When I came out to myself as queer when I was still a little kid, I found discomfort in not knowing how I was different — or similar — from my brother, my sister, and my friends. I had no idea then what gender and sexuality are and the bigger role they play in our lives and relationships as social beings. All I knew was that I was a bit different — yet similar — from most people around me.
In college, I joined UP Babaylan, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) folks in my university. I found comfort in knowing that we share a lot of stories each one of us experienced. With my work with them, we went to different schools and universities in the Philippines, met other queer students, and helped them organize and access information about their rights and freedoms.
But the more I learned about the experiences of other LGBTQ folks like me, the more I recognized that we are different from each other.
Seeing through my privileges
The experiences of my sister and my mother, to which I am thankful to know and learn from, are ones of the first which made me grasp the reality of how gender and sexuality affect all of us differently: from the overlooked and unspoken expectation that they will do much of the house, care, and emotional work on top of their daily routine, to the very-late-at-night hanging out with my friends I got to experience but my sister usually did not.
My queer women friends experience the same and different things. Many of them confront the challenges my sister and my mother encounter every day. They contend with barriers and resist norms imposed and constructed by our society where boys and men are favored and prioritized — whether intentionally or unintentionally, implicitly or explicitly. This is despite the global recognition from institutions such as the United Nations (UN) that women’s rights are human rights.
Many of my friends and mentors whom I look up to are women. But not many of them have the privileges I have as a man from a middle-class family. When I joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines for our HIV and LGBTI work in the country, I had to remind myself of these privileges and take inspiration from my experiences as a queer Filipino in order to genuinely help in making our programme work for and be an ally to women, particularly queer women, and other marginalized sectors.
Making it work for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women
In 2018, UNDP initiated a study focusing on the economic empowerment of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women in the Philippines. The research was led by Dr. Moizza Binat Sarwar of Overseas Development Institute, a Ph.D. graduate of Social Policy from University of Oxford, and Maroz Ramos of GALANG Philippines, an LGBTQ rights activist working on grassroots organizing of urban poor lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Filipinos.
The report reaffirms the reality that Filipino queer women power through obstacles in many facets of their lives just because of the fact that they are lesbian, bisexual, or transgender women. These hurdles that are found everywhere limit their capabilities in achieving their economic needs and their power to make and take action on economic decisions.
Despite legal protections from bullying, Filipino queer women find that their paths to education are marred by bullying, discrimination, lack of access to LGBT-related information, and, even in some cases, physical or sexual assault. Some research participants also reported that they “normally experienced violence at the hands of family members rather than neighbors or community members.” Government initiatives and services — including those in education, health, and social protection — remain to be unresponsive and inaccessible to many lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women.
The results highlight the need for a holistic approach in achieving economic advancement that focuses, not only on independence, choice, and control at the individual level, but also on the more systemic factors — how our society and the environment in which we live affect women socially, economically, and politically as individuals.
From societal to personal
The report shares some invaluable recommendations that we can do. These range from societal changes that we can advocate for to actions we can work on at a personal level.
We need to strengthen our national legal framework for women by passing the SOGIE Equality Bill, and by properly implementing existing laws on women’s rights such as the Magna Carta of Women. We also have to actively combat and take personal responsibility for the violence, abuse, harassment, and discrimination faced by queer women in the public and private spheres. And we have to constantly listen to and have a meaningful dialogue with them to fully understand their priorities, their needs, and their meanings of economic empowerment.
During the launch of the report, Naomi Fontanos, a transgender woman activist, reminded us that institutions like the UN and our government, should consciously provide employment opportunities for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women. In achieving economic empowerment, these opportunities will allow them to directly represent themselves and fully participate in our development agenda.
Her remark made me stop and think of when I started working with UNDP, when I was a little kid who found discomfort in feeling different, the experiences we share as members of the LGBTQ community, and my privileges. I agree that it is one of the best ways where we can start to help make things work for her and other lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women. And I am thankful to all queer women activists who continuously remind us that recognizing our differences that demand different approaches, policies, and actions is a great expression of solidarity and our shared humanity.
The full report, Making It Work: Lesbian, bisexual and transgender women’s economic empowerment in the Philippines, can be accessed through UNDP Philippines’ website.
The research was initiated by the United Nations Development Programme as part of the Being LGBTI in the Asia Pacific (BLIAP) regional programme, which aims to reduce marginalization and exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Supplementary funding was generously provided by the Embassy of Canada, Philippines.
This blog was written by Xavier Bilon, the LGBT and HIV Focal of UNDP Philippines.