Note: Read a revised and updated version of this post on Esquire Philippines

Several Anti-Discrimination Bills were re-filed this 17th Congress by tireless champions and LGBT allies in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Here’s a snapshot of the bills and what you need to know about them:

  • The main barrier to the enactment of this bill is the institutional weakness of Congress, which makes it susceptible to the influence of the main opponents of this bill – the faith-based organisations. It was and is consistently opposed by different Catholic groups, mainly by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, a lobby group of Catholic schools, an ex-gay organisation, and their allies in Congress and Senate, which includes, among others, Sen. Tito Sotto, now Senator Manny Pacquiao, Rep. Atienza of Buhay Party-list, and ex-Rep. Benny Abante. The evangelicals joined the fray through Brother Eddie Villanueva, founder of CIBAC Partylist and father of neophyte Senator Joel Villanueva. During the 16th Congress, Brother Eddie Villanueva and other evangelical leaders met with Speaker Belmonte to block the bill.
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(The #EqualityChamps of the Anti-Discrimination Bill. From L-R: An Waray Rep. Binky Noel; Batanes Rep. Dina Abad; Pangasinan 4th District Rep. Toff De Venecia; Bataan 1st District Rep. Geraldine Roman, the first transwoman member of Congress; Dinagat Islands Rep. Kaka Bag-ao; and Senator Risa Hontiveros. Photo courtesy of Sen. Risa Hontiveros)
  • In its entire history, the closest the bill ever got to enactment was during the 12th Congress, after President Estrada’s ouster. A brief political space under the succeeding administration of then President GMA made it possible for Etta Rosales, Chair of the House Committee on Human Rights, to secure a third reading approval in the House of Representatives, outmanoeuvring conservative legislators. The bill, however, stalled in the Senate. This  political space disappeared in the wake of the tumultuous years following the “Hello Garci” scandal. Facing corruption charges and electoral fraud, the GMA administration grew closer to the Catholic leadership and faith-based groups; in the House of Representatives, the chairmanship of the House Committee on Human Rights went to Benny Abante, a former pastor, who used his position to block the bill and other progressive legislative proposals.
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LAGABLAB is the first LGBT network to push for LGBT rights in the area of policy and legislation. Photo courtesy of Malu Marin.
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LAGABLAB was recently revived to push for policy reforms for SOGI and human rights. Photo from LAGABLAB’s FB page – https://goo.gl/w2Lxjl
  • There are now two versions of the Anti-Discrimination Bill, both coming from LGBT groups. The first version is SOGI-specific, and it penalises all forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The second version is comprehensive, and it protects Filipinos from discrimination on the basis of different grounds, such as ethnicity, race, religion or belief, political inclination, social class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, civil status, HIV status, medical condition, etc. The comprehensive version is a result of a development in the 15th Congress, when the Senate and the House approved on final version differing versions of a bill that was originally intended to address stigma and discrimination against ethnic minorities and indigenous communities. The Senate version of the bill incorporated SOGI and other grounds for discrimination, which meant that a bicameral conference committee had to be constituted to harmonize the two versions. Unfortunately, one of the members of the bicam committee was Tito Sotto, who reportedly prevented the committee from meeting, and the bill was not enacted. To prepare for the 16th Congress, a meeting took place between some champions of the comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Bill in Congress and several LGBT activists, and this resulted in an agreement to fine-tune the Senate version of the bill, which included SOGI, to make it more consistent.
  • Both versions have the support of different LGBT groups during the 16th Congress. However, it was only the SOGI-specific version that made progress – little progress, I must say – during the previous term: it was approved by the Committee on Women and Gender Equality but did not reach the floor for plenary debates. Meanwhile, its Senate counterpart also did not prosper, and no committee hearing was held at all. On the other hand, the comprehensive version was also ignored by the committees to which they were referred: the House Committee on Human Rights, which was chaired by a known ally of the Catholic church in his district, and the Senate Committee on Cultural Communities, chaired by the same Senator who, since the 12th Congress, has a history of ignoring LGBT-related bills referred to her committee.

