Bonnibel Rambatan talks to Arturo “Arthur” Golong and Mavic Conde about Haiyan’s LGBTQ survivors who have been struggling for years seeking equality and are now pushing for legal protection regarding LGBTQ+ rights.

In this episode, Bonnibel Rambatan talks to Arturo Golong, or Arthur, a trans woman who was also Haiyan’s survivor, and Mavic Conde, a Filipino environmental journalist, about how things are going right now regarding Haiyan’s survivors, the story behind discriminatory laws in Philippines, the Yolanda Permanent Housing Program, and SOGIESC Equality Bill in Philippines.

INTRO

Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

When we talk about democracy, we have to talk about equality. We can’t have democracy, if, say, certain groups of people are being prevented from having access to the same legal rights as others. Now, we’re not talking about same-sex marriage, or anything like that, although we should. We’re talking about something a lot more fundamental, something that should be a given. We’re talking about disaster relief.

Now, if you were to come to a disaster site and started pointing fingers as to how this person or that person should be given less help because of their gender or sexual orientation, you’d be deemed a bigot, and they’d be right. And yet, on a larger scale, that’s exactly what is going on in various disaster relief programmes.

Nearly a decade after the Haiyan disaster hit in late 2013, LGBTQ survivors who have always faced discrimination are still seeking their legal rights. Haiyan, also known as Typhoon Yolanda, exposed these struggles. Technically, and ethically, everyone should have the right to the survivor’s housing programme. But no. For that, you need to have a family. And you can only be recognised as a family unit when there’s a male and a female spouse, obviously based on what was assigned to you at birth.

Illustration of Haiyan's housing problem
Illustration by Bonnibel Rambatan & Daniel Anugerah

SPEAKER INTRODUCTION

My name is Arthur Golong, resident here in Habitat Building homeowners association at Tacloban City, Philippines.

That’s Arturo Golong, or Arthur, a trans woman who was also Haiyan’s survivor. Arthur is now settled in her permanent relocation as a housing recipient with other LGBTQ survivors. She learned the hard way that cisheterosexual families are prioritised by the government regarding the housing program, even compared to gay couples with children to take care of.

She’s joining us from her village, where she is working as a community leader–hence the quality of the audio. She will be speaking in Tagalog, with Mavic translating her key points.

I would also like to mention that we’ve agreed to use the name “Arthur” instead of her trans name “Jean”, for reasons that we’ve discussed in the original article in newnaratif.com, and we’ll be discussing further in the conversation to follow.

I’m Mavic Conde, an environmental reporter from the Philippines. So I have been covering disaster related issues.

That’s Mavic Conde, a Filipino environmental journalist. Her bylines can be found in Bulatlat, Mongabay, and Rappler. She received an Earth Journalism Writing Grant as well as several fellowships, including a year-long fellowship at Solutions Journalism Network, where she commissioned and co-edited climate-solution stories from Asia.

In her coverage of disasters, it is her belief that we should debunk the concept of natural disasters. Disasters happen because there is negligence. LGBTQIA+ communities suffer not because of nature, but especially because of persistent discrimination and the lack of legal protection.

INTERVIEW

Current Situation and Background Story

So let’s start with a bit of background. Arthur, could you please tell us a bit more about how things are going on right now over there, especially in terms of high young survivors? And also, what did you experience and how did it make you feel, and how is the condition right now?

(Arthur speaking in Tagalog)

(Mavic translating Arthur)

We’re relatively adjusted now, unlike when we first arrived here and we’re figuring out how to live as a community of internally displaced Haiyan’s survivors. We overcame the difficulties by making sacrifices, which came with surviving a super typhoon and doing everything we could to adapt to our circumstances.

I see, I want to then shift this attention to you, Mavic. What made you interested in this issue in the first place, and how did you become aware of the situation, and did you have any personal stories or experiences and why, essentially, did you choose to cover this issue?

Okay, so my home region, because it’s also a typhoon ravage area. So in 2020, I was in a barangay office once to interview typhoon victims. So while waiting for my turn, out of nowhere, the people in the office began talking about LGBT+ members and how they are actively involved in disaster relief operations. Then an official casually responded that the LGBTQ+ should be identified as a distinct group of beneficiaries, similar to senior citizens, pregnant women, and so on.

I wasn’t able to ask them about it, but it stuck with me. So I began researching disaster relief and LGBTQ+. So it led me to Arthur’s story.

Why did the government make that similarity between having the LGBT population become a special group, and do you think that actually is actually something beneficial, or do you think that’s something more discriminatory?

