Are Pinoys ready for a transgender president?

by Venir Turla Cuyco

Posted at Mar 11 2012 12:02 AM | Updated as of Mar 11 2012 08:08 AM

Heart Diño’s election as the first transgender chair of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman Student Council last March 1, 2012 excites many political observers who view it as a portent of greater participation among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Filipinos in the political arena. They have every reason to be excited. Today, indicators suggest that the Philippines will be electing more LGBTs into public offices, including Congress, in the 2013 elections. But are we ready for a transgender president?

No openly LGBT Filipino has ever been elected to a national office. Neither has an openly LGBT Filipino ever been appointed to a cabinet position, although a popular talk show host was reportedly considered for, but subsequently declined, a cabinet position in the present administration. It is possible, of course, that some closeted LGBTs may have slipped through this artificially created political ceiling. After all, the first two openly gay members of the United States House of Representatives, Barney Frank and Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, were both closeted when first elected to office.

While no openly LGBT individual has ever been elected to a national office, many have been elected to sub-national government positions. Openly LGBT politicians have been elected to local government positions in many parts of the country. In the province of Northern Samar, for instance, two out of 24 municipalities are headed by openly gay mayors. Not surprisingly, a big number of openly gay persons ran and won in the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections in those towns after the gay mayors got elected.

In a Nueva Vizcaya town, an openly transgender woman was elected municipal councilor for three terms in the early 1990s. The mayor of a town in Albay is a known lesbian even as the mayor of a town in Quezon is an openly gay man. In Metro Manila and nearby provinces, many gay entertainers who entered politics have been elected to different local government positions. In Cebu City, as in many parts of the country, many barangay officials are openly LGBT. Most of these elected officials have indicated their interest in getting reelected or in aspiring for higher office. Equally important, many young LGBTs have expressed the desire to run for public office.

Consciously or unconsciously, members of the Filipino LGBT community have adopted a two-pronged approach to their participation in national politics. One approach is to form the community’s own political organization for the purpose of supporting LGBT-friendly candidates and/or having its members run for public office themselves. The other approach is to “infiltrate” traditional or even progressive political parties and to try to influence the crafting of the party’s platform and work for its translation into public policy.
The establishment of Ladlad, the only LGBT political party in the Philippines, obviously falls under the first approach. Formed in 2002, Ladlad sought accreditation for the 2007 party-list polls but was able to participate only in the 2010 elections. While Ladlad failed to get a seat in Congress, its struggle to participate in the 2010 elections brought forth the historic Supreme Court ruling in Ang Ladlad v. COMELEC (2010), which recognized the right of LGBTs to organize themselves and participate in the party-list elections just like any other marginalized sector.

Ladlad’s heroic battle to participate in the elections, which was initially rebuffed by the Commission on Elections on religious and moral grounds, energized the LGBT community and its supporters and strengthened the party’s resolve to do better in the 2013 elections. Aware that it may lose its accreditation if it does not win a seat in the 2013 elections, Ladlad is undertaking a vigorous recruitment campaign aimed at increasing its membership base. This early, it has already prepared an impressive lineup of pre-campaign and campaign period communications plan. Ladlad’s first nominee for the 2013 party-list election will be Bemz Benedito, a transgender woman.

LGBTs’ participation in Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party falls under the second approach. Akbayan is the first political party in the Philippines to recognize the existence of and the need to correct discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Since 1998, Akbayan representatives have sponsored proposed legislation in Congress aimed at prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) in schools, workplaces, public utilities and establishments, issuance of licenses and permits, and the public service, including the military.

Akbayan party chair, Percival Cendaña, claims that the party’s legislative agenda for the LGBT community does not stop with the anti-discrimination bill. Akbayan’s version of the Reproductive Health Bill as well as its proposed amendments to the AIDS law both have a very strong bias for SOGI. Many Akbayan members I know are urging Cendaña to run as one of the party’s nominees in the 2013 elections. Cendaña, who was elected in 1997 as the first openly gay chair of the UP Diliman Student Council, is also the first openly gay chair of a Philippine political party.

Given its current membership figures, and assuming its members and supporters work as hard as they did in 2010, Ladlad may be able to get at least one seat in Congress in the elections next year. Assuming Cendaña agrees to run and becomes one of Akbayan’s first three nominees, it is also possible that Akbayan could send an openly gay man to Congress in the 2013 elections. Thus, in addition to having more openly LGBT elective local government officials, Filipinos can look forward to the distinct possibility of having openly LGBT members of Congress next year.

As for the presidency, it may take a few more election cycles. But as Heart Diño’s victory has shown, electing a transgender president is certainly within the realm of possibility.


Venir Turla Cuyco is the founding chair of UP Babaylan, the first LGBT students’ organization in the Philippines.
He is an attorney who teaches human rights and conducts research on LGBT issues. This article is based on his
forthcoming publication on the participation of Filipino LGBTs in electoral politics.