Rodrigo Duterte has brought a great deal of global attention to his nation due to his ability to speak plainly and in an off the cuff manner. Yet in spite of Duterte’s refreshingly casual style, he has proved to not only be a diligent public servant, but also a committed reformist and a tireless promoter of investment into The Philippines among wealthy foreign nations including China, Japan and Korea. On the domestic front, Duterte has been keenly aware of how his political opponents have inflicted decades of suffering on the people.
One of the institutions that had been allowed to get away with every element of malfeasance in The Philippines prior to Duterte’s 2016 election was the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines. In spite of The Philippines being a traditionally devout and overwhelmingly Catholic nation, the people have for decades been aware of multiple scandals emanating form the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines. Such scandals include the monopolisation of wealth in a developing country with highly impoverished regions, countless scandals involving the sexual molestation of children, the economic fleecing of the poor for services such as baptisms, weddings and funerals, the total disregard of the legal separation of church and state and an ultra-controlling social ethos that has led to divorce remaining illegal in the country whilst the welfare of LGBT Filipinos had been ignored for decades.
Duterte has stood up to the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines on multiple occasions. One of the many areas in which he has challenged clerical authority is in Duterte’s defences of LGBT rights. It was Duterte who in 2012 prohibited discrimination against LGBT people in his home city of Davao and after becoming President in 2016, he spoke of being in favour of legalising same-sex marriages. Although recently, Duterte has made the case that the traditionally Catholic society is not yet ready to be the first country in ASEAN to legalise same-sex marriage, Duterte has continually pledged to uphold the civil rights of LGBT Filipinos. As such, it is fair to say that Duterte is the country’s most LGBT friendly president in history.
It is therefore shameful that many are reporting on his recent remarks mocking his hysterical “opponent” Antonio Trillanes without properly contextualising the remarks. Duterte made the following statements alleging that Trillanes is gay whilst also alluding to his own gay identity:
“I said, ‘are you sure?’ They said, ‘you ask any gay person who sees Trillanes move, they’ll say he’s gay’. No wonder. Good thing Trillanes and I are similar– but I cured myself. When I began a relationship with Zimmerman [Duterte’s ex wife], I said, this is it. I became a man again. Duterte is gay. So I am gay, I don’t care if I’m gay or not”.
In his statement, Duterte has yet again done what he so frequently does when making seemingly outlandish remarks. In a country whose Catholic history has made many subjects ranging from divorce, atheism and homosexuality taboo, Duterte has become an expert at shattering these taboos by turning them into a large public conversation. Duterte has also realised that by employing dark humour, subjects that many were too shy to face become the topics of mainstream conservation.
His latest remarks about Trillanes further serve to normalise discussions about same-sex relations in the once ultra-religious country. The rhetorical tool that Duterte has employed is to associate homosexual experiences with both himself and a man he clearly hates (and who clearly hates him). Therefore, if someone can define part of the identity of two otherwise completely different people as the same, it must necessarily be a phenomenon that transcends ideology and personal views.
Beyond this, whilst Duterte’s policy positions on same-sex marriage have vacillated on occasion, by stating that he once identified as gay, not only is Duterte helping to ease the country into a wider discussion about LGBT rights, but he is also helping many Filipinos to understand that when sexually abused by a priest as Duterte was as a child, it often makes one confused about one’s own sexual identity in adulthood. In this sense, Duterte’s seemingly silly remarks are actually very instructive for Philippine society as they continue to shatter taboos whilst breaking importance proverbial ice.
Duterte’s private life remains his, but by promoting LGBT rights as a matter of policy and discussing his own apparent past gay identity, Duterte is helping to further weaken clerical power over a nation that would benefit greatly from a total separation of religion from state.