Because, as government officials, it’s expected for them to be aware about these issues. It’s a human right issue. In retrospect, I’m actually happy that that conversation happened, although it was so casually, it was just casual conversation between the people in the barangay office. I think that’s a good sign that despite our patriarchal society, there’s this liberal knowledge that we are we only need to nurture them.

The Outturn of Colonialism

But would you say in general, how did the lawmakers and everything because obviously there’s a lot of queer phobia, there’s a lot of transphobia homophobia and so on. And as you wrote in the article, it is reflected in the laws and practices that happens that are practiced there in the Philippines, right.

How do you see this interplay in terms of the law itself? And do you think it has more to do with colonialism or maybe religious fundamentalism in the Philippines or maybe other factors? What do you think of this interplay of these dynamics?

As a patriarchal society which is rooted in colonialism. The latter definitely impacts the way we create and interpret laws. Our pre colonial values, which are far from male centric ideologies, are not mainstream and erased. So imagine the male dominated fields that hold the power and authority in processing and interpreting our gender history with patriarchal influence. Even if these authorities are highly educated, they can still perpetuate with misogyny and all if their education is not liberating.

You know, it’s just so deeply ingrained that many Filipinos don’t even realize internalised homophobia. It’s not surprising how disorienting it could be to welcome a queer family member and their partner. In fact, a survey reveals that the majority of Philippines tolerate only certain queer expression. But when it contexts relationships, it’s a different matter. But in all fairness it’s kind of inclusive in the sense that it’s recognised as equality because we’re all human beings.

What is lacking is its recognition of diversity. That’s why we have corrective measures, like the Magna Carta agreement for PWDs, senior citizens and so on. We need the same corrective measure to reflect the gender spectrum. But then again, we’re still a patriarchal society where everything, even faith, is interpreted in its relation to masculinity. Thus, the struggle remains.

Arthur as Community Leader

So there are lots of struggles moving towards that direction, but still a long way to go. I want to go back to Arthur now, because you are the one facing all of these discrimination and all of these queerphobia and transphobia and stuff like that.

So your reaction to that is to actually step up and become a community leader. So how did you decide to actually take that role as a community leader?

(Arthur speaking in Tagalog)

(Mavic translating Arthur)

Arthur claims that no one asked her about LGBTQ+ for job opportunities offered to high-end survivors or as specific beneficiaries for relief operations. During her eleven month stay at the temporary resettlement site or TRS.

She was frequently asked how many men and women and lactating mothers were present at the time. However, because her parents were still alive then, accessing disaster relief services was easier for her. She came from a heteronormative family, after all. But she asked, what about my LGBTQ+ friends?

Even though I was not the TRS resident at a time, I stood up for my peers and became their de facto leader in the hopes that our government would listen who would do it if I did not?

Well, can you tell us a bit more concretely then, about the things that you do to help these people? What is exactly your role as a community leader? What does it entail?

(Arthur speaking in Tagalog)

(Mavic translating Arthur)

Her role at a permanent relocation site is almost all around, which she admits is more difficult than advocating for her LGBTQ+ peers at the RTS, it is difficult to deal with displaced survivors who are not used to living in a relocation site.

Today, they are dealing with minor issues that involve the youth. Although not as rampant LGBTQ+ discrimination still exists. So she wants this address, especially for LGBTQ+ members who have faced discrimination as a result of their actions.

Legal Name Issue

I’m also curious because throughout all of these process, I understand, Arthur, that you also went through your transition process. You transition and then you change your name, but then you change it to Jean, if I’m not mistaken, and then you change it back to Arthur. But then you mentioned a very interesting angle about that, Mavic wrote, right.

Can you tell us about this process and how it affected you? And why did you change your name and then change it back? A more personal story. We’d like to hear that from you.

(Arthur speaking in Tagalog)

(Mavic translating Arthur)

Arthur said that it’s actually very difficult for her because the name Jean was the more known among her circles. So Arthur, she only used it within her family members, within her family’s first house. So when Yolanda happened, she realised that she couldn’t continue using Jean because of legal issues. Although people were asking about Jean, was she alive? But since she is known as Arthur in her Barangay, no one could tell that Jean and Arthur are the same person.

It’s very hard for Arthur to let go of her. She said screen name, Jean, because hse had been using that since she was 14 years old. So she has this emotional attachment to it. But she said she had to let go of it because of legal issues, especially that her parents were already elderly. So she had to go to the officers from Department of Social Welfare and Services and had to ask them that if she could be the head of the family because her parents as beneficiaries are already old.

Those legal issues, she had no choice but to use Arthur. So until now, she said it’s still hard for her, but she said she was able to carry on. And although for her, Jean is still missing. And the more prominent person now known is Arthur.

