Rainbow flags in public plazas and several government buildings were a colorful sight in June, which is celebrated as Pride Month in Iloilo City, the “City of Love.”
(Nobody knows for sure how this term originated, but Paris claims that title, too. Iloilo has at various times been “The Most Loyal and Noble City” in the dying days of the Spanish colonial regime, “Queen City of the South” during much of the American period, “Heart of the Philippines” owing to its geographic location, and more recently, “Bike Capital of the Philippines.”)
Iloilo has generally been tolerant of diversity — being a true melting pot, having a dense Chinese quarter or Parian during Spanish times and numerous interracial unions – Chinese, Hispanic, Malay. Iloilo was open to oriental trade from pre-Hispanic times, and the port was the second one in the country opened to world trade in 1855.
Little is known about gender non-conforming people in Iloilo’s history. Lachica has written about the female babaylan and the feminized male asog, described by several Spanish priests in the 17th to 19th century. They were later persecuted and demonized, being quite resistant to evangelization. Laureano, in the 1890s, mentions an agui or binabayi moving effeminately while washing clothes in a river somewhere in Panay; McCoy notes there were two revolutionary leaders during the 1900s in Panay and Negros who were effeminate male homosexuals.
From my elementary days in the late ’60s, I recall a teacher making two male high school students rub off their eye shadow in the school playground as many jeered. They were crying and red-faced with embarrassment, but they joined military training anyway, and tried their best to march straight. “Mannish” girls were good basketball players and wore boys’ shoes, but were not allowed to wear pants for their uniforms. In medical school and residency training, homosexuality was still considered a mental abnormality and an illness. My dad used to say that the biggest insult one could call another male was agui, connoting weakness and effeminacy.
Many things have changed over the decades, of course; the HIV pandemic led to more open discussions and understanding about sexuality and sexual behaviors; books on Philippine LGBTQ+ culture and experiences were published. In 2004, an International “Pink” Film Festival was held in Iloilo; and an LGBTQ+ political party once ran for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully. Now schools have openly LGBTQ+ students, student council officials, student clubs, and faculty; there are LGU officials and even religious who are also open about their SOGIE. And of course beauticians, hairdressers, and couturiers have always held their turf.
The origins of Pride events
The inspiration for the first Pride events were actually riots and protests. In June 1969, police raided the fabled LGBTQ+ bar, Stonewall, in New York City’s Greenwich village and arrested the patrons. LGBTQ+ people in the area, fed up with decades of oppression, retaliated, staging a counter-attack that lasted four days, turning violent. Since then, “Remember Stonewall” has been a rallying cry globally. The first Pride march was held a year later in several US states. Since then, LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations have been organized in practically all countries, even in some considered bastions of religious and cultural conservatism.
In the Philippines, the first Pride march was in 1994, at the Quezon Memorial Circle, to commemorate Stonewall’s 25th anniversary. Pride marches have been held practically every year since then. In some other countries, Pride is commemorated in May, because May 17 is the IDAHOT (International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia). This day commemorates the de-classification of homosexuality as an illness by the WHO in 1990.
In Iloilo, Pride march origins are traceable back to 2015, when four gay men got together and organized a culture and arts event playfully named “SuGAYlanon” (from the Ilonggo term sugilanon, or conversation). The group then expanded its network of contacts from the LGBTQ+ communities, and the Iloilo Pride Team (IPT) was born. The first Pride march in the city took place in December 2016, from UP Iloilo to the Freedom Grandstand, with 250 marchers.
Succeeding marches have been organized by IPT in October, which commemorates National Coming Out Day in the US and some other countries. Current IPT Chair Irish Inoceto says that this keeps visibility up beyond June. Numbers doubled in 2017 to 500, 3,000 in 2018, and in 2019, 5,000 joined the march. Senator Risa Hontiveros, who has roots in Iloilo City, and is a major supporter of the anti-discrimination bill, attended in 2019 as a special guest.
The Pride marches in the city have been featured in local, regional, and national publications, including online publications in the UK and Germany.
