[OPINION] LGBTQ+ people left behind after the storm

In the early part of November 2020, the Philippines, already battered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, was hit by a series of powerful typhoons. First was Super Typhoon Rolly (internationally known as Goni), whose sustained winds of around 220 km per hour brought devastation to Eastern provinces. Second was Typhoon Ulysses (Vamco), the strongest to hit the country so far, causing massive rains that left several towns and cities flooded.

Typhoons are not uncommon in the Philippines. But the gravity of their impact is compounded by systemic problems. There is, for one, the failure to provide massive and reliable warnings to the general public. (Unfortunately, the media company with a broadcasting system that reaches far-flung provinces was shut down by the government.) Then there are the illegal logging, quarrying, and mining operations, even in watershed areas.

And whenever disasters strike, including typhoons, marginalized groups such as children, women, persons with disabilities, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and gender-diverse (LGBTQ+) persons, are more often left behind. The exclusion specifically felt by LGBTQ+ persons are triggered by several factors, including varying levels of criminalization, legal and policy-related discrimination, and marginalization within the family, communities, service delivery organizations, and other social institutions. Humanitarian actors, tasked to provide inclusive services, tend to frame its gender-based approaches using a limited binary view.

Dreams washed away

Kendra Nicole Madrigal is a transgender woman who dreams of being an entrepreneur. Facing difficulty in finding a stable job because of her gender identity, she decided to settle for working as a freelance hair and make-up stylist.

Life is not easy for Kendra even prior to the onslaught of the super typhoon. She recalled that finding clients while in the middle of the pandemic was due to sheer luck. On a good day she would earn around P3,500 from a single gig, yet this is not enough to sustain her family. As a freelancer, she works without security of tenure, and with no access to social insurance or other benefits given to other workers.

“Nangyari ang pagbaha sa kasagsagan ng malakas na hangin. Kami po ng aking pamilya ay nabigla sa pagtaas ng tubig. Ang aking naisalba lamang ay ang aking kasuotan noong araw na iyon, at wala na akong gamit na nadala, kahit isa," recalls Kendra.

(The floods happened at the height of the strong winds. My family and I were shocked by how the water rose so quickly. I was only able to save the clothes on my back; I wasn't able to bring anything else, not a single thing.)

Her immediate neighbors, located in a low-income area in San Mateo, Rizal Province, saw their houses submerged.

After the flood subsided, Kendra and her family went back home to recover items that could be saved. The flood left knee-high mud inside their house. Sadly, Kendra’s beauty tools – her make-up kits, hair brushes, curlers, and blow dryers – were destroyed by dirt and mixed with garbage.

Nasira ang aking mga pangarap na naipundar, at na-wash out ang aking mga kagamitang panghanap-buhay," she laments.

(The dreams I invested so much in were destroyed, and the tools I use to earn a living were washed out),” she laments.  

A sheer sense of hope keeps her afloat.

"Kahit ano pa mang kalamidad o pagsubok ang ating haharapin, lagi nating tatandaan na kakayaning natin 'to.... Laban lang at 'wag makalimot sa poong maykapal," Kendra reminds herself.

(Whatever calamities or challenges come our way, we should always remember that we can get through them.... Just keep fighting and keep god in mind.)

Kendra’s story is not uncommon. Days after the storm, social media was flooded with narratives of LGBTQ+ folks' personal hardships – different lives, different stories, all woven into the common narrative of being left behind. The government left them in the dark, without adequate warning about an imminent flood. With only limited relief goods provided by local officials and some NGOs, many were left to rebuild their lives and livelihood on their own.

Some were lucky to have personal networks that provided them with immediate support. As Kendra pointed out, “Walang LGBTQ+ group na tumulong, pero may mga friends akong gay and transgender na tumulong (There were no LGBTQ+ groups that helped out, but there were individual gay and transgender friends who did.)

Recognizing LGBTQ+ lives in disaster response

For years, LGBTQ+ activists from Asia and the Pacific have been advocating for SOGIESC-inclusive and appropriate humanitarian responses. Be it in the context of a super typhoon, an earthquake, or an armed conflict, activists lament about how LGBTQ+ persons have been systematically ignored, left to be criminalized, discriminated against in temporary shelters, or worse, blamed as the reason for disasters. 

In a statement issued by LGBTQ+ activists back in 2018, there was a strong call for change in the humanitarian system. There was the call for accountability, meaningful participation, and serious engagement with LGBTQ+ organizations rather than a top-down, tokenistic approach. There was a push for intersectional responses, recognizing that more often than not, marginalized persons and groups are those facing serious risks when emergency strikes. There was a clamor for equitable distribution of aid and other resources, ensuring that the LGBTQ+ are not left in the margins. Furthermore, there was a demand to address all forms of gender-based violence occurring during and even after disaster situations.

All of these are just as important today.

In the aftermath of the recent super typhoon, several local LGBTQ+ groups acted in solidarity, raising funds, distributing relief packages, and doing check-ins to address the mental health needs of their colleagues. Left behind by governments and international humanitarian actors, we have no choice but to support our own communities. 

Such is our immediate task, but we should go beyond it. There is still a long way to go before humanitarian actors, especially in the Philippines, take on a SOGIESC-inclusive disaster response. Demanding accountability is our first step. – Rappler.com

Ryan V. Silverio (they) is the Regional Coordinator of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, a regional organization that advances the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons in the Southeast Asian region. Ryan acknowledges Kendra Nicole Madrigal for narrating and giving consent to publicize her story. They appeal for your solidarity. Help Kendra Nicole Madrigal rebuild her livelihood. You can donate any amount directly to her (via G-Cash # 09158998005, MJ Posada).