In order to “ground” this interview in its environment. I suggest watching Galang’s two videos before reading Anne’s story. These are “Mama Cash video GALANG English” (link) and “Galang in the Grassroots” (link).
“Galang” is the Filipino word for “respect.” Our organization was founded in 2008 by a group of lesbian dreamers who wanted to change the way things were going in the LGBT sector. A lot of the voices that we were hearing, like in the West, were those of upwardly-mobile gay men professionals. Even the lesbians who were speaking out were upper middle-class. Many felt that in a society such as ours it was necessary to hear also from women who were economically marginalized. Otherwise there wouldn’t be enough momentum for policy change. Our lawmakers need the numbers to know that there is indeed discrimination and there that a large number of lives would be affected by anti-discrimination laws.
Currently, Galang is a seven-year-old feminist human righs organization which has four program components: policy advocacy, research, institutional development and sustainability, and capacity building. Our goal is to help develop community-based LBT leaders who will be on the front lines of the LGBT movement in the Philippines. But that will be a long time coming. It’s easier to train educated, middle-class lesbians to be more articulate about their own issues. It’s a much harder task to expect high school graduates, or those with little education exposure, to articulate what they feel.
In fact, when we first went to the community, and even now from time to time, we found women couldn’t even talk about their experience. What they know is that at a young age they realized they were attracted to women. They harbor feelings of insecurity because they believe they’re immoral sinners. That’s what they were been taught. However, through the years we’ve had some luck and made some progress, and a handful of community leaders have emerged—although not to the extent that we want. Through the years we’ve learned that this is something that will take a long time to develop.
So our policy advocacy program component is focused on local and national advocacy, anti-discrimination legislation, at the local level the gender-fair ordinances that were passed in Quezon City. There are several anti-discrimination ordinances all over the Philippines, but Quezon City was the first local unit to have one. Now it has a second one as of last year. The problem in the Philippines is we have a lot of laws protecting women, laws protecting several marginalized sectors. But it’s always a question of implementation rather than the passage of a law. These ordinances have never been tested. The first ordinance in Quezon City was passed in 2003, but there never was a case that was successfully won by invoking it. Currently we’re in the process of participating in the development of implementing rules and regulations, but it will take a while to develop because next year is an election year. There are politics among the actors involved. We are pursuing the implementation of these rules and regulations within the year. Because otherwise it won’t be possible to invoke the ordinance.
At the national level, since the early 2000s or the late 1990s, there have been anti-discrimination bills pending in Congress, several versions that have slight differences in nuance. Broadly speaking, there are those that are based only on SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity or Expression}, there are bills on SOGIE and several other bases for discrimination, like disability, race, ethnicity and HIV-status.
For a long time the anti-discrimination legislation sat in committees in both houses of Congress. The absence of a logistical champion has prevented it from getting passed. I think it’s the fifth or sixth time it’s been filed, and it looks like it won’t get passed this time either. What we’re asking for—in on online campaigns and position papers and such, as well as public hearings and depositions–-is support of the bill. Also as part of our policy advocacy we’re in the process of researching other policies that affect LBGTs. As you saw in the film, we’re in the process of getting into other service laws, like the Filipine Health Insurance Act, because we feel that these laws have been in existence for a long time but they don’t specify discrimination against LGBTs and their families. Policy advocacy has to do with the way these laws are applied on a day-to-day basis. Of course our policy advocacy component and our research component are very much intertwined. Our research is dedicated to ensuring that all advocacy work is evidence–based. It’s been easy for us to navigate because we have all these stories from LBTs in our partner communities detailing discrimination. Wherever it’s feasible we try to come up with research papers, such as the one on social protection. In the most recent one on social empowerment, we discuss how LBTs who are excluded from the formal labor sector try to be creative in seeking employment and other means of earning, for instance by working abroad as domestic helpers or by becoming small or micro entrepreneurs like tricycle drivers.
