The party-list system in the Philippines aims to give marginalized people a voice in government. LGBT people are certainly marginalized in the Catholic-dominated country - where transgender women are routinely denied service in restaurants and over-qualified gay men are denied jobs - but they are not represented in government.
The party-list system has beed in place for 14 years, but Ladlad (meaning ‘come out’) the only political party in the world dedicated solely to LGBT issues, were twice denied accreditation by the election commission. But now they are fully accredited and on track to win seats in next year’s congressional elections.
‘In 2007 we filed our first attempt at accreditation,’ explains Bemz Benedito, Ladlad’s first congressional nominee when we meet for an interview in Manila. ‘But we were rejected by the election commissioners. The reason was we were not able to prove the constituencies of Ladlad nation-wide.’
Ladlad has members - and of course there are LGBT people - across the Philippines, but they couldn’t hand over a list of members to the election commissioners when some of them are in the closet.
‘Once you submit it,’ says Benedito. ‘It’s a public document and it will open them up for discrimination and bullying. For example in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao most of our members are in the closet because of the religion there.’
Ladlad tried again to receive party accreditation in 2009. This time the election commission’s decision was even more controversial and caused international outrage.
‘They called us “immoral” and a “threat to the youth”,’ says Benedito. ‘And what was very unacceptable is that in their decision they used the Bible and the Quran.
‘If you’re the state commissioner for elections, you don’t use the Bible or the Quran, you have to apply the law. With all due respect, I’m also a devout Catholic, but that’s really off and unacceptable, not just for us but for the entire LGBT community. Can you imagine putting it in the records that we are immoral and a threat to the youth?’
The party fought the decision in the Supreme Court - who ruled in their favour, but made the decision only three weeks before the 2010 election.
‘It was a victory for us, but because it was only three weeks before the election a lot of our members and supporters thought that we were not able to run,’ says Benedito.
Despite this, Ladlad were able to gather 130,000 votes - and they only needed 150,000 for Benedito to win a seat in congress. On that record, there's every reason to believe the party can win one seat, if not more, in the May 2013 election.
The party now has 60,000 card-carrying members and co-ordinators in every region, province and municipality in the country (except for in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao). When Ladlad recruits those members at membership drives across the country they also conduct focus groups to discover the thoughts and difficulties of LGBT people in the Philippines.
‘It’s very interesting,’ says Benedito. ‘When we go to rural areas they always say their problem is not discrimination, their problem is employment. But we try to explain to them why they don’t have jobs, because they are discriminated against. They are not considered as as important as the straight ones.
‘I was in Luzon province up north and we asked a 15-year-old gay kid we were talking to, “why are you not studying?” And he said, “my mum told me to just stay at home, to do the chores, talk care of my siblings, because I’m gay”. So they’d rather send their straight children to school.’
Because of the discrimination that the party hear about on a daily basis, Ladlad’s first priority in congress will be to pass the Anti-Discrimination Bill, which has been stuck in congress for 13 years without being passed.
‘At Ladlad we get calls everyday - three to five a day - complaining about discrimination,’ says Benedito. ‘They’re not given jobs, they’re not promoted and a lot of transgender women are not being accepted to Catholic universities. But there’s no law to protect them, so there’s not much we can do.’
Benedito says the Catholic church, which has a lot of representation and influence in congress, is Ladlad’s ‘number one enemy’. They have campaigned against Ladlad even after they were accepted as a party by the Supreme Court.
‘According to the Catholic church, the Anti-Discrimination Bill once passed will open for same-sex marriage,’ says Benedito. ‘They’re allergic to same-sex marriage. But that’s not even in our platform.’
The rest of the party’s platform, apart from passing the Anti-Discrimination Bill, is using public funds to support LGBT-related and LGBT-friendly businesses and to set-up micro finance projects for poor and physically challenged LGBT Filipinos.
Ladlad also want to set-up centers for elderly LGBT people and have the centers act as hubs for services like legal aid, health advice and counselling for the whole community.
Benedito says she was horrified that at one focus group discussion in a rural area a 24-year-old gay man said ‘let’s just accept it, this is our place in society’. She responded: ‘No! This is not our place to be discriminated against. We are productive citizens. We can help this country. We can help our families. So we should be treated the same as a straight Filipino. That’s why we need a voice in congress.’