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This June, the spotlight shines with pride as members of the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) community proudly fights for their rights in an inclusive society.

But even before the rainbow flag starts to wave on pride month, a youth movement in Mindanao has been “walking the talk” and parading the call for LGBTQIA+ allies. #BakLAYA: Para sa Lipunang Malaya (for a free society)is a project of students and young professionals campaigning for gender equality and inclusive policies in schools and local communities.

“Baklaya” is derived from the Filipino words, “bakla” (gay) and “malaya” (free) to signify the struggle for freedom from the oppression of the LGBTQIA+ community.   Baklaya is a recipient of the IGNITE Grant, a grant facility for projects and initiatives aimed at strengthening youth participation in democratic governance implemented by the Youth Leadership for Democracy (YouthLed) project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and The Asia Foundation. The initiative is also supported by the Leaders United for Progressive Advocacies in Davao-SOCCSKSARGEN (LUPAD) youth coalition.

Rallying for gender equality

Holding the baton of this project is Prince Harvey “Darla” Arellano, a 26-year-old law student from Sultan Kudarat, who has been in this advocacy space since he was a student at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

“This LGBTQIA+ movement is about raising awareness on why this issue is relevant. Through our activities, we are paving the way to create a shared struggle among the marginalized and achieve a shared goal through local policy recommendations,” Arellano said.

As a youth-focused initiative, Baklaya organized 10 forums and webinars for SK or Sangguniang Kabataan (youth council) and universities in the SOCCSKSARGEN and Northern Mindanao regions.

At the SK level, Darla lamented how the issue of gender is not yet that popular as a movement or as a priority project among them. But being unaware doesn’t mean they do not care. Youth audiences during the forums have been proactive enough to ask about the avenues that can help forward the advocacy.

In the university forums, students have also been vocal about the passing of relevant policies for gender equality. Allan Supilanas, a student at Mindanao State University (MSU) in General Santos City, urged collective action to pass the anti-discrimination bill, also known as the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) bill, to ensure protection for all individuals.

At the university level, Ramzel Ivan Hugh Delloro, a political science student at MSU, expressed optimism about creating a gender-inclusive environment at the university and highlighted the importance of ongoing and collective efforts.

Through the forums, which were already attended by over 1,000 youth, Baklaya assisted the students and youth councils to understand the wide scope and possibilities for advancing the cause of social inclusion and equity.

“They can do gender and development seminars, policymaking and institutionalization efforts, such as localized women’s month or pride month,” they cited as examples.

Fostering democratic participation

“We always aim for these campaigns to resonate with our SKs by tailoring them with the Philippine Youth Development Plan, particularly in the aspect of social inclusion and equity,” Arellano said.

On top of the forums, Baklaya has also implemented at least five Citizen Assemblies to allow the members of LGBTQIA+ community to develop collective recommendations for policy improvements about gender equality and development.

At the university forums, they also put democratic participation into practice by providing a safe space for the youth participants to voice out concerns and policy solutions, such as the anti-discrimination ordinance. “We have a working draft of policy documents from all the consultations and forums, which we present to the youth councils as reference for policy implementation,” Arellano said.

Leveraging the network and partnerships

Baklaya has so far partnered with over 30 organizations, comprised of student councils, SKs, civil society groups, and government agencies, such as the Department of Education. 

“Ensuring that there’s a gender equality policy in place is one thing, but implementation is a different thing,” Arellano noted. “Hence, we explain to the youth the importance of having a network of organizations.”

With their visibility proactively campaigning in schools and communities, Baklaya has already been tapped by several organizations and agencies to conduct more webinars on gender equality – a fitting strategy to widen their reach and engagement.

“We realized that even if we run low on operating funds, Baklaya won’t perish because we can still sustain the advocacy through partnerships and networks. We remain hopeful that the advocacy would keep on flourishing. With everyone’s support, our group is even more inspired to keep moving forward,” Arellano concluded. In recent months, Baklaya has been participating in national and international conferences and other pitching competitions to tell their stories and rally for more support. Indeed, there’s no stopping for Baklaya to keep raising and waving the rainbow flag, during and even beyond this pride month.

Photos courtesy of #bakLAYA: Para sa Lipunang Malaya project

YouthLed PH

Youth Leadership for Democracy (YouthLed) is a joint project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and The Asia Foundation.

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