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Human rights chief remembered as LGBTQ+ ally

Commission on Human Rights chairperson Jose Luis Martin ‘Chito’ Gascon died on 9 October at 57 years old due to Covid-19 and received eulogies and expressions of grief from many sectors

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Commission on Human Rights chairperson Chito Gascon. / PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF FB.COM/Chito Gascon

Two men who passed away just within a fortnight received outpourings of grief, tributes and reminiscences: National Artist for literature Bienvenido Lumbera and Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairperson Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon.

Gascon died on 9 October at 57 years old due to coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), according to his brother Miguel. He received eulogies and expressions of grief from many sectors from activists to government officials, from marginalized groups to members of academe, from artists to laborers. He is also remembered for his promotion and support of LGBTQ+ rights and recognition.

The ASEAN SOGIE Caucus (ASC), a network of human rights activists focusing on the LGBTQ+ communities in Southeast Asia, posted a tribute on his death.

“Chito Gascon has always been an ally for LGBTQIA+ rights and has touched the life of many individuals and communities for fighting for their freedom and justice for human rights,” they said.

“Chairperson Chito had foreword on our Annual Report on 2017 and encouraging us to continuously promote the recognition and protection of the human rights of LGBTQIA community. May they continue spreading the light wherever they are.”

Chito Gascon with LGBTQ+ activists. / PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RYAN SILVERIO

Ryan V. Silverio, ASC regional coordinator, said: “It is extremely rare to meet an eminent human rights leader, an author of the Philippine Constitution for that, who would consistently support LGBTIQ+ rights. We saw it in Chito Gascon. He transformed the CHR into a safe space for LGBTIQ Filipinos who aspire for justice and democracy.”

Silverio shared that his works towards LGBTQ+ inclusion are substantial during his term in CHR. Gascon assigned commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit as the focal person on LGBTQ+ issues and ensured LGBTQ+ participation in CHR reports to the United Nation (UN). The government agency, under Gascon, sent statements and position papers to the SOGIESC Equality Bill debate as well as to the UN Human Rights Council resolutions on LGBTQ+ issues.

“The first time I met Chito Gascon and na amaze ako (I was amazed) that he supports LGBTIQ+ rights,” said Marie Irish Inoceto, chairperson of Iloilo Pride Team and secretary-general of Gabriela Panay-Guimaras.

Staunch defender
Gascon studied Philosophy at the University of the Philippines (UP), where he was a student leader and activist defending human rights and democracy. He also earned a Bachelor of Laws degree from UP and a Master of Law degree in International Law (Human Rights, Law of Peace, and Settlement of International Disputes) from Cambridge University.

Gascon became the youngest member of both the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution and the 8th Philippine Congress during the term of President Corazon Aquino. He served as director-general of the Liberal Party from 2008 to 2011 and a member of the Human Rights Victims Claims Board, which serves victims of Marcos’ Martial Law victims. In 2015, he was appointed by then President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III to head CHR.

When Rodrigo Duterte, who openly scoffs at human rights, came to power in 2016, Gascon and CHR became targets of Duterte’s tirades, when he became vocal against his murderous drug policies, the extrajudicial killings and other issues. In 2017, a panel in the House of Representatives, allied with Duterte, voted to pass a P1,000 budget for CHR. He remained steadfast.

CHR statement
CHR spokesperson Jacqueline Ann de Guia released a statement on Gascon’s passing on, saying that “[a]t a time of unprecedented human rights challenges, chair Chito courageously and steadfastly upheld the constitutional mandate of the Commission. Amidst the unrelenting attacks against the institution and to him personally, he was unwavering and unflinching in fighting for the universal values of freedom, truth, and justice that are essential in the pursuit of human rights. He was undaunting in the fight for human rights, rule of law, and democracy out of deep reverence to the equal rights and dignity of all.”

“His leadership in the Commission has inspired and nurtured a culture of enabling, empowering, and safe environment that move CHR personnel to always serve with genuine compassion or Serbisyong May Malasakit, utmost integrity, and excellence. He impressed upon the CHR personnel and fellow human rights workers the impact and value of our work especially to those who have it least,” she further said.

Tributes from all over
Many prominent personalities sent messages of condolences and posted praises on social media.

“Sa trabaho niya at aktibismo, Chito touched many lives. He was a student leader, advocate, and mentor that so many looked up to. Noong estudyante ako sa UP, sa mga martsa namin laban sa diktatura, si Chito ang nanguna bilang chair ng UP student council. Binuksan niya ang pinto para makilahok nang mas malalim ang napakarami sa demokrasya natin,” said Vice President Leni Robredo in her statement. “Ang dami niyang natulungan. Ang dami niyang na-inspire sa kanyang tapang at paninindigan. His was a constant light in these dark times. It is now up to all of us to tend to this light. May we all honor his legacy by following his example of compassion, courage, and integrity.”

Gascon’s cremated remains in a pink urn for memorial services. / PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF FB/Leni Gerona Robredo

“You have done so much through the work of the Philippine’s Commission on Human Rights to tell the stories of the victims of the Duterte’s relentless war on drugs, to ensure evidence and testimony were collected and preserved, to protect witnesses from retaliation and with your remarkable resilience, to speak up and denounce the violence and the impunity, within and outside the Philippines. You fought for the Commission too, fearlessly, against the many attacks threatening its very work and ability to function and defend,” said Agnes Callamard, former UN Special Rapporteur and current Amnesty International secretary general. “Today, the struggles for truth, for justice, against the silencing, the fear and the killings — those struggles in the Philippines and far beyond, have lost a great fighter for the common good. We have lost Chito. But dearest Chito, your legacy will live on. We are here now, and we will be there then, to continue your fight. To tell the stories. To document, monitor, and safeguard the evidence. To call out loud for justice and an end to tyranny. To stand up for human rights. Chito, at every step, we will carry you with us.”

LGBTQ+ ally and senator Risa Hontiveros also mourned Gascon’s death: “I am devastated to hear the news of Chito’s death. He was not just a fellow public servant, he was also my good friend.”

“Chito understood the valuable link between human dignity and democracy. His activism stretched more than 30 years and I have personally witnessed him fight the good fight: defending human rights, fighting for democracy, and working for government reforms that promote accountability and the rule of law,” she said. “I remember him always saying when we would meet, ‘No pasaran!’

and ‘Hasta la victoria siempre!.’ These are words of resistance and struggle that we should always live by to honor Chito’s memory.”

Writer and publisher Maria Karina Africa Bolasco related an encounter with him: “I sat proud and intent with the audience at the International House of Japan, in March 2019, when you spoke of the emasculation of democratic institutions worldwide, in the hands of populist tyrants, and you told the story of our country so eloquently. Yet not beaten, not in your eyes.”

Among the many who expressed grief and extolled his untiring work on human rights and peace were Teddy B. Baguilat, Neri Colmenares, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, the Federation of Free Workers and its president Sonny Matula, Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes, Lito Atienza, Carlos Zarate, Sarah Elago, Mae Paner, the Department of National Defense, Dakila and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

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