Friday, July 7, 2017


Bernstein Fellow Ryan Thoreson Discusses New Report on Discrimination Against LGBT Youth in the Philippines

Ryan Thoreson ’14 is the Robert L. Bernstein International Human Rights Fellow at Human Rights Watch (HRW), where he focuses on LGBT children’s rights. On June 22, 2017, Thoreson and his colleagues launched a 68-page report entitled “‘Just Let Us Be’: Discrimination Against LGBT Students in the Philippines.” Thoreson, who has previously authored reports on the bullying that LGBT youth face in the U.S., extended his Bernstein Fellowship in order to complete this research project on the Philippines.

For ‘Just Let Us Be,’ Thoreson and his colleagues interviewed 98 students and more than 45 teachers, administrators, counselors, parents, and education experts located in 10 different cities in the Philippines. They found that the Philippines’s Department of Education, school administrators, and teachers have failed to adequately enforce the nation’s anti-discrimination policies, and that many LGBT students continue to face verbal and physical harassment and cyberbullying. In some cases, HRW researchers found that schools have exclusionary policies, such as gendered uniform regulations, that make life more difficult for LGBT students. One 21-year-old transgender woman told HRW that she was humiliated several times by a high school teacher who would cut off her long hair in front of the whole class. One school administrator defended a similar policy with, “[Y]ou just have to cut your hair, you’re a boy.” HRW researchers also documented a lack of information and resources on LGBT issues in schools, and recommended that the Philippines expand sexuality education and train its teachers to address bullying.

Thoreson and his colleagues argued that the discrimination and bullying that many LGBT youth experience in the Philippines violates students’ rights to education, their freedom of expression, their freedom from discrimination, and other rights. Thoreson discussed the report’s findings and his experience of writing “Just Let Us Be” with the Schell Center:

What is the main takeaway of the new report, “Just Let Us Be”?

The main takeaway is that in a lot of respects, the Philippines has been a leader on protecting LGBT kids in school – it was the first country in Southeast Asia to enact LGBT inclusive anti-bullying protection, for example. It’s been proactive in some ways, but a lot of its formal protections aren’t filtering down to the level of individual schools and teachers. Bullying and discrimination are still running rampant throughout the country, and there’s still lot of work to be done to protect students.

What new light does the report shed on this issue?

LGBT activists in the Philippines have done a great job in highlighting that discrimination is really a problem for LGBT people. Activists have been pushing for a law at the national level for the last 17 years, or so, and it keeps getting some traction but not quite making it through their Congress.

One thing that our report does is that it surveys the whole educational landscape. We spoke with students from very different communities and backgrounds – from more affluent schools and backgrounds, from rural areas – and we heard fairly similar things in each of the places we visited. Bullying was always at the forefront of the conversation, as were things like uniforms and hair length restrictions. We also heard about stereotypes that teachers reproduce, even when they think they’re begin LGBT-friendly. These types of behavior cramp student’s freedom to express themselves.

What were the challenges you faced in conducting interviews and writing the report?

One difficulty that you face with any research about LGBT people is that a lot of discrimination that they face comes from multiple directions: we would talk to students and tell them that we were specifically looking at what’s happening in schools and schools’ responsibility to keeping students safe, and we’d very quickly come to understand that the discrimination they’re facing is much more comprehensive than that – it happens in school and also in church and at home. And it’s difficult to say that we’re just looking at this one issue for our report, because you want to hear about the things they’re grappling with and take that seriously.

For me, the interviewing process drove home how damaging a lack of resources in schools can be. A lot of the students we interviewed were never going to get resources at home, and school was their only possible outlet, so it’s doubly bad when resources aren’t forthcoming in their school environment.

In what ways did the process of writing the report illuminate the stakes of this issue?

We were going through schools to speak to students, so we weren’t speaking directly to students who had left school because of discrimination or because they couldn’t attend school in clothing they felt comfortable in. In that regard, the stakes of this issue are even more dire than the testimonies in the report illustrate.

Leaving school really constrains employment prospects down the road: you see many transgender students turning to sex work or persistently low-wage occupations because that’s what’s expected of them and because they don’t have the educational opportunities to pursue different paths. The stereotypes and stigma that people face entrench these harms.

Throughout the report, you stress that although the Philippines has many good laws and policies on bullying, it fails to adequately enforce them in schools. How do you think that the report’s recommendations take this into account?

I think there are two major ways that the recommendations reflect that concern. First, the recommendations go deeper than general policy pronouncements: we recognize that there is a commitment within the Department of Education to fighting bullying, for example, but we try and pin down that we need to concretize that – we need data on how many instances of bullying are occurring with LGBT students, we need that to be published, we need schools to be instructed on uniform and hair length policies. We can’t just say that schools should be free from discrimination and then look the other way. It’s important to have teacher training so that we can make sure that policy pronouncements are being implemented in the classroom.

