Building a Movement for Sexual & Economic Rights in the Philippines: An Interview with Anne Lim

Anne Lim is from Quezon City, Philippines, where she serves as Executive Director of GALANG, a lesbian-led organization that works with urban poor LBTs (lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people) in the city. She was recently nominated for the 2014 Baldwin Award, which recognizes human rights work outside the U.S. Anne gave this interview during the last Association for Women’s Rights in Development conference in Istanbul.

I’m Anne Lim and I’m a lesbian rights activist. Currently I’m running an organization called GALANG Philippines. Galang is the Filipino word for respect. We work to build leadership capacities of lesbians in metropolitan Manila, doing advocacy and forming LBT people’s organizations.

We felt from the beginning that in order to push policy, it was necessary to have a critical mass among those most affected by discrimination and violence against sexual minorities, which is poor people. We’re a very poor country. About a third of our population lives on less than a dollar a day and despite economic growth in recent years, unemployment remains at an alarming rate.

But the problem with the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] discourse in the Philippines, and maybe it is reflected elsewhere in the world, is that it’s mostly dominated by middle-class and educated people who have a different context altogether. Poor people’s voices are hardly ever heard in the discourse. Why? Because the people who are able to participate are those with access. Those who can afford to take a day off and go to these activities.

And language is another issue: we don’t even have a popular indigenous term for lesbian, and those discussions are mostly conducted in English. That in itself is threatening to those who are not familiar with English, and excludes a whole bunch of LGBTs who should be part of the discourse.

So what GALANG seeks to do is to bring these people to the table. Because how can we even call ourselves a movement when we’re only a handful speaking for an entire marginalized community? We have to push ourselves a little harder to make the movements more inclusive. Otherwise, it’s just talk, and talk is cheap.

So GALANG works to build the capacity of urban, poor LBTs in Quezon City through leadership development, capacity-building activities, and a platform to utilize and hone these skills through our help in forming their own people’s organizations.

Right now, we’re engaged in several initiatives documenting violence and discrimination specifically against urban poor LBTs. We are also documenting innovative ways that LBTs try to get around the lack of economic opportunities. We’ve recently co-conducted a policy audit of social protection policies where we tried to show how Filipino LBTs are often deprived of the protection offered by laws that were intended precisely to provide safety nets against poverty.

We also do a lot of IEC [Information, Education, and Communication] materials, like our comics, which help create awareness about the plight of urban poor LBTs. Why comics as a strategy? Because we recognized that there is a lack of positive role models for LBTs in the Philippines. Mainstream Filipino media tends to insult or denigrate lesbians, when they aren’t just ignoring us. But creating long-form books or videos is really expensive, so we went with comics to use our limited budget wisely, as well as provide a message of empowerment through a medium that is actually really popular right now.

Also, we do a forum on sexual health, and we have trainings on capacity-building and leadership development. Our trainings are conducted for LBTs because either these opportunities haven’t been open to them or they’re not comfortable engaging in mainstream capacity-building activities.

What we want to do really is to raise the status of [community] organizing, so that people will be encouraged to do it, because in the end, whether it’s LGBT or whatever, there will be no movement without people on the ground actually moving. And so this trend of internet organizing, on the one hand, it helps, but we can like all the pages we want on Facebook, but if people don’t organize on the ground, there is no movement to speak of.

It’s sad when I hear that the Philippines is a front-runner in terms of gender-related laws. It’s seen as a best practice not just in Asia, but in all over the world. We have a VAWC [Violence Against Women and Children] law, we have a very progressive rape law, even a Magna Carta of Women. These ironically were made in the House of Representatives, just two jeepney rides away from where we work. And yet, when we were barely scratching the surface in trying to uncover instances of LBT violence in Quezon City, what we uncovered was domestic violence in its crudest form. People – men, fathers – dragging their wives by the hair, their children by the hair, in the streets with village police just looking away. Neighbors looking away because of the belief that domestic violence is a private issue, and yet we have these laws saying it’s not a private issue, it’s a matter for the state. The disconnect between the overemphasis on policy, funders’ need for results measured in terms of laws passed, that’s quite difficult. Quite frankly, as a grassroots activist, we can have all the best laws in the world, we can have them enacted in the Philippines, but it doesn’t mean that the lives of women on the ground will change, because it hasn’t.

In that sense, there’s a perception that sexual rights is a bourgeois issue. Even if marriage equality is a goal that I aspire for in my country, I think there are more pressing issues now – more doable issues, more workable issues at present. This overemphasis on marriage equality tends to blur the discourse about intersectionality [or how different forms of oppression, such as homophobia and poverty, can act simultaneously on groups of people]. It’s a waste of resources to be lobbying for a marriage equality bill at this point, when we know it’s not going to be passed in about 10 or 15 years and people are dying because of hunger and lack of employment. So, it’s nice that we’re part of this debate, but in a way, it’s distracting to be focusing on these things. Controversial things like hate crimes, for instance: of course hate crimes are wrong, but if hate crimes are defined mostly as gay men being killed randomly, purportedly because of their gender expression, the experience of lesbians being raped is invisibilized. A lot of lesbians just get raped over and over again. And this is “curative rape,” a lot of times by their own friends and family members. We don’t have a hate crime law right now, but as advocated, we don’t [even] see this issue in the discourse.

So our contribution to this debate is helping the LBTs on the ground have a voice in articulating their stories and being part of the discussions on the table. And that’s important because the anti-discrimination bill has been languishing in Congress for sixteen years now. For over a decade, Filipino activists have been pushing for a bill that sought to penalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We are a bit more hopeful now that we have widened our base of support in both houses of Congress but we still have a long way to go. We need the international community to put pressure on our government to let them know that the world is watching. Our allies abroad can make themselves heard by sending letters of support to our legislators, urging them to pass this law because the Philippines is bound by international law to protect sexual minorities.

The other thing is, when we discuss LGBT rights in the mainstream, and what rights same-sex couples have, we talk about property issues and succession and insurance. About one of the partners dying, and the relatives of the other – sometimes long-estranged relatives – getting all the property. I think it’s also important to note that a lot of LGBTs don’t even have property. And while they can understand the idea of succession conceptually, it really is alien to them because they don’t have time or the capacity to draw up a will, nor enough money to buy insurance.

And if there’s one thing that we want to do, it’s to promote our model among our colleagues in the LGBT activist movement in the country. The gains may not be huge, but by and by, we see how it’s impacting on the level of self-esteem of the people that we’re working with. These are people that were basically being looked at as not quite female and not as good as male, and who were suffering under these perceptions. But now, at least they have a support system through their peers [at GALANG].

For the sake of movement-building, people have to go back to the grassroots. Because what is the law if it’s only for the rich?



Read the long version of this interview, where Anne goes deeper into the nuances of gender identity and expression, the economic context in Quezon City, and her personal connection to this work.

Many thanks to Arianna “Ticia” Francisco for transcribing this interview.