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Politics and passion

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the child-friendly policy of the UP Center for Women's Studies. I have just finished a 6-year term there as director. While happy over the column, my office mates felt that I should do another column. 

“Talk about our LGBT initiatives” said one of our two Deputy Directors,  Eric Manalastas, “after all, June is Pride Month.”  

And so, I must. 

LGBT stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender” people. I actually had written about one of our LGBT initiatives in a previous column when I talked about our unisex toilet. It was the very first one in UP Diliman. We also now have one of the biggest collections of LGBT books in our library. We fly a rainbow flag proudly at the center. We have provided LGBT training to many groups and institutions including the local government units. But we have also done trainings for business establishments, other state colleges and universities and, of course, the various UP campuses which are part of our network. We also published the Center's first coffee table book on LGBT issues.

Eric (who describes himself as our “go-to gay guy”) was the very first man appointed to the center's leadership in its 25 years of existence. Hender, one of our research and extension specialists is also the first transwoman on the staff. There is nothing tokenistic about these appointments. They were merely the best people for the job. 

Eric is actually our deputy director for research and publications. He has done that job well. But gratis et amore, he has led us in our LGBT initiatives. Together (and with the entire staff) we have explored the intricate and intimate connections between the discrimination and oppression of women and the discrimination and oppression of LGBT people.

I shall give a simple example. Gay men are often abused because they “act like sissy's” or they are “effeminate.” This implies that there is something wrong with behaving like a woman. However, I would say that if more men behaved like women we would have less war, less rape and less hazing deaths. 

In truth, many gay men (and many people regardless of sexual orientation) are like me – I behave often without thinking whether I am exhibiting a feminine or masculine trait. I behave because I wish to express myself in a particular way and accomplish a particular action. If I think about gender-coded behavior at all, I delight in breaking stereotypes. I remember as a rebellious teenager I wore army boots under my prom dress.

But to speak of my our LGBT initiatives as a separate set of activities is really to give a lopsided picture of our vision and our politics.

Multiple causes of oppression

Our strategic goal was to build an inclusive and nurturing institution that embodied and gave expression to our passions.

There are many struggles to fight in this world. People are discriminated against because they are poor, or disabled, or lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender, or dark-skinned, and so on. Some political theorist believe that one can “prioritize” these oppressions. Some theorists believe that the oppression of women is the underlying cause of all other oppressions. Some political theorists and a large section of our country's political Left, believe that class oppression is the cause of all other oppressions and therefore should be the priority struggle. I do not believe that there is actually a single oppression that underlies all others. While I believe that people must prioritize what they wish to change individually, there really is no single priority struggle.

Having myself grown up in the Marxist tradition, I look always to people's lives to validate political theories. Any Marxist worth his or her salt, will tell you that we get correct ideas from the experiences of people. 

The lives people lead tell me that they are subject to numerous conditions of privilege and oppression that then determine what happens to them daily. Thus, while a poor man is subject to all the social injustice that class oppression brings, the poor woman shares all this plus the additional burden of being abused by her husband. A rich woman may also be abused by her husband whose great wealth may actually allow him greater capacity for abuse. But she is not subject to the injustice of hunger and low income.

The poor lesbian certainly is less likely to be able to afford a house as the rich one. But whether rich or poor, same-sex couples are not protected by law, so that a surviving partner cannot easily inherit whatever home, humble or grand, they have built together. She also cannot easily benefit from whatever insurance or pension plan the deceased partner has paid for.

Compassion for the oppressed

I have long rejected the idea that any single oppression, whether of class or race or gender, underlies all other oppressions.  My reasons for doing so cannot all be discussed here. But one of my main motivations is compassion. Different religions and political theories may use other terms. Solidarity with the oppressed might be a more familiar term to some Marxists. But whether it be the Buddha, Allah, Christ, Marx, or Kant, they all believe that when we see suffering, we must move to alleviate it.

I reject the idea that class (or any other) struggle must be the overarching principle of activism because this tends to make activists blind to the suffering that stands in front of them, when it is not dressed in the form of class inequity. At least this was what I used to do when I was still of that belief. Somehow, some struggles seemed less important to me even when my friends, my relatives and whole other social movements were telling me otherwise. Somehow my engagement with these “lesser” oppressions was always prompted by the hope that I could “raise” the level of struggle to class struggle. In the end, this led to some ethical dilemmas such as when a rape victim's issue is tied up to the bigger issues of the abuse of some big capitalist or the violence of the personnel of US imperialism.

