Rey Valmores-Salinas is the spokesperson of Bahaghari National, a mass organization of militant and anti-imperialist members of the LGBTQ+ community in the Philippines. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the Center for Women’s Research, a research, education, and advocacy organization for Filipino women. TwinkRev’s Esperanza Fonseca spoke with Rey about mass organizing in the Philippines, the increasing aggression of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the state of the revolutionary civil war, the New People’s Army, identity politics, the sex trade, and ultimately how proletarians can organize transnationally against imperialism.
ESPERANZA: Thank you so much for joining me today. You’re someone that we’ve really wanted to speak with. I was wondering if we could start out by giving an introduction as to who you are and what work you do.
REY: Thank you so much for having me here. My name is Rey Valmores-Salinas. I am a transgender woman and I am the spokesperson of Bahaghari which is a grassroots organization of the LGBTQ plus here in the Philippines. So Bahaghari means rainbow and that’s where our name comes from. What we do usually is lobby and fight for legislation for the LGBT+. Beyond that, we reach out to communities—for example, urban poor communities—and we try to link with other organizations such as workers organizations.
We stand with, and we essentially have, a comprehensive outlook on LGBTQ+ activism and we think the struggles of society at large are also struggles of the LGBTQ+.
I’m also currently a member of the board of directors at the Center for Women’s Resources which is a non-profit research institution for Filipino women.
LBGTQ+ Organizing and Policy
ESPERANZA: Wow! That is a lot of work. So, can you tell us what your path was to becoming an organizer?
REY: I never envisioned being an organizer. When I was younger my dream was to work on cancer and that’s why my degree, when I was in college, was for molecular biology and biotechnology. About halfway through and I was doing my thesis and I was in my senior year. I just got to realize, “okay, even if I do discover something, who is this going to benefit?” The people who do not have any access to healthcare probably wouldn’t even be able to benefit from this.
Then, I started to see the barriers that women like me face, even in science, that is supposedly an objective field. So, I began to see how there are women like me losing opportunities because of who they are, because of their gender identity. And so that really led me down the path of activism. And that’s how I found Bahaghari.
At first, I wanted to be able to fight in my own way. That was kind of my mentality before when I was working. I was working in the lab. But then the more I got involved I started to see the need for people to actually be dedicated to organizing members of our community. So that’s when I decided to be a full-time organizer for Bahaghari.
Duterte’s red-tagging and extrajudicial killings versus the New People’s Army (NPA)
ESPERANZA: Recently news came out about Duterte increasing aggression towards the left, and specifically saying to “kill them all” regarding the communists. What does this aggression towards communists mean for LGBT people and also for organizers or activists in general in the Philippines?
REY: Just two days ago we saw probably one of the most gruesome attacks on the right to dissent. This came right after, as you said, when Duterte mentioned “kill them all” in response to the so-called communists.
You know, the Philippines is different. First of all, the Philippines is different from say the US in that, in the US you can just say you’re a communist, you believe in this or that, you’re a Marxist, etc. In the Philippines, if a person is called a communist they get killed. So that’s why we have this whole idea of red-tagging. It has actual consequences of violence and state terror.
And, we have to remember that the President’s pronouncements are not just mere words or mere jokes. The same goes for these misogynist and homophobic jokes. They’re not just random words up in the air. They have actual consequences. They empower, for example, state forces to commit atrocities, which happened yesterday when there were 6 activists who were arrested and 9 who were murdered in their own homes. That was a direct consequence of Duterte actually empowering these officers in saying “do this and you will not be harmed if you do so.” And it’s really reminiscent of the McCarthyite red scare that the US had. And it has consequences. Obviously, for activists we see it. But it also has consequences for the LGBTQ.
For example, just a few days ago there was a barangay captain. I’m not sure of their gender identity so I’ll just use “they/them.” Their name is Julie. They were a barangay captain in Roosevelt. The barangay name is Roosevelt, so just think of it like a county or something. Last year, in December, there was a massacre of the Tumandok.
The Tumandok are indigenous people here in the Philippines. There was a massacre of their leaders. And then what happened was that a few days later, the intelligence arm of our state forces, Julie was able to discover that they were actually ramping evidence against the Tumandok leaders who were murdered. So they wanted to make it seem like they were members of the NPA so, therefore, their murders were justified.
