So he was asked

 

Travel light, said the seer. So in this moment of transition, you commit to unpack and discard, treat nothing and no one as you possession. You pick what you need, and put them in two bags. Everything else, a galaxy of memories you shut tight inside your chest.

Here are two old posts that I have taken down, and thought maybe it’s time to revive them – and hopefully draw out a desire to go back to writing just for the sheer pleasure of it. And maybe, blog again?

An Open Love Letter

Today, I woke up with a persistent buzz inside my head. I knew immediately that a shift in my world happened, a not-so subtle change. It was not in the morning news but I noticed that the pillows on my bed were already conferring with each other, trading rumors in whispers.

While preparing breakfast, the bowl from the shelf stared back with a naughty smirk. As I poured milk on my oatmeal and muesli, I swear I heard them giggling – was it them or the trippy buzz in my head – and they only stopped when they saw me looking. Poets have claimed that rivers sing, but today oh believe me it was the faucet that I heard, releasing a melody that the sink gladly embraced. Even the fan nodded its agreement: today I woke up with a psychedelic buzz inside my head.

Outside, while walking to the office, a jogger leaped, landed in India, and discovered that butterflies and lovers have the same origin. The traffic light dismantled itself and discarded its lights, replacing them with images of the vast sky and summer sunsets. The alley cats walked on walls, declared their sovereignty, and marched for the moon. The newsboy sold tabloids that screamed poetry in red. I must have wondered out loud about the dazzling buzz in my head because the sun suddenly issued its ruling, final and executory: love cannot be denied.

As a man of reason, I chose to ignore it all. I walked past the cheering crowd that greeted the decision. The clouds declared a holiday and exploded into feathers; I skipped their celebration. I walked straight to my office, poured a cup of coffee. It was only then, as I was drinking the sour bitterness of my coffee in the stillness of the room, that the buzz in my head revealed its syllables: all along it was saying your name, your name, your name.


And so he was asked

And so he was inevitably asked, “What is love?”

 My feet turning into clay, he said, every time his name is uttered. A dervish whirling inside my chest. My heart in deep meditation, silent and solid as a rock. Poems that when broken into stanzas, into lines, into syllables, reveal his name. Souls that for the first time discover the art of flying. 

A mind that realizes that the heart is a beating compass, the only one that can navigate his skin. South is where my foot teases the arch of his heels; north is the direction that this train of murmurings takes, from his lips to my ears.

 And where does it end, they pressed.

With all the goodness of this Earth contained in the first of many embraces, he said, and with all the goodness of this world sealed in one last kiss. It ended and began when he sidled next to me and asked if he could read with me the book I was holding, and turning a page suddenly became a mutual decision. With love’s joyful confusion, with and love’s confusing joy.

 And so he was asked when it does end, what happens next?

 You still wager on love. You always do.

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Every Three Hours Someone in the Philippines Gets HIV

Time Magazine has this story about the alarming HIV epidemic in the Philippines. To show how fast and furious the epidemic is growing, when the article was being written, one Filipino was getting infected with HIV every three hours. Now, it’s one new infection every two hours.
We are truly sitting on an HIV time bomb.

World

Chris Lagman vividly remembers the night that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) came into his life. It was two years ago, and the LGBT activist was at a pre-Christmas dinner party in Quezon City with a dozen gay Filipino professionals. During the course of the evening, a fellow guest and close friend asked if he could speak privately to Lagman. He told Lagman that he had recently tested positive for HIV. Over the next few months the young man seemed to vanish from their social circle. The next time Lagman saw him was at his funeral, where relatives said the friend had died from a “mysterious” ailment. That was the first of many funerals Lagman would attend in 2011 as people he knew began to succumb to complications arising from HIV. “I would hear from other friends, [they would ask] why is it that suddenly a lot of my friends are passing away,” Lagman says.

Although…

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On being LGBT in the Philippines: the ship towards equality has already sailed

Being LGBT in the Philippines

Today is Day One of the Philippine National LGBT Community Dialogue, which is  being supported UNDP and USAID as part of the regional Being LGBT in Asia initiative.

TLF Share is one of the community partners for the dialogue. Below is a short speech I gave at the beginning of the dialogue.

On being LGBT in the Philippines

It has been two years since the last national convention of LGBT groups, and it has been almost two decades since the first national LGBT conference, which hosted during mid-1990s in UP Diliman by UP Babaylan.

So many things have changed since then, and so many things have NOT changed. There are now more LGBT groups, not just in big cities, but also in urbanizing areas. Our community has diversified, and we are happy to welcome organizations of Transmen and of deaf LGBTs. We are more visible in the media, especially on national TV – a show like My Husband’s Lover would have been unimaginable 3 or 5 years ago. In different institutions, community engagements have significantly increased and have deepened – the sensitization of government officials, including the police, is a big leap forward. There are also more cities that have enacted local anti-discrimination ordinances – Cebu, Angeles, Davao, and QC – and such initiatives have been fueled by the enduring sense of hope of local LGBT groups, and by the seeds that have been planted by our collective advocacy decades ago.

