MANILA, June 17 -- Non-government organizations advocating homosexual rights in the Philippines have organized what they said Monday would be the first gay and lesbian pride march in Southeast Asia. Jomar Fleras, managing director of ReachOut AIDS Foundation, said about 5,000 homosexual men and women are expected to join Saturday's march called 'Solidarity '96' that will culminate in a Mardi Gras-like event in Manila's former red light district. 'This is not going to be a very activist march, but more of a celebration of diversity and gay and lesbian solidarity,' Fleras said. 'But we will also be raising issues such as discrimination, harassment. ' Fleras said Solidarity '96 will be the first joint march of gays and lesbians in Southeast Asia, and about 30 of the biggest homosexual groups all over the Philippines have thrown support to make it an annual event. A congressman who proposed having a sectoral seat for homosexuals said there are about 6 million gays and lesbians in the country, about 9 percent of the total population of 67 million. Fleras said the march will also raise the issue of the 'invisibility of lesbians in the mainstream' as he noted Philippine society is more tolerant of male homosexuals over lesbians. Anna Leah Sarabia, chair of the lesbian organization called Can't Live in the Closet, or CLIC, said the march aims to increase 'the level of what society considers normal.' 'The rainbow of society and diversity should be stretched,' Sarabia said. 'This is a wide, colorful world.'
Fleras said the gay pride parade also aims to empower homosexuals by raising people's consciousness about AIDS, since they are still largely viewed by the public as the main carriers of the sexually transmitted disease. Rev. Edgar Mendoza, pastor for the Manila arm of the New York-based Metropolitan Community Church, which officiates homosexual weddings, said the parish will speak to 'express the spiritual side of gays and lesbians.' Solidarity '96 is expected to raise the ire of the Roman Catholic Church that brands homosexuality as a sin. About 88 percent of Filipinos are Catholics. Organizers of the march have issued parade rules and regulations urging participants to avoid making 'obscene remarks or gestures,' displaying nudity, or making too much noise 'to avoid unnecessary criticisms' especially from the church. 'We're sure they will react the same way they have reacted to homosexual issues before,' Sarabia said. 'We will not argue with them anymore, because it's useless to argue with people who have been correct for 2,000 years.' The Philippines is the only predominantly Christian country in Asia, and the Catholic hierarchy has been vocal against any initiative to recognize homosexuality, from distribution of condoms in the state prison to a bill in Congress seeking a sectoral seat for homosexuals. Another bill has been filed in Congress prohibiting and seeking penalties for job discrimination against homosexuals, but it has also been gathering dust even at committee level. Sarabia said a number of advocacy groups have been actively lobbying for the enactment of both bills, but they were pessimistic since 'we can't expect gays in Congress to come out of the closet and push for the bill.' Solidarity '96 was set a week ahead of the 27th anniversary of the so-called Stonewall riot in New York, where police rounded up on homosexuals in a gay bar called Stonewall in June 28, 1969, that marked the birth of gay activism in the United States.