Julie exposed this. They took photos of the police forces literally planting guns and bombs in the homes of the leaders who were murdered. Julie exposed this and afterward, Julie was summoned to the military bases near the area. They were given death threats. And then, soon after, just a few weeks ago Julie was killed. So, this red scare, this extreme and violent attack towards the left in general, and towards people in general who critique the administration, has effects towards the LGBTQ+ just like Julie.
ESPERANZA: Have you ever been in fear of your life for being red-tagged?
REY: Absolutely. It’s a daily fear. Whenever I so much as post something criticizing Duterte online, there are bound to be dozens of trolls, government-funded troll farms, that flood your posts and your tweets. And there is a very real threat of actual harm happening to you. What’s really disheartening is that we live in a time when we ingat-ka, or “be careful.” It’s actually something that is very heavy.
You know how people say “okay I’m going somewhere” and the person says “be careful.” It’s just “okay!” But now if you say be careful, there’s weight to it. Because if we go out, maybe someone is going to put you in a van, you’ll never be seen again. That’s the reality for organizations on the ground, just like Bahaghari. And, for example, people are visible speaking out at rallies, they are vulnerable, so that’s also the kind of role I have as a spokesperson. So, there’s always that fear when people red tag you online. When people say “you’re a member of CPP-NPA.” The fear is real. The threat is real.
ESPERANZA: We have some people here in the US that say “most people in the Philippines support Duterte” or “the NPA are terrorists and the people using drugs are not poor people, they’re not the one’s being killed by the extrajudicial killings.” How would you respond to that?
REY: Alright, so I’ll respond first to the claim that Filipinos support Duterte. Maybe it seems like it because of the artificial support that the regime gets through its troll farms. When you see dozens and dozens of trolls saying “We love Duterte, We want Sara Duterte to run!” It gives the illusion of people actually wanting Duterte. But if you go to the actual communities, to the urban poor, if you join the workers who are struggling right now, 45% of the workforce has lost their jobs because of the pandemic. If you go and speak with farmers, none of them want Duterte to be there.
The people who are actually bearing the brunt of the suffering because of the economic crisis resulting from the failed pandemic response of Duterte, none of them want Duterte to be here. It’s more accurate to say that people are too afraid to speak out rather than people wanting Duterte to be there. And actually, that’s what’s lacking. A lot of people feel that they hate Duterte but they feel disempowered. They feel they can’t do anything. And that’s what we’re trying to change now by actually reaching out to the communities. Even if there’s a pandemic, that’s no reason for people to be silent.
ESPERANZA: The second thing that these people say regarding the people Duterte is killing is that one, the NPA is all terrorists, and two, that the victims of the extrajudicial killings are not poor people. That they’re using hard drugs like meth and they’re not really poor people being killed and that most people support these extrajudicial killings.
REY: Let’s be honest, there is a civil war going on in the Philippines between the government of the Republic of the Philippines and the New People’s Army. Between the two I think it’s easy to question which ones slaughter the people who speak out and which ones on the daily harass, rape, molest, vilify, and abuse women, especially in the countryside.
It’s easy to answer which one among the two actually stands for the ruling class, explicitly, not just for the ruling classes here in the Philippines but the imperialists. And none of that applies to the New People’s Army. In fact, if you have a conversation with farmers who have been to the countryside, you know, there was this really big story before about how there was middle class person from the cities. He was talking with farmer who came from the countryside and the farmer said, “do you guys have NPA’s where you are?” And the middle-class dude was like “no we don’t have NPA’s in the cities.” and so the response of the farmer was “what, you don’t have NPA’s there? Then who protects you from the landlords?”
So that kind of gives you the idea of which side the new people’s army is actually fighting for and which side state forces are fighting for. So, I for one believe that the NPA is an expression of people who have been for so long denied social justice that they feel there is no longer any alternative but to take up arms. So, that is not terrorism to me. In fact, that is the sovereign right of the people to seek redress from a government that has failed them.
When it comes to the claim that it’s not poor people being killed in the war on drugs, that’s flat out wrong. There have been around 30,000 extrajudicial killings under Duterte in the supposed War on Drugs. The vast majority of them come from the urban poor. Among all the organizations that Bahaghari is aligned with, it was actually organizations in the urban poor who were the very first to call for an ouster of Duterte because they see first hand how their communities are impacted by the war on drugs.
