Lesbian movement emerges in the Philippines
By Reihana Mohideen
MANILA — "We want to express our real feelings/ We are women loving women/ We are lesbians."
The three young women of the lesbian band Lantad (Coming Out) belted out the song, performing in one of the alternative music clubs here. The regular audience, mainly left activists from the '70s, listened quietly, taken aback by this bold number. "This is the voice of a new generation", one of them whispered. It is also the voice of a newly emerging lesbian movement in the country.
I spoke to Jet and Aster, both members of the band and feminist and lesbian activists.
The International Women's Day march here in 1993 was the first time that a lesbian contingent marched in public. This was an important turning point for the lesbian activists' movement. It was also a significant event for the women's movement, sections of which, even now, refuse to support lesbian rights.
"Society still views lesbianism as an abnormality. The common view is that we are men trapped in women's bodies, 'tomboys' who haven't grown up" Aster explained. The language itself reflects this prejudice. The Tagalog word for lesbian is "binalake", derived from the words "babae" (woman) and "lalaki" (man).
"Many lesbians themselves are pressured into believing that they are abnormal. This causes a lot of emotional problems."
Lesbianism is common, especially in the urban centres, they explained. But "coming out" is a very daunting prospect in a society so heavily influenced by Catholicism. Prejudices even influence large sections of the left. Coming out is an important political act at this stage of the movement. It helps develop a base in which to organise, as it did in the western movement in the '70s. A lesbian band can play an important role in this process.
The organised movement is small and is still finding its feet, but lesbian groups exist in several of the major cities. In Metro Manila there are groups such as CLIC (Cannot Live In a Closet), Lesbond in Baguio city and the Group in Davao, in the Mindanao region. In addition, there are several women's organisations which have lesbian collectives organised within their structures.
They plan to organise a conference for lesbian rights activists in August. They think it may be the first such conference ever held in the Philippines and are hoping to get around 100 lesbian rights activists to it.
They also anticipate being attacked by the Catholic Church before the conference, but seem to be looking forward to the prospect. The church has so far ignored the existence of lesbians, focusing its attacks on gay men, calling on them to commit themselves to the church and "redeem" themselves through hard work and penance. The church campaigning against lesbian rights could provide publicity for the conference and is an indication of the growing strength of the organised lesbian movement.
According to Aster, one of the main demands of the movement is anti-discrimination legislation protecting gay and lesbian rights. No such legislation exists in the Philippines today, making gays and lesbians extremely vulnerable. A lack of legal protection has led to victimisation on the job, even by government departments, which have been known to sack gays and lesbians.
Jet, on the other hand, disagrees that this should be the main focus of the movement. She points to the example of anti-sex discrimination legislation, where the gains, she says, have been very limited. "We can't expect much from the state", she says. "The law is against women and will also be against the rights of lesbians and gays." According to Jet, the main focus should be to organise an independent mass movement in support of lesbian rights.
Aster argues that legal rights "which can lessen the discrimination" are an important aspect of the struggle."Of course it shouldn't end there. The main focus should be education and raising people's consciousness on these issues."
They both point out that access to lesbian spaces is an important issue. There are no accessible separate social spaces, clubs or coffee shops for instance, in Metro Manila.
They are both conscious of how class impacts on these issues. They point out that rich lesbians have the money to create lifestyles that make their oppression more bearable. "In Makati [a wealthy suburb] there is an elite club for rich lesbian women, a space where they can meet and socialise regularly", Aster said.
They reject the view that all men are abusive or potential abusers of women. "Men are not the enemy. The enemy is the system. Both men and women suffer different kinds of oppression. The problem is the system that makes men abusive towards women", said Jet.