Being family-oriented defines the Filipino person. But for Venus Aves, punong babaylan of University of the Philippines’ (UP) Babaylan, the definition of the family is “not set in stone.” The 1987 Family Code of the Philippines doesn’t explicitly define what a family is, but Article 1 of the said code instead uses the definition of marriage to justify what a family should be. In it, “Marriage is a special contract of permanent union between a man and a woman entered into in accordance with law for the establishment of conjugal and family life.”
On paper, it’s the typical picture-perfect Filipino family—a husband and wife happily living together with their child or children. However, this definition is outdated, suggesting that only cisgender, heterosexual couples are only allowed to be wed and build families. Thus, “couples who don’t fit this description are not recognized as families,” Aves notes. While marriage equality is still a long way from being approved or even accepted, this obstacle doesn’t stop LGBTQ+ couples from forming a family through their own means.
The joy of starting a family is truly unmatched. For School of Economics Lecturer Paul John Peña and his husband, it felt like the Universe told them to adopt a child. Because the country doesn’t recognize Peña’s marriage to his husband, they resorted to adopting their child as single parents. Despite this, he fondly recalls the first time he met their son back in 2016, “We became a family [that day].”
As any baby book will tell you, a child’s firsts are always memorable. It’s no different for Peña, who looks back on their son’s first plane ride and his first bus ride to school. “I remember feeling proud and sentimental at the same time,” he reminisces. Although the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the country, Peña’s family hasn’t stopped creating memories. “[Being both a teacher and a parent to your own child] is among the most challenging roles to balance,” he shares. “But now, we do it even more enthusiastically out of love and genuine care for the welfare of our child.”
On the parenting side, Peña points out, “In our family, there is no conscious attempt to assign who [has] more paternal and maternal roles.” He explains that this is because LGBTQ+ parents are more aware of the “nuances of gender and sexuality.” He notes that thankfully straight couples have grown more educated about these issues in recent times.
With this, Peña emphasizes that queer couples starting a family are essentially the same as any family unit. He expresses, “We go through the same joys, pains, highs, and lows as any family would. We probably worry about the same things about the future of our children.”
Call for equality
Filipinos value their families more than anything else. “Parang halos lahat ng cultural practices and norms sa Pilipinas ay naka-center around the family, ‘di ba?” Aves points out. “Every major holiday, we always go home to our families.” Likewise, queer individuals hold their families in high regard; whether or not they are related by blood, the companionship that comes with a family is always sought after.
(Almost all cultural practices and norms of the Philippines are centered around the family, right?)
As such, Clarisse See, the Education and Research Committee head of UP Babaylan agrees, “[The LGBTQ+ community] want to build their own families in a safe environment.” However, as appeals for marriage equality and the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill fall on deaf ears, the lack of legal protection creates a disparity in the world beyond their homes.
“[They] are vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and violence since various institutions in our society regard them as sinful,” Aves says. Left undocumented and unnoticed, they emphasize that this indifference can be felt even in mundane scenarios. One such example is regarding the social distancing protocols. See notices that the Department of Interior and Local Government’s protocol regarding motorcycle back riding is exclusive. “Pwede mag-angkas is ‘yung asawa mo lang’’, she posits. “So, medyo nawawala ‘yung [LGBTQ+ couples] doon sa…paningin ng society.”
(Your spouse of the opposite sex is the only one who can back ride. LGBTQ+ couples are left out in the context of this policy.)
Even in times of need, LGBTQ+ parents are systematically neglected, penalized, and discriminated against. As the pandemic leaves many without income and reliant on government aid, Aves explains, “Super konti lang ng mga local government units (LGUs) na gumagawa ng [LGBTQ+]-affirming relief programs.” For instance, Pasig City is one of the few LGUs that recognizes LGBTQ+ parents as beneficiaries in the supplemental cash aid program. The exclusion of many queer couples in government programs makes them economically vulnerable that “one could say it’s creating a humanitarian emergency,” Aves adds.
(There are only a few LGUs that implement LGBTQ+-affirming relief programs.)
Family stays together
There is still a long way to go before the government legally recognizes LGBTQ+ couples’ rights to start a family but there are ways to resolve the struggle. For Peña, it can be as small as revising terminologies, “The term ‘[LGBTQ+] families’ is based on the gender identity of the parents.” Instead, he suggests that by abolishing these labels, society would become more accepting of all families.
On a larger scale, Peña also advises that “some laws need to be created, refreshed, or updated…to allow families to thrive.” Even by just passing the SOGIE Equality Bill, “[LGBTQ+] individuals will have protection against discrimination in school, workplace, the streets, [and] other institutions,” Aves concurs. ”Of course, [LGBTQ+ couples who want to start] families will also be stronger.”
Additionally, Peña stresses, “If marriage equality is not possible yet, civil unions for parents of any gender should be in place.” This would also entail reforms in adoption laws recognizing queer couples as parents. Peña also suggests that surrogacy laws should be established to protect and support queer couples who wish to have a biological child.
Sadly, the current restrictions only strengthen the stigma that LGBTQ+ parents can’t foster proper guidance to children. But See reminds Filipinos, “[LGBTQ+] individuals are humans, too.” Everyone should help in developing an environment where all families are “safe, accepted, and welcomed,” she ends.
As for Peña, he is hopeful that by the time his son grows up, “breakthroughs in our society would have already been won.” He lives to see the day when “we—not only [LGBTQ+] persons—but all Filipinos, [would] enjoy a kind of freedom and well-being that works for all and not just some.”