By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: December 9, 2010
MANILA — Surrounded by votive candles and flowers, the couple looked resplendent, both wearing Indian kurtas, holding a bouquet together, positively in love.
It was the wedding night, in the garden of a friend’s home in a Manila suburb, of Terence Krishna Lopez and Edwin Quinsayas, a gay couple.
“This is the happiest night, ever,” Mr. Lopez said, beaming as friends gathered around and congratulated the two men.
“We had to take what we have to the next level,” he said later, explaining why he and Mr. Quinsayas had arranged the ceremony, over which a friend officiated. “Why should heterosexual couples get all the fun?”
Across the Philippines, events like this — often referred to as “blessings” or “holy unions” — have become increasingly common as gays and lesbians try to assert their rights in this relatively tolerant, but still legally restrictive, predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Unlike in nearby Malaysia, sodomy between consenting adults is not illegal. Manila and other cities have a vibrant gay scene. Sexual orientation does not provide an exemption from military service.
Still, legislation that would outlaw discrimination against gays in the workplace or housing remains stalled, opposed by the powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy and its allies in the Philippine Congress.
Same-sex unions have no legal standing. The Family Code defines marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. Some Philippine legislators — reacting to the drive to legalize same-sex marriage — have filed bills in the House of Representatives and Senate that would explicitly ban such unions, and, in one proposal, outlaw heterosexual marriages where one partner has undergone a sex change and is therefore not a “natural born” man or woman.
“Marriage has always been between a man and a woman. No law can change that,” said the Rev. Melvin Castro, executive director of the Commission on Family and Life of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, in an interview.
A gay union “is an exercise in futility,” he added. “It’s a ceremony empty of any religious or legal effect.”
But many gay Filipinos have been trying to achieve just that, seeking religious sanction for ceremonies of commitment and applying the law creatively to provide legal protection for relationships.
“This is important to us. Why would anybody want us, who believe in the same God, deprived of this simple joy?” asked Regen Luna, a pastor with the Metropolitan Community Church, a Protestant denomination founded in California in 1968 with a special mission to gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Last year, Pastor Luna presided over a holy union of a dozen gay couples in a resort in Cavite, a province just south of Manila where he grew up and where he has a chapel that serves as an Internet cafe when it is not being used for religious services.
“Unions like this are also held in other M.C.C. chapters in other parts of the Philippines,” Pastor Luna said after the ceremony, which included gay men performing a dance routine. Pastor Luna has since left the M.C.C. to join another denomination.
Such events are not always this elaborate, or as romantic as the one celebrated by Mr. Lopez and Mr. Quinsayas. A few days before their ceremony, a U.S. cleric named Richard Mickley met two women inside a Starbucks in Quezon City to discuss their union.
Over coffee, he reminded them of their responsibilities to each other and why their union was important to the Philippine gay community. He and the couple held hands and closed their eyes in prayer.
Most of the Starbucks customers seemed oblivious to what was happening. But Father Mickley, as he is known, said the “preliminary blessing” at the Starbucks, which ended up in a union months later, was as momentous as the unions he had overseen since 1994, the year he first solemnized a gay wedding in the Philippines.
“What I do is a religious ceremony,” he said. In deference to Philippine law, “We don’t use the word ‘marriage,”’ he said. “We use ‘holy union’ instead.”
Father Mickley, 82, originally from Ohio, studied at a Catholic seminary and served in the Korean War. After realizing he was gay, however, he divorced his wife and became a pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church. He said he came to the Philippines in 1991 after reading letters from gay Filipinos complaining that no religious group was looking out for their welfare.
Father Mickley ran the church and officiated over many of the same-sex unions here until 16 years ago, when he retired because of his age.
He went on to found the Order of St. Aelred, named for the 12th-century English monk some gay people have embraced as a patron saint. Father Mickley is also the bishop in the Philippines of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit, a U.S.-based Christian organization devoted to living according to the ways of the early church.
Father Mickley said that he had stopped counting the number of such unions he has performed — “It’s in the hundreds” — but that hardly a day goes by that he does not receive a call requesting a blessing and hardly a week without him fulfilling such a request.
Indeed, while at the Starbucks where he blessed the two women, he received a call from a lesbian in the southern city of Davao wondering whether she and her lover could fly to Manila soon to be wed.
“This happens 5, 10 times a day,” Father Mickley said. “I have held ceremonies in little chapels, beaches, hotel function rooms, even hotel ballrooms.”
While gay people generally find considerable social acceptance in the Philippines, they often find themselves running into resistance once an attempt is made to turn this into something more political, like legal rights, said Ging Cristobal, project coordinator in Asia for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. She recalled a Roman Catholic Church statement in 2000 that described proposed anti-discrimination legislation as an “immorality bill.”
Such moves to influence legislation have turned her, and others, against the church authorities, she said, but many Filipino gays and lesbians yearn to overcome the divide between their personal identity and their religion. A ceremony that confers a blessing on their union becomes all the more significant.
“This could be a purely Filipino thing — harmonizing sexuality and faith,” said Ms. Cristobal, who is based in the Philippines.
The challenge now, she added, is to bring these unions beyond mere symbolism. In the absence of a gay-marriage law, some gay couples are resorting to wills and power of attorney to give their unions more legal force.
Ms. Cristobal said that she and her partner had granted each other power of attorney, allowing them to buy property together. On various documents they have listed each other as heir. Ms. Cristobal also plans to adopt her partner’s daughter.
“The point is, each of you is holding on to something that is real and binding,” she said.
Three years ago, she and her partner decided to formalize their union with a commitment ceremony. Few events have made her happier, Ms. Cristobal said.
“The right to wed is a basic right,” she said. “It affirms our position in society.”