‘Why do I have to leave my own country just to be legally together with someone that I love?’

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LGBT and religious groups gather outside the Supreme Court to support the first ever oral arguments on the petition seeking to legalize same-sex marriage in the Philippines. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Gathered on the sidewalk of Padre Faura, a small group of rallyists passes around candles of different colors as Pastor Joseph San Jose, whose neck is draped with a rainbow stole, leads a vigil. “Ang sinisimbolo ng ating mga kandila ay liwanag ng bawat isa sa atin na nabubuhay, liwanag ng ating pakikibaka para sa mas pantay at mas makatarungang lipunan.” A young man beside me wordlessly offers to light my candle.

Across the street, Atty. Jesus Falcis III, an openly gay lawyer, defends his petition to legalize same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court in what has been called a historic moment for marriage equality in the Philippines. Filed in 2015, the petition argues that the Family Code, particularly Articles 1 and 2, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional.

In his petition, Falcis states this violates Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws,” and Article 15, Section 3 (1), “The right of spouses to found a family in accordance with their religious convictions and the demands of responsible parenthood.”

Pastor San Jose is part of the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), an ecumenical Christian church that advocates for LGBT rights, human rights, HIV awareness, and marriage equality. Since the local chapter was established in 1991, they have been conducting holy unions for same-sex couples in the Philippines.

But these unions remain largely symbolic. “Walang legal effect 'yung ginagawa naming holy union. Kasi restricted pa nga because of the Family Code,” says Pastor San Jose.

IMG_9598.JPG “Ang sinisimbolo ng ating mga kandila ay liwanag ng bawat isa sa atin na nabubuhay, liwanag ng ating pakikibaka para sa mas pantay at mas makatarungang lipunan,” says Pastor San Jose of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) as he leads rallyists in a vigil outside of the Supreme Court. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Without legal recognition, same-sex couples are not afforded the conjugal rights that their heterosexual counterparts have — they cannot share properties, have the legal right and duty to make decisions should a partner fall ill or pass away, and name their partner as a beneficiary under government health or insurance programs, among others.

“I have friends who are paying tax, but they are LGBTQ so they cannot get the same privileges as we are having as a couple,” says Richard Dalida, one half of a straight couple that volunteered at the rally. “You constrict the love that they want and we are isolating them when it comes to equality and their rights, which I cannot take as a heterosexual.”

Same-sex couples also do not have the right to have and raise children as spouses. Should they consider adoption, they must apply as single parents.

Pastor San Jose argues against this, saying that “ang realidad ng buhay at ng lipunan natin is that maraming iba't ibang klaseng family.”

“Single parents, adopted children, adopted parents, chosen families, LGBT families, gay couples who adopt children. There are a lot of different kinds of families existing that the law and the church does not recognize but nonetheless are families. The LGBT is a family, one form of family in society.”

As the rallying cry for protest goes, “we are family too.”

IMG_9650.JPG "We have a hard time being open with our relationship here," says Bryan San Jose (left), photographed with his partner, Joshua Simbillo. "We're not really comfortable holding hands in public because we're gonna get stared at ... or discriminated against. If there was already marriage equality ... we would never feel that way. It'd be normal, like how straight couples are." Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

For gay couple Bryan San Jose and Joshua Simbillo, who have been together for two and a half years, these restrictions have pushed them to consider moving abroad. “We plan to move to Canada to get married since it's not legal here,” says San Jose. “But then, it also makes me question, ‘Why do I have to leave my own country, my own home, just to be legally together with someone that I love?’ It doesn't make sense.”

“I just think we should never have to leave our country for love,” adds Simbillo.

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IMG_9476.JPG "In our biblical and theological belief, we believe in the inherent dignity and rights of all people, including LBGT,” says Pastor Joseph San Jose about the MCC, one of the few churches in the Philippines that holds holy unions for same-sex couples. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Pastor San Jose argues that the fight for marriage equality is an issue of the law, not of religion. Yet, as per Falcis’ petition, it is in the pursuit of respecting the religious freedoms of every Filipino, not just Catholics and fundamental Christian groups — from which the loudest voices of opposition come — that the fight is able to persist.  

“Isa sa mga i-aargue is for religious freedom,” says Amie Perez of UP Outlaws, an organization comprised of members of the LGBTQ community and allies in the UP College of Law. “For example ‘yung mga indigenous peoples, ‘yung mga kapatid nating Muslim, nirerecognize ng batas ‘yung kanilang mga traditions in marriage. So kaya may argument for religious freedom, kasi there are also churches who recognize that same-sex unions are valid.”

IMG_9467.JPG Straight couple Richard Dalida and Lucky Ballao attend the rally to show their support as allies of the LGBT community. "We are fighting for love. This is the best fight that we would like to join," says Dalida. "Everybody has battles, and we choose to fight for love." Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

As such, MCC is not the only religious group present that day. Inside the Supreme Court, Rev. Ceejay Agbayani Jr., founder of LGBTS Christian Church, accompanies Falcis as one of the intervenor-petitioners, along with his partner of 12 years, Marlon Felipe. Members of Bahaghari United Secularists (lgbtBUS) Philippines and Philippine Atheism, Agnosticism and Secularism Society, Inc. (PATAS) are also in attendance.

“Hindi lang sa kanila [sa fundamentalist Christian groups at Catholics] ang religious opinion. Because we have our religious opinion [as well]. And in our biblical and theological belief, we believe in the inherent dignity and rights of all people, including LBGT,” says Pastor San Jose.

“If there are eight billion people in the world, or eight billion different beliefs, which belief should be [followed] in a religious sense? Kaya, malinaw sa Konstitusyon ng Pilipinas na hindi pwedeng religion and basehan mo ng batas.”

“I respect their belief, but their belief should not be imposed upon others who do not share their belief,” he adds.

IMG_9632.JPG When asked about what would happen if the petition is dismissed altogether, Amie Perez of UP Outlaws says, “We will keep on fighting in different avenues ... in influencing public opinion as well, and make our fellow Filipinos more open to the idea that love is not exclusive to heterosexual couples.” Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

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“I know a lot of people who've grown up in families that wouldn't accept who they are. Or felt like they never could be who they are and never felt like they could love the people that they love simply because of how they were born, simply because of an identity that they didn't get to choose,” says Jake, the young man who offered me the candle during the vigil. The 17-year-old came to the rally alone wanting to show his support as an ally.  

At the hearing, Falcis and his team were put under much scrutiny by the justices for procedural flaws in his petition. Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza advised them to take the matter to Congress or the Constitutional Consultative Committee instead.

IMG_9616.JPG "Don't be on the wrong side of history. Make the right decision," says 17-year-old ally, Jake. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

“The right to marry creates a lot of ripple effect for people like me who are of a young age,” said Falcis. “That without the right to marry legally recognized for LGBT people, what message does it send to young people, who experience certain problems in their lives, in worst case scenarios, depression, which can lead them to commit certain acts which we do not want to happen?”

Whether the petition will be dismissed altogether by the Supreme Court, Perez says they will not cease fighting.

“We will keep on fighting in different avenues ... in influencing public opinion as well, and make our fellow Filipinos more open to the idea that love is not exclusive to heterosexual couples,” she says. “It's not only heterosexual couples who can raise a family. And to [make them] recognize that the right to found a family in accordance with our religious convictions is a constitutional right that we all have.”