We have seen, for example, how there have been drug lords, like the actual kingpins of the operation, they have been exposed but none of them are being killed in the so-called War on Drugs. It’s always the poorest people who, because of the lack of opportunities and jobs, end up pushing drugs in the street. It’s always they who get murdered. So it’s actually not true that it’s not poor people being killed. The War on Drugs is in fact against the poor because it is the poor people being killed when the biggest violators of this supposed war are the ones who get away with it.
LGBTQ+ Rights, Identity Politics and Intersectionality
ESPERANZA: Thank you for correcting that because I think there’s a ton of misinformation in the US, even among the left. So, hearing you set the line straight is extremely helpful. So, I want to move directions a little bit. We were talking among our editorial team about how the first same-sex marriage was actually performed in the Philippines by the NPA. Could you give us a little background on this struggle for LGBT rights including the struggle for same-sex marriage and where we’re at right now? Including the position for LGBT people in the Philippines?
REY: When it comes to the LGBTQ+ struggle, just like any other struggle, even before there came to be organized members of the LGBT we see the exploitation happening. So, there have been lots of spontaneous expressions of resistance. For example, I think it was 1992, it was in the Women’s March, there was a collective who called themselves the lesbian collective. That was definitely one of the watershed moments. And you’re right, it was actually the revolutionary government of the NPA where the first same-sex marriage happened. Up until now, there is still no same-sex marriage, or rather marriage equality, in the government of the Republic of the Philippines. Even the barest minimum, anti-discrimination laws, have been languishing in Congress for 20 years.
That also makes you think, if you’re an LGBTQ+ community advocate, do you think working with the system is the best way to fight for equality? When we have seen, for example, the New People’s Army, or the revolutionary government in general, if I’m not mistaken, has ratified marriage equality as early as 1992. There has been a recorded case of same-sex marriage in 1995. Although there are more sources that could support the marriage happening in 2005. But either way, we are definitely backwards when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, when it comes to marriage equality, when it comes to even the barest recognition of our humanity through a law to protect us from discrimination. Even the words gay or lesbian are never mentioned in any law, except for perhaps in the Safe Spaces Act which is prohibition of acts of abuse in public spaces.
In short, the LGBTQ+ are invisible. Our struggles are not considered real struggles by the government. Our struggles always take a back seat. That’s where we are right now. But that doesn’t mean we are not going to struggle or that we are not going to fight for our rights.
ESPERANZA: What would you say is necessary to advance LGBT rights in the Philippines and in general?
REY: I think that for the LGBTQ+ to obtain genuine equality, this is something that could never happen with the kind of society that we have in the Philippines, with the kind of relations of production that we have. Essentially, in a feudal society that’s where the gender binary is most strengthened when you look at the evolution of a society. Because the Philippines lacks its own national industries we’ve been stuck in a limbo. We are not exactly feudal but are we really capitalist if we don’t have our own industries? If the few factories that are here are owned by foreign corporations? That has consequences with the kind of culture that we have, especially when it comes to women and the LGBTQ+.
In order for the LGBTQ+ to be liberated—for every single member of the LGBTQ+ to be liberated, not just the middle class, not just the classes above it—we need to escape the kind of social-economic system that we have. And essentially in one sentence that means that LGBTQ+ liberation entails socialism. That’s really what I wanted to say.
We need to find a way to escape the pitfall of identity politics that is really a huge trap for so many movements, for example, the women’s movement, and turn towards a more proletarian orientation that actually addresses the roots of the gender struggle, which is the class struggle. So, I think that is what is entailed for us to be able to have actual emancipation for our community.
ESPERANZA: So on that note, as I’m sure you know, in recent years this idea of intersectionality has become so popular as a tool or a pathway to advancing the rights of marginalized people. What do you think of this concept of intersectionality?
REY: I personally wouldn’t be maligning people who say they are intersectional feminists, etc. There is a point towards recognizing that all struggles are interlinked. But I also feel that there are actually very real limitations to intersectionality as a theory. For example, intersectionality assumes that we have all of these different facets of us that are discreet, for example, our gender, our race, our class, our disability status, etc. They are all discreet entities and they just happen to intersect at some points.
That lends itself to the assumption, that when you say gender or gender oppression, that it is equal to class oppression, it is equal to racial oppression, that it is equal to your oppression based on your disability status. That actually distracts from the class struggle at large. If you visualize intersectionality it’s like a huge Venn diagram. You have gender, you have class, you have race, etc. But the way I see it is that all these forms and facets of exploitation, like your race, your gender, are actually held together by your class.
