With no national law, can we rely on local ordinances to protect LGBTQs against discrimination?

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Over 80 million Filipinos live in areas without protection from SOGIE-based discrimination. At the moment, only 18 cities in the Philippines have anti-discrimination ordinances. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the 2000 LGBT pride march, Task Force Pride, a network of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) organizations entrusted with organizing the yearly Metro Manila Pride, marched on the streets of Manila carrying a colorful banner with the words “Fight Discrimination Now.” It was not the first time LGBTQ+ Filipinos took to the streets to demand for equality before the law. But it was timely — a reiteration of a call made more significant by the filing of the first Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB) on January 26 of that year.

This first version of ADB, House Bill 09095, filed by then-Akbayan Representative Etta Rosales sought to proscribe discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Though the bill may have been limited in terms of its coverage, its mere filing marked the start of the long crusade of LGBTQ+ Filipinos towards legal protection against discrimination.

Since then, ADB has been filed and re-filed in each Congress. Through the efforts of the LGBTQ+ community, led by LAGABLAB Network — a network that focuses its advocacy on passing the ADB — the bill has grown and evolved to become more inclusive and far-reaching.

The community has made progress in the last 18 years. The version of the Anti-Discrimination Bill filed by Rosales in 2003 included gender identity as one of the protected classes. That same bill was even approved on third reading in the lower house with 118 affirmative votes, with no opposition or abstention. However, when it was passed on to the Senate, no action was taken by the latter.

DSC_4717.JPG The 2000 LGBT pride march organized by Task Force Pride, the network behind the yearly Metro Manila Pride. That same year, the first Anti-Discrimination Bill was filed. Photo courtesy of DENNIS CORTEZA

At present, the ADB, also known as the sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression (SOGIE) equality bill, was approved in the House of Representatives last September 20, 2017. Yet, its counterpart bill in the Senate has been languishing on its second readings since early 2017.

Due to the continuing failure of Congress to pass a national anti-discrimination law, LGBTQ+ advocates sought other ways of protecting the community from discrimination. As they wait for the law to catch up, they turned to their local government units to provide them with protection, albeit limited.

It was in 2003 when the Quezon City government approved the country’s first local anti-discrimination ordinance (ADO). According to Angie Umbac, former president of Rainbow Rights Philippines, instances of harassment and bullying in dormitory restrooms experienced by several LGBTQ+ university students brought about discussions of having a city ordinance to address such acts of discrimination. The then-pending ADB in Congress served as basis in crafting the ordinance.

Despite the limited protection it may have provided, Quezon City’s first anti-discrimination ordinance paved the way for other local governments to enact their own ordinances to protect LGBTQ Filipinos from discrimination. A more comprehensive ADO was later passed by Quezon City in 2014.

“ADOs are legal mechanisms that protect LGBT persons from … discrimination and violence,” says Justin Francis Bionat, Chairperson of Iloilo Pride Team, which advocated for the passage of Iloilo City’s anti-discrimination ordinance just this month.

“Making discrimination a crime and not just a local offense is a strong human rights measure that will ensure that people of diverse SOGIE will be protected, their rights respected, their aspirations for equality, realized.” — Sen. Risa Hontiveros

Common provisions in these ordinances include identifying discriminatory practices and penalizing them. Magdalena Robinson of Cebu United Rainbow LGBTQ Sector (CURLS) argues that anti-discrimination ordinances simply uphold, protect, and promote human rights and dignity.

However, while these local government units may have enacted these ordinances in their localities, not all of them have followed through with corresponding implementing rules and regulations (IRR). Without these, they run the risk of not being able to implement their ordinances, making them practically ineffectual.

“In the case of Cebu City, five cases were brought to us after the enactment of the ordinance but before our city promulgated an IRR,” says Robinson, who also serves the Officer-in-Charge of Cebu City's Anti-Discrimination Commission. She adds that they were not able to apply the ordinance to the cases, and merely documented and referred them to their respective barangays.

At present, 18 cities (Angeles, Antipolo, Bacolod, Baguio, Batangas City, Butuan, Candon, Cebu City, Dagupan, Davao City, General Santos, Iloilo City, Mandaue, Mandaluyong, Quezon City, Puerto Princesa, San Juan, and Vigan), one municipality (San Julian, Eastern Samar), three barangays (Bagbag, Greater Lagro, and Pansol, Quezon City), and six provinces (Agusan Del Norte, Batangas, Cavite, Dinagat Islands, Ilocos Sur, and Iloilo) have enacted anti-discrimination ordinances. 

DSC_4722.JPG LAGABLAB, a network of LGBTQ organizations, individuals, and allies in the Philippines, has focused their advocacy on ensuring that the Anti-Discrimination Bill would be passed. Photo courtesy of DENNIS CORTEZA  

However, these ordinances only protect 20 million Filipinos from discrimination on the basis of SOGIE. This leaves more than 81 million Filipinos residing in areas without protection from SOGIE-based discrimination. It is more important to note that only two million Filipinos living below the poverty threshold live in areas with anti-discrimination ordinances, with 26 million poor Filipinos left with an additional layer of vulnerability to discrimination in schools and workplaces, among many other spheres.

But the absence of a national legislation against discrimination has effects that go beyond figures and percentages. Simply counting those who are protected and who are not fails to accurately illustrate such effects. Rather, the lack of a national policy also reflects a culture of indifference towards the LGBTQ+ community, and it maintains a perspective that equality and non-discrimination can simply be given or taken away.

“Kailangan natin ang SOGIE Equality Act.” This was repeatedly stressed by Congresswoman Kaka Bag-ao of Dinagat Islands during her sponsorship speech for the anti-discrimination bill last year.

“With a law, there is behavioral change that is expected at the societal level,” says Senator Risa Hontiveros who champions the anti-discrimination bill in the Senate this Congress. “Making discrimination a crime and not just a local offense is a strong human rights measure that will ensure that people of diverse SOGIE will be protected, their rights respected, their aspirations for equality, realized.”

In a few days, queer Filipinos will once again take their pride to the streets. Eighteen years has passed, and the community has grown along with the Anti-Discrimination Bill. We have had our wins, we have had our setbacks, but we still continue to march together to keep the fight for equality alive.