It has been five months since the Philippine military defeated the ISIS-affiliated militants that took over Marawi City in the country’s south. The more than 300,000 residents who had been displaced are slowly making their way back home to restart lives put on hold by nearly half a year of fighting. But Trixie* dreads going back home.
For five months now, Trixie has lived in evacuation centers in Saguiaran, just outside Marawi City. First, it was a public gymnasium where they slept on blankets and unfolded cardboard, then in tents put up by the local government. Access to clean water or a clean bathroom was rare. Food consisted of relief goods — a predictable cycle of canned sardines or tuna and instant noodles. Still, Trixie feels safer here than in Marawi, because she identifies as a transgender woman.
They kill us for being gay there.
Trixie, a transgender woman from Marawi
She rattles off a list of names of gay and transgender women friends who had been shot and killed. First, there was Kuka. Then Ginny and Jazz in 2011. In 2012, Momma Tanya was shot dead in her salon. Then Janes in 2013. Then Mai-Mai in 2014. Last year, Katrina was killed in a public market. Anna was shot in the mouth, Mayora in the back. Both survived but fled Marawi after their wounds healed — Anna to Manila, Mayora to Saudi Arabia.
The attacks are usually carried out by masked men on motorcycles. But the end of the Marawi siege is unveiling a quiet terror that’s been unfolding for years. Outrage Magazine, an online LGBT news portal, has attempted to document the killings, but many incidents have gone unreported. Now, while the government of the Philippines and its friends internationally are celebrating the liberation of Marawi, the LGBT community that fled the city during the siege fears the prospect of heading back. For them, the threat of violence preceded the ISIS-affiliated takeover, and that terror — temporarily at bay while they’re in evacuation shelters — is alive again.
“They kill us for being gay there,” says Trixie.
Marawi lies in Lanao del Norte province, part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in southern Philippines. Plagued by one of the longest-running insurgency movements in the region, the ARMM has witnessed years of hobbled development and growing cynicism among residents with each failed peace deal. Still, Marawi City was relatively untouched by the conflict compared to its neighbors, enabling it to prosper as the provincial economic and trading hub. That development coexisted with Muslim traditions. Mosques dot the city; alcohol and pork are not openly sold. Men don skullcaps, and women wear veils or niqabs.
For the world, it was the takeover of the city by terrorists in the name of ISIS last May that signaled the arrival of religious extremism in the Philippines. For Marawi’s LGBT community, the warning signs arrived earlier.
AJ*, 27, wasn’t threatened himself, but his gay men and transgender women friends — all working in salons — were. It came in a white envelope in 2017, a few months before the siege, delivered by a teenage boy. They discussed their options, and wondered who they could turn to for help. They could think of no one. The ulema (religious scholars), they concluded, would uphold religious teachings that forbid homosexuality. The police and local government would dismiss them. Many family members had already disowned them. “We are not accepted in Marawi — they see us as sinners, as the dregs of society,” says AJ, adding that the LGBT community is blamed even for natural disasters in the region and, by some, for the militant siege of the city.
That criminalization of the LGBT community is part of a wider trend lashing out against traditionally moderate Muslim influences in Southeast Asia, say activists. In Aceh, Indonesia, 12 transgender beauticians were arrested and their hair cut off in January this year after their salons were raided. In Malaysia, there are reports of trans women being subjected to conversion therapy. And the intersection of poverty, traditions, religious extremism and displacement because of the war makes Marawi the ideal spot in the Philippines for those prejudices to play out, says Ging Cristobal, Asia project coordinator for the LGBT rights group OutRight Action International. “The community faces an increased risk of being targeted because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression that do not conform to society’s expectations,” says Cristobal.
The identity of attackers remains unclear. Of the more than a dozen members of the LGBT community from Marawi that this writer spoke with, some blamed relatives or citizens indulging in moral policing. Others suggested it could be ISIS affiliates, while still others pointed to rogue members of insurgency group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — which denies any role. “We have no policy to kill gays and lesbians, but we discourage homosexuality,” says Mohagher Iqbal, a senior MILF leader.
But the crimes against the LGBT community are real; peace advocate and prominent Muslim leader Agakhan Sharief says he has even heard announcements on the radio “telling gays and lesbians to change their ways or be killed.”
In February 2017, Trixie received a telephone call hiring her for beautician services. When she arrived at the mutually agreed-upon location with two other friends, two masked men on a motorcycle emerged from around a corner and shot at them. “They tried to kill me too,” says 18-year-old Trixie, pulling back her right sleeve to reveal two round keloids on either side of her elbow where the bullet had entered and exited. She survived, but these collective experiences have made Trixie and other transgender women wear their hair short, and walk, talk and dress like men in Marawi — just to live, she says. Friends would check on each other. No one would stay out after dark.
Ironically, the siege was a blessing, suggests AJ.
Trixie, AJ and others discovered and met many more from the LGBT community of Marawi at evacuation centers or while queuing for relief goods. Din-Din, a gay evacuee, lived with his family close to one evacuation center — and his room became a place where the community could gather for sleepovers. There, they could dress as they liked, laugh out loud and belt out their favorite songs on karaoke. They were safe, free to be themselves.
Going back to Marawi will change all that, says Trixie — and the threat of death will return. “There is no happiness for us in Marawi,” she says. “You don’t know when they will come for you.”
(*Trixie and AJ are pseudonyms they use, as they fear for their lives and worry about social ostracism.)
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