Skip to content Skip to footer

“Back to the Grassroots”: Building a Movement for Sexual and Economic Rights

LBT activist leader Anne Lim gives an interview about her work in the Philippines.

Anne Lim is from Quezon City, Philippines, where she serves as Executive Director of GALANG, a lesbian-led organization that works with urban poor LBTs (lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people) in the city. She was recently nominated for the 2014 Baldwin Award, which recognizes human rights work outside the U.S. Anne gave this interview during the last Association for Women’s Rights in Development conference in Istanbul.

I’m Anne Lim from the Philippines and I’m a lesbian rights activist. It’s an identity I embrace because I feel that it’s the aspect of my life that’s caused me the most pain. That sounds a bit dramatic but…I think this is something I share in common with many lesbians in my country.

Currently I’m running an organization called GALANG Philippines. Galang is the Filipino word for respect. Our model is evidence-based advocacy through the formation of LBT people’s organizations. That’s a mouthful, but really what we do is build the leadership capacities of LBTs in metropolitan Manila, particularly in Quezon City.

You say “LBT.” Many people talk about how focusing on LGBT, or even LGBTQ, can expand the set of potential allies. Why do you focus only on LBTs?

LGBTs across the spectrum experience discrimination, and problems with employment and housing. That goes without saying. But then again, for gay men in the Philippines, at least they’re perceived a little more positively by society because they’re seen as fun, they’re seen as energetic, they get hired; often not for regular jobs, but as beauticians or emcees for beauty pageants and things like that. It may not necessarily pay much and tends to box gay men into stereotypes, but at least they have these opportunities.

Lesbian women, on the other hand, are usually perceived as violent and psychologically unbalanced. The perception is that all they do is sit rude and unapproachable in the corner, or kill themselves when their girlfriend leaves, and they’re not able to support their families. And so, as lesbian women–because GALANG was formed by lesbian women–our heart was with lesbians, because we’re lesbians ourselves, and it was clear that the need at the community level was with LBTs.

So, why LBTs and not specifically lesbians?

That’s a tricky one. We use LBTs very loosely, as an umbrella term, specific to the context of the urban poor Philippines setting because, of course, the issue of awareness comes into play: as activists, we know how academia defines what lesbians are. But at a community level, sometimes terms are embraced because they’re used in mainstream media without exactly addressing the nuances. And so when we first came in, most of the participants of these discussions were butch lesbians, femininity-rejecting women who self-identified as lesbian. But when you ask them if they felt like they were men or women, most of them say that they’re men because they’re more at home with the gender roles assigned to males, and because society refuses to validate their femaleness, not necessarily because they actually believe that there is some part of them that is biologically male. But to translate this state of affairs into the wider context of human rights activism, you have to apply Western definitions in which case they’d probably fall under the rubric of trans* people, trans men.

For femmes, even those who have been in these relationships for ten, fifteen years, they hardly ever self-identify as lesbian. They’re “girlfriends of tomboys,” or “girlfriends of lesbians.” And some are more comfortable with the term bisexual. So, these are LBTs.

Why did you decide to work with poor LBTs in particular?

We felt from the beginning that in order to push policy, it was necessary to have a critical mass among those who are most affected by the discrimination and violence against sexual minorities: poor people. We’re a very poor country, and there’s no pride or shame in that; it’s just a fact.

About a third of our population lives on less than a dollar a day and despite economic growth in recent years, unemployment remains at an alarming rate. But the problem with the LGBT discourse in the Philippines, and maybe it is reflected elsewhere in the world, is that it’s mostly dominated by middle class and educated people who have a different context altogether. Poor people’s voices are hardly ever heard in the discourse. Why? Because, although there are a lot of advocacy and awareness-raising initiatives, so to speak – film showings, discussions, cultural events–in the end, the people who are able to participate are those with access, those who can afford to take a day off and go to these activities. And language is another issue: we don’t even have a popular indigenous term for lesbian, and those discussions are mostly conducted in English. That in itself is threatening to those who are not familiar with English, and excludes a whole bunch of LGBTs who should be part of the discourse.

So what GALANG seeks to do is to bring these people to the table. Because how can we even call ourselves a movement when we’re only a handful speaking for an entire marginalized community? So GALANG works to build the capacity of urban poor LBTs in Quezon City through leadership development, capacity-building activities, and a platform to utilize and hone these skills through our help in forming their own people’s organizations.

