‘Tayô Tayo—Stand Up and Rise Together’ is the theme of Philippine HIV awareness organization The Red Whistle’s commemoration of Gay Pride Month
In April 2020, as the Philippine government placed the entire country under Enhanced Community Quarantine, barangay volunteers in Pandacaqui, a small village in Mexico Pampanga, accosted three LGBTQIAP+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and Pansexual) people for violating curfew. Despite protestations, with two of them explaining they were running an errand for their grandmother, the three were detained on suspicion that they were looking for illicit sex.
In a global emergency, such as a pandemic, enforcing public health measures, such as the government’s strict stay-at-home policies, becomes the top priority, and everything else, including civil liberties and due process, is subject to broad discretions and also abuse. As punishment, aside from overnight detention, the three LGBTQIAP+ people were ordered to do push-ups, kiss, and do a sexy dance on live video broadcast on social media. The video, in which the three were identified by name, went viral. It was public humiliation, public shaming, and shameful exposure, a form of judicially sanctioned punishment for an offender, usually a prisoner—but in previous centuries. In Pandacaqui, where the sanction was meted out by no less than the barangay captain and other barangay officials, it happened only last year.
A few months later, in June, The New Humanitarian, a Geneva-based independent, non-profit news agency, reported the case of a lesbian couple in the Philippines, who were denied ayuda or government-sponsored COVID-19 food aid “because lesbian couples don’t count as a ‘family’ in the eyes of the local government.”
June is Pride Month in many countries around the world, including the Philippines, but especially in the US, where it originated as a tribute to those involved in the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Here, in Manila, among those at the forefront of the LGBTQIAP+ movement is The Red Whistle, essentially an HIV/AIDS awareness organization founded by conceptual photographer Niccolo Cosme in 2011, who also started Project Headshot Clinic, a digital platform merging profile pictures and advocacies. Although the Project Headshot Clinic supports myriad causes, including women’s empowerment, climate change response, and child welfare, it partners with The Red Whistle every year in June for gay pride and in December for World AIDS Day. Since last year, the digital platform has busied itself raising funds for COVID response, even as it resolutely pursues other equally important causes. Its most recent collaboration is with the WWF, World Wide Fund for Nature.
Although Niccolo still chairs The Red Whistle, whose primary cause is ever more urgent now that COVID-19 is front and center, if not end-all and be-all, of government, medical, and community attention, he lets the organization’s current president, HIV activist, development worker, and yoga instructor Benedict Bernabe, answer our questions.
To Benedict, Gay Pride—in June or any other time of the year—more than a celebration is protest. Here’s a snippet of our conversation.
Are there Covid-19 related issues compounding the struggles of LGBTQIAP+ in the Philippines?
Yes. We have to understand that SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics)-related issues experienced by LGBTQIAP+ individuals in the Philippines are intersectional. This means they cut across various aspects of an LGBTQIAP+ person’s life.
‘If we are to celebrate anything in this context, it is that we are here again, standing up and rising together to amplify our voices and raise awareness of our cause.’
Because people are required to stay at home, LGBTQIAP+ individuals who are prone to physical and emotional abuse are exposed to family members who perpetrate these acts 24/7. Their communities at school, at work, or with friends no longer provide a means to escape this hostile environment. This impacts a person’s performance in school or at work. We have no data but we can imagine how the current online learning setup can exclude LGBTQIAP+ individuals who are economically abused/marginalized. It remains to be seen how many dropped out of school due to these concerns. The current online learning ecosystem can also create new mediums for cyberbullying and we need to generate data on this.
We have also seen layoffs of workers during the pandemic. We need to look into these retrenchments from a gendered lens: How does an employee’s SOGIESC play a role in the decision-making process on whether they get to stay or be let go of?
What are the most urgent issues you are fighting for or against in the context of the LGBTQIAP+ condition in the Philippines?
Mental health services have been very limited before the pandemic and continues to be very limited during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. While we have seen a growth in mental telehealth services and online/phone counseling services, it is a fact that there is a limited number of mental health professionals in the Philippines to cater to everyone who needs it. There was an increase in mental health problems among the general population during the pandemic, which made the available services even more limited in terms of their availability to everyone, much less LGBTQIAP+ individuals in particular.
Do you have any data on how the lockdowns or quarantines are affecting LGBTQ+ particularly?
Unfortunately, there is no research on the matter. What we have are anecdotal stories and experiences of abuse, which can include physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and economic abuse. These reports strengthen the point that further research is needed to provide us a clearer picture of what needs to be solved and how that can be addressed through public policy or intermediate programs. The quarantine also limits organizations’ capacity to assist, especially in terms of removing individuals from abusive homes and hosting them in alternative venues.
Prior to the pandemic, one of the burning issues was the HIV epidemic. How is the campaign for HIV awareness, treatment, and prevention doing under these COVID-19 circumstances?
The pandemic has affected the HIV response drastically, just like how the pandemic has impacted other health programs. Since COVID-19 is an infectious disease like HIV, most of the COVID-19 specialists are the same HIV specialists we work with in the HIV response. The pandemic has somewhat interrupted that in the sense that we cannot track all new infections because HIV testing capacity is limited. While we have seen HIV services restored since August 2020, we still believe we are not seeing the actual numbers because access to services is still limited by factors other than availability, such as mobility, access to public transport, financial and economic barriers, and fear of discrimination.
The response has tried to adapt and the continuous provision of services would have been impossible if not for the strong advocacy of organizations of people living with HIV. These are community-based organizations, civil society organizations, and non-government organizations, as well as a working relationship with national government agencies and local government units which provide a bulk of the frontline HIV services.
The urgent and most immediate issue we are fighting for is the passage of the SOGIESC Equality Bill. The SOGIESC Equality Bill, if enacted, will operationalize by law the equal protection that is guaranteed by the 1987 Constitution. As it stands, LGBTQIAP+ individuals still experience discrimination at home, at school, at work, and in the community based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and/or sex characteristics. Discrimination is stigma in action and stigma is rooted in fear. And fear is mostly based on lack of awareness and knowledge.
As part of our advocacy for the passage of the SOGIESC Equality Bill, we think that it is urgent and important to raise knowledge and awareness of SOGIESC concepts through education and information dissemination. Hence, part of our work plans this year and in the next few years will be to discuss SOGIESC in schools and workplaces to raise grassroot support for equality.
If any, on Pride Month, is there anything we should celebrate in behalf of LGBTQIAP+?
While Pride can be a celebration, we have to highlight the fact the Pride is first and foremost a protest and an opportunity to raise the concerns and issues of LGBTQIAP+ people. If we are to celebrate anything in this context, it is that we are here again, standing up and rising together to amplify our voices and raise awareness of our cause. Our organization’s theme for Pride this year, which coincides with our 10th anniversary is “Tayô Tayo—Stand Up and Rise Together.” We recognize the challenges of the last year that has knocked us down, we learn from that experience, but we stand up again and move forward with wisdom and strength.
Contact The Red Whistle (@theredwhistle) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Kumu. theredwhistle.com