Civil society as well as city government support
IPT is a fully volunteer-run network of LGBTQ+ individuals and organizations working for human rights and sexual and reproductive health rights. Irish adds: “We organize Pride marches, Pride events ,and Pride masses; SOGIE education and HIV awareness, queer theology and leadership trainings…IPT has spearheaded rainbow sports events, making documentaries and short films, community pantries, and a publication, Pagsulat Duag: Queer Youth Narratives of Panay. Furthermore, IPT is active in both regional and national LGBTQ+ networks with their shared advocacy goals.
City officials have been supportive, with former city mayor Joe Espinosa III declaring Iloilo City as “LGBT-friendly” and proposing the establishment of an LGBTQ+ affairs office in 2018. In June that year, the Iloilo City Council unanimously approved an anti-discrimination ordinance (ADO) that penalizes discrimination based on sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, descent, ethnic origin, and religious beliefs. It also mandates the creation of the anti-discrimination mediation and conciliation board, with the mayor as chair.
With the full operationalization of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs (OLA) in June 2019, an executive assistant was appointed by current mayor Jerry Trenas. In 2020, the pandemic hit, and OLA’s plans for Pride month activities were scuttled temporarily.
It’s not all about marching for rights and diversity, though. Throughout the year OLA assisted in pandemic impact mitigation efforts – from helping in community kitchens, stitching face masks, helping in quarantine facilities, and providing cash assistance and work opportunities for LGBTQ+ people and families living in poverty.
Pride and prejudice
June this year was the first time Pride Month was celebrated in the city virtually, as seen here.
Iloilo Pride Month this year has a catchy tag: “Sa Iloilo, baton kita” (In Iloilo, we are accepted). In addition, prominent LGBTQ+ achievers from Iloilo – community activists, university professors, successful choreographers and entrepreneurs, and a winner of a national trans beauty pageant – were featured and cited by the mayor on the city’s official social media pages.
Pride celebrations notwithstanding, LGBTQ+ people are still not truly equal. Mapping by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) shows that private, consensual same-sex relations between adults can lead to the death penalty in 11 countries, and 65 other states consider this a criminal act, with penalties of up to 30 years’ imprisonment.
Despite the “Sa Iloilo, baton kita” tag, there have been recent episodes of discrimination locally. In 2018, the manager of a Jollibee franchise made one of the dancers in the annual Mardi Gras festival, a trans woman, remove her wig, since “it destroys Jollibee’s image.” In response to protests, the firm issued an apology and said it would conduct SOGIE sessions for its staff, but local activists say this has not yet happened.
In 2020, the Assumption Convent in Iloilo included homosexuality under the definition of “immorality” in its employee’s and learner’s handbooks, contracts, and enrollment forms, drawing criticism from groups throughout the country. They noted that this rule was in conflict with the city’s ADO, a DECS department order, as well as the Magna Carta for women. Assumption pointed out that “…it aims to sanction the ‘acts’ of sexual misconduct from the viewpoint of a Catholic institution regardless of the orientation of a person, and there is no intent to discriminate against homosexuals as represented in social media…”
However, the Commission on Human Rights expressed concern: “…Assumption, in adopting a definition of immorality that includes homosexuality, is complicit in discriminating against children of diverse SOGIESC and runs counter to the notion that schools are safe spaces…. The school has the moral responsibility to provide a more equal and accepting safe space for all students, regardless of gender expression and sexual orientation…”
IPT Chair Irish, who divides her time between legal research work in the courts and community organizing for human rights and social justice, notes there is a long way to go: “The Anti-Discrimination Bill has been languishing in the legislature for over two decades now; there are still very few lesbians and trans men who are open in public, and it’s quite tiring to be pulled here and there to be a guest speaker as the resident lesbian…. We need to hear new and diverse voices, we have to continue the struggle…”
Padayon lang! (Go forward!). It’s a guarantee that rainbow flags, the ultimate diversity symbol, will continue to fly, year after year, in Iloilo. – Rappler.com
Vic Salas is a physician and public health specialist by training, and now retired from international consulting work. He is back in Iloilo City, where he spent his first quarter century.