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Being LGBT and Catholic in the Philippines is not easy

gabb’z Gabriel is the very definition of a devout Roman Catholic. He even aspired to be a priest. At age 12, he became a member of the youth ministry at his church in Quezon City, about 10 km from the Philippine capital, Manila. He witnessed the religious processions of flagellants in Holy Week, walking barefoot on the sweltering asphalt. Now 34, he is a regular member of the choir and sometimes reads scriptures to parishioners. In his spare time, he maintains religious statuary and icons used during religious festivals.

Gabriel is just one of more than 80 million people in the Philippines, or about 85% of the population, who profess the Catholic faith. But in a crowd of Black Saturday worshipers, he stood out with his shoulder-length black hair, sleeveless halter kimono by a pink sash, singing the praises of the Lord in a falsetto voice. “I’m a gay man,” he told TIME. “My gender expression is female.”

The Philippines is known for being one of the most LGBT-friendly countries in Asia, despite its deeply rooted Catholic culture. LGBT people have carved out a place for themselves in churches across the country, even taking on key roles in spreading the faith. As global Catholicism seeks to reconcile its difficult relationship with sexual orientation and gender expression, this deeply Catholic Southeast Asian country embodies both conflict and harmony between doctrinal teachings on identity and modernity.

Read more: Homophobia is not an Asian value. It’s time for the East to reconnect with its own traditions of tolerance

“I think the recognition that a person has multiple dimensions has made my life easier,” says Gabriel, of his identity as a gay Catholic. “I don’t live separate lives – I don’t live as an LGBT person outside the Church and then as a Catholic inside the Church.”

Dialogue, even with conservative fundamentalists who oppose his way of life, is the way he reconciles his faith with religious doctrines that marginalize him.

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community walk past a religious rowdy during the annual LGBT Pride celebration in Marikina City, east of Manila, the Philippines, June 30, 2018.

Richard James Mendoza—NurPhoto/Getty Images

With over 1.2 billion members worldwide, the Roman Catholic Church has greatly influenced modern life, laws and customs. But LGBT rights in Catholic countries have been strongly pushed back by conservatives, who cite Bible verses and Church documents to affirm their opposition to homosexuality and support their rigid insistence that it is not there are only two sexes.

Nonetheless, Catholicism has responded to cultural shifts and demands for inclusiveness. Pope Francis hinted at these changes as early as 2013, with his famous “Who am I to judge?” remark on homosexual clerics. But even his attitude towards the LGBT community is complicated: he supports homosexual civil unions, but opposes the marriage and membership of homosexual priests in the Church. Gender theory for Pope Francis is a ‘muddled concept of freedom’, but he welcomes LGBT people into faith and has taken the issue of inclusivity much further than any of his predecessors, ruffling the orthodox feathers.

The Philippines, with its relatively relaxed social norms on LGBT issues, fits the Pope’s message. If an LGBT person visibly professes the faith, lay Catholics find it “tolerable”, says Jayeel Cornelio, sociologist of religions at Ateneo de Manila University.

Popular Catholicism in the Philippines

Pre-colonial animist religion in the Philippines embraced the plurality of genders. The native priestesses, known as babaylan, were revered. While most were women, some were male shamans who “marry other men and lie with them”. These men dressed like women, a practice permitted in pre-colonial culture. Only with the arrival of Spanish conquistadores in the sixteenth century that the status of the babaylan amended. They were reviled and driven out by Roman Catholic missionaries as Spain sought to impose its religion on the archipelago.

Catholicism has since seeped deep into Filipino life, taking on the fervor of a folk religion for many adherents. During Lent, worshipers volunteer to be nailed to a cross both as a penance and as a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Before Christmas Eve, many attend a series of nine-day masses in the belief that their wishes will come true. A Party in January, millions wear brown and yellow in praise of the Black Nazarene, walking barefoot and carrying rags to wipe the statue in the belief that the cloth will absorb healing powers.

