TEXT AND PHOTOS BY ANGELO CANTERA CORRESPONDENT
The Sunday Times Magazine
of the Manila Times
Janury 24, 2010
Even in his youth, Danton Remoto knew that he wasn’t allowed to run away from a fight. His father, an honor-bound military man, was against that. And in his small but charming home cramped with books, souvenirs and unfinished manuscripts, this journalist, poet and educator could still recall what his old man used to say—the simple yet striking words of wisdom that are more relevant in this time of his life.
“When somebody bullies you, fight back,” he repeated to The Manila Times. “If he is bigger than you, get a bamboo stick and hit him to even things up. If you ever go home crying, I’ll scold you myself.”
Now at 46 years of age, the self-professed “military brat” is in another battle that he can’t run away from. It was one that he lost back in 2007. During that time, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) rejected the party-list bid of his group, Ang Ladlad—an organization for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.
Now, as the country draws near to the pivotal 2010 elections, even after the commission initially denied them for the second time around, things are looking brighter for him and his controversial party-list. And as posted on his blog, Remoto proudly states that he is both “happy and gay.”
“When we registered last year for the 2010 elections, the Comelec rejected it because of religious immorality,” he told The Times.
“Actually, its first division sided with us, however, the second division ruled otherwise saying that our group advocates immorality. They quoted the Holy Bible and the Holy Koran. The one who broke the tie was Chairman Jose Melo whose argument sided with the second division. When I got the news, I was laughing so hard.”
To counteract that resolution, Remoto and the lawyers of Ang Ladlad—volunteers from Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines—brought their party-list bid the Supreme Court. Focusing on international human rights laws, they fought for their right to participate that led to the Supreme Court issuing a temporary restraining order (TRO) in favor of the group. As of this article’s publication, they are still included in the race.
“With all due respect, I’m a practicing Catholic,” Remoto stated. “When I went to the US, I took up Islamic Mysticism which is the literature of the Sufi and I studied Islam. They took the passages from those books out of context.”
“When the Comelec stated that we are immoral, that is the state discriminating on a group of people,” he added. “And the constitution states that there should be an equal protection of the law for all Filipinos. We are also citizens of this country. We are tax payers too.”
Remoto, however, maintains that they have won a battle and not a war. While the TRO includes their groups in the ballots to be printed, it still does not guarantee that they will be allowed to run. But even with this, the pre-law graduate of Ateneo de Manila remains confident.
“I have a strong belief that we will make it because our petition was based on the rule of law,” he said. “Based on the constitution and based on the Supreme Court’s decision, they cannot invoke religious morality because that’s like favoring one religion over another. They can only invoke secular morality, otherwise, they are disregarding the separation of the church and the state.”
As religious practices rooted in an alien culture and a brutal time—the Middle East of some 2000 years ago—becomes confused with the laws and principles of a modern, pluralist and secular democracy that the Philippines strives to be—Danton and his allies delineate the difference between what is considered a sin by the believers of a particular religion and what is considered a crime under laws that apply to all regardless of gender or faith.
In defending the rights of the segment of society they represent, the likes of Danton uphold the rights of all marginalized Filipinos—those whose gender, religion or culture are being imposed upon by the majority. The fight for gay rights is the fight for women, indigenous peoples and the poor. Danton and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are the first in a line of dominos that valiantly refuses to fall despite the blows from conservatives who wish to turn back the clock some 2000 years.
Remoto remains adamant about fighting the good fight. Their campaign color will be pink—a homage to the pink triangle that the Nazis used to segregate homosexual prisoners; a badge of shame turned to a badge of honor. Their flag will be the trademark rainbow banner of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community—a symbol of diversity. And their core supporters, according to him, comprise no less than 10 percent of the general public.
“Alfred Kinsey and other researchers said that across countries, across cultures, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population is generally 10 percent. So our voters are 49 million. Ten percent of that is 4.9 million. If we get only 20 percent of that, that’s still enough for three seats,” Remoto told The Times.
The supporters of Ladlad extend beyond the gay community. It encompasses all who are willing to stand up against prejudice. And that may well be the vast majority.
“Our voters are not only members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. I have met people who want to vote for us who are not necessarily part of it. There are priests, educators and military men who said that they will support us because ours is a human rights issue and we fought it cleanly,” Remoto says.
With numerous supporters backing him, Remoto remains positive that they will triumph. According to him, the stint with Comelec does not even deter him. It is merely a taste of things to come. And if anything, it would be one of the things he and Ang Ladlad wishes to change should his party-list land seats in the Congress.