So many things have changed, but we must not lose sight of the fact that some things have fundamentally remained the same.

A global celebration is happening right now because of a legal victory in the United States. The twin decisions of the US Supreme Court declaring DOMA and Prop8 unconstitutional have created a global momentum for LGBT rights, especially on marriage equality, that should be welcomed but should not be left unexamined.

The celebration in the US spurred conversations on same-sex marriage here in the Philippines, and for me, these have only underscored the paradox of our reality, of the contrast between what’s happening elsewhere and the context and realities of being LGBT in the Philippines.

The Philippines is a country where we can talk openly about the possibility of same-sex marriage, about accepting homosexuality, and yet this is also a country where stigma and discrimination travel faster than societal perceptions, practices and laws.

The Philippines figured recently in a global survey as the only country with high religiosity where homosexuality is deemed acceptable. Yet all around us, we see the fine print of this so-called acceptance. To be accepted, we have to follow the conditions that have been imposed upon us: to be decent, to be likeable (or perhaps funny, or laughable), to be celibate or asexual, to be silent and be invisible when required. If we fail to follow these conditions, we immediately see the dark side of this acceptance: the rejection within our own families, in the workplace, in our schools, in health facilities. An HIV epidemic is raging among gay men, bisexuals, other men who have sex with men, and transgenders, and I must say that I don’t feel this so-called acceptance; what I heard instead are proposals to make us reject our own sexuality, deny our sexual existence, or expose us as ‘AIDS carrier’.

As a community, we have gone so far, but we must not lose sight of what still needs to be done. The hard work is about winning hearts and minds fully, not gaining half-hearted acceptance. It is about making sure that when our fellow Filipinos claim that they accept us, there are actually laws that embrace us and protect us from harm. That when government officials say that the Philippines is truly LGBT-friendly, they don’t just mean having gay hosts in government events, but it actually about electing or appointing openly LGBT people in key government posts. We also need to work harder to ensure that there is equity in our own community, so that in our next LGBT convention, we’d be seeing more lesbian advocates, more LGBTs coming from marginalized communities.

Let me end with this challenge, so to speak, for all of us here today: the ship towards equality has already sailed, thanks to your commitment and hard work, and no one can force the ship to return anymore. Nakalayag na ang barko papunta sa ating pagkapantay-pantay, patungo sa ating kalayaan. The only question now, and the challenge for us, is how to make it travel faster.

 

Around 60 LGBT advocates coming from different groups across the country are participating in the national dialogue, and several issues will be tackled in the dialogue – from family and community, health, employment, spirituality, media, and politics. Barriers in socio-economic, political, and legal areas will also be discussed.

What do we hope to achieve? This isn’t the first LGBT national conference in the Philippines, so the dialogue builds on similar processes in the past. We hope to revisit our understanding of the situation of LGBTs in the country, listen to new voices (this time, we have representatives from the Transmen community and deaf LGBTs), and come up with recommendations and strategies to give the push for LGBT rights in the Philippines a momentum. Never doubt: we will get there.

A sobering thought about “marriage equality” in the Philippines

The DOMA ruling is a major milestone in the push for equality in the US. In solidarity with the LGBT community in the US, including the Filipino-Am LGBT community, I am moved by the decision. More needs to be done, the US government should move towards the dismantling of other structures of inequality that persist in the country.

Here, the decision will fuel conversations on same-sex marriage, even within the LGBT community. We should engage in those conversation, and assert the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, of our equal standing in our laws as LGBT Filipinos – we are entitled to equal rights, as individuals whose sexualities, inside or outside the context of marriage, becomes the basis of exclusion and marginalization.

I am happy for our LGBT counterparts in the US, but I cannot help but feel wary that their triumph would be used against us. It is not farfetched to think that bigoted politicians would use the development in the US to further marginalize Filipino LGBTs and continue to deny us our basic human rights and freedoms. The so-called “marriage equality” is such a distant dream for the Filipino LGBT community when we know that even basic fairness is not accessible; when anti-trafficking and public scandal laws are used to detain LGBTs, or break apart our relationships; when our sexual orientation and gender identity serve as a basis to deny education or healthcare, or to subject us to harmful reparative or ‘conversion’ therapies.

Other countries would welcome June, the month of Pride, with marriage equality. The sober reality is that here, when 16th Congress opens, we’ll be fighting for something far more basic – an anti-discrimination policy, and we’d be defending our sexual orientation and gender identity to a public who is eager to believe that they accept us and yet they continue to deny us our equal rights, or ignore our call for basic fairness.

Love is love, said Obama, and I agree. But if the sex or gender of who you love becomes the reason why you get rejected at work, why you get bullied, why you get kicked out at school, or why you’re wrongfully treated as a criminal by the police – getting legal recognition as a same-sex couple is important – and we should and we will engage in this conversation – but I’m not sure if marriage per se is the first thing that should come to mind.

What do you think?

