While doing research for an LGBT rights project, I was intrigued when I came across a survey that found the Philippines was the most gay-friendly country in Asia.
The vast majority of Filipinos – 73 percent – declared that “society should accept homosexuality”, according to findings from “The global divide on homosexuality” survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. The survey, published in 2013, covered seven countries from the Asia-Pacific region: Philippines, South Korea, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan (listed in order from most to least gay-friendly).
What I found even more interesting was that although some 80 percent of Filipinos were Catholic, they seemed to be exceptionally tolerant towards gay people - despite Pew’s conclusion from the same survey that acceptance of homosexuality diminishes in places where religion has a central place in people’s lives.
As I dug deeper into data, however, the picture of the Philippines as Asia's most gay-friendly country became a bit blurred.
Compared to the other Asian countries in the survey, Philippines indeed stood out as an oasis of tolerance: in China only 21 percent of people agreed that society should accept homosexuality, while just 9 percent of Malaysians and 3 percent of Indonesians shared this view.
A few years ago CNN even listed the Philippines - a country “full of gorgeous gay-friendly beaches and welcoming gay bars” - as one of few Asia’s top travel spots for gays.
However, findings of another Pew survey published last month suggested that when questions shifted from society to personal moral beliefs, Filipinos appeared to be more homophobic.
When asked whether homosexuality was morally acceptable, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Filipinos surveyed said homosexuality was immoral, while only a quarter found it morally acceptable and the remaining 10 percent said it had nothing to do with morals.
Interestingly, moral acceptance of homosexuality in the Philippines, though fairly low at 25 percent, was still higher when compared to China (13 percent), Malaysia (4 percent) and Indonesia (3 percent).
It seemed that despite discrepancies between views on acceptance of homosexuality and its morality, Philippines indeed stood out as an exceptionally gay-friendly Asian country.
But how did it correspond, I wondered, with reality? Did Filipinos largely accept gay people, even though they saw them as immoral?
“Society should accept homosexuality” was, after all, nothing more than wishful thinking: it meant that a majority of Filipinos thought the society should be tolerant, but it didn’t necessarily mean that tolerance existed.
In the first half of 2011, there were 28 LGBT-related killings in the Philippines – not necessarily a record a gay-friendly country could be proud of.
Although same-sex activity is not criminalised in the Philippines, there are no laws in place to protect gay people from discrimination.
That said, wide acceptance of homosexuality and existence of anti-discrimination laws do not necessarily mean that gay people do not face hate crimes based on their sexual orientation.
Britain - which legalised same-sex marriage and where a majority of people not only accept homosexuality but also see it as morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all – has seen a staggering annual average of 39,000 sexual orientation-related hate crimes in the last couple of years.
According to a U.N.-backed study published on Monday, “Cultural and social attitudes towards LGBT people (in the Philippines) are complex, with signs of acceptance, particularly among the young”.
Indeed, 78 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Filipinos said that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to 68 percent of those over 50.
Perhaps the very “should” in the survey question is the key: If most people think that the society should accept homosexuality, perhaps that positive mindset will eventually change attitudes.
After all hate crimes and discrimination towards any minority group, whether protected by law or not, should never be accepted by a society.