[ANALYSIS] Sodom, Gomorrah, and the fate of gender equality

 

Whenever same-sex marriage or gender equality is brought up, somebody is expected to offer a biblical rebuttal. From Leviticus to Romans, the scriptural options are wide and predictable. 

It happens again and again.

That God created Adam and Eve, in this worldview, does not only render members of the LGBTQ+ community reprehensible sinners, they also deserve divine wrath a la Sodom and Gomorrah. 

This is why many are afraid of legalizing same-sex marriage. They are convinced that doing so would earn the ire of a wrathful God who is more than ready to send fire and brimstone. Forget the fact that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is far more complex than is often portrayed.

In a religious society like the Philippines, the boundary between religion and politics is porous. So porous it is that people can be blind to the consequences of their religiously informed political choices.

Take this, for instance: while no one denies the right of every Filipino to equal treatment under the law, many cannot see that this is exactly what they do by rejecting the SOGIE Equality bill and the Civil Partnerships Act.

What happened?

Despite much hope, the 17th Congress failed to pass these two key measures.

The SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression) Equality bill, which prohibits different forms of discrimination based on sex or gender, almost made it. The House of Representatives approved the bill on third and final reading in 2017 but was held up in the Senate. 

Meanwhile, the Civil Partnerships Act, which legally recognizes same-sex couples and the privileges accorded to them, was filed by former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. It lost steam when outgoing Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a devout Catholic, took over.

But these legislative defeats are not new. Advocates have been pushing these bills for two decades now with the same results. 

Religious conservatives are responsible. They cite morality in opposing these bills.

Back in 2006, Baptist minister and Manila Representative Benny Abante vowed to block what was then called the Anti-Discrimination Bill (forerunner of the SOGIE Equality Bill). As House human rights committee chair, Abante argued that the bill promoted a “morally reprehensible” sexuality. The bill, he said, was not a “human rights issue” but a “moral one”.

It is this worldview that continues to inform religious resistance towards anything that has to do with gender equality or same-sex marriage. 

But our research also reveals a new trend is at play.

Religious freedom

As the LGBTQ+ community over time organized itself in the form of advocacy groups and the Pride March, the discourse against their rights has also shifted towards religious freedom. 

In 2011, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) first invoked religious freedom as a defense against these advocacies. Their lawyers argued that the Anti-Discrimination Bill violated religious freedom and the church’s right to preach its doctrines. 

With help from conservative senators such as Tito Sotto, a bill which included legal protection against gender-based discrimination was arrested even at the level of a bicameral conference committee.

In 2015, the CBCP addressed the issue anew as same-sex marriage was finally legalized in the United States and Ireland. While saying that they supported any bill which “counters discrimination”, they reserved the right to religious and academic freedom in determining policies for their clergy and schools. 

The resistance, in other words, is no longer based on morality but on the threat gender equality poses upon conservative religious beliefs and practices. Put differently, gender equality tests the limits of religious freedom.

Indeed, tensions exist around the world. Cases have been heard, for example, about establishments refusing to issue wedding licenses or even bake weddings cakes for same-sex couples out of conscience.

But what is religious freedom?

Scholars note that religious freedom – enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Philippine Constitution – is mainly for individuals, not religious institutions. 

This does not only entail the freedom to believe, but also to practice one’s faith without interference by the State.

In this light, religious freedom is most valuable to minorities who are often at the mercy of politics that favors only the interests of the majority. Thus advocates of same-sex marriage in the Philippines have invoked religious freedom to recognize the existence of religious groups that affirm LGBTQ+ identities among their members.

To these could be added the voices of other religious groups – Catholic and Protestant – who espouse affirming beliefs about faith and the queer community.  

And yet these voices are the minority. 

Again and again, conservative religious leaders and coalitions of Christian entities have come together to quash these initiatives. 

They have, in effect, weaponized religious freedom to advance the interests of an assumed majority – the dominant religion and the “Christian” Filipino nation.

In a statement, one bishop asked Filipinos not to jump on the bandwagon of same-sex marriage as the country has its own “values, tradition, and Constitution” to follow.

Beyond Sodom and Gomorrah

In a way, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is the template for the resistance towards gender equality. If these laws were passed, the Philippines would suffer the same fate.

At the heart of the resistance is the moral conviction that to be queer is not only strange, it is evil – with consequences on the values that define the nation. Too often though these values are couched in the language of the family, forgetting that much of what characterizes everyday life in our society is patriarchal and even misogynistic.

And so this worldview is nothing but homophobia. 

But truth be told, it is not as if the fears of the majority are insurmountable. Policies can be rationally designed in such a way that different interests are upheld. 

The only way for these policies to move forward is by recognizing gender equality as a common good.

But our society will not see that until people look beyond Sodom and Gomorrah. – Rappler.com 

 

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD (@jayeel_cornelio) is a sociologist of religion in the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. Robbin Dagle (@RCDagle) is Research Associate in the same department. With Dr Anjo Lorenzana, they are involved in the Queer Christianity Project, the first study of its kind that documents queer young adults’ narratives about faith and sexuality in the Philippines. This opinion piece is based on a forthcoming scholarly article in the journal Religion & Human Rights.

Jayeel Cornelio

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is Associate Professor and the Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. A sociologist of religion, he is a recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the National Academy of Science and Technology. He i...

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