Silenced Voices, Unacceptable Humor, Distasteful Desires: The Censorship of Gender and Sexuality in the Philippines

Katrina Stuart Santiago demonstrates how recent incidents of artistic censorship in the Philippines have focused on the silencing of female and LGBTQIA+ voices.

The Philippines is a country steeped in ironies. And even more so when we deal with gender and sexuality, when womanhood and women’s bodies are on the line, when LGBTQIA+ rights are on the table.      

Catholic conservatism would top the list of reasons why¹, as it has always assumed a protective stance over the woman, even as it is the first to impose restrictions on her freedom of expression. But this conservatism has never been so tested as with the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, given the hard line drawn against the community’s right to… well, just be, and even more so, to love. 

Former president Rodrigo Duterte, whose governance was buttressed by his criticism of the Catholic Church, would to some extent echo this kind of conservatism. For six years, from 2016 to 2022, Duterte was able to sell himself as someone who sought only to protect Filipinos from the evils of society — from drugs to communists — and we imagine that protection extends to women. Yet often enough, he objectified women on live television, offered female celebrities to soldiers², planted one on the lips of a random female fan³, made light of and justified rape⁴, and ordered soldiers to shoot women rebels in the vagina⁵. 

That his main social media propagandists were made up of women, a transwoman, and a gay man⁶, all of whom called him “Tatay Digong” (father Digong), is important to mention: this is the father figure they built for the nation, these female, gay, and trans propagandists so empowered by a president who, often enough, revealed himself to be a misogynist and homophobe.

This kind of double-speak is at the heart of the kinds of artistic censorship that have targeted women and LGBTQIA+ artists for years in the Philippines. This is no surprise, when one considers that a government agency such as the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) exists at all. A body that purportedly only “classifies” and rates movies and television shows for public viewing, it also in effect decides what can and cannot be consumed by the public, censuring words, acts, and clothing that it deems “offensive,” (undefined as that is). The body has also encouraged “self-regulation” which, for all intents and purposes, is self-censorship. It is in this landscape where the task of “protecting” citizens, has been about the censure of women’s voices and LGBTQIA+ desires.

But what might be important to highlight is how, as with much of our contradictions, there is rarely any space to flesh out these instances of censure, which are often peculiar, ultimately incongruous. As such, this history of gendered censorship is one that’s unwritten, and now easily drowned in the glut of the internet, forgotten as quickly as we scroll down our feeds. 

Censorship is an act of erasure. And in the Philippines, we also deny it even really exists, using as proof the fact that free speech and expression are protected by the Constitution. Now layer that with the fact that gendered expressions are the ones also constantly censured — both by the MTRCB and civil society — even as these acts of suppression are also consistently silenced. These multiple layers of disappearance should not be lost on us.

So here, an effort at surfacing cases of artistic censorship in the past decade or so, that recall how certain voices, specific types of humour, and most forms of desire, are deemed unacceptable artistic expressions — unfit for public consumption and discourse.

This week, we add another six cases to the ones uploaded last week.

¹Creativity, Conservatism, and Censorship: A Philippine Snapshot. Sept 1 2022.

²In an 4 August 2017 speech to soldiers, Duterte said in Tagalog: “Whoever’s getting a medal of valor, I’m sure some of you will get one, I will give you my guns … I’m old and don’t favor them anymore. I’ll raffle them off to you. Consolation prizes will be celebrities, I will bring them. <laughter> And maybe for those who get a medal of valor, the hard ones, I will give you a prize. Maybe a trip to Hong Kong … for free … if you want you can bring your partner or wife … if you don’t want, tell me which celebrity you like and we will ask them to go <…>” <translation mine>

“So kung sino ‘yung — mga valor-valor diyan, sigurado, meron kayong ano. Ibigay ko na ‘yung mga baril ko, matanda na ako at tsaka nawala na ‘yung hilig ko. Wala na kasi akong hilig dun. Pang — pangbigay ko ‘yan sa mga ano... Sigurado ‘yang may mga valor dito. I’ll give one. Kung marami kayo, bunot-bunot na lang. Ang consolation prizes, ‘yung mga artista dadalhin ko. <laughter> <…> At tsaka siguro may prize ako ‘yung ano — ‘yung valor ‘yung mga tigas. Mga Hong Kong siguro. <applause> Hong Kong — libre ‘yan. Kung gusto mo magdala ng partner, asawa ... Kung ayaw mo naman, sabihin mong ituro mo ‘yung artista na gusto mo at pakiusapan natin. <laughter> Ah bilib ‘yan. Ay, totoo. Ah, alam mo ‘yang mga babae, pagka ganun, “T*** i**, valor ‘to, tigas ‘to.” Mas tigas ito sa u***, p***** i**. <laughter> Matigas ito sa away eh.