More importantly, it made working with people with equal passions for transformation very difficult. The feminists say that the personal is political. But I also say that the political has to be personal. 

People may often suffer from another form of oppression other than class oppression. People may ally themselves to various social movements like the LGBT movement, the movement of disabled people, and so on, because that is what moves them to compassion. Environmentalists, people working against racial discrimination, animal right activists – all are revolutionaries in their own right and can be wonderful human beings. The wonderful characters in these “other” social movements are certainly people I would not exchange for the flawed activists working on class issues. On the other hand, I would happily exchange, the flawed among, say,  the LGBT activists, for the wonderful people who work on class issues. The political must be personal, compassionate and all-embracing. 

Cross movement solidarity

Whether you believe as some do that class is the predominant form of oppression, the real question facing the activist is what to do with the “other struggles” that arise because people are living multi-layered lives of relative privilege and relative deprivation. True to the Marxist tradition of “starting where people are,”  I welcome these passions wholeheartedly and not merely because I wish to bring them somewhere else rather than to their particular goals. I would not even choose which of these would bring people more efficiently to “class struggle.” To do so would show a profound arrogance and dismissiveness towards what people, enlightened people, are seeking. To do so would indicate a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the beast we wish to banish.

The UPCWS under my term had a vision of social inclusivity. We were aware that the Filipino people who pay our salaries are mostly poor and disempowered by government systems that emphasize their lack of social status. Thus we strove to give the best service we could to our public, regardless of their class background. We gave our best to the poor barangay, the workers' unions, the urban poor women's groups.

But we also worked on issues of the LGBT sector because that was Prof. Eric's passion; on child  issues because that was Dr. Tess' passion; on persons with disabilities because that was Dr. Carol's passion and on women's issues and class issues because those are also all our common and abiding passions. And always, like good scholars, we would see the interconnections. And, like good activists, we embraced each other's passions as our own. I might also point out the despite the seeming explosion of issues, all these issues are included in the literature of women's studies.

But let me speak to my colleagues who believe in the primacy of class oppression. My Marxist analysis tells me that class oppression is pervasive, deep, broad and powerful. It intersects with with other forms of oppression as much as all other forms of oppression contribute and gain strength from class oppression.  At its core class oppression survives because it kills solidarity and compassion. It channels desire only towards those ways and things that it can count towards profit and accumulation. To liberate ourselves from this we must foster the deepest forms of solidarity with people desiring change. We can work on our own desire to end class inequity, but we must be respectful and welcoming of the desires of those who may wish to prioritize other struggles. To fail to achieve cross-movement solidarities, is to underestimate the pervasive power of that which we wish to change.

Whether in community organizing or in management, there is a profound wisdom in letting people pursue their passions within a unified call for solidarity and compassion. It is in my mind a better approach to setting up, a priori, what people should like to do. Regardless of how broad or limited an institutional mandate may be, the choices about how to achieve it are endless. Worthy goals (such as ending class oppression) can only be achieved if people's passions and creativity are released. To allow the desires of those you work with to determine your institutional paths is a loving and democratic act.  

The political is personal

My political is personal and my personal is political. 

We replaced our ornamentals with vegetables as a small contribution to the demand for food security. Our gardens were so productive that we had to have a system to distribute the harvests. Our library is the only library in UP Diliman open to the public and supported by community donations. It has the largest collection of LGBT books, but the bigger collection is still on women's studies in all its disciplines. It also has children's books and comic books.

I could go on, but I do not want this piece to sound like a press release. Nor do I wish to obscure the many failures and shortcomings we had. To romanticize change would be, well, unMarxist. I merely wanted to show that transformation is never uni-dimensional regardless of what it is our passions and analysis choose us to prioritize. 

I end with an apology to all those readers who think I have spent too much time talking about one institution and a particular group of people. I am aware of this possible criticism. But as I have tried to show, the grand political formulas may not always be the best thing that a good citizen must consider. It is through the small, the intimate and the local, that we express our best ethics and come to our broadest understandings.

I owe this column to Eric and Hender and all the fabulous LGBT people I have had the joy to work with in the last 6 years. Happy Pride Month. -


Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also holds a PhD in Psychology. She is Professor of the Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is also co-founder and Chair of the Board of Likhaan Center for Women's Health.