I’m going to start this blog post off a little differently today by quoting the extensive introduction to a news story that I read this past weekend. It’s from The New York Times, and its headline reads: “A Transgender Paradox, and Platform, in the Philippines.” Here it is:
“MARIA RESPONDO, Philippines — Angel Cabaluna dusted makeup onto her thighs, styled her hair in loose curls and applied smoky eye shadow that glittered on her lids.
“As this hamlet of cornfields and concrete houses prepared for festivities honoring its patron saint, and as some people gathered in prayer, Ms. Cabaluna, 20, was primping to compete in an annual transgender beauty pageant.
” ‘This is our passion,’ she later said.
“Dominated by conservative morals taught by the Roman Catholic Church, the Philippines is also one of Southeast Asia’s most tolerant countries toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And lawmakers are taking steps to ensure national legal protections that would penalize discrimination against them.
“At the pageant, children sat cross-legged in the dirt, crowded close to the spindly stage where the contestants spun and danced in red feather headdresses, gold brocade and clouds of tulle. The crowd laughed and cheered as they delivered flowery speeches, weaving jokes with witty rhymes, beauty-queen platitudes and proclamations on gender equality.
“In a nearby chapel, the pageant’s blaring pop songs mixed with the steady rhythm of churchgoers reciting the rosary.
“About 80 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic, and the church’s teachings often dominate public life in the Philippines. Still, Ms. Cabaluna, who considers herself very religious, said: ‘L.G.B.T. are now accepted. We are very welcome.’ “
I found the details of the juxtaposition between transgender culture and Catholic culture very moving. Actually, though, it was more than a juxtaposition, it was more a blending: a recognition and respect that each cultural sphere has for one another, and the fact that people seem to move seamlessly between these two worlds.
The article goes on to survey the way transgender people have met with growing acceptance by Filipino people. But not all corners of society are welcome. So, while Catholic grassroots culture of pageants and saint festivals can intermingle, in the world of politics, conflict can arise between sexual/gender identity and religion.
Last year, Geraldine Roman, the nation’s first openly transgender member of Congress, was able to get the House of Representatives to unanimously pass a gender identity protection bill. Such bills had failed for over two decades, opposed by “conservative politicians, backed by Catholic and evangelical groups. . . arguing that they would infringe on people’s right to religious expression.” The bill now moves to the Senate
The article noted with some surprise, it seemed that the Philippines has become so welcoming:
“A survey published by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that 73 percent of Filipinos said gay people and lesbians should be accepted by society. By comparison, neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia polled at 3 percent and 9 percent.
“Attitudes in the Philippines were comparable to countries like Britain and Italy, and ahead of the United States, where acceptance is at 60 percent. The survey found that tolerance is correlated with rich, secular societies.”
It’s not surprising, though, since a previous survey showed that heavily Catholic nations are often more supportive than other countries when it comes to LGBT equality.
Of course, not the entire nation is so welcoming. 41 transgender people were killed between 2008 and 20016, the highest rate in Southeast Asia. And Ms. Roman’s bill faces tough opposition in the Senate. In addition to opposition from evangelical Christians, the bill is being delayed by Senator Vicente Sotto III, the majority leader who is a conservative Catholic.
And one Catholic priest was quoted in the story as saying: “Transgenders are against the church. They are destroying what God gave them.”
Yet, attitudes are changing on the grassroots level, and even from some local Catholic leaders. One transgender Filipina provided some details about her life:
“Ms. Cabaluna, an accounting student, feels accepted by her family and says that gay and transgender people are “rampant” at her university. And while she finds the pageants thrilling, she also sees them as a platform for advancing gender equality.
“At church, ‘we are allowed to wear girls’ clothes,’ Ms. Cabaluna said. She has heard priests extol the same advice her mother told her: Regardless of your gender, what matters is being a good person before God and family.”
Even Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, who is often described as highly authoritarian, has made supportive statements:
” ‘Definitely, the gays were created by God,’ Mr. Duterte said on the campaign trail.
“As a teenager he examined his own sexuality, he said: ‘When I was in high school, I did not know if I wanted to be a girl or a boy.’ “
Stories of transgender acceptance by Catholic communities should remind us of what Pope Francis has been conveying throughout his papacy: what matters in church life is relationship and accompaniment. Our call as Christians should remind us to accept people, treat them with dignity and respect, and to love them, as God surely does.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 2, 2018