The fight for gender equality in the Philippines has been a particularly long one. As early as 2000, an early version of a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) bill had already been filed in Congress, drafted by then-Akbayan Rep. Etta Rosales and late Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago. Since then, at least 16 different versions of the bill have been submitted—but none of them had been passed into law. As of writing, a version of the bill is still being deliberated on in the Senate.
Although a legislative measure has been sought out by both lawmakers and advocacy groups for years, local governments in cities such as Manila and Quezon City have already taken steps to impose ordinances that penalize SOGIE-based discrimination.
But proponents and supporters of the anti-discrimination bill continue to fight an uphill battle. The Philippines, being predominantly Roman Catholic, sees religious groups continuing to push back against the measure that they perceive as an affront to the teachings of the Church.
Equal in the eyes of God
Centuries of colonization have given the Catholic Church an outsized influence over matters of legislation, more so when it comes to topics like the SOGIE Bill, as they often frame the issue from a religious standpoint.
Dr. Christianne Collantes, Vice Chair of the Political Science Department and a specialist in gender studies, explains that the Church has “actively positioned itself as a powerful and influential institution that lobbies on behalf of the Filipino people,” swaying views on social and cultural notions of the family, marriage, sexuality, and reproduction.
“Even if it can be argued that the Church and State should be separated,” she adds, “there is still a strong Catholic following in the Philippines—even within the political domain—that welcomes the idea of Church leaders being engaged with certain matters of legislation.”
In 2015, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) did declare that discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is contrary to Church teaching, yet they also questioned whether the SOGIE Bill is some form of cultural “colonization”.
“[The] CBCP must ask whether or not the proposed non-discrimination bill is itself a manifestation of that pernicious form of ‘colonization’ to which Pope Francis referred in his recent visit to the Philippines,” the letter read. “Is this the ‘importation’ into our country of values, behavioral norms, and attitudes that the West has championed and peddled?”
But the idea that the Church’s view on SOGIE is “monolithic” is very much misguided, argues Jeff Clyde Corpuz, an assistant professor from the Theology and Religious Education Department. “There is also [a] diversity of opinions and insights within the Church, and we have to respect the person even if their opinion does not agree with ours.”
According to him, ongoing religious discussions can be summarized into two schools of thought, namely “progressives’’ and “conservatives”. Conservatives view the bill as “against the teachings of the Church and natural law” and argue that there are already “many” existing laws that safeguard the rights of every citizen against discrimination. Progressives, on the other hand, maintain that a SOGIE bill does not “diminish or encroach on the rights of others.”
For Collantes, religious sentiments on specific socio-political issues “are always complex and deeply personal.” She furthers, “It really is about how faithful individuals negotiate between the Church’s teachings and their own advocacies for discriminated groups and communities. Many young people whom I’ve spoken to about the SOGIE Bill are trying to find a balance between both.”
From canon law to civil law
The local debate on SOGIE found new footing last October when a documentary appeared to have shown Pope Francis declaring his support for same-sex civil unions. Some, however, argued that it might have been a mistranslation, as Pope Francis was quoted to have said in Spanish, “Un ley de Convivencia Civil,” which literally translates to “A law of Civil Coexistence.” The ambiguity comes from the fact that the term can mean either civil rights or civil unions in his home country of Argentina.
Conservatives nevertheless criticized the statement, citing Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, a religious document written in 2003 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, and endorsed by Pope John Paul II, which explicitly stated that Church teachings “cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
Corpuz clarifies, however, that there is a distinction between official Church teachings and the pastoral approach. “Every Pope [is] entitled to their opinion,” he adds. “Despite what the conservatives may say, the Pope is not changing Church teaching. He is trying to pastorally address the reality that LGBTQ+ persons form relationships and live together, which has public policy implications.”
Regardless of the interpretation of Pope Francis’ statement, Corpuz believes that it is still in line with the Catholic Church’s teachings, as it emphasizes the LGBTQ+ community’s “right to belong to their families.”
“Pope Francis truly emulates Jesus’ teachings. We are all created equal in God’s eyes. ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’” he expresses.
Addressing discrimination through education
To help address issues on discrimination, Corpuz argues that education is the best way to raise awareness. As an educator who teaches gender and theology undergraduate courses, he encourages students to engage in substantial and critical discussions about SOGIE as this can increase much needed awareness about gender equality and religious freedom.
Similarly, Collantes remains hopeful that Catholic teachings and notions around SOGIE may evolve to become more inclusive. “I think that as long as religious communities and religious leaders continue to be open and ready to expand their own definitions of family, love, and civil unions, there will be continual progress and social change for marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community.”
Amid individuals using their religious beliefs to discriminate, Corpuz recalls that “our faith teaches us that we should not discriminate people,” further emphasizing that all people were made in the likeness of God. Now more than ever, he hopes that topics geared toward gender equality and even religious freedom “would inspire dialogue and critical reflection” among Filipinos.