Second, the recommendations underscore the importance of expanding existing protections in areas where they don’t already exist. For example, on the topic of sexuality education, there is a commitment to LGBT inclusivity and sexuality education generally, but those two things haven’t necessarily been wedded together. For example, at our press conference in Manila when we released the report, there were reporters asking us whether kids would be taught about same-sex sexual activity in classrooms and at what age. This is one place where the policy pronouncements from the Department of Education aren’t reaching LGBT youth and where things get sensationalized. The bottom line is, when kids are at an age when they need to learn about protecting themselves, that education should be the same for LGBT kids. If you’re providing HIV and comprehensive sex education at a certain age, it’s also important for LGBT students to know how to protect themselves – it’s a matter of fairness and equality with any other kids.

In our recommendations, we try to pinpoint actionable steps, but we also identify places where there are good policy commitments.

The report focuses on secondary schools, but you also gesture several times to the issues LGBT students face on university campuses. Would you like to see more research done on the experiences of LGBT university students in the Philippines?

­It became pretty clear that there’s a lot more that needs to be done at the university level. We focused on secondary schools because we used a children’s rights framework, namely, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for our legal standards. But a lot of students we spoke to were recent high school graduates who were then in a university setting. We concluded from their testimony that there’s a lot of progress being made at universities, especially urban public ones, but that, especially for transgender students, there a lot of things in university settings that are very gendered and enforced very rigidly, such as your appearance, and what you are and aren’t allowed to do. That’s all a problem in a space where we expect students to have some more freedom to express themselves.

This is the third report you have worked on at HRW that focuses on the experiences of LGBT youth. The other two reports you authored, “’Walking Through a Hailstorm’: Discrimination Against LGBT Youth in U.S. Schools” and “Shut Out: Restrictions on Bathrooms and Locker Room Access for LGBT Youth in U.S. Schools,” both focused on the U.S. How did your research on LGBT youth in America inform your work in the Philippines?

Each project illustrates how important contextual concerns about LGBT students in schools are. HRW also recently did a report about bullying of LGBT students in Japan, and that one showed that there was a really strong emphasis on conformity among youth in Japanese schools, so LGBT students who were bullied were told to keep their heads down. The attitude was, “If you start asking to be different, you’re going to get bullied,” and for LGBT kids, especially gender non-conforming ones, it’s not a helpful response to tell them to suppress who they are to make it through high school. It’s not that this attitude or behavior don’t happen in other places, but there was also a very strong emphasis on conformity in the Japanese context.

In the Philippines, we saw the huge influence of Catholicism and how it filtered down into public schools. Whereas lots of students in public schools in the U.S. talked about teachers saying ‘That’s so gay’ or making fun of students, in the Philippines, we heard about comments such as, ‘That behavior is sinful,’ and other really overtly religious messages that didn’t show up in the U.S. or Japan projects. In the U.S., we saw a unique fixation on bathrooms and locker rooms, because that’s something that’s been pedaled by interest groups over the last two years. In the Philippines, that was less of a concern.

I was somewhat surprised by all this, because you think of bullying and discrimination as something universal – in almost all settings, LGBT kids don’t conform to the norm – but these things took a specific form in each cultural context.

Despite those differences, there were similarities in the conclusions you drew in your reports on the U.S. and on the Philippines, such as your emphasis that there are changes that institutions can pursue that don’t require the force of law. Could you expand on those parallels?

I’ve thought a lot about this since November - since the political climate for passing a lot of formal protections for LGBT people has gotten more hostile in the U.S.: now, it’s very unlikely that things such as anti-bullying laws or comprehensive sex education are going to pass at the federal level in a way that’s inclusive of LGBT students in the U.S. For the U.S. and the Philippines, some of our recommendations that seem much more important now do not rely on law: that teachers should include LGBT history in their classes; that individual administrators should go above and beyond to make sure that transgender students’ identities are respected. In both contexts, there are so many little things that schools can to do make a big difference for individual students – possibly a bigger difference, for those students, than formal policy making things can do. As we’ve seen in the Philippines, you can pass really great things at the federal level, but that’s useless if you don’t carry them out on the ground.

How did your time in the Lowenstein Clinic help prepare you for your work on fact-finding and writing reports at HRW?

It was all super helpful. The Lowenstein Clinic project that stands out most was one I did over spring break in my final year at the Law School, where we worked with transgender sex workers in Singapore and looked at the abuses they were facing. We were doing that work in a climate where identity was rigidly policed in ways that intersected with race and nationality. And that experience was very helpful in thinking about what it means to do human rights documentation – about how you ask questions that let you find out who is the state actor that’s responsible for violations that this person is experiencing; that let you ask someone whether they reported what happened to them and what responses they received. You learn how to ask those questions in a way that’s empathetic and understanding – in a way that’s not clinical or unresponsive to what a person has experienced or felt.

My background is in Anthropology originally, and one of things that I found striking in the Lowenstein Clinic is that ethnographic interviewing is very different from human rights interviewing: ethnographic interviews can be very open-ended and you see interviewees making meaning of the world around them, and it’s not so much about establishing a narrative and facts. The Lowenstein Clinic got me to think about how you do human rights interviewing while still respecting a person’s experience and listening with compassion to the underlying things they’re feeling and conveying.