By JULES VIVAS
In mid-August of 2019, the idea of having a third comfort room for the use of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex, asexual (LGBTQIA+) in the country became a hot topic when trans woman Gretchen Custodio Diez was mistreated by a janitress who barred her from using her preferred washroom in a mall. The debates led to the reassessment of gender equality in the Philippines and, ultimately, the call for congress to pass the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) equality bill.
A couple of days after the controversy, Diez met with President Duterte, who back then expressed his support for her and for the SOGIE bill, also known as the Anti-Discriminatory Bill. Several senators, however, were doubtful of the proposed act, even bringing up the dangers of its abuse such as voyeurism. To this day, the bill, despite getting wide support, remains floating.
Going back to how the SOGIE equality bill came to be, it was late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago and former Akbayan representative Loretta Rosales, who filed the very first version of act under the 11th Congress. The bill passed a third reading in the House but was stalled in the Senate. Similar measures were submitted by other senators in the 15th and 16th congresses to no avail. In her last term, Senator Defensor Santiago refiled the bill in every congressional period in the Senate.
Meanwhile, 26-year-old trans woman Jennifer Laude was murdered by US marine private first class Joseph Scott Pemberton in 2014. A year later, the Olongapo Regional Trial Court found Pemberton guilty of homicide, citing mitigating circumstances such as Laude not revealing her true gender identity. The case prompted discussions on transgender rights, and so in 2016 the SOGIE equality bill got its first Senate version filed by Senator Risa Hontiveros.
At the time, the bill was already supported by several groups, composed mainly of the youth. Most staunch advocates were from Catholic student organizations from such schools as De La Salle-College of St. Benilde (CSB), Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), Far Eastern University (FEU), and of course, the University of the Philippines, where resides the longest running LGBT student organization, the UP Babaylan. Even the most prominent celebrities, the likes of Heart Evangelista, Rajo Laurel, and Tim Yap, backed the bill from the very beginning. Nevertheless, all the support is for naught, as the bill would never become a law without half the votes in favor of it from the Senate seats.
Almost two decades after the first version, the SOGIE equality bill has come far enough to be refiled by senators Risa Hontiveros, Leila de Lima, Imee Marcos, and Kiko Pangilinan, while another similar bill was filed by Senator Sonny Angara during the 18th congress. Support has been stronger than ever, yet dissent in the Senate prevents the bill from passing. The 1987 Constitution remains without specific covenants covering the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Why is the SOGIE equality bill so important anyway? With it, several activities like the promotion of stigma—defined in the bill as “the dynamic devaluation and dehumanization of an individual in the eyes of others”—and denial of access to public service will be declared discriminatory, and victims may file charges to persons, corporations, or organizations that commit these acts. The essence of it is that it protects individuals and communities against human rights violations as listed and defined in the SOGIE bill. Simply put, the bill tells us that we cannot classify individuals according to sexual orientation. In humans or animals, sexual attraction can and do happen between the same or opposite genders. We do not always fit in gender roles and identities expected of us.
If everything goes well, the SOGIE equality bill could be the determining factor that can push for systemic fundamental changes in society, affecting positively our attitudes toward our non-hetero family, friends, colleagues, and everyone in-between. When the bill is passed, it will define future generations and alter reality for the LGBTQIA+ community in the country for the better.