The right to live
WHEN I was offered to write this column, I asked for only two guarantees. First, that I can write about anything I wanted to write about provided I did not libel anyone or used my writing for personal business gain. And second, that I can disagree with anyone, including other columnists. I know that as a matter of professional courtesy, one should try not to pick fights with the people who share the same newsprint commune. I had no intentions of picking fights with fellow columnists, but I wanted to be sure that when push comes to shove, I could. Fortunately, that has not happened yet.
But over at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, two eminent columnists, retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Isagani Cruz and Manuel L. Quezon III are engaged in an acrimonious exchange. The whole furor began when Cruz penned a column entitled “Don we now our gay apparel,” which was a screed against gay people. Quezon, a historian and accomplished writer, more popularly referred to (revered, too) as MLQ among members of the blogging community, responded with an impassioned protest in his own column in the same paper.
Last Sunday, Cruz responded with more of the same belligerence. In essence, he said people can disagree with him, but have no right to call him a bigot. He insisted that his personal and selective intolerance of certain gay people (“those who disgrace their sex with their tasteless appearance”) is his right and that anyone who feels slighted can disagree with him, but should not indulge in the same hateful discourse.
He justified his screed by asserting that he does not interfere with romances of gay people and does not pry into their amorous affairs. He insisted that gay people have no right to demand that he agrees with their (gay people’s) pleasures, and that gay people have no right to forbid him from criticizing what offends the public interest.
Last Monday, MLQ shot back with a cleverly written piece entitled “Oblivious in Cloud Cuckoo-land.” The title of the column should give more than enough clue on what MLQ thought of Cruz’s defense of his (Cruz’s) homophobia.
In the interest of full disclosure, I declare that I have also castigated Cruz in my blog and also called him a bigot, among other things. Three readers of my blog put me to task for it, basically toeing Cruz’s defense—that he was simply exercising his freedom of speech and his condemnation of certain “types of homosexuals” was not a condemnation of all gay people.
This is exactly the kind of twisted reasoning that I find objectionable. Cruz continues to make the assertion that he is only condemning certain “types” of homosexuals, specifically, those that do not meet his personal standards of what is socially acceptable. This assertion of moral superiority, this notion that certain people cannot live honorably because they fit a certain stereotype such as being a “screaming faggot” or because they “flaunt” their homosexuality, is a throwback to the dark ages when people were burned at the stakes simply for being left-handed, or when millions of Jews were exterminated because someone thought they were inferior and therefore had no place in decent society. Because the condemnation is selective does not make it any less objectionable precisely because it is premised on a myth, a stereotype, and a fear that has no basis.
My advocacy work with nongovernment organizations working for HIV/AIDS prevention has shown that this kind of stereotyping inevitably leads to discrimination and further stigmatization (And yes, gay people are most often at the receiving end of such cruelty; for the longest time, many people associated HIV/AIDS with gay men and many still continue to do so today). Cruz is laboring under the false notion that his “criticism” is harmless because it is simply his personal opinion. And this is where he is mistaken; the so-called exercise of his freedom of speech, particularly because of his stature as a former justice of the Supreme Court, does a lot of harm because more than anything else, what is at stake here is the most basic of all human rights.
When someone says that it is not okay to express yourself because what you are is abominable, that becomes a license for other people to hate and display this hatred in far more destructive ways. And God knows what discrimination gay people already go through today. When someone says you have no place in society because of what you are, because your behavior does not fit someone’s standards of what is not disgraceful, that is tantamount to denying that person the right to live. So obviously, this is not anymore “merely” about freedom of speech.
Cruz says that gays “have no right to demand that I agree with your pleasures or to forbid me from criticizing your ‘emotional contentment’ if they offend the public interest. You cannot claim a preferred treatment because you are what you are even as you say you should be treated like the rest of the people despite what you are.”
“The public interest,” which is often used alternately with its rhetorical equivalent, “a moral society,” has been used many times to justify persecution. But how exactly is the “public interest” served when certain segments of the public are condemned to a life of ridicule, if not a death sentence, masked under “well-intended” criticisms from its supposedly more enlightened members? What kind of society can claim to be moral and healthy if it cannot and does not protect people—especially marginalized minorities—from prejudice and hatred borne out of their uniqueness?
And exactly what “preferred treatment” is Cruz talking about? As far as I know, gay people are asking for exactly the same rights that other citizens have—the same right his “macho” sons have. If it looks like gay people are asking for “preferential” treatment, it is simply because their basic rights—such as the right to be respected for what they are—are denied them to begin with.
MLQ and I do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, but on this one, I am in complete agreement with him and he has my full unequivocal support. There are those who think that his outburst is uncalled for and that his anger is misdirected. I do not agree. This is not just anger anymore. This is outrage.
This is a plaintive and primal outcry for the most basic and sacred of all rights —the right to be allowed to live.