KASAMA Vol. 11 No. 1 / January-February-March 1997 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Going Beyond the Personal
by Malu S. Marin

Part Two

Criticisms: Lesbianism as Western

Lesbianism, much like feminism, is incessantly besieged by the criticism that its origins are western. This assertion obviously manifests societal resistance to the reality of indigenous lesbian existence. Unfortunately, even some women activists toe the line. What is conveniently forgotten is that all social movements in this country owe much of their political theories and concepts from outside sources.

Lesbian activists are well aware of this criticism, and have started taking steps to cull data from local sources and redefine concepts and strategies so these may be grounded on local realities. The efforts to give the analysis a local context are evident in the emphasis on the cultural aspect of homophobia.

For instance, the pressures faced by Filipino lesbians come primarily from the family. There is recognition of the interplay of cultural apparatuses: religion, media, value systems and tradition. The analysis examines, but does not dwell heavily, on political apparatuses, given the absence of data on state violence or persecution of lesbians and gays.

Too, the issue of coming out is weighed carefully, taking into account the specificities of Filipino culture. Despite the need for visibility, for lesbianism to have a face and a name, "coming out" occurs at varying levels and does not automatically mean media exposure or appearances. There are levels to which lesbians permit themselves to be exposed, aware as they are that they are risking their lives and identities.

To come out is not always to be empowered, for it can also mean exposing one’s vulnerabilities.


Lesbian–feminists are also criticized for acting and "speaking the language of a small group, or a sub–culture." They endlessly engage in conceptual discussions and come across as too theoretical, even to their fellow activists. This criticism is partly a result of the increasing visibility and exposure of lesbians, especially in mainstream media.

It is the political nature of lesbian–feminism that causes the tendency to be issue–oriented and to focus on the task of redefining concepts. This is typical of any group that is in the process of ascertaining its space and directions in the political arena. There is also the primary objective of popularizing one’s perspectives on an issue that hardly gets discussed or addressed intelligently in mainstream society.

However, lesbians must also realize that a hardsell approach is hardly ever effective, given the cultural milieu that they are situated in. The need to educate people about lesbian issues can go hand in hand with theorizing but there must be an appraisal of the target audience’s level of understanding and consciousness.

Eventually, lesbian–feminists will have to critically assess themselves and their projection of the issues. There are ways to carry on an advocacy without resorting to too much jargon. Lesbians will have to learn to speak in a language that is comprehensible to non–lesbians and non–feminists. There should always be the awareness that there are limits to what can be said. The media is an independent and unconstrained entity and it operates on its own rules and procedures. Lesbians will have to be clear of their objectives and will have to recognize the limits in using the media for education and consciousness–raising.


The current efforts of lesbian activists are also being scrutinized for concentrating on projects rather than on mobilization and organizing. Lesbian groups for instance are more involved in specific projects that directly address the needs of the lesbian community, rather than in direct organizing of a lesbian mass base.

It must be noted however, that the current efforts of lesbian groups are based on their assessment of existing realities. While it is true that actual groundworking and organizing has yet to begin, the specificity of lesbian conditions and realities must be carefully gauged. The outsider or outcast status of lesbians in mainstream society is not at all akin to situations faced by other oppressed or marginalized sectors.

One of the biggest problems lesbians face is security and safety. Thus, lesbian activism will have to take an alternate route to achieve a parallel status to that of the other social movements. Unless there are systems in place that will assure lesbians of protection, it will remain difficult to organize lesbians as a political force. What the existing groups are doing is sowing the seeds for the eventual sprouting of a visible lesbian movement.

Beijing and Beyond

Beijing and Huairou provided fertile grounds for lesbian activism. An international group of lesbian activists were in Beijing for the Official Conference and in Huairou for the parallel NGO Forum. Expectedly, more lesbians from western nations took part in the lobbying efforts and in organizing activities in the NGO forum. This predominance is not new, not only for lesbian issues but for other women’s issues as well.

The conference attested to the diversity of contexts and cultural milieus faced by lesbians everywhere. Some came from countries where it is illegal to discriminate against lesbians. Others came from nations that allow lesbians to legally marry and establish families. However, in the global map of lesbian existence, these countries remain a minority as the rest of the world would rather persecute lesbians or render them invisible.

Everyday, different activities were organized by lesbians from different regions. The lesbian tent drew in hundreds of lesbians and straight women daily. Regional caucuses were organized and Asian lesbians met every other day for the duration of the conference.

Unfortunately not all lesbians could partake of the relatively open and "safe" atmosphere of the tent. Some women, especially those from the South, felt that the name "lesbian" had excluded them from the onset. These were women who, for reasons of security and safety, could not risk exposing themselves by being visible in the tent. Too, there were women who felt ostracized because they did not identify themselves as lesbians but considered themselves as bisexuals.

Beijing had opened avenues for lesbianism to be discussed as a critical issue. In fact, it emerged as one of the most controversial and contentious issues in the official conference. The deliberations uncovered the official positions of the member nations, and allowed lesbian activists to identify their enemies and potential allies.

Despite the failure to make the lesbian agenda visible, the experience in Beijing was not a lost cause. As Giney Villar of WSWC sums it, "A lot of people were very disappointed about it. But come to think of it, at least it gave people – those who are against lesbianism and those who are for it – an opportunity to discuss issues. It also prepares us better for what we have to deal with in the next few days and the next few years."

Huairou and Beijing had provided the world with another opportunity to acknowledge lesbian existence. It bore witness to a historical unfolding of a global lesbian movement, a foretoken that it will not be long before the tasks that remain undone will be done by a visible and tangible force. Despite the absence of discussions on issues of exclusion and dominance based on race, ethnicity, religion, culture and class, lesbian activists who were in Huairou and Beijing had established the possibilities for future cooperation and collaboration. The impact of the Forum and the Conference will define and shape the future of lesbian activism. For Filipino lesbians, this translates into a renewed activism and active linkage with their Asian sisters, in and outside Asia. There is no step to take but forward.


About the Author:

Malu S. Marin
is a founding member of The Lesbian Collective and Can‘t Live in the Closet (CLIC). She is a Council member of KALAYAAN, a feminist collective.
Reprinted from: Women in Action No. 1, 1996 published by Isis International, Manila.