MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines' gay political party participated in the country's national elections for the first time this week, seeking to raise the profile of gay rights in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
“It's like a national coming out!” said Danton Remoto, founder of Ang Ladlad, or "Out of the Closet," as the party is called in English. “I've been getting text messages all day from our members who say their whole family or entire neighborhood voted for Ang Ladlad," he added, shortly after casting his vote.
Representing lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people (LGBT), Remoto has been trying to get Ang Ladlad registered with the commission on elections, or Comelec, since the party's inception seven years ago.
But Comelec has twice denied the organization, which boasts around 25,000 members. The first time Comelec said they didn't have enough members, even though they did. The second time, which was last December, Comelec denied them on the grounds that the organization was “immoral.”
But Remoto, dubbed the “Rainbow Warrior” by the local media, refused to give up. He and other party members took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court and won last month, nevermind it was already two months into the three-month campaign period.
“Comelec turned down our accreditation saying we are espousing immoral doctrines," Remoto said. "What they cited in their legal document is the holy Quran and the holy Bible, which we think violates the separation of church and state in the Philippines — and that is enshrined in our constitution."
Even though the group did not have much money or time to campaign, Ang Ladlad members, including national secretary Bemz Benedito, felt confident they could secure at least one of the three congressional seats available to minority groups.
Benedito, one of five Ang Ladlad nominees vying for a congressional seat, is a transgendered Filipino who works for Ang Ladlad-supporter Senator Loren Legarda, who is also running for vice-president.
The party is running as one of 187 party list groups. These groups represent the marginalized in Philippine society and together comprise one-fifth of congress.
Ang Ladlad has supporters not only among politicians, but also among the Catholic clergy and ordinary Filipinos.
“I think Ang Ladlad should be in congress,” said elementary school teacher Maria Christina Dayao as she went to cast her vote. “Let's face it, gays are discriminated against in our society and its time their voices should be heard.”
Mike Tan, chairman of the University of the Philippines Diliman's anthropology department said that although people in the Philippines are known for their tolerance of gays, tolerance alone is not enough.
“On one hand there is this superficial tolerance, but we know there's a lot of repression and discrimination in the work place," said Tan. “It's not enough to have tolerance, you need to have the rights of the LGBT community ensured through formal institutions.”
And that's the first thing on Ang Ladlad's agenda if they win.
“The first thing we will do is re-file the anti-discrimination bill," said Remoto. “We will join with other progressive groups to get the numbers. This bill is crucial because it will outlaw discrimination in the work place, in the school, and when applying for licenses to operate a business or practice a profession. It criminalizes any act of discrimination.”
The anti-discrimination bill has been repeatedly filed and repeatedly shot down in congress.
Ang Ladlad's platform includes safeguarding the human rights of all Filipinos, along with setting up legal centers for poverty stricken and aged LBGTs, and supporting small businesses set up by the LGBT community.
When Filipinos went to the polls on Monday to elect a new president, vice president, senators, legislators and local officials, they may have also — just maybe — elected the first openly gay legislator to sit in congress.
On Tuesday, partial and unofficial election results showed Ang Ladlad garnishing enough votes to place them at number 61 out of the 187 party list groups, but Remoto fears that may not be enough. In order to win a congressional seat, Ang Ladlad must get 2 percent of the total vote. Remoto calculates the group is still around 50,000 votes short. Sen. Benigno Aquino III, whose parents fought to topple a dictatorship, looked Tuesday to be headed for a landslide victory in the presidential elections.
"Even if we don't win, it is still a victory to have come this far." Said Remoto. "And this is just the beginning, we are now a political party. If we can't make it in this election, we'll run again in the next election in 2013."
The University of the Philippines' Mike Tan agrees it is an accomplishment for the group to have come this far, considering they had little time to campaign, little money and were up against the formidable Catholic church.
In well publicized remarks last month, Bishop Deogracias Iniguez Jr., the chairman of the public affairs permanent committee of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said lesbians, gays, homosexuals and transgendered people should not be allowed in Congress. He said he would urge the faithful to refrain from voting for the group, whose members he called "abnormal."
“The fact that we, a conservative Catholic country, have a gay political party is progressive. It's ground-breaking." Said Tan." It allows gay and lesbian communities new possibilities. I think it is also very brave and defiant in a way — given the bullying of the Catholic church against Ang Ladlad.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent election results.