Pope's Support for Same-Sex Civil Unions Jolts Efforts for Change in Philippines

Lawmakers and couples say momentum for action is building in the country after the pontiff's stunning remarks.
November 3, 2020, 6:55am
Philippines
Philippine members and supporters of the LGBT community take part in a gay pride march calling for equal rights in Manila on June 29, 2019. Photo: by Noel CELIS / AFP

A bill aiming to give same-sex couples in the Philippines spousal and property rights has languished in the House of Representatives for three years due to strong opposition from the country's influential Catholic Church.

But after Pope Francis' stunning endorsement of same-sex civil unions last month, the lawmaker who first submitted the legislation is optimistic that resistance from her conservative colleagues is fading.

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"There are so many limitations that we have set in our laws in the country today that do not fit the society we have right now," Bernadette Herrera-Dy told VICE News. She added that she senses a major shift in thinking on the issue in Congress, where a similar bill to hers was filed in the Senate late last year.

Francis made the comments in a documentary released on Oct. 21, and while he has made similar endorsements before, it was the first time he had done so as pontiff, offering a glimmer of hope for gay Catholics across the world.

"Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They're children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it," he told filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky for the feature-length documentary "Francesco."

"What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that," he said. 

The words landed in Catholic-majority Philippines with force, putting Church leaders on the defensive but raising expectations among same-sex marriage advocates, even if it meant settling for civil unions or civil partnerships. A spokesperson for President Rodrigo Duterte, who has expressed support for gay marriage rights in the past, said the pontiff's remarks should clear the way for change.

"With no less than the Pope supporting it, I think even the most conservative of all Catholics in Congress should no longer have a basis for objecting it," spokesperson Harry Roque said in a televised briefing. 

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But it's couples who will be most affected, and they are following the debate closely, especially after what Francis said. 

"The Catholic Church must be progressive," said Filipino singer Ice Seguerra, who identifies as a transgender man. Seguerra's marriage to actress Liza Diño-Seguerra was recognized in the U.S. but legal obstacles back home are thwarting them from starting a family.

"We are being limited by conservative beliefs," Liza told VICE News. "Business partners have more rights than us same-sex couples." 

The Philippines is the biggest Catholic stronghold in Asia, and Church leaders influence politics, policy and day-to-day life. They have opposed same-sex marriage bills, anti-discrimination bills and pushes to legalize abortion, which can be punishable by jail time in the country. They also staunchly oppose the death penalty.

When the news about the pontiff's interview broke, a retired bishop in the Philippines said he was "scandalized by his defense of homosexual union, which surely leads to immoral acts." But the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has defended Francis, saying he has not changed the church's traditional stance on marriage between a man and a woman, which is different from a civil union.

"He is not out to destroy our morals and orthodoxy. He just wants to do as Jesus himself did. He valued being kind and compassionate more than being right and righteous," the CBCP said in a statement on Oct. 26.

The reactions echoed responses from prominent Catholic figures around the world who scrambled to clarify the meaning of Francis' remarks by trying to emphasize there was no real difference in position.

But for lawyer Jesus Falcis, who petitioned the Supreme Court of the Philippines to allow same-sex marriage in 2015, the statement will inevitably "push the conversation" forward at a time when gay rights are expanding elsewhere in the region, with Taiwan leading the way.

"What I've seen is there's now a distinction or an ability from the Catholic Church to distinguish the legal side from the religious side. They're carving out a space for the support of the LGBT community while maintaining the 'moral teachings of the church,'" Falcis told VICE News.