An anti-gay rights lawyer attends an LGBT Pride event, and guess what happened?

We went to the LGBT Pride Reception of the US Embassy in Manila, and we were shocked to see no less than Jo Imbong, legal counsel of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, attending the party.

Filipino LGBT activists have faced Imbong in many congressional hearings on LGBT issues, especially in the legislative fight to enact an anti-discrimination bill. In a public hearing for an anti-discrimination ordinance in Albay, I remember her mangling an article of a gay scholar to fit her purpose – to claim that LGBTs can be converted.

We gave her a warm welcome at the party. Me and my partner approached her, had our photo taken with her. Imbong, who ran for Senator in 2010 under an ultra-right party and lost despite their claim that there’s a big Catholic vote, just smiled at us.

After that photo op, I talked to her and my partner and I came out as a couple.

Happy pride, Philippines. That sweet promise of equality – we will get there. We will.

Promoting abstinence through condoms?

No, that’s not my idea.

The Philippine AIDS law, enacted in 1998, enumerates in its   implementing rules and regulations of our HIV law the information that should be included in the the labelling materials that go with condoms:

  1. Date of expiry and date of manufacture;
  2. Statement that “sexual abstinence and mutual fidelity are effective strategies for the prevention of HIV/AIDS and STDs”;
  3. The statement “When used properly, the use of a condom is a highly effective method of preventing most sexually transmitted diseases”;
  4. Instructions on the proper use of a condom;
  5. Simple illustration that shows clearly the steps in the correct use of a condom;
  6. Advice against the use of non-water-based lubricants like baby oil or petrolatum jelly; and
  7. Advice that each condom is used only once

The language is clearly dated, but the prominence of the message on sexual abstinence and mutual fidelity also reflects the law’s cautious take on sex itself. Promoting abstinence through condoms is not only counter-intuitive, it also shows the bias that our policies have against ‘safe, satisfying,  healthy, and responsible sex”.

The RH law has changed the tenor of our legal framework. That the bill revising the AIDS law was  almost passed shows that policies are not set in stone, that dissonance between policy and evidence can be cured. It will be difficult, but not impossible.

What’s more daunting is changing the consciousness of the implementors of policies, who should be the agents of change once policies are revised. This bias for abstinence persists, even among health workers and yes, health officials. In a recent hearing on proposed amendments to the AIDS law, a government official suggested that we implement education interventions for manicurists, a proposal that steered the conversation to whether or not HIV transmission is possible through contaminated toenail clippers.

Policy reform is not rocket science, and it can be done. But changing consciousness is more difficult – to echo an HIV advocate, it is like moving mountains.

Habemus Status Quo

Pope Francis
Habemus Papam. But is it right to pin so much hope on the new Pope? Photo from http://www.salon.com.

Don’t get too excited. There’s a new Pope, but it’s the same Vatican. Many credit the new Pope for being Jesuit, hence the assumption that he will be more liberal. But unlike the Jesuits we are familiar with, Pope Francis had actively opposed same-sex marriage and the promotion of contraceptives as Cardinal Bergoglio. Questions about his silence – and some say collaboration with the military – during the abusive years of the Argentinian dictatorship continue to hound him. He is, to be fair, also given credit for criticizing the material excesses of the Catholic hierarchy and is perceived by Latin Americans as the pro-poor Pope. But the question is, can a self-declared anti-capitalist Pope survive at the helm of one of the wealthiest sectarian capitalist institutions in the world? Is he going to betray and renounce the Vatican’s wealth-making machinery, the power driven accumulation of profit by the Vatican?

I ask this out of amusement, nothing more. I would not be surprised me if he announces an all-out war against condoms or against gay relationships, or if he becomes silent on the Vatican’s sectarian profiteering. He is, after all, a product of the same Vatican, where power resides in the hands of a few old men, the decision of whom is sent out to the followers of the faith through smoke signals.

What surprises me, though, is how many Filipinos pin their hopes on the new Pope, and that cynics should give him a chance. He might be the reformist that the Catholic Church needs.

If the premise of this is that a reformed Church will be less intrusive and modern – a supporter of equity, of women’s rights, and equal rights for LGBTs – then it’s bound to be a frustrating ride. It won’t happen, not when men are the only ones allowed to be priests, not when the flock remains voiceless, not when impunity is enjoyed by priests who commit pedophilia and sexual abuse.

The Church isn’t where we should demand for recognition of marriage equality or promotion of contraceptives. We engage it, only to provide counterpoints to the wrong perceptions the Church managed to galvanize in the public sphere, but the struggle is with the State. The reason why LGBT rights are not protected in the Philippines is not because of the influential Catholic Church, it is fundamentally because our political institutions remain weak. There is no Catholic vote, only weak institutions that easily succumb to the pressures of a big sectarian interest group called the Catholic Church.

To change the situation doesn’t require a new Pope. It requires ‘new’ Filipinos, ones who do not wait for reforms from the top – whether it’s the Vatican or Malacañang – but are raring to create their own revolutions down below.