By Kim Arveen Patria. Illustration by Eru Uytiongco
On June 27, 2015, I woke to a deluge of greetings from friends. It wasn’t my birthday. “Congratulations, Kim. Love won for you today,” one of the cryptic messages said, prompting me to fight the urge to sleep in on a weekend and find out what I had missed.
The answers were waiting for me on Facebook, where I have admittedly been getting most of my news lately. My friends, it seemed, wanted to be first to tell me that humanity has taken a step toward making the world a better place for those who, like me, fall in love with people of the same sex.
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), that fateful day, struck down federal laws that prohibited same-sex marriage, making the act legal in all of the country’s 50 states. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community celebrated the victory all over the world, including the Philippines.
“Take me to the U.S., please,” a friend said on Facebook, tagging his boyfriend. He was a broadcaster, so his post drew hundreds of likes and comments. Other friends quoted Obergefell v. Hodges, Obama’s heartfelt speech, or gay Americans awash with joy. Almost all of them ended with #LoveWins.
My boyfriend had been asleep amid the hullabaloo, I figured, and he had been avoiding Facebook for weeks, so I took it upon myself to break the news to him. Between the time I sent my text and his reply, I counted: We had been dating for six months. It was too early for a couple to think about marriage, but screw that.
The U.S. is not the world
When his text came, it read, “Good for American gays.” One minute he was a man I almost considered marrying that fine Saturday morning; the next, he burst my bubble with the truth. The U.S. is not the world, and the fact that same-sex marriage is legal there does not make it legal in other places, including the Philippines.
The U.S. was not the first country to make same-sex marriage a national policy. A month before the SCOTUS ruling on Obergefell, Ireland in a referendum made it possible for its citizens to marry someone of the same sex in a referendum. That victory was celebrated, too, but not as widely as the SCOTUS win.
Facebook, for example, did not have the option for a rainbow filter to be used on profile photos when Ireland voted yes to same-sex marriage. #LoveWins did not trend that day as well, even when Ireland made history by becoming the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.
I am inclined to attribute the sweeping impact of the SCOTUS ruling, especially on Filipinos, to the fact that, whether we want to admit it or not, we look to the U.S. not only for the latest fad or the new trend, but also for the most relevant policies. The U.S. is not the world, indeed, but the world is watching the U.S.
But another possible reason the SCOTUS ruling speaks to Filipinos more than the Ireland referendum is procedure. The LGBT community and its supporters here perhaps concede that if the question of legalizing same-sex marriage were put to a popular vote, they are not likely to win. Legislation and jurisprudence definitely seem more feasible.
In fact, a young lawyer filed a petition before our Supreme Court in May last year to lift Family Code limitations on marriage. Jesus Nicardo Falcis III claims that the 1987 law repealed provisions on marriage in the 1949 Civil Code, which does not limit marriage to be between man and woman.
The petition argues that the Family Code is not consistent with Constitution because it violates the fundamental rights of gay couples to decisional privacy, their right to start a family, and their right to equal protection of the laws. Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay asked the Court to strike it down earlier this year, but only merely for the petition being “intrinsically flawed.”
Falcis, who identifies himself as gay, asked the high court in his petition to think of the “millions of LGBT Filipinos all over the country who are deprived from marrying the one they want or the one they love,” and who are “deprived of the bundle of rights that flow from a legal recognition of a couple’s relationship.”
The lawyer insists that it is wrong to say that a favorable decision on his petition would benefit only gays and lesbians. A Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage would allow a person to marry a partner regardless of gender. It would mean that same-sex partners are on equal footing with opposite-sex partners before the law.
Nothing in the present law stops Filipinos from living with a same-sex partner. So what’s the fuss about? Falcis says it’s about marital rights and benefits. “While rich LGBTs can go abroad and get married or change genders, poor and middle-class LGBTs have no option but to remain unmarried,” he says.
Paul John Peña knows what Falcis is talking about. In March, Peña, a marketing specialist, and his longtime partner Rhex Santos, a bank executive, were wed at ceremonial rites in Tagaytay. They flew to California less than a month later, to be legally married, at least in that U.S. state.
The SCOTUS ruling thus directly affected the couple. “Our marriage in California is now legal in all 50 states. Still getting goosebumps for this big win, America! Whilst not yet legal in the Philippines, at least there is hope as we remember this day in our fight for marriage equality,” Peña posted on Facebook June 27.
He knows, however, that not all same-sex couples are as lucky as him and his partner to afford a wedding abroad. In the first place, not all same-sex couples get the same support from family and friends. That’s why Peña and Santos support moves to obtain for other Filipinos what they had to fly to the U.S. for.
Peña says he is willing to file a petition before the court with the Filipino Freethinkers, which advocates secularism. The group in July sought individuals who would apply for licenses to marry same-sex partners. Their requests will surely be denied, but that’s the point. They want to illustrate how Filipino LGBTs are deprived of their rights.
The Church’s hand
The Filipino Freethinkers is not the only group making moves with regard to the Supreme Court petition for same-sex marriage. Two days after the SCOTUS ruling, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) released a statement asserting that marriage “is an indissoluble bond of man and woman.”
This is not the first time rights advocates in the Philippines found themselves in a tug of war against the powerful CBCP. The elite group of men in robes were the biggest opponents of the Reproductive Health (RH) Law, which they equated with murder of the unborn child; and divorce, which they said was against Church dogma.
By now you might be asking: Why are we talking about the Church when the issue before is legalization of marriage? Falcis, Peña, Tani, and all the Filipinos they are standing for, are not asking that the Church change its position on marriage, let alone declare that the union of people of the same sex is also sacred. All they ask is that it be deemed legal.
