More than 70,000 people participated in the Metro Manila Pride March, making it the largest Pride celebration in Southeast Asia. This, despite the Philippines having the region’s largest Catholic population in Asia.
Gray skies and persistent rainfall didn’t deter the crowd on Saturday, June 29. The frenetic energy was palpable even in the streets leading up to the Marikina Sports Center, as it became awash with the colors of the Rainbow Flag, the symbol of the LGBTQ community. From small hand-held flags to massive tapestries, pride was splashed everywhere - across shirts, cheeks, and hair. Some attendees came in full regalia, wearing big wigs and 4-inch stilettos, while others turned condoms to balloons adorned with positive messages.
“My officemates and I used to celebrate our sexuality by ourselves in the office,” Marky Diosana, a government worker who braved the thunderstorms, told VICE. “[But] it’s a bigger world out there. There [are] more people to meet. We’re here to express ourselves without judgment.”
While the Philippines boasts the largest Pride numbers however - which may seem ironic against the backdrop of the Church’s influence on the state and Filipinos’ opinions - the country has much to work on in terms of LGBTQ rights. The Philippines likes to think of itself as an LGBTQ-friendly nation. Yet while it’s certainly friendlier towards the community than many of its neighbors, many LGBTQ members feel they are tolerated, rather than they are accepted.
The Catholic Church, in particular, has had a complex relationship with the community. While officials of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) spoke against Senator Manny Pacquiao when he made derogatory statements at the community’s expense in 2016, the Church has also remained steadfastly against marriage equality.
Outside the Church, laws to protect the community are also far from enough. The Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Bill, which has been in legislative limbo for 19 years, failed to get through the Philippine Senate last month. The bill is now back to square one.
There are also no laws preventing companies from discriminating against LGBTQ members, Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce co-founder Evan Tan told VICE during the march. Employees can be fired because of their gender, and employment can be refused towards members.
Issues like these are what drove cis allies such as Sab Aguirre to march with their best friends, sons and daughters, and co-workers - to express solidarity alongside those who had fewer rights than they did.
“They deserve every human and civil right I have as a hetero because, honestly, they are better people than me—they are better people than a lot of straight people who have these rights. I think they deserve the best in this world,” Aguirre told VICE.
The event often got emotional and hugs were aplenty.
Mike Miguel, who has attended Pride twice in a row, likens the event to a family gathering. “Everyone's just so happy and welcoming. It's like seeing your favorite cousins: you laugh, you hug it out, and just dance around till you can’t no more.”
“There's nothing more fulfilling than knowing you did your part in helping your community. And seeing everyone with the exact same spirit was the cherry on top. It's not every day you see unity like that in action, because at the end of the day, beyond the colorful flags and flashy outfits, it is still indeed a protest,” he added.
The Pride parade has always had its roots in politics. This year’s theme, Resist Together, harks back to its origins in the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations in New York City that have become widely known as a symbolic call for gay rights worldwide.
Filipino-Sudanese medical student Effy Elmubarak continues to be inspired by the figures behind these demonstrations, particularly by Marsha Johnson, a drag queen and gay rights activist. For Elmubarak, people shouldn’t forget intersectionality, that members in the community come from all walks of life.
“I wanted to attend so I could march alongside my brothers and sisters (and everyone in between) in the LGBT community, to protest the calls for LGBT rights for all sectors whether it be the workers, the fishermen, the farmers, the teachers,” she said.
The Philippines joins the rest of the world in celebrating Stonewall’s 50th anniversary this year. In Seoul, protestors raised awareness on the perils of religious conservatism. In San Francisco, organizers shared the platform with Google employees protesting the company’s policies towards LGBTQ harassment in platforms like YouTube.
Aside from being the largest, the Metro Manila Pride March is also the oldest Pride celebration in the region. In 1994, members of the Progressive Organization of Gays in the Philippines and the Metropolitan Manila Church of Manila, a Protestant Christian denomination with a specific outreach towards the LGBTQ community, organized a commemoration of Stonewall’s 25th anniversary, thus becoming the first Pride march in Asia.
Since the Metro Manila Pride organization took over the parade in 2017, the number of participants has increased exponentially: this year’s event beat the previous year’s record of 25,000 people.
This demonstration is especially timely under the current administration, which has fueled further discrimination against the community in some instances. During a speech last May in Japan, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he used to be homosexual but has since “cured” himself.
Will things soon change for the better?
Recent polls show that there’s a long way to go. Sixty-one percent of Filipinos oppose same-sex civil unions, according to the results of a Social Weather Stations survey. Last month, the Philippine House of Representatives conducted a poll on same-sex unions. Results were divided. Most recently, an interview for potential Supreme Court justices revealed deeply entrenched backward views.
While outlook may look grim, however, the overwhelmingly positive atmosphere during the march was no doubt a demonstration of hope.
There’s plenty more to fight for, surely. But with a massive show of support and small but consistent steps, there’s also cause for celebration.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.