In 2000, Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed the earliest version of the SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression) equality bill. 19 years and 4 versions later, the bill is the longest-running under Senate interpellation. This anti-discrimination bill is pushing for the protection of all Filipinos against discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression.
With the recent incident of a transgender woman being denied entry to a female public restroom, the uproar of the LGBTQ+ community escalated in support of the bill. The issue has driven the SOGIE bill to larger public scrutiny; turning into a dramatic discourse online and with lawmakers.
For lawmakers and religious sectors, the SOGIE Equality Bill is seen as one-sided and discriminatory. They claim that it favors the LGBTQ+ community, giving additional rights biased to their needs. However, what the greater public needs to understand is that the bill is not just for the LGBTQ+ but for everyone, because each individual has their own SOGIE.
Where is the problem?
The LGBTQ+ have been the loudest and most visible supporters of the SOGIE Equality Bill, considering that it is the minority group that experiences a significant amount of discrimination. The bill proposes equal access to basic rights for LGBTQ+ individuals and prevents discriminatory acts against them.
While the bill’s intention to protect citizens from discrimination on the basis of their SOGIE is fundamentally good, it is no surprise that this move clashes with certain beliefs in a predominantly religious country such as the Philippines.
Even within their community, members themselves have raised major concerns about the bill’s contents. Along with the general public, questions they’ve asked include the following:
Will I get penalized if I speak about the teachings of my religion?
What will happen to educational institutions such as Catechism schools and Catholic universities that teach biblical principles, as well as prohibit the entry of transgenders and crossdressers?
Will the bill penalize establishments that refuse to hire LGBTQ+ employees or deny customers products or services for religious reasons?
The difficulty lies in the interpretation and implementation of this bill. With a country that has a Catholic majority, the bill carries the stigma of enabling other people and providing them “more rights” and “privileges” that goes against one’s inalienable religious beliefs.
So the question that begs to be asked is: Should the bill accommodate religious beliefs when providing equal rights for every single Filipino?
Religious Freedom Overrule
The current version of SOGIE Equality Bill does not discriminate against religion. Authors of the bill recognize religion as a basic human right. It does not seek to infringe any form of mandate or doctrine of any religious entity. Although it does not mention one’s religious rights and freedoms, it recognizes that its contents are bound by the laws of our Constitution.
As the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution states:
SECTION 5. No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.
Existing Laws on Anti-Discrimination
There are already several laws against discrimination in the Philippines. These are:
- The Labor Code of the Philippines, which ensures equal opportunities regardless of sex;
- The Magna Carta for Women which protects women from discrimination;
- The Anti-Bullying Act of 2013 which secures the safety of children in schools from abuse;
- The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees which recognizes the equal treatment for all employees
Various local ordinances have also been passed in Quezon City, Cebu, Davao, Dinagat Islands amongst others, that prohibit discrimination based on SOGIE. This has greatly contributed to the growing acceptance and protection of the LGBTQ+ community. However, outside of these, there is no single law that totally covers discrimination against SOGIE.
While the bill’s authors and supporters acknowledge these laws, they discern the lack of protective laws and supportive policies for the LGBTQ+ community.
Perhaps the SOGIE Equality Bill could be called the “Anti-Discrimination Act”. Following a universal principle that the state or any individual may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
Improve the Law by Improving the Bill
The SOGIE Equality Bill’s intention to protect the LGBTQ+ community is a progressive move from the government to support a marginalized group with a strong voice. But the proponents do not recognize the grander scheme of things; including how many do not understand what SOGIE is, what the bill is fighting for, and what the Filipinos can get out of it.
In so many places all over the world, the gender movement has come so far. But here, even if Filipinos are known for being accepting towards the LGBTQ+ community, there are many signs suggesting the country is not ready for some big changes. We first have to make Filipinos understand what SOGIE is, and then go about changing the system and protecting our people.
If change has truly come, what lines are we willing to cross for the benefit of every Juan?