Why the formation of these community-based organizations? You have to understand that Quezon City is an urban center. It is the biggest city in the Philippines and at some point in our history, it was a capital. The House of Representatives is seated in Quezon City as well as many national government agencies. The gap between the rich and the poor is also quite stark in Quezon City as it attracts a lot of migrants from poorer provinces. There are a lot of urban poor settlements at the fringes of executive subdivisions – gated villages where really absurdly rich people live. And so the lesbians that we work with sometimes are the maids of the maids of these rich people. Not maids, but the maids of the maids. And they live within a stone’s throw of each other. Literally, only a wall separates the executive subdivision and the slums.

And so there are a lot of community-based organizations in Quezon City, a lot of NGOs working against poverty. When you go down to the community level, you find women’s groups and urban poor groups, but you don’t see any LGBTs, much less LBTs who are visible, especially in leadership positions. In fact, in the local government, in this particular barangay, or village, there are three or four gay men in the council and historically, there has never been a lesbian woman and they charge it to the fact that we are psychologically unbalanced and incapable of things like leading and inspiring others to action.

What are some of the strategies GALANG uses in working with LBTs in these communities?

Right now, we’re engaged in action research documenting violence and discrimination specifically against urban poor LBTs, because we’d like to track how we’re able to improve the situation so to speak. We’ve recently done a policy audit of social protection policies in partnership with the Institute of Development Studies where we tried to show how Filipino LBTs are often deprived of the protection offered by laws that were intended precisely to provide safety nets against poverty.

We also do a lot of IEC (Information, Education, and Communication) materials, like our comics, which help create awareness about the plight of urban poor LBTs. Why comics as a strategy? Because we recognized that there is a lack of positive role models for LBTs in the Philippines. Mainstream Filipino media tends to insult or denigrate lesbians – when they aren’t just ignoring us. But creating long-form books or videos is really expensive, so we went with comics to use our budget wisely, as well as provide a message of empowerment through a medium that is actually really popular right now, and not just in these communities.

Also, we do a forum on sexual health, and we have a series of trainings on capacity-building and leadership development. Our trainings are conducted for LBTs because either these opportunities haven’t been open to them or they’re not comfortable engaging in mainstream capacity-building activities because they’re ostracized. For instance, sometimes there are services at the local level that are available to people in general, like health. Once in a while there are health check-ups for women at the barangay level. We have incidents of lesbians lining up for these health check-ups, and they’re not exactly turned away, but they’re teased while they’re falling in line because they’re told that “these check-ups are for women, so why are you in this line?” And so there’s that, compounded by the fact that healthcare is often too costly to be a priority for poor people.

Does GALANG work with straight allies?

We didn’t initially decide to work with straight people in the community. But because we were working in an urban poor setting, we quickly came around to the idea that it was necessary to involve them because there was a perception that lesbian groups, LGBT groups in general, exist only for special interests that concern LGBTs alone. So it was important for us to make the community understand that we are not only there to hopefully develop the movement forLGBTs, but also because we need more people addressing community issues. The LBTs that GALANG works with have always wanted to have a chance to show that they don’t just care about their own issues but also want to do something to improve the conditions in the broader community.

How do you think GALANG fits within the international LGBT rights movement?

What we want to do really is to raise the status of [community] organizing, so that people will be encouraged to do it, because in the end, whether it’s LGBT or lesbian, or whatever movement, there will be no movement without people on the ground actually moving. And so this trend of internet organizing or the use of social media as an organizing tool, on the one hand, it helps, but we can like all the pages we want on Facebook, but if people don’t organize on the ground, there is no movement to speak of. And this is not only in the Philippines – I go to these conferences with these messages, and it’s difficult to be popular, because you’re telling colleagues in the activist movement that we’re all middle-class here, and that’s a bit problematic, because the discourse is swayed in our way, because we have the luxury of engaging in this discourse. But we have to push ourselves a little harder to make the movements more inclusive. Otherwise, it’s just talk, and talk is cheap.

The problem with the global LGBT movement or the movement for sexual rights is the overemphasis on policy – the passage, the enactment of laws. But in the end, it’s actually sad when I hear that the Philippines is a front-runner in terms of gender-related laws. It’s seen as a best practice not just in Asia, but in all over the world. We have a VAWC (Violence Against Women and Children) law. We also have a very progressive rape law, even a Magna Carta of Women. These ironically were crafted in the House of Representatives, just two jeepney rides away from where we work. And yet when we were barely scratching the surface in trying to uncover instances of LBT violence in Quezon City, what we uncovered was more than that. It was domestic violence in its crudest form. People – men, fathers – dragging their wives by the hair, their children by the hair, in the streets with village police just looking away. Neighbors looking away because of the age-old belief that domestic violence is a private issue, and yet we have these laws saying it’s not a private issue, it’s a matter for the state. The disconnect between the overemphasis on policy, funders’ need for results measured in terms of laws passed, that’s quite difficult – because, quite frankly, as a grassroots activist I can say that we can have all the best laws in the world, we can have them enacted in the Philippines, but it doesn’t mean that the lives of women on the ground will change, because it hasn’t.

