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Story by J.S

As Filipinos who are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) community remain unprotected from gender-based discrimination, they turn to few spaces safeguarding their basic freedoms.

In a crowdsourcing web map created by the gender rights group MapBeks, there are currently only 88 identified safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ in the country, 64 of which are found in Metro Manila.

Safe spaces give members of the LGBTQ+ community “freedom from crime and harassment,” “license to speak and act freely” and “collective strength,” according to Moira Kenney, author of the 2001 book “Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics.”

In MapBeks, these safe spaces may be tourist destinations, places of entertainment, cultural landmarks, community centers, restaurants, hospitals and offices of LGBTQ+ civil society organizations.

For a location to qualify as a safe space, it is first nominated by anyone from the general public. MapBeks then contacts the establishment, as well as locals familiar with it, before including it on the map.

Unfortunately, not everything is on the map yet.

Safe spaces still elude Filipinos who are LGBTQ+ beyond Metro Manila and other key cities.

There are only two beyond urban areas: one each in Claveria, Masbate and Irosin, Sorsogon. Screenshots taken from MapBeks.

Out the closet, out of reach

MapBeks founder Mikko Tamura said in a Feb. 20 online lecture that there are more safe spaces in reality, but it has become difficult to encourage establishments and organizations to put themselves on the map because they may be targeted by “hostile elements.”

As a geography graduate, Tamura experimented with the community-owned British platform OpenStreetMaps (OSM) where he tinkered with a feature that can tag LGBTQ+ friendly locations.

Having found no safe space mapped in the Philippines, he began the initiative through MapBeks.

“I’m advocating for OSM. I’m advocating open data. I’m advocating mapping. Pero bakit ‘yung mga spaces that matter to my community wala doon? ‘Di sila nare-represent sa mapa,” Tamura said.

MapBeks has yet to expand its reach beyond Metro Manila as the project was only launched publicly last year.

Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija remains one of the rural areas yet to be within MapBeks’ reach. The nearest mapped safe space is over 80km southwest at Angeles, Pampanga. Screenshot taken from MapBeks.

For Jefferson Fernandez, a 19-year-old self-identified LGBTQ+, the lack of safe spaces in his hometown of Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija deprives members of the community the “opportunity to have self-confidence.”

The entire province currently has no safe spaces mapped in MapBeks.

Fernandez has yet to be expressive of his sexuality beyond his group of friends. He said it has been a subject of occasional ridicule by his schoolmates, but not to an offensive extent.

I believe na ‘di naman kailangan ng affirmation from them na ganito — na I’m like this. … We filter kung ano papakinggan nating opinions kasi it’s for our mental health din,” he said.

Citing this experience, Fernandez believes that mapped safe spaces would invite LGBTQ+ Filipinos who are not yet out to express their sexual orientation and gender identity freely.

“Pinapaalala [nito] sa mga tao na you don’t have to be afraid kasi every person is valid,” he added.

The long arc

The Philippines has only so far established anti-discrimination ordinances (ADOs) to penalize gender-based violence, harassment and denial of public services to the LGBTQ+ community.

Compared to its Southeast Asian neighbor Thailand, the country has yet to enact a national law protecting Filipino members of the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination.

International organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates that only 15% of Filipinos live in areas protecting them with ADOs. 

At present, there are only 26 cities, one municipality, three barangays and six provinces that have enacted such a policy.

With the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Bill still tabled in Congress, the LGBTQ+ continue to bank on local ordinances in asserting their basic human rights. 

But even if these measures are in place, they are not completely felt, Tamura said.

Persons of diverse SOGIE are continuously at the receiving end of rampant attacks, even in Metro Manila where most of these safe spaces are located.

Despite following physical distancing measures, state forces arrested 20 people attending a  Manila Pride protest in June 2020 for alleged violations of community quarantine protocols.

In 2019, transgender woman Gretchen Diez was barred from entering a women’s restroom in a Cubao mall, which sparked public outrage. She was reportedly arrested, even though authorities could not decide what case to file against her. 

In that same year, then UP instructor Hermie Monterde, a transgender woman, was initially denied tenureship at UP Manila. Students suspected the rejection on the basis of her SOGIE under the guise of “professional and interpersonal concerns.”

And in September 2020, American lance corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton received a presidential pardon for killing transgender woman Jennifer Laude in 2014.

Pemberton’s release sent shockwaves throughout the community and is evidence that the country is unsafe for the LGBTQ+ community, said Rey Salinas, spokesperson of LGBTQ+ rights group Bahaghari.

These attacks are not isolated incidents.

A 2018 survey by the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce and Cogencia found that one-third of LGBTQ+ workers in the corporate sector were harassed by their colleagues and one-quarter were harassed by their employers. 

It also discovered that more than 80% of companies had no policies to curb discrimination based on SOGIE.

Schools also cannot guarantee sanctuary.

HRW reported in 2017 that LGBTQ+ students constantly face verbal and physical bullying from classmates — and sometimes from teachers. 

The report concludes that campus policies with a binary perspective of SOGIE, such as dress codes and gendered restrooms, contribute to the hostility towards LGBTQ+ learners.

Homes present much pressure as well. A University of Santo Tomas study showed that parents’ acceptance of their LGBTQ+ children lowers their suicidal tendencies.

Safe spaces are their ultimate refuge from individuals and institutions that discriminate against them every day, yet these still remain sparse in the across the country.

Changing tides

Danger is inevitable when talking of the LGBTQ+ community in the current cultural and political climate, Tamura said. But the tides are changing.

Filipinos broke the record for the largest Pride march in Southeast Asia in 2019.

The nation’s most populous city, Quezon City, passed an ADO that same year and has 31 mapped safe spaces on MapBeks as of writing.

“Through maps, we are asserting existence and power to be evident sa mga decision-makers,” Tamura added.

Until then, Tamura hopes for a time when all places are rid of discrimination that mapping safe spaces are no longer needed.

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