We’re currently undergoing a survey of our LBT constituents, not only within Galang, but among activists in the Philippines. There are no quantitative data on the sectors, so each time there’s a need to pass an anti-discrimination law there are hardly any concrete numbers to cite except for anecdotal information. So what we’re trying to do is conduct a baseline study and develop an index that would measure at least LBTs that work in Quezon City. We hope to eventually expand the scope of that study so that at least we’ll be able to say how many have experienced discrimination and in what form.
Of course laws ares necessary, but one of the things we’ve learned is that discrimination is more cultural than legal. It’s crucial to change people’s perceptions, and that’s why we have all these education materials like the video, the comics and everything. This is sometimes a difficulty with foreign partners because for us the fight doesn’t end when the law gets passed. It’s not the same as in America and the UK. That’s why we do a lot of training, exposure to students, we give interviews to students and researchers as well. To the media also.
Finally, our institutional development and sustainability program focuses on our own sustainability as an organization. They say that 1.01% of all development worldwide goes to LBGT funding. It has been very difficult, probably in part because there’s the feeling that the LGBT community doesn’t need assistance anymore because marriage equality has been won in the West. It’s a constant struggle for groups like Galang to find funding, especially in the Philippines. There is less evidence of pain than in places like Uganda and Nigeria. Here people are said to be more tolerant. Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. What are counted as hate crimes are cases of murder based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but in the Philippines there are a lot of rapes of lesbians and bisexual women. Some say it’s “corrective.” The rapists don’t usually talk about it, but a lot of lesbians feel it’s punishment for being indifferent to the male gaze.
In terms of succession planning, Galang is also very much dedicated to the development of activists on the community level and on the level of Galang as an an institution. It’s important, in the feminist movement and the LGBT movement, for there to be young people involved. Activism is not a very rewarding job. A lot of us get burned out. When that happens it’s necessary for young people to take over. It’s a sensitive issue, I know. It’s something that we take very seriously in Galang because we’re here for the long haul. As you’ve seen in our videos, we invest in young people because we’ve seen they’re the ones who are more passionate about fighting for equal rights.
I would imagine that if it were properly implemented, the RH Bill it would also be very helpful to lesbians. What do you see is the relationship between that bill and the problems you deal with?
Like any law on sexuality, the RH law would definitely help LBTs because it would improve access to health care and promote acceptance of sexual diversity. But for urban poor LBTs the issue is not necessarily access to women’s health care. For the urban poor, health care in general is not accessible. In the Philippines there is no universal health care. So it’s not just a matter of getting a law passed, it’s a matter of breaking through the barrier of low self-esteem.
We’ve partnered up with Likhaan [a non-government organization engaged in providing direct health care services to women in marginalized communities]. We’ve referred many lesbians to them, those who’ve experienced mioma [benign tumor in the uterus] and things like that, but in the end they refuse to seek further treatment. They don’t have the money, and they would rather spend what money they do have on their children or their partners. I’m speaking about butch lesbians–probably because there’s this notion that lesbians are not women.
Yeah, I heard that a couple of weeks ago. I was very surprised.
These identities are pretty much clear-cut elsewhere, but in the Philippines a lot of terms conflict, probably because our jargon is limited, Initially we were a group of lesbians who wanted to work with the lesbian community. Then we realized that we had to come up with an umbrella term. Personally, as a relatively educated lesbian I identify as a woman who has sexual attraction for another woman. But the lesbians we work with at the community level don’t necessarily feel the same way or identify as such. Masculine-presenting lesbians might say that they identify as lesbian or they are men trapped in women’s bodies, and they are attracted to other women. So “trans” might well be more appropriate. The feminine one in the relationship will identify as either straight or bisexual and see her more masculine partner as actually a man. So we had to come up with a term to embrace all these three identities. Probably the term that most lesbians use is “tomboy,” which describes gender expression, not sexual orientation. There is no Filipino term. There is one for gay men, I think. Bakla [“effeminate man” in my dictionary, or “gay man”] is used as “gay man.” For “lesbian” all we use is lesbyana, or “tomboy” which is also not Filipino.
I have a friend who said shortly after we met, “As you can tell I’m a lesbian.” Well, I hadn’t noticed. I don’t think people in the West do that butch-femme role-playing thing anymore.