Same same, but different

How similar or different are the two versions? One major difference, as explained above, is the scope of the grounds for discrimination that the comprehensive version seeks to cover. Aside from that, here’s a quick comparative guide:

  • Both versions are enriching our human rights legal framework by introducing the definition of SOGI in our human rights laws and by expanding non-discrimination as a State policy, therefore enabling constitutional provisions on human rights and equal protection and the different international human rights conventions the Philippines has committed to uphold.
  • Both versions penalise discrimination as defined an internationally recognised standard. They are not according new or special rights to individuals due to their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. What they do instead is to prohibit violations of human rights that are inherent to all but are often denied to some on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. No new rights are being created by both bills; they are merely defending, promoting and recognising existing ones.
  • Both SOGI-specific and comprehensive versions prohibit the following acts of discrimination: denial of civil and political rights; denial of right to education; denial of right to work, including discrimination in public service and in military and police service; denial of access to goods and services, such as healthcare, housing and accommodation, insurance, public and commercial facilities and establishments, among others; denial of right to organise; inflicting harm to health and well-being; and human rights abuses by the police and military.
  • Additionally, the comprehensive version also prohibits the following: inflicting stigma (referring to acts that lead to the devaluation or dehumanisation of an individual or a group); profiling, or the use of the grounds for discrimination to conduct investigatory activities on persons on the presumption that they are engaged in unlawful or illegal activities; and denial of cultural rights.
  • The comprehensive version directs the national government to establish Social Protection Programs for communities vulnerable to stigma and discrimination as a preventive strategy to eliminate stigma and discrimination. This will be implemented by different government agencies.
  • The comprehensive version grants the Commission on Human Rights the power to receive complaints and investigate cases of discrimination, upon the basis of which it can recommend legal action. The CHR is also given the mandate to recommend administrative sanctions, such as revocation of license, demotion, suspension, etc.,  against public officials who fail to act on duties required by the bill. In the SOGI-specific version, administrative sanctions may also be imposed on public officials who refuse to enforce the law. It assigns to the Women and Children’s Desk the duty to attend  to and act on complaints and cases of discrimination on the basis of SOGI.
  • In the SOGI-specific version, maximum penalties shall be meted out to perpetrators of criminal acts if such acts are motivated by bias, prejudice, or hatred based on SOGI. This provision was recently included in the bill to address SOGI-related hate crimes.
  • Under the SOGI-specific version, the penalty for all acts of discrimination ranges from a fine of P100,000 to P500,000 and imprisonment from 1 year to 6 years, with community service on human rights education and ‘immersion’ on the plight of the LGBT community.  The comprehensive version groups discriminatory acts into two according to gravity. The first set of discriminatory acts are meted out with a fine of P100,000 to P250,000 and/or imprisonment from 2 to 6 years. The penalty for graver discriminatory acts  is a fine of P250,000 to P500,000 and/or imprisonment from 6 to 12 years.

Based on the 16th Congress versions of the two bills, TLF Share published briefers of the SOGI-specific version and the comprehensive version.

Having been involved in the development of both bills, I have no preference for only one version. Years of doing policy advocacy have taught me that legislation is a very dynamic process, and a continuing one. There are substantive and tactical pros and cons, which are all influenced by the ever-changing consensus within your own community, the configuration among your allies, the kind of champions you have during a specific term, and the strengths and weaknesses of your threats.

The comprehensive version requires collaboration with different sectors to make sure that among the vulnerable, no community gets left behind. That said, having a broader sectoral base does not guarantee protection for LGBTs, and there will always be tension to take out the least politically palatable community: in the previous term, for example, a Senator removed references to SOGI in the crucial provisions of the bill. Meanwhile, the SOGI-specific version will always invite strong opposition from conservative legislators and from monied faith-based groups. Each Congress requires a careful reading of the lay of the land, and pushing for the bills needs a strong commitment to “move mountains.”

After this comparative snapshot of the two bills, I’ll write about the prospects for LGBT rights under the Duterte government. In a time of “karton justice,” is there a space to push for the human rights of LGBTs?

(Featured image from the Office of Dinagat Rep. Kaka Bag-ao)

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