Opinion

Manny Pacquiao: An Accidental LGBT Rights Supporter?

The champion's strategy: Divide and fail.
ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano
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World boxing celebrity-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao is pontificating his way into the Philippine legislative mill. While he was already known for his unreasonable religiosity prior to his election as Senator, his new political position has enabled further his bible thumping ways. He often explains his policy pronouncements with biblical verses instead of constitutional provisions.

Senator Pacquiao drew flak during the 2016 campaign period for saying that gay people are "worse than animals" and for quoting a Leviticus passage that condemns gay people to death. He later apologized, but the incident cost him lucrative endorsement deals with Nike and other brands.

That incident obviously has not deterred Senator Pacquiao from throwing Old Testament verses inside the Senate chamber. He has invoked the Bible to champion a government proposal to restore the death penalty, claiming that God is for capital punishment, and that Jesus himself was sentenced to death.

A few days ago, he used Bible verses again to spar with another senator, Risa Hontiveros, during the Senate plenary debate on the Anti-Discrimination Bill (Senate Bill No. 2791), a long-pending measure that penalizes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE). The bill provides for extensive protection for Filipinos against SOGIE-based abuses in education, healthcare, employment, public service, and in commercial establishments, including maltreatment by police and military.

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His extremist, LGBTs-will-turn-into-pillars-of-salt stance on the bill is likely to alienate Catholic Filipinos, a majority of whom may feel strong opposition towards same-sex marriage but favor non-discrimination.

Pacquiao's opposition is a complete turn-around to an earlier promise he made to support the bill in order to counter the criticism he faced for his anti-same sex marriage commentary. At a recent Senate debate, he pointed out that the bible recognizes men and women only, and therefore disallows cross-dressing. He also argued that cross-dressing may be used to commit fraud, as in the case of Jennifer Laude, a Filipina transwoman strangled to death by American serviceman Joseph Scott Pemberton three years ago. Pacquiao argued that the US marine killed Laude because the latter led him to believe that she's a woman, not a man.

Hontiveros, a neophyte senator and a long-time champion of LGBT rights, defended the bill with political agility: with the other senators who took to the floor to debate the bill, she presented solid constitutional and legal grounds to justify its approval; with Pacquiao, she engaged in a biblical tit-for-tat that demonstrated a more tolerant interpretation of the bible.

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And there lies the weakness in Pacquiao's opposition to the Anti-Discrimination Bill.

His extremist, LGBTs-will-turn-into-pillars-of-salt stance on the bill is likely to alienate Catholic Filipinos, a majority of whom may feel strong opposition towards same-sex marriage but favor non-discrimination.

A national survey conducted two years ago showed that while three out of four Filipinos are against legal recognition for same-sex relationship, an overwhelming majority supports legal protection against discrimination.

His penchant to use the Bible to defend his political stance could also divide religious opposition to the bill. His tactic to use his faith to champion the reimposition of the death penalty puts the Catholic leadership in a bind, and would make it difficult for the Church to rally behind Pacquiao in his quest to block the bill. It helps, too, that conservative Senator Tito Sotto, Pacquiao's main ally in the Senate, is also pro-death penalty.

There is an unprecedented momentum that favors the bill's approval. The number of legislators in the House of Representatives and the Senate who have signed the bill has significantly increased, thanks to the consistent advocacy of its long-time champions (Read about the bill and its history here). The election of the country's first transgender member of Congress also made the bill more compelling for legislators, a majority of whom are more open to listen to their peers than to advocates. A policy advocacy coalition of LGBT groups called LAGABLAB was recently reconstituted, and the network has been providing support to the bill's champions. Last week, February 13, it was approved at the House Committee on Rules

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Through the sheer grit and enduring support of its champions in Congress and the tenacity of LGBT rights advocates, the bill is moving forward. And perhaps unbeknownst to Senator Pacquiao, he is unwittingly driving the bill towards further approval.

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Jonas Bagas
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