Obviously, I’m wearing a dress right now, so people will usually say, “How can you be a lesbian?” Those are stereotypes from the 1950s. for instance, the feminine one is often called the girlfriend of the tomboy. She’s not necessarily thought of as a lesbian herself. One of the research projects we undertook involved migrant workers in Hong Kong. They say a lot of Filipino domestic workers end up “becoming lesbian” because there aren’t enough Filipino men to go around. Some of the women we interviewed said that they’re glad for the opportunity to work abroad—of course, primarily because there are no, or very few, employment opportunities for lesbians in the Philippines, but also because in a more open society they are able to express themselves sexually. As an aside, we can say there are a lot of straight women in need of companionship. So they end up having relationships with butch lesbians. Whether they were actually closet lesbians in the Philippines or not, that’s another issue altogether.
Something we would love to do research on eventually is the fact that some women who have husbands and kids in the Philippines go to Hong Kong and become the butch lesbian in their relationship with other Filipino domestic workers. When they come back to the Philippines they again become submissive to their husbands. So the role play, the power play, is something that would be very interesting to study.
Yeah, it would be. And to see how economics ties in as a component of this too.
In the dynamics among lesbian couples, there’s a distinct separation between “butch” and “femme,” especially among older lesbians for whom the LBT distinctions are not clear. Feminine lesbians tend to have more access to employment, and the butch ones don’t have that because there are gender-prescribed requirements like haircut and that. Usually the power is with the “femme” so that if there is violence between couples, the perpetrator of the violence is usually the femme. That surprised us, actually. When the media portrays lesbians as masculine they are the violent ones, but that’s not necessarily the case. That is also supported by the fact that when the victims go to the police to complain about violence against them, the police either turn them away and say, “You can’t be the victim of violence when you’re usually the perpetrator of violence.” Also there are cases of lesbians who report rape and are told by the police, “You’ve at least had the chance to experience sex with a man.”
The issue of violence and acceptance is inversely proportional to economic empowerment, meaning the more money a lesbian has, the more acceptance she has. That’s part of the relationship. So in the communities we work in some women who were disowned by their parents are accepted as soon as they have stable jobs.
We were talking about this earlier. They’re helping to pay the rent.
In Hong Kong I spoke with a woman who was very proud that she made all the decisions for the family back in the Philippines, even what her parents roles would be, because she was the sole income earner. Of course we’re not sure that’s connected with her being a lesbian. Anecdotally, if she didn’t have money to send I’d say she wouldn’t have that much power in her family.
One of the things I’ve observed since coming here is that the family dynamic is very interesting in terms of money. Money seems to have an awful lot to do with the way things happen in the Filipino family.
There’s not a lot to go around, so maybe that’s why it’s so important.
Yeah, and also because of the very peculiar class structure.
I would say that among well-to-do lesbians, having money could also be a barrier to their acceptance of their sexuality. The family applies a lot of pressure to maintain a certain social status. So that’s an irony in itself.
Yeah, because they feel they have a certain position.
For them coming out may not necessarily be an issue. They have all the perks they need without coming out, and they don’t want to shame the family. So the challenge for activists like us is to involve them. For tactical reasons and for political reasons.
Very interesting. And how are you doing this?
Honestly, as you said, money pays for a lot. Grassroots work requires a lot of money. It’s labor-intensive and ad-intensive. So our dream really is to be able to tap into lesbian heiresses who can support the movement, so to speak. We’ve actually tried to find technical support for that through an NGO in Hong Kong, but we learned that the culture of philanthropy in general is not well developed here. In the US and Europe funders could be the governments or private individuals like Bill and Linda Gates. Here funding is not necessarily possible, despite the extreme poverty in the region. So if you find anybody like that just give me a ring.
I will, although the only rich people I know are Filipinos. But I have another question: how do you avoid burnout?
I have ten dogs and a partner of thirteen years. I try to tell myself that this work is not all on my shoulders. In this office we try to remind ourselves that it’s never up to one person. Actually, I work in another office, and having another focus has helped as well.
Well, that’s certainly true of human rights in the US. The laws or policies put in place during times of prosperity are taken away during times of austerity. It swings back and forth.