Philippine transsexual murder highlights struggle for rights

Activists participate in a protest to seek justice for a Filipino transgender Jeffrey Laude.

MANILA - The murder of a Filipina transgender woman, allegedly by a US Marine, has stoked nationalist outrage in the Philippines but activists say the spotlight should also be shone on "hate crimes" by locals targetting minority groups.

The case of 26-year-old Jennifer Laude, also known as Jeffrey, found dead in a hotel bathroom in the red-light district of the northern port city of Olongapo in October risks harming Philippine-US defence relations.

A US serviceman on a port call is the main suspect in a crime that has been used by leftist and nationalist groups to assail the American military's role in the former US colony.

But while the Laude case made headlines, the murders of four gay people at around the same time, in suspected Filipino-on-Filipino "hate crimes", garnered far less media attention, according to Clara Padilla, executive director of EnGendeRights.

"It is clear we have a strong prevalence of homophobia and transphobia in the Philippines," said Padilla, whose organisation supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Most of the victims were attacked while they were alone and stabbed repeatedly, in one case as many as 33 times, Padilla said, adding that the ferocity suggested they were hate crimes and the victims targetted because of their sexual orientation.

Although the Philippines is considered more tolerant than other developing nations, the LGBT community says it still faces heavy discrimination in the largely conservative Catholic country.

Bills barring discrimination against homosexual and transgender people have stalled for years in Congress and some institutions like schools and workplaces are open in their lack of tolerance, Padilla said.

The threat from home

An online survey of almost 500 LGBT Filipinos taken this year by advocacy group TLF Share found that one in 10 had been attacked or threatened with violence due to their sexuality in the last five years.

Almost 76 per cent of those people said the aggressors had been their own parents or siblings.

"My mother attacked me inside our house when (she) found out I had a girlfriend," one respondent was quoted as saying. "She slapped, punched and even kicked me".

Bemz Benedito, a transgender woman who manages a prominent charity, said she and many like her face discrimination or harassment when looking for regular jobs.

Many end up in the sex industry as a result.

"Why are they driven to this kind of work? Because they are discriminated against and opportunities are not really open to them in this country," she said.


"A lot of people have said we are a gay-friendly country but we are actually a 'gay-amused' country," said Eric Manalastas, a psychology professor specialising in LGBT issues at the University of the Philippines.

"When you scratch the surface you see people's true feelings," he said, citing the many harsh remarks posted about Laude in social media that blamed her for her own death.

While many have expressed outrage over the killing, Manalastas said this is largely because the suspect is a US serviceman.

"If a fellow Filipino was the prime suspect, I suspect we would not be reading about it or talking about it," he said.

Street protests over the killing have been dominated by leftist groups who are mainly concerned with cutting defence ties with the United States rather than supporting LGBT issues.

"We feel we don't have the mike. We don't have a platform," said Nicky Castillo, managing director of Rainbow Rights Philippines.

However Danton Remoto, chairman of Ladlad, a political party representing LGBT communities, said that some progress is being made.

He cited the huge success last year of a serious TV drama, "My Husband's Lover", that dealt with a married man and his boyfriend.

Ladlad was barred from taking part in the 2010 elections on grounds of "immorality" before the Supreme Court later reversed this decision.

However the party still failed to get enough votes to win a single seat in Congress.

"Only in the recent past have the Philippine National Police been more cooperative. Before, if someone gay is beaten, they would just laugh at them," Remoto said.