It has been a month since Manny Pacquiao sparked outrage among LGBT groups and allies for his masahol pa sa hayop statements, for which he has since then apologized online. The consequences of his 28-second interview excerpt, copies of which have been circulated and discussed extensively on social media, have been disastrous — first on Manny Pacquiao, who lost endorsement contracts and a few percentage points in election surveys, gaining a PR nightmare in the process, and second, on members of the LGBT community, whose already long and difficult struggle for acceptance and equal rights in Philippine society was made even worse.
That such a homophobic statement was made by one of the most influential figures in the country comes as no surprise. We are, after all, Christianity’s last stronghold in this part of the world, and this influence plays a part in the fact that homophobic slurs and statements are made left and right — perhaps not to the same extent as Pacquiao’s comments, but the use of “bakla” as an insult here and the sly comment on a
transgender person’s body there in the everyday Filipino experience can add up over a lifetime. In other cases, these statements can lead to gender-related abuse and hate crimes, with 141 reported cases of abuse in 2013 alone and transgender women suffering violent deaths. The anger thrown at Manny Pacquiao, while harsh at best and downright hateful at worst, comes from a place of dismay, fear, and grief.
Setting aside the scientific inaccuracy of his statements on homosexuality in non-human animals — it exists in around 1,500 species, in fact — it is important to understand that Pacquiao condemned homosexuals as a congressman seeking a senatorial seat. His words were said during a media interview on his candidacy and platforms. In other words, he is speaking not as a regular, private person; he says “masahol pa sa hayop” as a legislator who has very real power over the lives and well being of the Filipino LGBT community.
For the past six years Pacquiao the Politician has had the power to draft, file, and pass bills that would significantly affect the lives of Filipinos. As district representative for Sarangani, he represents the nearly half a million people residing in the province — young and old, rich and poor, straight and otherwise — when he attends sessions in congress. Their welfare, security, and development are supposedly his first priority.
This is not, of course, meant to forget him as the Manny Pacquiao — Pacquiao the Boxer, whose name is spoken with awe in every corner of the world where boxing is known. I do not wish to disregard the fact that he brought honor to the country throughout his boxing career, and that his dedication and hard work earned him an unmatched record of eight division championships and the title of Pambansang Kamao. But it is precisely because of this that his words have more command than yours or mine. They will reach more people than I can ever hope to communicate with through The LaSallian, and it kills me that in some elementary school in a distant province a child may have heard his hero’s homophobic sentiments and looked at his gay friend a little differently, or a queer couple would live in even more fear of being found out by those who would take Pacquiao’s words to heart. There is so much additional, unnecessary suffering brought about by his and other people’s homophobic statements, and it frustrates me that people are still saying that the backlash against Pacquiao is an overreaction to one man’s exercise of free speech.
But here’s the thing: Freedom of speech and of religion are not tantamount to freedom from consequence, nor do they translate to a right to impose your religious beliefs on other people. Yes, Pacquiao is entitled to have an opinion and to express it, but he is not exempt from being criticized for it, especially when his opinions have a tremendous effect on Filipinos everywhere. It is important to remember that while having an opinion is a right, the act of refining it is a responsibility.
As a representative, you must set aside your personal beliefs and choose to stand for the needs of the people. The two may not always be congruent, and this is where lawmakers must disregard opinions they hold dear in order to listen to and represent the people of their district, and I imagine the LGBT community of Sarangani do not take kindly to being considered less than animals in their congressman’s book. Legislators have the duty to disentangle their personal biases from public good, because while not everyone will share their personal or religious beliefs, they do share in the quality of the bills that are prioritized and eventually passed. But I suppose this concept might be difficult to digest, especially for
someone who explains away his poor congressional attendance (he clocked in just four days of work in Congress last 2014) by saying that it “[in Congress], all you do is file bills, but the bills have no benefits to the people.”
For now, a bigger challenge than Pacquiao the Individual and his masahol pa sa hayop statement is that of a society that tolerates and even encourages this sort of homophobia, votes this kind of homophobia into power, and closes its ears to minorities who speak out against it. After all, a country’s government can be a very good reflection of its people, and that is something to think about as we head ever closer to the May polls.
That such a homophobic statement came as no surprise is precisely because we’ve heard it before, not in those exact words and not by the same person, but in small doses in everyday conversations. You need only to read through the comments on social media supporting him and defending his views to know this, or listen to people more critically to recognize bits and pieces of what Pacquiao had said in people’s words, including your own. It is an opportunity for us to examine the values we hold dear as a nation, and whether these include the welfare of the LGBT community.
If anything, Pacquiao has been an honest reflection of public opinion. The uproar following his controversial interview is not solely a product of what was said in it, but what has been said and done to thousands of LGBT Filipinos in the spirit of discrimination, injustice, and a misreading of the Bible. The anger comes from centuries’ worth of violence, of abuse, and of being reduced to stereotypes, further amplified last month. If you are not angered by all of this, then you are not paying enough attention, and if you are not paying enough attention, then may God help us all in the upcoming elections.