The enigma of the East: Duterte and the queer community

Kate Crompton

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

29 March 2017

While Duterte clamps down hard on drugs and corruption, his attitudes on Queer-rights issues border on paradoxical.

It’s hard to believe that the man heralded as the Donald Trump of the East could also be a warrior for the Queer community, yet Rodrigo Duterte is a man of mystery.

Duterte is not of stable temperament. In the past, Duterte used a slur against gay and Queer people in reference to a state official, and has rejected the notion of human rights all together. The same man also championed radical anti-discrimination legislation in his home city, Davao.

His hot-and-cold attitude to Queer issues only spells uncertainty for the vibrant Filipino Queer community, and it remains to be seen how he tackles these issues while in the presidential palace.

The outspoken leader articulated his pro-Queer views in no uncertain terms as mayor of Davao City. Queer people are “children of God,” Duterte declared in early 2016. “God does not discriminate against people, regardless of colour, religion, social class, or gender and sexual preferences.”

Kate - Duterte Image

The festivities of Lamdag Parada in Duterte’s home city of Davao.

Duterte also took the radical step of passing an anti-discrimination ordinance in his old stomping ground. The legislation made it outright illegal to discriminate on the basis of colour, religion, or sexuality. Duterte certainly has the guts to make radical change for the Queer community. Whether he translates this into presidential action is another question.

Now that Duterte is in the nation’s top job, some members of the Queer community are optimistic. As freelance writer and a member of the Philippine Queer community, Ysbael Carballo said in an interview that her experience under his administration has been “hopeful and positive”. Carballo highlights that Geraldine R Roman is the first transwoman to sit in the Philippine congress –  surely a sign of progress.

Similarly, Duterte appointed a Queer person, Aiza Seguerra, as Chairperson of the National Youth Commission. Arnell Ignacio, the Vice Chairperson of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, is also Queer and Duterte-appointed.

But this is where the good news ends. Many of Duterte’s actions are red flags for the Filipino Queer community.

In late 2016 Duterte called US Envoy Phil Goldberg a “gay son of a whore.” The President showed little remorse later. “I will not apologise for anything. He did not apologise for me…why should I apologise to him?”

On the same day, Duterte lamented the US’ withdrawal of aid for countries that did not support same sex marriage.

“They have groups there. The LGBT, they go to State Department guys, and offer aid and assistance. But, they said, come out with the law that would allow same-sex marriages.

“What’s happening? Where are the principles that the builders of America… they have lost along the way?”

This is a mystifying response from someone who actively fought against discrimination on the basis of sexuality.

Further, Duterte’s infamous “Du30 30” election promises contained no mention of Queer-rights issues. Issues such as tackling corruption and drug usage featured highly, yet virtually all social issues were left untouched. This is a far cry from his beginnings as an Queer ally in Davao City.

Duterte cannot afford to be unpredictable on Queer-rights issues. Although the Philippines has come a long way, there is still progress to be made in this space.

In 2009, Ang Ladlad, a Filipino political platform that specifically addresses Queer-rights issues, was barred from registration because it “tolerates immorality which offends religious beliefs” according to the Electoral Commission, referring to the country’s deeply held Catholic convictions. Yet in the face of this persisting prejudice, Duterte’s intentions remain a mystery.

Only time will tell whether Duterte resurrects his image as the Queer-rights warrior for Davao, or whether his reputation as the anti-drug kingpin of the Philippines will take priority. Until then, Duterte cannot make up his mind.

*’Queer’ is used as an inclusive term for all those who identify as LGBTIQA.

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