“Our number one platform really is to help the AKBAYAN party-list push for the anti-discrimination bill,” said Remoto before retelling one of the examples of unfairness he could remember experiencing.
“I remember the time when a commissioner mocked me,” he said. “It was one of the commissioners during our hearing. He said,
‘Should we call you ma’am or madam?’ And I just looked at him and said, ‘Wow. So these are the commissioners who get paid from my taxes.’ I paid like P 400,000 in taxes last year. And the money went to these people who cannot even treat me fairly. These are our commissioners.”
Another showcase of discrimination involves the media. While he states that the portrayal of the LGBT community has improved in the Philippines, he still thinks that there is more to be done in order to improve it.
“The treatment of the LGBT community is getting better in the cities because of the media scrutiny, people are more vigilant and the LGBT groups are here. It’s no longer an issue of visibility. The main issue now is portrayal like the shows in Channel 7,” he said. “I wrote to them because they keep on portraying gay men getting hit in the head, made fun of. These portrayals are one layered. There’s nothing wrong with effeminate gays but that’s not all that we are. Joey de Leon and his son make a lot of money playing stereotypical gay roles. I think it’s about time that they show the other side of gay men—less noisy, less loud, less hysterical, more rational, more focused. That’s my problem with Channel 7. Their writers, I think, are so old.”
Besides the pushing anti-discrimination, Remoto stated that he also wishes to further give aid to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He plans to do this through economic empowerment and establishing necessary facilities for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community both young and old.
“The poverty of the LGBT community reflects the poverty of the general population, we’re focusing on the poor and the handicapped members of the LGBT community. We’re going to set up micro-finance for them as well as projects and cooperatives focused on them,” he said.
“There is also a rising number of teens in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community committing suicide so we also want to have counseling centers, libraries and audio-visual facilities for them,” he added. “As for the old members of the LGBT community, we also want to make a ‘golden gays’ center to provide medical, emotional and psychological help.”
Power of the pen
With the number of issues he wants to tackle paired with the number of detractions standing in his way, one might think that Remoto is in the fight of his life. But even with its magnitude, even with the stakes, he still believes that losing it will not be something that he should take personally. After all, he only entered politics recently. Before that, he was an accomplished writer and an educator—two job titles that bring him joy.
As an educator predominantly in Ateneo de Manila University, Remoto takes pride in the number of letters and calls he has received from both parents and students who have praised him for his teachings.
As a writer, Remoto has contributed various literature concerning the LGBT community. Among his published works include: Skin, Voices, Faces, Black Silk Pajamas / Poems in English and Filipino, Pulotgata; The Love Poems, Seduction and Solitude, X-Factor, and Gaydar, as well as their Filipino translations: Buhay Bading and Rampa: Mga Sanaysay.
For his writing, he has accumulated numerous literary and cultural awards. These include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prize for the essay, 1979; the Galian sa Arte at Tula award for poetry, 1983; the PLAC award for poetry, 1986; the Palanca for the essay in 1987; the CCP literary award for poetry (three times); the Stirling District Arts Council award for poetry (twice) and the short story, 1989 and 1990; the Procyon Prize for poetry, 1993; the Cultural Center awards for film and video for the screenplay of House of the Crescent Moon documentary and The Last Parian film; the Philippines Free Press Award for the essay, 2004; the National Commission on Culture and the Arts award for translation (poetry), 2006; and the Philippine Graphic Nick Joaquin Award for the Short Story, 2007.
“Some politicians can’t imagine themselves powerless,” he said. “As for me, how can I be powerless if I write books? Remember, the Philippines is the only country in the world whose national hero is a novelist and a poet. We’re the only country like that—a novelist and a poet shot for his books.”
But even as he states that losing this battle is not a reason for him “to commit suicide,” it does not justify short-handed efforts. After all, winning the campaign would help a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. It would also justify the support shown by his parents—from his cradle to their grave.
“My father was an intelligent man and my mother was a sweet person,” he said. “It’s a shame that they died before they could see the campaign. They were in the [intensive care unit] ICU when my father said that we should continue the campaign for Ang Ladlad and my aborted senatorial run. They were campaigning even in the ICU telling the doctors and the nurses to vote for me.
I told my father to focus on his oxygen tank because he’s hardly breathing.”
But even with their passing, their legacy lives on. It is manifested in this 46-year-old man named Danton Remoto—a beacon of many shades like the rainbow flag waved by the community he represents—fighting a battle he just can’t run away from.