Philippines: Religious and Government Opposition to Anti-Discrimination Bill

The Committee on Civil, Political and Human Rights of the Philippines Congress finally held the first public hearing on the anti-discrimination bill (House Bill 956) on December 9, 2009. Rep. Erin Tanada, the Committee chairperson, finally agreed to the hearing after pressure by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups and media in the Philippines accusing him of 'sitting on the bill' for the duration of his term as chairperson of the Committee.

Authored by Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros, the anti-discrimination bill (download PDF here), "An Act Prohibiting Discrimination on the Basis Of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Providing Penalties Therefore," has been languishing in Congress since it was filed in 1999 during the 11th Congress. It seeks to prohibit a wide range of practices and policies that discriminate against LGBT people by ending discrimination in schools, workplaces, and public spaces; denial of accreditation to LGBT groups, including political parties; and police and military abuse and harassment.

The public hearing resulted in the formation of a technical working group to redraft the bill in consideration of the information presented by 'resource persons' (key representatives of groups opposing or supporting a bill) who were invited during the hearing. Given the upcoming national elections in 2010, LGBT activists are not optimistic that the bill will be passed into law soon because most politicians in both Houses of the Congress and Senate will likely avoid the controversial bill in their bid to get re-elected.

LGBT activists in the Philippines nevertheless insist that a push for the passage of the anti-discrimination bill is still necessary, despite setbacks and opposition from the government and from mainstream society, particularly conservative religious groups. Representative Bienvenido Abante, a Baptist pastor who won a seat in Congress, used his positions as chairperson from 2005-07 and vice-chairperson from 2008-09 of the House Committee on Human Rights to block the passage of the anti-discrimination bill. During the public hearing on the bill, he vehemently objected to LGBT resource persons speaking, and encouraged resource persons from various church groups to dominate the hearings. His arguments, as well as the arguments of religious groups opposing the bill, were that (1) since the laws in the Philippines protect human rights of all citizens, there is no need for the anti-discrimination bill; (2) the bill will provide special rights for LGBTs; and (3) if the anti-discrimination bill is passed into law, LGBT people will then ask for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

The need for legal protections for LGBT people is particularly clear in light of the vehement homophobic opposition to the registration of the LGBT political party, Ang LADLAD by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), preventing the group from running in the national election.

"COMELEC is espousing that people with sexual orientations and gender identities other than heterosexual are immoral and a threat to the youth, clearly demonstrating their cultural and political biases stemming from bigotry and ignorance," said Eva Callueng, one of the resource speakers and co-founder of Babaylanes, Inc., an LGBT education initiative focused on developing the capacities of young LGBT people on campuses and in communities.

Jonas Bagas, Convenor of Project Equality and head of the Akbayan Gay and Lesbian Collective added, "The public hearing provided a platform for activists to press for legal protection from unrelenting attacks on LGBT rights including the Comelec resolution declaring homosexuals unfit and immoral for public service and the continuing campaigns by the religious right to block the recognition of equal rights for LGBTs."

"The religious groups mobilize church-funded ex-gay groups that claim that the bill is unnecessary since homosexuality can be repaired and corrected. They likewise argue that the state should rather support reparative therapies instead of criminalizing discrimination," explains Jonas Bagas.

By June 2010 the Philippines will have a new set of leaders facing the challenge of leading the Philippines to its goal of improved economic as well as social growth. LGBT leaders also see the coming election as a new hope for the anti-discrimination to be passed into law since there are politicians who can be potential supporters of LGBT rights who will be running for public office. LGBT activists see this as a good sign since there is a possibility for a dialogue about the anti-discrimination bill to potential supporters who can co-author the bill and who will vote for the passage of the bill in both houses.

"Pointing out that this bill asks for no special recognitions and just an assertion of a basic human right is a position that we all should stick to. Any argument against this bill will not stand. In the history of the discussion of the anti-discrimination since the 11th Congress in 1999, the opposition has never produced a single argument that could dismiss the bill's position," Eva Callueng argues.

On the other hand, LGBT activists also acknowledge that there is a need to increase and diversify LGBT community action, and that there is a need to re-strategize advocacy efforts. Jonas Bargas points out, "Controversial bills can only pass if the community mobilizes its constituents. Thus, community organizing is all the more crucial. We also need to broaden the support for the bill from different stakeholders inside and outside the Philippines."

View photos of the public hearing »