The Coverage of Existing Laws

I mean, that’s like one of the more invisible challenges that trans people have to face in all of these bureaucracies. And I get that as a trans person myself, it must be pretty difficult. But yeah, sometimes it’s whole complicated issues with this whole legal requirements and stuff like that.

Speaking of legal requirements speaking of legal issues, though, Mavic, this question is to you. You did mention earlier about the Magna Carta for PWDs or Magna Carta for Women, Solo Parent Act and stuff like that, that LGBTQIA+ people have been and can utilize, although it’s very limited.

But can you tell us more about these, about how LGBT people have been navigating all of these legal requirements?

Sure. So you mentioned three specific laws for three different groups. So the Magna Carta for Persons with Disabilities stated in section 39 under the housing program that the national government shall take into consideration its health program, the special housing requirements of disabled person. It’s actually for everybody, LGBTQ+ or not, as long as you’re classified as PWDs.

For the Solo Parent Act, housing services are enumerated alongside a comprehensive package of programs or services for solo parents, including livelihood, self employment, and skills development. However, access depends on the beneficiaries income of this tree. The Magna Carta of Women is the most comprehensive human rights law for the marginalized. For one, it localizes the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW and the International Covenant and Economic, Social and cultural Rights. The CEDAW uses substantive equality as one of its corrective principles. So it’s really a good reference for gender mainstreaming for the following reasons.

So, I refer from the UN source material. Substantive quality recognizes differences but affirms equality. It places obligation to correct environment. It makes playing field even, and most importantly, it allows for loss and policies to include gender perspectives

How is it in practice in terms of, like, I mean, it says Magna Carta for Women, but then what about trans women and then other genders?

Yeah, that’s the issue. While it’s so comprehensive, it’s still prohibited because it’s under the Magna Carta of Women. It’s a good law, but it’s not a reflection of gender spectrum. So the LGBTQ+ is still invisible.

SOGIESC Bill

So ideally, we would have the SOGIESC bill, right? Sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sexual characteristics. The bill for equality, for SOGIESC. But I understand that it’s like, one of the most slow moving bills in history and you mentioned earlier that there’s a lot of pushback and it’s just stuck. It’s just moving very slow.

What are your thoughts and feelings about this situation? Why is it moving very slow?

From a personal point of view, I’d also like to ask whether our lawmakers seem to be trying too hard not to offend the religious community, and we also don’t have enough role model, especially those breaking the stereotypes. Actually, I was inspired when I learned about Arthur non negotiable, when she would stand firm when asked to change her clothes, because some people just don’t find it appropriate. So I think that’s one thing. We can really find it inspiring for Arthur to do that. Also, like what I’ve said before, gender mainstreaming is also limited equality between men and women. So we have a lot to do with education and also, just like with our problems with who we vote for.

I think it would also be wise to have one on one conversation with our families, with our friends, and with our circles because we don’t know who has this internalised homophobia. So it’s also about unlearning value.

The Journey and its Obstacles

Yeah, totally. I mean, again, it is very complex. The existence of the bill itself is something commendable. As you as you mentioned earlier, you know that some people are pushing for it despite despite the pushback, right.

I want to ask Arthur, though, how do you feel personally about this bill and about gender mainstreaming in general? Are you optimistic? Are you pessimistic? How do you feel?

Do you believe that in the future this will eventually happen, the bill will eventually pass and your life would get better in the queer community? Or how do you feel in general about this?

(Arthur speaking in Tagalog)

(Mavic responding and translating Arthur)

This bill, in my opinion, should not be blocked. We don’t even know if this will completely eliminate discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community once it becomes law. While watching the news, one of the bills’ authors, Senator Risa Hontiveros, was purposely prevented from discussing it.

Those opposed to this bill stated that they do not want same sex marriage. Even I didn’t want it, and it wasn’t included in the bill. My top priority is for us LGBTQIA people to have direct access to social services that straight people already have under the law.

Yeah, definitely. As you mentioned before, Mavic, there’s a lot of unlearning to do, right? There’s a lot of unlearning and relearning, obviously, with the various gender spectrums and mainstreaming and all of these. And we can’t just rely we can’t just wait passively for the bill to pass. We can’t just sit here and just hang around and just wait for them, wait for the government, right?

So I guess my next question would be how do we push for that? How do we demand the government to take more action? How do we finally get them to eventually possible, and how do we dismantle all of these pushbacks? What are your thoughts on that, Mavic?

It’s actually a very difficult question to answer. I think we really have to stand up also, especially against Christian groups, because Catholic Church is actually more accepting of the LGBTQ+ issues concerns. It’s the Christian groups and denominations that are so against this bill, which we couldn’t, where’s this obsession against equality coming from.

