The Nation


The 'pride' of The Philippines

LGBT rights are not only recognised in the deeply Catholic country, they are celebrated too

Only Manila can have a 2,000-strong gay pride parade one afternoon and a procession with almost 100 statues of the Virgin Mary the next. For me, nothing better describes the contradictions of LGBT life in the liberal democratic, yet deeply Catholic Philippines.
Many people overlook the Philippines, separated as it is from the Southeast Asia mainland on the tourist map. I must confess to have been one of them and never realised my loss until I found myself in the middle of Manila Gay Pride in early December last year.
It was a happy coincidence. I had been invited to speak on Thailand's LGBT situations at a regional human rights defenders forum in Manila, which happened to fall immediately before Manila Pride. Never ones to miss an opportunity, my friends Ging, Angie and Germaine from Rainbow Rights helped to embed me and another activist friend Herry, into the Rainbow Rights contingent, taking us right into the heart of Pride action.
Since 1994, Manila had always held its gay pride, Asia's first, in Malate - one of the cities that make up Greater Manila. But the once vibrant gay neighbourhood has reportedly lost much of its popularity because of the mayor, who frowned on gay bars and their patrons.
As one door closes, others open. The party crowd flocked to new gay bars in other neighbourhoods, and this year, Manila Pride found its new home in Quezon City whose mayor opened his heart and coffers to sponsor the event.
The official support boosted the energy levels of Manila's already strong community. More than 80 contingents from LGBT organisations and alliances - from NGO's, employees groups, student groups to political parties - marched through the middle of the city where companies and even a few celebrities put up signs to show support.
The most interesting part was when the parade went past a small group of Christian fundamentalists shouting homophobic sermons through their megaphones. The "haters", however, met their match in "the Freethinkers", a secular gay-friendly group who good-naturedly poked fun at the homophobes with humorous signs and a mock-religious costume show.
In the evening, the whole community crowded around the stage in the middle of town to light candles along with the mayor and his team to commemorate World Aids Day. Then it was time to sing and dance to boisterous performances by out and proud LGBT performers and gay-friendly celebrities. The level of support from many sectors of the society was astonishing, especially when compared to Thailand where even known gay celebrities remain in the glass closet, never mind speak about equality and LGBT rights.
It was all deserving of the title "Pride", and an occasion of which all LGBT Filipinos should be proud. While never forgetting to have fun, they have made enormous progress on LGBT rights, ahead of most Asian countries. Not only does the country boast a staggering diversity of community-based groups who have fought hard for their equality and rights, it even has an LGBT political party called Ang Ladlad. Last year, the country's Supreme Court made a historic decision to allow the party to run for Congress seats, overthrowing the electoral commission's objection that the party is "immoral".
Herry put it best when he was asked by a TV camera what pride is. His answer, "It's a celebration of human rights," captures the joyful spirit that Manila invoked in all of us that day. Happy Pride, Manila!

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