Now, this overemphasis on marriage equality tends to blur the discourse about intersectionality. It’s a waste of resources to be lobbying for a marriage equality bill in the Philippines at this point, when we kind of know it’s not going to be passed, not in about ten or fifteen years, and people are dying because of hunger and lack of employment. So in a way, it’s nice that we’re part of this debate, this whole conversation about marriage equality, but in a way, as a developing country, it’s distracting to be focusing on these things. Controversial things like hate crimes, for instance: of course hate crimes are wrong, but if hate crimes are defined mostly as gay men being killed randomly, purportedly because of their gender expression, the experience of lesbians being raped is invisibilized. A lot of lesbians just get raped over and over again. And this is “curative rape,” a lot of times by their own friends and family members… we don’t have a hate crime law right now, but as advocated, we don’t see this issue in the discourse. So many of the lesbians we work with don’t even have their stories heard.

So our contribution to this debate is helping the LBTs on the ground have a voice in articulating their stories and be part of the discussions on the table. And that’s important because the anti-discrimination bill has been languishing in Congress for sixteen years now. For over a decade, Filipino activists have been pushing for a bill that sought to penalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In the last couple of years, there has been a move to consolidate LGBT discrimination with other forms of discrimination such as those based on race, ethnicity, religious expression, civil status, HIV/AIDS status, and other health status. Currently, eight such bills are pending in Congress but none has passed the committee level. We are a bit more hopeful now that we have widened our base of support in both houses of Congress but we still have a long way to go. We need the international community to put pressure on our government to let them know that the world is watching. Our allies abroad can make themselves heard by sending letters of support to our legislators.

The other thing is, when we discuss LGBT rights in the mainstream, and what rights same-sex couples have, we talk about property issues and succession and insurance. About one of the partners dying, and the relatives of the other – sometimes long-estranged relatives – getting all the property. Of course that’s wrong, on a lot of levels, but I think it’s also important to note that a lot of LGBTs don’t even have property. And while they can understand the idea of succession conceptually, it really is alien to them because they don’t have time or the capacity to draw up a will, nor enough money to buy insurance.

In that sense, there’s a perception that sexual rights is a bourgeois issue. Because it is these issues that are projected in the local media and internationally. And like I said, even if marriage equality is a goal that I aspire for in my country, I think there are more pressing issues now – more doable issues, more workable issues at present. And if there’s one thing that we want to do, it’s to promote our model among our colleagues in the LGBT activist movement in the country.

Because it’s a model that is working, the gains may not be huge, but by and by, we see how it’s impacting the level of self-esteem of the people that we’re working with. These are people that were basically being looked at as not quite female and not as good as male, and who were suffering under these perceptions. But now, it may not be a lot, but at least they have a support system through their peers.

We [at GALANG] are quite fortunate, because the funders that support us are radical in their own ways – they actually fund and believe in community organizing. But I believe that mainstream funders are not too excited about organizing, because it takes too long, takes too many resources, and it’s difficult to measure. But in the end, it’s our realization that for the sake of movement building, people have to go back to the grassroots. Because what is the law if people can’t use it – if it’s only for the rich?

At some point, I thought about if I have this messianic complex about working with oppressed people, and maybe I wanted to be saved – not saved in the Christian sense of going to heaven, but to be helped as an oppressed person. Because in a way, it’s often embarrassing for me to say that I’m oppressed. One of our urban poor leaders asked me, “Do you even feel oppressed, Anne?” And I said, “Quite frankly, yes, but if I’m to compare my oppression with yours, I’d be embarrassed to say what these oppressions are.” I’m not sure if it’s fair to compare oppressions, but for the longest time I felt that if I had a lot of identities—I’m a Filipino, I’m of Chinese ancestry, I’m a lesbian woman, college-educated and all that, dog-lover—but the identity that has caused me much pain is my lesbian identity, and that’s why I embrace it the most. Not because my vision is limited to identity politics, but I feel that it has to be named, I have to name it to address it. So, because the people I work with cannot even name it, people who are told a lot that they are sinners—in those words, that they will go to hell—that they’re good for nothing, because of the mere fact that their sexual act won’t lead them to making a baby. Deep inside, they know that they don’t feel they’re sinners, that they’re doing anything wrong, but they don’t necessarily have the jargon for it. So it is for them, and also for myself, that I articulate the need to address this oppression.

Many thanks to Arianna “Ticia” Francisco for transcribing this interview.

Today is our last chance to raise $21,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.