Something kept me awake these past two nights. I was thinking about the weekend I spent in Zamboanga. It was going to be just another place I’ve visited; new people I’d meet but faces I’d sooner forget. But I was wrong and that trip made such an impression on me because of the kids I became acquainted with.
Zamboanga was typically like the rest of Mindanao – exotic, teeming with colorful and vibrant flavor, both from its Islamic as well as indigenous cultures. It was also unfortunately reflective of the economic and political realities that have plagued the region. The abject poverty was apparent from the lack of high-end amenities if not basic facilities, the obvious limited infrastructure and public service utilities. The presence of police and military personnel also depicts the state of peace and order in the area; where there is always a fragile sense of safety and security, when armed conflict, evacuations and senseless bombings can occur anytime.
A week before I went to Zamboanga, there were already reported bombing incidents. Days before we arrived, there were at least two clashes between the rebel groups and the government forces. My sister told me our Mom worried about me. But Zamboanga was already a compromise location, since our original target audience were actually the youth from Jolo, Sulu. Our friend and local LGBT partner insisted we reach out to these LGBTs in the far-flung areas. Part of us sincerely wanted to, but we also worried about logistical arrangements and the feasibility of the activity. The monetary costs alone would be staggering. But we promised we’d try, and we always do our best. So three months later, after some support from embassy friends, we managed to do so.
The more than a dozen kids who were supposed to be our participants were clearly excited, as well as their guardians, two local women working with human rights groups. They felt honoured to be visited by people from all the way from Manila. They were not used to being given such importance. For people who feel that they have been forgotten by everyone, especially the government, they understood it was important that they come and meet us. Opportunities like this do not reach them often, and they really expected to learn from us.
Beforehand, we were already told about the communities where these youth live. Make-shift houses, wooden bridges and dirt roads are their immediate environs. They come from very poor families and most of them have already stopped schooling because of financial constraints. While they belong to a populous ethnic tribe, the Tausugs, majority of the members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Abu Sayaff forces are also Tausugs, so this negative stereotype and notoriety likewise rubs off on them.
In a Muslim dominated region, where patriarchy and machismo also abounds, religious and cultural practices make for an oppressive situation for females. And to be a sexual minority in these parts, is even doubly riskier. Add to that the fact that they are minors, lesbian teenagers just barely out of their childhood.
Before giving my lecture, I knew it would be hard to talk about LGBT human rights and all, when the most basic of human needs is not even satisfied. So I decided to speak about identities and individual empowerment instead, through gender and sexuality concepts. The exercises and workshops were no different from our old modules, but this time, we chose to emphasize on raising their awareness and understanding possibilities. For people whose minds were conditioned to accept specific gender-stereotypes in their culture, the mere possibility of changing people’s perspective about them was already mind-boggling. Yet in a way, I believed they knew these things all along; by challenging hetero-normativity in their communities alone, these thoughts were the same dreams and yearnings they’ve harboured within themselves for so long. These are unarticulated hopes and dreams, yet cultivated within for a chance to be actually lived.
From stories shared by their two guardians, Ate Jocelyn and Ka Julma, the kind of trouble these kids get into are not only typical, but also partly expected. Because they have stopped schooling, without any other productive activities to occupy them, some of them are drawn to barkadas who get into minor scrapes with the law – be it fist fights, drug busts or girlfriend-related issues. The problem is, their criminal offenses only adds to their troubles and further justifies such labels as “siksah” or cursed one, and “haram” which is violative of, if not an actual affront to Islamic beliefs.
Of course, such negativity cannot be escaped and is bound to have an effect on the youth. Low self-esteem, insecurity, and even self-hate can result. This discriminatory and homophobic bombardments will no doubt adversely affect a lesbian youth.
During one of our workshops, they were asked to dramatize in a short skit their own ideas and experiences of homophobia and discrimination. They instantly got creative, albeit shy with their performances. But it was clear to them that these instances hurt deeply and were wrong to happen to them. Later, they were given the opportunity to showcase their talents. We didn’t have ordinary icebreakers or energizers, we had a full-blown intermission number from them. One was a modern hip-hop dance worthy of being featured in Pinoys Got Talent; the other was a traditional Tausug dance called “pangalay”. Moving to music slightly reminiscent of the popular “dayang-dayang” tempo and also the Indonesian “dangdut” music, I was told that the extremely difficult steps are also ritualistically performed atop two bamboo poles. By some happy accident, the venue’s operators (Philippine National Red Cross) saw them dancing and asked them to perform at the Ms. Red Cross beauty pageant they were having next door. The kids jumped at the chance, of course. That night, during the fellowship videoke party we had, they also sang their hearts out – never missing a beat or singing out of tune.
The next day, I reminded them about these small things – that as Tausugs, they belong to a proud “warrior” tribe; they should harness the best qualities of their culture, strength and bravery but not violence or unlawfulness. Similarly, I told them that they are young and talented, that they should enjoy their lives and not fall into the hopelessness of their situation. Instead of getting depressed and involved in drugs and petty crime, they should become productive and earn a living which will greatly improve their lot. For some of them who want to study but without resources, we reminded them of academic as well as athletic scholarships, of financial assistances not only for formal schooling but even for vocational and technical trainings.
I also pointed out to them that being lesbian does not mean acquiring all the “manly traits” including their “bad habits” of womanizing, drinking, smoking, gambling, and physically abusing their partners. These negative trappings of maleness are not the best part of “being like men”; instead, it is their sense of responsibility, loving and protecting loved ones, and being able to provide for the needs of their family. These are the things they should remember.
After all of these, it was then that I realized that these kids only needed positive role models. To have lesbian images similar to them, but also different in a good way. They also needed to be taken out of their situation, to be exposed to other things…possibilities and opportunities outside Jolo. It was only then that I realized that our real work, and possibly one clear achievement, was in giving them hope.
But this is easier said than done. During our fellowship gimmick at Catribu, a local drinking and party spot, military men with armalite rifles heard them speaking Tausug and suddenly cursed at them, calling them mga “Puta…” For whatever reason they were subjected to such verbal abuse, I can only speculate. But I continue to worry for these youth nonetheless.
(For Mers, MM, Nadz, Coms, Vaness, Alex, Teems, Marwa, Elvie, Raidz, Ridz, Sam and Sheva, and the rest of Tumbalata-Jolo.)