Gay pride in a Lumad tribe
MANILA, Philippines – It was his 7th day in the city, most probably not his first time, but definitely not in the most convenient of places to stay.
Silently watching 16 young Lumads while having lunch, he knows that their journey is far from ending. They are his family, he is their teacher – and he decides to stay with them even in the harshest condition.
Ricky Balilid is a member of the B’laan tribe in Sultan Kudarat and a teacher in a tribal school. For more than 4 years, he dedicated his life to teaching children and bringing even a little dose of hope to kids who have no idea of what the outside world looks like.
“I saw the scarcity of teachers in villages like ours. I understand the feeling of a child who is deprived of knowledge because I was once a Lumad who was uneducated. I want them to see the world, to teach them to read, write and think objectively,” Ricky said, while sitting under a tree on the grounds of University of the Philippines-Diliman.
He is a Lumad who also happens to be gay.
“When I finally realized I was gay, I asked myself, 'What is my purpose in life?'” Ricky said in a mixture of Tagalog and Visayan.
During the time Ricky was searching for his destiny, he visited a Manobo community in Sitio Muling, Gupitan Village in Capulong, Davao del Norte and witnessed a long line of children waiting to be taught.
“I love teaching and providing optimism to people especially young adults, but another question arose. Where should I teach? Then I look around, I saw myself in these Manobo kids. I [then] knew I was in the right place,” Ricky said.
Without hesitation, he offered his services as a volunteer teacher in one of the tribal schools of the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation, Inc. (MISFI).
Real conflict, real struggle
Like many other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) Filipinos, Ricky experienced discrimination. Fortunately, his own tribe was accepting.
“Decades ago, being gay was taboo in the B’laan tribe. There were restrictions and prohibitions, which was one of the reasons why no Lumad comes out and declares their sexual preferences," Ricky said.
"It is too different today, because education is being brought to these communities, they gradually come to understand that gays are part of nature. The B’laan tribe loves nature," he continued.
His first few months in a Manobo community as a teacher were not easy. He had to learn the dialect of the Manobos and blend in with everyone else. He had to prove to everybody that he is worth it as an educator.
“There were minor adjustments until I found stillness in what I do. I was able to earn their respect by showing the same respect that they deserve,” said Ricky.
According to Ricky, the problem was not with the community he chose to serve. It was with the people who wanted to take advantage of the land and the people of Sitio Muling. “Real problems occurred when paramilitaries and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) came to our school and intimidated everyone,” he said.
Ricky told Rappler they were harrassed during their school’s moving up activity last March. “We were threatened that if we will continue the recognition ceremony, they will kill all the teachers. They told us that they will not spare the children. We were forced to leave the village and flee to Davao City,”
The grounds of United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) in Haran compound, Davao City became the temporary shelter of 168 Manobo families including Ricky and his students. Together with other 700 Lumads from Talaingod, Davao del Norte, they live as refugees in their own land to this day.
After a week of staying inside the UP Diliman campus, the Lumad set up camp at Liwasang Bonifacio in the city of Manila.
Inside the camp were LGBT members Ryan Racalde and Reymond Baldesco. Both of them are teachers of the Tribal Filipino Program for Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS) situated in CARAGA region. Just like Ricky, they devoted years of their lives for the Lumad children but unlike him, they don’t have Lumad blood.
“We are Visayans who want to teach kids. After years of searching for a place to stay, I found a Lumad community in Surigao del Sur. A happy place – simple but enough [for me],” Ryan said.
Ryan has been teaching for 13 years now in a Manobo village in San Miguel, Surigao del Sur. For years he witnessed different kinds of persecution of indigenous people by the military. He was with the Lumad community when they ran off in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2012 from their village to the Diatagon gym in Lianga town because of military threats.
He and his students evacuated to Surigao Sports Complex in Tandag City in 2014 and again in September this year after the brutal killing of 3 Manobo leaders at km 16 in Diatagon.
“The evacuation last September was the biggest in number, more than 3,000 people fleeing because of the military. I always ask myself: what kind of life I went into? What kind of life do my students will have in the future if this is going to continue?” Ryan said.
While assembling bracelets made of beads, Reymond remembered how he and Ryan survived the September 2015 evacuation. “From the school in our village, we had to take care of our students and lead them to the sports complex. We were not thinking of ourselves that time. We even forgot to carry our own clothes and personal effects,” he said.
“Our fixation was on the students and the community we serve… the passion that we have for these people is also the reason why the AFP is tagging us as rebels. Aside from teaching them, we never leave them. We stood by their side and fought for them,” Reymond said with a teary eye.
Reymond and Ryan believe that the AFP’s motivation in burning TRIPFSS’s schools in areas like Panukmuan, Diatagon, and Lianga in Surigao del Sur was their enthusiasm in helping the indigenous people and the community not just in providing access to education but for fighting for their rights. (READ: AFP denies role in Lumad deaths)
“It was our personal choice to help them. We were not told or directed by any one. That’s why I can’t understand why they should burn school buildings or try to close them down. Those schools were not of the communists or the NPA. Those schools were built by the indigenous people,” Reymond added.
‘Love should win’
In a nearby mess hall made of blue sacks and bamboo scaffolding inside the UP camp was June Dalanda, a gay Muslim from Maguindanao. He volunteered to come with the caravan from Mindanao to Manila to support the Lumad community in their struggle against militarization and the issue of mining. (READ: CHR condemns violations against Lumad communities)
June told Rappler that he knows the feeling of being discriminated. He was once a victim of discrimination, not just because he is a Moro but because he is also gay.
“People don’t trust me. They judge me as weak and incapable. In Maguindanao, a soldier called me ‘baklang terorista’ (gay terrorist). His only basis was that I am a Maguinadanaon and a member of the LGBT community,” June said.
“What we need is respect for each other. Large mining companies don’t respect us as indigenous people of Mindanao. They don’t respect our ancestral land. I decided to come with the Lumads to Manila because I believe that their issue about ancestral land is very valid,” June added.
The day was about to end. Ricky made his head count of all his students and made sure no one is missing. They were about to rest and regain energy for tomorrow’s set of activities.
He wished that someday, these problems would end. He knew they are far from over but he also knew what the people need to understand each other and end this conflict.
Ricky believes that gay people are capable of giving unconditional love even if it means giving up his own sake.
“Gays have the softest heart in the world. I know that, I can feel my heart. Maybe that’s the reason why I am here now. I think all of us should have a little of a gay heart. A little ‘gay heart,' compassion for his countrymen, for his brothers and sisters in spite of race and for the environment,” he said. – Rappler.com