Typhoon in the Philippines: Equality Amidst Adversity

By Ging Cristobal

This article orginally appeared in The Huffington Post on 12/19/2013 »

Ging Cristobal

By Ging Cristobal, Project Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific Islands

Natural disasters do not affect everyone equally or in the same ways. By this I don't mean that tsunamis affect costal communities more than those living in the mountains, or that tornados leave discrete paths of destruction that preserve entire buildings right next to those they destroy.

I mean that evidence from several countries suggests that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons are likely to be disproportionately discriminated against during relief efforts. I hope that the Philippines, after typhoon Yolanda (international codename Haiyan), has proved to be the exception. But information such as this is often slow to surface, so we are not sure.

Super Typhoon Yolanda, considered one of the most powerful and catastrophic cyclones of 2013, struck our land on November 7, 2013. It claimed thousands of lives and left tens of thousands homeless without access to basic necessities such as food, water, shelter and clothing. It continues to devastate our land in ways that cannot be overstated.

Yet for some of those affected, the burning questions are not just about whether we get adequate nourishment or shelter, but also if it is safe to be who we are.

• If one lesbian partner faces a life-threatening situation or even death, will the partner she left behind be given respect as her life partner? Can she decide for her partner's medical needs?

• Are shelters open to openly gay/lesbian people or transgender individuals?

• Will evacuation centers be sensitive to the needs of transgender persons? Will a health practitioner provide hormones to transgender women who lost all of her material belongings? Will she be given female clothes in relief centers? Will a transgender man be forced to wear female clothes and be berated for being "choosy"?

• Will transgender women be allowed to use the women's toilet and lavatory?

• Are counselors treating post-traumatic stress disorder knowledgeable to the unique and relevant needs of LGBT persons?

Even before the disaster struck, and despite limited recent advances, many LGBTI persons experienced stigma, bigotry, fear, discrimination and violence in the Philippines, and many of us have developed detailed knowledge on when and where it is safe for us to be "out." Natural disasters dismantle the public-private distinction in a way that removes our safe spaces and potentially exposes us to further discrimination -- even as we try to cope and rebuild out lives.

To be sure, everyone affected by the typhoon in the Philippines is suffering. But unless conscious efforts are made to tailor the disaster relief efforts to all who need help, inclusive of those of diverse sexual orientation or gender identity, we are essentially asking them to set aside their humanity and identity, to hide or mask who they are, for the sake of survival. We cannot do that and simultaneously claim we believe that everyone is equal.

The Philippines has been called a resilient nation and this is certainly not the first time disaster has struck our country. LGBTI persons are out and proud when we provide assistance in relief and recovery operations, and so far, I have not heard directly of any LGBTI persons being harassed, discriminated against, or abused in evacuation centers and relief operations. This does not mean inequity and marginalization does not exist or is not happening.

Being Filipino, I have experienced bayanihan -- our proud custom of everyone in the community pulling together to help each other indiscriminately -- at its finest. In my experience, the true expression of our culture is when we do not choose whom we help during trying times. Everyone is part of the community and I fervently hope that this will be maintained and extended to LGBTI persons in the community.

Natural disasters discriminate arbitrarily and unintentionally. Human beings, however, are often both directed and intentional in their exclusion of specific groups. May the continuing post-Yolanda relief efforts be the exception that proves our dignity and worth.

The author can be reached at Gcristobal@IGLHRC.org.

For more information visit the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.