Unfortunately, despite the principle of separation of church and state, the Catholic Church wields political power here. Some 80 percent of Filipinos are subjects of the pontiff in Rome and, by extension, of the bishops in the Philippines. Every presidential candidate serious about winning seeks the blessing of the Church.
It will not be enough that politicians espouse secularism, because even those secular of thought but cling to seats of power, would still be ruled by the Church. While I pray that someday, not all Filipinos will easily be swayed by frocked men in pulpits, I doubt that the heavens will answer my prayers soon.
The fact that the CBCP has spoken against the SCOTUS ruling seems to have emboldened smaller church-backed groups to make more radical moves. As I write this, throngs of supporters of the Commission on Family and Life of the Archdiocese of Lipa are planning a “solidarity march for family against same-sex marriage.”
Cecille Devilla, head of the commission, actively campaigns for the event, where supporters are asked to wear red. “Defend life and traditional marriage—the union of a man and a woman, not gays and lesbians. No to LGBT,” she said on her Facebook wall, which she adds is public, and is thus free for all to read, quote, and share.
Not a religious issue
False propaganda is how Falcis describes statements similar to what Devilla and her group issue. “The petition only seeks for the legalization of same-sex marriage under the law, or civil marriage. Each Church or religion is free to follow its own beliefs and not marry same-sex couples if they don’t want to,” the lawyer says.
He also criticizes the opinion that same-sex marriage will destroy the family. “We do not seek to destroy it, we seek to strengthen it. Marriage is about building a family. A family composed of two individuals—a single mother and her daughter, a lolo and his apo. Gay couples can love and grow old together,” the lawyer says.
What the Falcis and Filipino LGBT community lament today is a problem Pope Francis himself identified in his Apostolic Exhortation: the tendency of the Church or its followers to “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
Catholicism is not superior over all other religions, and it is not the religion of all Filipinos. There is the remaining 20 percent of the population who may be non-Catholic Christians, Muslims, or even without religion.
What’s it to the Church that two agnostic men want to marry? Some have taken to arguing that such an arrangement should be called a union, not a marriage. But the law must not concern itself with trifles, including semantics. The Roman Catholic Church may try not to, but I will not be too popish to tell them that.
Thankfully, Filipino churchgoers seem to be getting the point. A survey published by Bendixen & Amandi in 2014 showed that the ratio of Filipino Catholics who oppose same-sex marriage (84 percent) is smaller than the ratio of the same population who think that the Church should not marry people of the same sex (92 percent).
If those numbers are to be believed, some eight percent of Filipino Catholics are fine with same-sex marriage so long as such marriages are not performed by the Church. That ratio is small, but it serves as a shining beacon of hope that Filipinos—even Catholics—are beginning to understand that same-sex marriage is not a religious issue.
A means to an end
In the first place, I think that the legalization of same-sex marriage is not the end-all and be-all of the LGBT struggle. In fact, I think it is valid to ask why LGBTs now fight for the right to marry when at the same time women fight for the right to divorce, but that’s the topic for another day. For me same-sex marriage is only a step toward acceptance.
In its statement against same-sex marriage, the CBCP said, “…No bishop, priest, deacon, religious or lay leader actively serving the Church will ever demand to know of a person his or her orientation before serving the person, as The Lord Jesus commands all his disciples to serve. All will continue to find welcome in the Church…”
If we play the Church’s game of semantics, we would find that they used “orientation” in their statement. They didn’t say they don’t care whether you’re a man sleeping with another man. What they said was that they don’t care whether you’re a man who is inclined to sleep with another man.
“The Church does not discriminate against our brothers and sisters with same-sex attraction, they are still part of the family and they are welcome in the Church,” a spokesperson to Archbishop John Du of Palo once said. “What the church denounces are the acts, which the conscience dictates are transgressions against our Lord.”
Falcis finds this line of thinking preposterous. “Gay people can’t be gay and not love a guy,” the lawyer says. “It’s just like being hungry. You can’t be hungry and not eat! People who tell gays that they’re okay and accepted as long as they don’t love other guys (hate the sin, not the sinner) are really telling gays not to live!” the lawyer says.
I would have found it funny, too, if didn’t hit too close to home. What’s stopping me from laughing is the memory of how painful it was to hear my mother say that she’s trying to accept that I are gay as long as I don’t bring a boyfriend home. “Should you get yourself a boyfriend, don’t flaunt it on Facebook,” she told me.
When I complained to her about feeling lonely, my mother said, “You should really find a girlfriend.” The same mother declares that she understands me for who I am, and that she loves me nonetheless. It’s a lie we LGBTs so commonly hear among from our families, friends, and peers. “We love you, but…”
It is easier to comprehend rabid Catholics who condemn gays to the fires of hell, aside from saying that they will oppose every move to afford every gay man and woman the same rights heterosexuals enjoy. At least they tell it to our face instead of sugarcoating it. They are honest to us, and we will be honest, too, when we curse them.
You cannot on the one hand claim that you accept a person for being gay and on the other stop the person from loving someone of the same sex. Gayness is not a physical, but an emotional state. We are gay not because of the clothes we wear, the way we talk, or the way we walk, but because of the people we love.
Telling us that we can be gay but we cannot love whom we choose to love is not acceptance. It is merely tolerance. Worse, you are not even tolerating the fact that we are gay, only the fact that we identify as gays. I don’t claim to speak for all, but what I want from you is acceptance, not merely of the fact that I am gay, but of the fact that love cannot be forbidden.
The question here is not whether marriage equates to love. It is also not whether heterosexuals want LGBTs to get married. It is definitely not whether God wants them to. It is not even whether gay couples really want to get married. The question is whether gay couples have a choice.
Kim Arveen Patria came out through an online column in 2014, but he hopes that someday gay people no longer need to do so. This article first appeared on the September 2015 issue, and has been slightly edited to reflect recent developments.