Essentially, there is a false equivalence of all these forms of oppression that arises through intersectionality. That is why in Bahaghari we prefer to say that our struggle is comprehensive. We fight alongside farmers, we fight alongside workers, instead of saying that we are intersectional.
Imperialism and Colonialism in LGBTQ+ History
ESPERANZA: One of the things we’ve been looking at is how imperialism and colonialism impacts trans and LGBT identity in neo-colonies or in the imperial periphery. How would you say imperialism and colonialism impacts LGBT identity and community in the Philippines?
REY: Before there was actually a “Philippines” as a political entity, it was a very diverse group of several tribes, several kingdoms, in different stages of development as different societies. If you actually look at the evolution of societies, as I mentioned earlier it’s in feudalism. Feudalism is the stage that gender roles are exacerbated to their greatest extent. In the areas in the Philippines—which would not yet have been the “Philippines”—there were areas where trans women, or who we call “trans women” in today’s articulation, were people who held religious power and therefore political power. A lot of times they were called the babaylan, catalonan, and asog. They very roughly translated to “shaman.” Their view before was that womanhood was associated with life. How they viewed womanhood was actually very different than the way we view it now, which is tied to your genitals. Before, there have been groups where, whatever genitals you have, you get to choose if you were a woman in society, and therefore you get to become a babaylan or a catalonan, and hold political power. So it’s actually interesting to see how in ages past, people like us who are slaughtered on the daily now, are the people who held prestige in society.
When the Spanish came they wanted to turn the Philippines into a feudal country as a whole. First of all, they declared it as the “Philippines” and then enforced feudalism. They separated the Barangays into separate entities under the control of Spanish officials or Spanish friars. They were called encomiendas and through that, feudalism was actually strengthened. That’s how we came to see a gender binary in the Philippines.
Before, when they were still trying to conquer the Philippines their tactic was to try and convert people. So if you actually think in the mind of a Spanish conqueror, if you’re trying to conquer people through religion then the first step you take is to depower their religious leaders, which happen to be the transgender women in our present articulation. So it was actually the babaylan that were the first to be slaughtered. There are reports of them being chopped up and fed to the crocodiles. So, they were also the first ones who fled to the mountains. They were the first ones to take up arms against the colonizers. So they got called bayot which at the time meant “coward.” But now, Bayot is the word in Bisayan to refer to people who are gay. So, colonization is actually what led to the very backward culture we have now.
Now, fast forward to the age of imperialism, where we have rich experiences with the US. Around 1980 – 1999, there have been 3,000 cases of US soldiers committing acts of violence against women and children. In 2014, one of our transgender sisters, Jennifer Laude, was brutally murdered by US soldier Joseph Scott Pemberton.
Just last year, Pemberton was given an absolute pardon. He was freed. Now, he’s walking amongst everyone else in the US. It’s as if nothing happened. What that really says is that imperialism has impacted us in such a way that we are secondary citizens in our own country, especially the LGBTQ+ like Jennifer Laude. Our lives are dispensable, even more so when they are placed in comparison to the US soldiers who are placed on our shores. That is how colonialism and imperialism has impacted us as a community.
The Sex Trade
ESPERANZA: On the topic of trans women, as you know it’s a global problem that so many of us, especially if we are proletarian or if we are nationally oppressed, are forced into the sex trade in order to survive. But at the same time, we are also stigmatized and looked down upon. How would you say that we can fight the forced sexual exploitation of trans women without increasing the stigma against us?
REY: We have to come to terms with the fact that, yes, there are some trans people and cisgender women who have the “choice” or the financial capacity to say “okay, I want to enter the sex trade, and then I can leave it when I want.” But the vast majority of us are people who are so disenfranchised, losing every opportunity possible, such that we get forced into the sex trade. That’s what we have to establish first.
We think that is not the fault of women, that it is not the fault of transgender women. They have been denied so much that they get forced into the sex trade. We believe that the people who enter the sex trade should be decriminalized. But what we should be criminalizing are the pimps and the people who drive the prolonged existence of the sex trade in the first place. Essentially, targeting the demand side of things. And alongside that, fighting and creating opportunities so that women and the LGBTQ+ are not forced into the sex trade. That’s how we view it.
Esperanza: I want to personally thank you for saying that. Both myself and so many of my trans sisters share that experience of being forced into the sex trade and even when we wanted to leave, not being able to. So thank you for your clarity in articulating that.
