Being LGBT and Catholic In the Philippines Is Not Easy

Gabb’z Gabriel is the very definition of a devout Roman Catholic. He even wanted to be a priest. At 12, he became part of his church’s youth ministry in Quezon City, about 10 km from the Philippine capital of Manila. He has participated in Holy Week pilgrimages, walking naked on hot asphalt. Now 34, he’s a regular choir member, and sometimes reads scripture to parishioners. He maintains icons and religious statuary that he uses on religious holidays in his spare time.

Gabriel is only one among the over 80 million Filipinos, or 85%, that profess Catholicism. But in a crowd of churchgoers on Black Saturday, he stands out with his shoulder-length black hair, his sleeveless kimono haltered by a pink belt, singing the Lord’s praises in a falsetto voice. “I am a gay man,” he tells TIME. “My gender expression is feminine.”

The Philippines, which is deeply rooted in Catholicism, has been known for being one of Asia’s most welcoming countries to LGBT people. LGBT people have carved out their own space in the country’s churches, even taking up key roles in spreading the faith. This Catholic country in Southeast Asia is a symbol of the conflict between Catholicism’s difficult relationships with homosexual orientation and gender expression. It also represents both harmony and discord within Catholicism’s doctrinaire teachings about identity and modernity.

Learn more: Homophobia is not an Asian value. It’s Time for the East to Reconnect to Its Own Traditions of Tolerance

“I think the acknowledgement that a person has multiple dimensions made it easier for me to live this life,” Gabriel says, of his identity as a gay Catholic. “I am not living separate lives—I’m not living as an LGBT person outside the Church and then a Catholic inside the Church.”

He reconciles his faith to the religious doctrines that marginalize his religion through dialogue, even with conservative fundamentalists.

On June 30, 2018, members of the LGBT community walked past a protestor during an annual LGBT Pride celebration. Marikina City is east of Manila in the Philippines.

Richard James Mendoza—NurPhoto/Getty Images

The Roman Catholic Church, which has over 1.2 million members around the world, has had a huge impact on modern society, law and customs. The Catholic Church has been a strong opponent to LGBT rights. They cite Bible verses as well as documents from the Church in order to support their rigid belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Catholicism responded to the demands of inclusivity and cultural shifts. Pope Francis hinted at these changes as early as 2013, with his famed “Who am I to judge?” remark on gay clergymen. Even his approach to LGBT people is complex. He supports gay civil unions but opposes the marriage of homosexual priests. Gender theory for Pope Francis is a “confused concept of freedom,” but he welcomes LGBT individuals into the faith and has taken the issue of inclusivity much farther than any of his predecessors, ruffling orthodox feathers.

The Philippines, with its relatively relaxed social norms on LGBT issues, chimes with the Pope’s message. If an LGBT person is visibly professing the faith, the Catholic laity finds them “tolerable,” says Jayeel Cornelio, a sociologist of religion at Ateneo de Manila University.

Folk Catholicism in The Philippines

The Philippines’ precolonial indigenous animistic religion accepted gender plurality. The Indigenous Priestesses were also known as the babaylanThey were highly revered. While most were female, some were male shamans who “marry other males and sleep with them.” These men would dress like women, a practice permissible in pre-colonial culture. Spanish was the only reason for this change. conquistadoresIn the 16th Century, the position of the babaylan changed. The Spanish missionaries to Rome Catholicism tried to make Spain’s religion the law of the archipelago. They made them vile and drove them out.

Since then, Catholicism has infused itself deeply into Filipino culture and became a popular religion. During Lent, devotees volunteer to get nailed to a cross as both penance and re-enactment of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Many people attend nine days of Masses before Christmas Eve in hopes that their desires will be fulfilled. There are many things to do in A. FestaMillions of people dress up in yellow and maroon in January to praise the Black Nazarene.

An idol of Jesus Christ is kissed by a follower during the Feast of the Black Nazarene which began on January 7, 2014 at Manila, Philippines.

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Even though rituals, festivals and other religious celebrations have a lot of importance, Catholic doctrine has not been resisted. For example, the law to increase contraceptive access was passed despite strong opposition from Catholic leaders. “I don’t think there is anyone, not even the most conservative or fundamentalist individual can be 100% consistent with everything that his or her own church proclaims,” he explains.

So while the Catechism states that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” LGBT persons in the Philippines have no difficulty identifying as Roman Catholic.

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Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines emphasizes that they do not discriminate against people like Gabriel, who are willing to serve. But the LGBT community is also expected “not to change God” and Church doctrines, says Father Jerome Secillano, executive secretary of CBCP’s public affairs committee: “Rather, they should change for God, the Church and its doctrines. And this is true for everyone…God is here to guide the destinies of men. It is not the other way around.”

Catholics opposed to anti-discrimination law

Conservative Catholics around the globe have long lobbied against LGBT rights. A law banning discrimination in the Philippines has languished in Congress for over 20 years. The bill has the support of Catholic senators, who view equal rights as an extension and continuation of their faith. But it is facing determined opposition.

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

Some cities have passed their anti-discrimination ordinances. These laws may prove fatal. Little to no data is available on hate crimes in the Philippines, but data collated by Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitor project show that at least 77 murders of trans and gender-diverse people took place between 2008 and September 2021. The report cautions that there are many hate crimes that have not been documented and may even be more. The most well-known case involved the U.S. Marine, who in 2014 killed a transwoman. Later, President Rodrigo Duterte pardoned him.

An American Catholic attends Mass in Vatican City on March 14, 2021.

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The power of dialogue to strengthen the Catholic faith

Gabriel claims he does not sex with any men and sometimes struggles with reconciling his sexual identity and his religious beliefs. However, other members of his community tend to be more open about their sexual orientations and genders.

Growing up transgender and born into the Catholic Church, Valmores-Salinas said she would not allow herself to be treated as 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 says she is now agnostic.

Cornelio is a sociologist who believes the younger generation of Catholic laity has more difficulty accepting conservative ideas. Soon, that test will be taken. As its social influence wanes, the Church is conducting the so-called Synod on Synodality—a two-year listening process billed as the “largest consultation in human history,” with the faithful invited to share their views on the Church’s future direction.

Learn more: Philippines Elects First Transgender Congresswoman

Many Catholic believers, and the LGBT community in particular, believe that the process will lead to meaningful changes. There are signs: last month, senior Vatican official Sister Nathalie Becquart talked to LGBT Catholics worldwide in an unprecedented dialogue “to foster communion and build a consensus” in order to “discern how the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to move forward.”

The battle is possible in any country if the Philippines can win it. Gabriel tells of a time when he confronted a woman parishioner over her feminine clothing while singing in the choir at Mass. Gabriel recalls that he confronted a female parishioner who took offense at his feminine attire while he was singing with the choir during Mass.

“I just told her, ‘I understand. You may not be comfortable seeing someone like me in the church,’” Gabriel tells TIME. “‘But the people that you said were looking at me, approached me after the service and they even congratulated me because our choir performed really well. They do not see me as how I dress, but how I serve.”

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