³In June 2018, on a trip to South Korea, Duterte was shown on live television gesturing to two women in the audience that they needed to give him a kiss in exchange for the books he was holding “There’s payment for this, a kiss. You in white, are you ready to engage in kissing? Come here.” He then proceeded to demand a kiss from the woman.

There are many instances of this, but in a 26 May 2017 speech, Duterte told soldiers he would take responsibility if they rape women during  a time of martial law. “Don’t worry. I will be with you. If you go down, I go down. For this martial law and the consequences and ramifications of martial law, I and I alone would be responsible, just go to work. <applause> I will be in charge <…> I will let myself be jailed for you. If you rape three women, I will admit those as mine.” <translation mine> 

“Huwag kayo mag ala­ala. Sasamahan ko kayo. I will... If you go down, I go down. But for this martial law and the consequences of martial law and the ramifications of martial law, I and I alone would be responsible, trabaho lang kayo. [applause] Ako ng bahala. <…> Ako na ang magpakulong sa inyo. Pag naka­rape ka ng tatlo, aminin ko na akin ‘yun.”

In a 7 February 2018 speech, Duterte said in Bisaya: “They will say "Okay, how many people are dead?" "Three." "What?" "Three." "Son of a bitch, don't lose." "Are there any women holding guns?" "Sir, she's a fighter. An amazona." "Shoot the vagina" <laughter> <…> Tell the soldiers. "There's a new order coming from mayor. We won't kill you. We will just shoot your vagina so that..." If there are no — it would be useless.” <translation from transcript in official government website>

Muingon na sila nga nga "Oh, sige. Oh. Unya pila'y patay?" "Tulo. Tulo." "Ha?" "Tulo na." "P***** i**. Ayaw pud paalkanse." “Naay babae? Unsa man, nakagunit og armas?" "Sir, fighter gyud. Amazona.” "Pusila sa b**** arong di na..." <laughter> <…> Dal-a na. Ingna ang mga sundalo. Ingna sila ang mga sundalo. "Ah, unsa man nang babae." Ingna sila. Tawga run ang mga sundalo. "Order bag-o ni mayor. Di lang daw mo patyon. Pusilon lang mo sa b**** arong ---" Og wa na ma'y b****, wa na ma'y silbi.

Mocha Uson is generally acknowledged as the primary celebrity who put Duterte into power through her Facebook page Mocha Uson Blog, using the voice of an opinionated citizen who is anti-elite, pro-masses, and standing on the side of the change Duterte promises. This would set the tone for the propagandists after her that grew in number during Duterte’s six years, including but not limited to Sass Sassot and RJ Nieto. 

This content is produced as part of a project to research and document arts and culture censorship in Southeast Asia, organised by ArtsEquator. For other articles in this project, click here.
This article was originally published on 14 Nov 2022.

About the author(s)

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an essayist, cultural critic, opinion writer, and book author from Manila, with a decade of work in print and online. Her role as critic has fueled her activism, which cuts across issues of cultural labor, systemic dysfunctions, and institutional crises. She is a teacher at the College of Saint Benilde’s School of Arts, Culture, and Performance, book maker at small press Everything's Fine, and is a contributor to the International Association of Theater Critics’s online platform, Critical Stages. She founded People for Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action-PAGASAph that seeks to provide the space for political action from younger civil society actors. She is part of the 2021 cohort of the Feminist Journalist Project of the Association of Women's Rights in Development, is a 2023 Public Intellectual of the Democracy Discourse Series of the De La Salle University, and is co-author of UNESCO-Germany’s Fair Culture Charter. She has been writing at since 2008 and is @radikalchick online

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