advocates for the Bill told me that putting in the term ‘lesbian’ would make the Bill controversial and would dilute the issue, while also stating that LGBT issues are incorporated in the ‘Education of Reproductive Health and Rights’ provision of the Bill. However, we believe that they strategically did not use the term because the fundamentalist groups who are opposing the passage of the Bill are looking for (and creating) flaws and issues they can use to kill the Bill.
Let’s shift gears a bit. What have been the successes achieved by LeAP! and what do you think are the reasons behind those successes?
The successes achieved by LeAP so far have been threefold. First, through the publication of books; second, through counseling; and third, through the discussion of LGBT issues among different sectors, such as schools, government and private institutions, NGOs, the urban poor, and LeAPunan. LeAPunan is our support group for women who want to know more about lesbian issues. We used to have a monthly discussion / film screening format earlier and have organised informal get-togethers so that women would have a safe space to talk openly. Most of the women come for these gatherings looking for substantial information regarding lesbian issues. And some of them are not yet ‘out’ as lesbians with their families, at the workplace or in their social circles, so this space becomes even more critical for them. As far as counseling is concerned, we provide counseling to women, not only who are lesbians but also to people who have issues regarding lesbians who may be their sisters, mothers, etc.
In terms of bringing about discussion on LGBT issues, LeAP! continues to conduct workshops on gender and sexuality. Here in Manila, we have trainings on ‘Gender Sensitivity’. There needs to be more emphasis on gender and sexuality because the gender sensitivity issues that are discussed are heterosexist in nature and often people end up talking about women’s empowerment - when we all know that both men and women are imprisoned within gender roles that they are made to play in society. We need to accept that in order to aim for a more meaningful and lasting change, we have to change our outlook. We do not need any enemies, but potential allies. We need to challenge existing beliefs and make people realise that lesbian issues are also their issues. It is easy to introduce LeAP! to other organisations, but to mobilise them to emphasize lesbian issues in their agenda is a different story altogether.
In terms of doing advocacy around lesbian rights, what are the terms that are used?
There is no local term for lesbians. Lesbians created terms such as tomboy, tungril (slang from the term tomboy), magic, pars-mars, butch-femme, uno-dos-tres (uno:butch, dos:andro, tres:femme). However, lesbyana/lesbian is preferred. A politician also used the term ‘third sex’ in 1995, and since then we keep changing the terminology from these local terms to LGBT, which is used more often now, especially for the media. I encourage the participants in workshops and trainings to say ‘lesbyana’ again and again so that they will get comfortable using the word.
How easy/difficult is it to build alliances with gay groups in The Philippines?
We work harmoniously with gay groups (and some bisexuals and transgender groups) because we focus on similar concerns - human rights, the ADB. Aside from that, we are friends with most of the GBT groups/individuals we work with because after work, we spend time together and enjoy each other’s company. Personally, I think if we want to strengthen alliances with different groups we have to spend time getting to know people (not only their organisations). Most of the time, we assume that since people work with us (LGBTs), they are ‘gender sensitive’ and do not have the same misconceptions that others have about lesbian issues. Being friends with GBT men and women, we are able to share insights objectively and learn about the assumptions we make, from each other. This has given us more in-depth information and insight regarding LGBT issues.
Using some of the lessons learned from LeaP’s work, how can other groups take from that and move forward together?
We all have equal rights that we have to protect, promote and assert. That is why we have to strengthen lesbian visibility through a variety of mechanisms – by empowering lesbians; teaching them their rights; by discussing it in schools, in families; and by engaging people to discuss their fears, misinformation, etc. We need to continue to provide support and counsel lesbians and their families and friends. We have to document discrimination in the different aspects of our lives: health, basic rights, work, family, media, all of it! This is a tool to make (to force) people acknowledge our existence. We have to strengthen our LGBT network so that we can meet, share and learn from each others’ achievements, experiences, as well as setbacks.
Ging Cristobal, the Executive Director of LeAP!, continues to work on facilitating workshops and discussions on gender and sexuality, lesbian rights and basic lesbian sexual health and safer sex. She is a 35 year old woman who lives with her partner of 15 years and seven dogs.