REY: I also, at one point when I came out to my family and then I was shunned, was nearly forced into the sex trade. So, I actually understand, maybe not fully because I was not fully forced into it. Eventually, I found a home and people to accept me, but it disgusts me when the conversation ends with “this is my choice, this is my decision.”
The conversation just ends there and we never discuss how we have a society around us that is actively forcing so many members of our community into this. This goes beyond ourselves individually. This is a conversation about systems. This is a conversation about how, en masse, we are being exploited to such an extent that we have no other choice but to enter the sex trade. So we cannot end the conversation with “I personally have the choice, please respect me.” It does not end there.
And there is a whole other conversation about how legalizing the sex trade has consequences when it comes to sex trafficking. People have been denying that relation but there are studies that support that. I feel like that position needs to be made clear. We are not against sex workers. We are not trying to form stigma for people who are forced into that. But we also need to acknowledge that we could be doing so much more than just accepting the system as it is, which is patriarchal and viewing us as mere objects.
Organizing Against Imperialism
Esperanza: One-hundred percent. We can’t accept the end of history narrative that capitalism is the end of history and that this is the best we are going to get. So, what would your advice be, not just to trans women and LGBT people, but to workers and oppressed people who hear your story, what you have to say, and want to organize?
REY: First of all, there is no singular formula to becoming a “good organizer.” We need to be able to adjust depending on the situation we’re in, the society we’re in, and the people we’re organizing.
In particular with the LGBTQ+ we need to have a very real conversation about how identity politics has blinded us into thinking that sisterhood is global. Like, just because this person is trans, therefore we are sisters. Just because this person is a woman, we are sisters. Nevermind the fact that she is bombing countries in the Global South. We need to go beyond the confines of just seeing identity as it is and it ends there. It goes back to the principles that we espouse as an organization.
For the LGBTQ+ to be liberated, all sectors of society should be liberated. And in fact the LGBTQ+ is not a class, it’s a sector that cuts across classes. So we are also workers, we are also farmers, we are also migrants, we are also people who are part of indigenous groups. So, for every member of our community to be liberated we need to take part in each of these sectors’ struggles.
In fact, we don’t have to view things as discreet, that there’s a separate struggle of the LGBT that is divorced from the struggle for farmers. We are being exploited by the same system. One of the biggest takeaways, one of things I had to learn, and one of the biggest realizations that I had to have to be where I am now, is that there is a very real need for us to link arms with every other oppressed sector and actually form a broad unity that will allow us to escape the system that we are in. So that is the biggest advice I would give for any budding LGBTQ+ organizer.
ESPERANZA: Definitely. The last question I have for you is, your struggle as workers, as peasants in the Philippines has inspired a spirit of proletarian internationalism all over the world. I’ve seen people all across the US, in Ireland, in Latin America, Canada, everywhere posting in solidarity with your struggle. But a lot of times people do not know what they can do to support your struggle. So what can we do for those of us who are outside of the Philippines but are inspired by you and want to stand in solidarity with you?
REY: So, I have this view where people like us that are in the Philippines, and in the neo-colonies, the semi-colonies, and the actual colonies, definitely we are facing right in front of us the violence of imperialism and so we resist it. But I also feel like the proletarians in the imperialist countries have a big role when it comes to putting an end to imperialism.
For example, organizations in the US, concrete things that they can do are to demand an end to the endless and meaningless wars for profit abroad. Even things as simple as demanding healthcare instead of wars. Healthcare for people instead of purchasing more weapons for war. That in itself is a blow to imperialist forms of aggression. And that also contributes to the larger proletarian struggle around the world, for everyone’s liberation. So it doesn’t mean that we are the only ones able to resist imperialism because we’re here, we’re facing it. Even the citizens of the imperialist countries have a big role in putting an end to it. And, that’s how I view international solidarity. We all have a role to play when it comes to changing the system in the global world order of capitalism towards a better form of system that would actually lead to liberation for women, for LGBTQ, and every member of society.
Esperanza: Well, I just wanted to express my gratitude for you. You make me feel like I want to go out and organize and push the proletarian movement forward. So, thank you for everything that you do. You have friends here and if you ever need anything, you can always ask and we’ll be here. So thank you.
REY: Thank you so much for having me. In the same way, it makes me realize that this movement is definitely something that is alive and everywhere. Whether here or if you’re in the US there are people who share the same values, people who share the same goals, and that kind of reignites my passion as well into fighting this, fighting for this, for all of us.