The High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of goals agreed by member states of the United Nations to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people are able to reach their potential – has kicked off at the UN headquarters in New York. This subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council is responsible for the entire organization’s sustainable-development policy, reviewing progress of member states toward achieving the goals, discussing best practice, negotiating steps going forward, and patting each other on the back while competing somewhat on who is doing better than whom.
As the name suggests, it is a high-level space, which, at first glance, seems far removed from realities on the ground. But in actual fact, it could have a very real impact, especially if inclusion of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) people becomes an aspect states pat each other on the back, and compete against one another, about.
For LGBTIQ people in the Philippines, that could certainly make a world of difference.
LGBTIQ people are among the most vulnerable groups in societies across the world, and have been repeatedly left behind by national and international development initiatives. Discriminatory laws, projects that don’t acknowledge our existence of specific needs, and societal stigma have all held LGBTIQ people back from reaching our full potential and, in turn, contributing to society to our maximum ability.
In the Philippines, same-sex sexual activity has never been illegal. Societal attitudes have been improving in recent years. But at a national, policymaking level, LGBTIQ people are not a priority – there are no legal or policy protections for them, as an anti-discrimination bill that includes grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity has been stuck in Congress for 19 years, with no political will to get it unstuck.
This political apathy comes through at the High-Level Political Forum too. The Philippines is one of 47 countries that have volunteered to undergo a voluntary national review of their progress in the implementation of the SDGs, and one of only seven that are doing so for the second time. By doing so, the Philippines is expressing its commitment to the SDGs, and, by extension, to their core principle – “leave no one behind.”
Yet LGBTIQ people are being left behind. The report prepared by the Philippines for the Voluntary National Review, which spans over 50 pages and boasts about the undoubtedly great steps the country has taken en route to achieving the SDGs, does not mention LGBTIQ people, sexual orientation or gender identity a single time. This is despite “reducing inequalities” (Goal 10) being one of the key goals under review this year. Moreover, the word “gender” is used only once, and even then only in quoting the specific SDG that tackles gender inequality, instead referencing biological sex throughout the report.
As such, the report entirely overlooks LGBTIQ people and makes no effort to ensure that we are not “left behind.”
The thing that makes me especially sad is not just the fact that LGBTIQ people – a group that is among the most vulnerable, among the most left behind – is, yet again, being overlooked by an instrument that is supposed to ensure our inclusion (that’s nothing new, really), it is the fact that there is so much potential for LGBTIQ inclusion to progress leaps and bounds in the Philippines. If only there were the political will to do so.
For example, last year, Outright Action International and EnGendeRights launched an access-to-services project for LGBTIQ people suffering from domestic-partner violence in Quezon City – the country’s first city to have anti-discrimination legislation, including guidelines on application of the legislation in cases concerning LGBTI people – and the response was tremendous.
The project was championed by the vice-mayor of Quezon City, Joy Belmonte, who has since been elected mayor, and through it 178 service providers in at least 72 of the 142 barangays received comprehensive training on addressing domestic and partner violence of LGBTI persons. Now, LGBTIQ-friendly service providers are officially and visibly labeled as such, and even tricycle (three-wheeled public utility vehicle) drivers know where to take LGBTIQ people in need. And all of this was done without the national government’s backing. Imagine what success we’d have if political will improved only a little bit.
I will be watching eagerly for news from the High-Level Political Forum, where OutRight Action International is one of the conveners of the LGBTI stakeholders group – a formal civil-society mechanism engaging in the conference. Will other countries be reporting on their efforts to include LGBTIQ people? Will member states participating in negotiations, sharing best practices, asking questions, ensure that LGBTIQ people are not left behind, not forgotten as we have been for centuries? Will competing over LGBTIQ inclusion, and patting each other on the back for steps taken to ensure LGBTIQ people are not left behind, become more prominent this year and in years to come? I hope so.
For LGBTIQ people in the Philippines, that could be a game-changer.