So I think we really have to have this conversation also with our peers, with our circles, aside from voicing out our concerns in social media, which is also very important to gain solidarity not only here in the Philippines, but also from fellow advocates from outside the Philippines. We actually need that now.

I think a lot of religion has been used in many places to justify bigotry against queer people, against LGBTQ IA plus people, and just transphobia homophobia everything, no matter what religion. I mean, in the Philippines, there’s Christian groups.

In Indonesia, there’s a lot of Islamic groups that try to justify their bigotry using Islam. And I guess that is a big problem that we all need to foster more discussions because I see, like, a lot of like you mentioned, right, a lot of churches, a lot of Christian denominations are actually open. Like, not all of them are not all of them are bigoted. Lots of Muslim groups also are open to queerness, to these issues. But it’s just a whole complex situation when religion is being used to justify these kinds of bigotry. And I guess, yeah, a lot of discussions need to be had on these topics

Yeah. May also add that how important it is to talk, to have one on one conversation, because if we just bottled it up, it may just result in resentment also towards our families who are homophobic. I think we should also really start talking about it within our peers because we really couldn’t tell who have this internalised homophobia.

How Can the Listeners Help?

Oh, yeah, I agree. I mean, we’ve all here in this room have obviously experienced it ourselves, so one on one talks can actually really help because then you kind of, like, see past the labels and into the humanity behind those.

Arthur, what do you think the listeners can do to help to help this condition in general, but also to help what you’re doing as a community leader or maybe the village that you’re working in right now? What do you think after listening to this conversation, if the listeners are motivated to take action, what can they do?

(Arthur speaking in Tagalog)

(Mavic translating Arthur)

For our LGBTQ+ peers who are listening right now. Let us go out and be more visible in this fight. For non LGBTQ+ advocates, may we have the same support as you do for marginalised groups?

Yeah. And I do agree that we do need to form that solidarity among everyone, among career people especially, but also everyone, I suppose, to in order to see I mean, I can clearly see the fight, the struggle and the anger that we all experience, especially in terms of, like, when disaster hits. That’s such a horrible thing. And I think I do agree that fostering solidarity, I guess, is the first step to creating change.

I think it’s also important to really highlight stories about the struggles of LGBTQ+ people instead of this nonsense statement from opposers of this discriminatory laws.

So we really have to put them forward, these stories forward.

Yeah, that’s true. I agree, because otherwise, it’s just about amplifying the voices, right? And it’s just if we don’t make a conscious effort, conscious decision to amplify the voices of queer people, then eventually we’re just going to get enmeshed in all of these discriminatory articles and all of these other texts, all of these other writings that go against all of our rights. And they seem to be justified, but they’re completely not. They’re completely oppressive to all of the queer people and other marginalised people out there.

So, yeah, thank you very much for the discussion. It’s been a wonderful talk, a wonderful conversation. I do hope that this can raise awareness to everyone listening and garner more support and solidarity, as we’ve talked about. And, yeah, we will keep pushing. I’m sure there are, like, petitions and stuff that the listeners can sign for the SOGIESC Bill, but also, as you mentioned earlier, just have a talk, have one on one discussions and amplify the voices like LGBTQIA+ people around us.

OUTRO

And that wraps up our discussion with Mavic Conde and Arturo Golong. People like Arthur have been struggling for years seeking equality and are now pushing for legal protection regarding LGBTQ+ rights.

It’s been seven years since the SOGIESC Equality Bill, but it has not yet been passed. Until then, harassment, discrimination, and violence continue to be part of everyday life of LGBTQIA+ Filipinos.

You can help their initiatives by signing the petition to support the SOGIESC Equality Bill becoming a law in the Philippines on Change.org. Link in the show notes or in our article at newnaratif.com.

Share the article as well as this podcast to raise awareness about this issue. You can also follow Bahaghari, the national alliance of LGBTQ+ advocates in the Philippines, on social media, as well as taking part in their signature campaign and educational discussions on the SOGIESC Equality Bill.

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.

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Mavic Conde is a Filipino environmental journalist. Her bylines can be found in Bulatlat, Mongabay, and Rappler. She received an Earth Journalism Writing Grant as well as several fellowships, including a year-long fellowship at Solutions Journalism Network, where she commissioned and co-edited climate-solution stories from Asia.

Bonni is New Naratif's Editorial Manager. They are an independent scholar and writer of critical theory, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, with a professional career spanning various media industries from comics, publishing, and film.

Dania Joedo is the Audio Producer of New Naratif and a musician based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her creative works can be found in several local NGOs channels such as LBH Jakarta, Omah Munir, and Lapor Covid-19. She's also released an EP and a full-album with her band, Tashoora, which highlights underrepresented social issues in Indonesia. During her free time, she likes to cook at her quaint home.

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