Being LGBT and Catholic in the Philippines is not easy

A devotee kisses an idol of Jesus Christ during the start of the Black Nazarene Festival on January 7, 2014 in Manila, Philippines.

Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

While great importance is placed on rituals and feasts like these, Catholic doctrine is not accepted without question. A law increasing access to contraceptives was nevertheless passed, for example, despite fierce opposition from Catholic leaders. “I don’t think anyone, not even the most conservative or fundamentalist individual, can be 100 percent consistent with anything their own church proclaims,” ​​Cornelio explains.

So while the Catechism states that “homosexual acts are inherently disordered,” LGBT people in the Philippines have no difficulty identifying as Roman Catholics.

Read more: What the Asian LGBTQ+ movement can learn from Japan

The Philippine Conference of Catholic Bishops (CBCP) emphasizes that it does not discriminate against those who, like Gabriel, want to serve. But the LGBT community is also expected “not to change God” and the doctrines of the Church, says Father Jérôme Secillano, executive secretary of the CBCP’s public affairs committee: “They should rather change for God, l Church and its Doctrines. And this is true for everyone… God is there to guide the destinies of men. It’s not the other way around. »

Catholics against anti-discrimination laws

Around the world, conservative Catholics and other fundamentalist groups have lobbied against LGBT rights. In the Philippines, an anti-discrimination law has been dragging on in Congress for 20 years. He has the support of devout Catholic senators who see equal rights as an extension of the faith, but has faced determined opposition.

Rey Valmores-Salinas, president of LGBT rights group Bahaghari, accuses the Catholic Church and other religious groups of blocking anti-discrimination law even though “LGBT rights are human rights “.

Some cities have since enacted their own anti-discrimination ordinances. The absence of these laws can prove deadly. Little to no data is available on hate crimes in the Philippines, but data compiled by Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitor project shows that at least 77 murders of trans and gender diverse people took place between 2008 and September 2021 (The report warns that many hate crimes remain undocumented and the true number may be much higher.) One of the most notorious cases involved a US Marine who killed a trans woman in 2014. He went on to pardoned by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Being LGBT and Catholic in the Philippines is not easy

A Catholic from the Philippines attends a mass in Vatican City, Vatican, March 14, 2021.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

How Dialogue Can Strengthen the Catholic Faith

While Gabriel says he abstains from sex with men and sometimes struggles to reconcile his sexual identity with his religious belief, other members of his community are more assertive about their sex and their sexual orientation.

Having grown up transgender and born into the Catholic Church, Valmores-Salinas said she wouldn’t allow herself to be treated like an “abomination”. She argues that if Jesus Christ were on Earth today, the Messiah would stand with the LGBT community. “I think standing up for equality is what it means to be holy,” says Valmores-Salinas, who now calls himself an agnostic.

Sociologist Cornelio believes that younger generations of secular Catholics show more impatience with conservative beliefs. The test of this will come soon. As its social influence wanes, the Church holds the so-called Synod on Synodality – a two-year listening process billed as the “largest consultation in the history of mankind”, with the faithful invited to share their views on the future direction of the Church.

Read more: The Philippines elects its first transgender MP

Many adherents of the Catholic faith, including the LGBT community, hope the process will bring about meaningful change. There are signs: Last month, Sister Nathalie Becquart, a senior Vatican official, spoke with LGBT Catholics around the world in an unprecedented dialogue “to foster communion and build consensus” to “discern how the Holy Spirit calls the Church forward”.

If the battle can be won in a socially conservative Catholic country like the Philippines, it can be won anywhere. Gabriel recounts how he once confronted a parishioner who was offended by his feminine attire while he was singing with the choir during mass. When he asked her why her appearance bothered her, she was at a loss for words, he said.

“I just said to him, ‘I understand. You might not be comfortable seeing someone like me in the church,’ Gabriel told TIME. said they were looking at me, approached me after the service and even congratulated me because our choir played very well. They don’t see me as I dress, but as I serve.

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