Lady Justice, speak : On Jennifer Laude and US imperialism


bu-op-icons-sarahOur struggle for independence and sovereignty negates sectarianism in the embrace of all the oppressed and exploited. But reformers from Akbayan— a political bloc that prides itself for changing the system form within by forging an alliance with President Noynoy Aquino in the pursuit of a monolithic national agenda— like former congresswoman Risa Hontiveros and Jonas Bagas are belting out false notes as they sing dirges for the brutal killing of a 26-year-old transwoman Filipina Jennifer Laude.

On October 11, Jennifer was found dead 45 minutes after checking in with US Marine Pvt. 1st Class Joseph Scott Pemberton in a motel in Olongapo City. Pemberton participated in the joint military exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in the same area. In two separate statements, Hontiveros and Bagas diffracts the murder of Jennifer and the presence of US military troops, and even go as far as to imply that groups who make a connection of the issue to the VFA and other forms of US Imperialist incursions are guilty of homo/transphobia.

According to Bagas, “The kind of nationalism that sees “Junk VFA” as superior over hate crimes and gender-based violence is homophobic and transphobic, and is the same homophobia and transphobia that harm and kill individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.” Hontiveros, for her part, issued the following argument in a statement on the matter: “The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) enabled the harm that Jennifer experienced, but it is but one of the many factors that led to this injustice. This was supplemented by a defence of gender identity, as though tolerance and understanding of gender identity will eliminate structural violence: “[Jennifer’s death] doesn’t prevent us to recognize and respect what makes all of us human – our inherent dignity. The perpetrator of Jennifer’s death may not have not been able to understand Jennifer’s sexual orientation and gender identity, but nothing prevented him from recognizing and respecting Jennifer’s humanity, and that is precisely his crime not just against Jennifer and her family, but against all of us.”

LGBT ‘champions’ like Hontiveros and Bagas are admonishing other political groups for what Akbayan believes the vicious murder of Jennifer has become for others: a matter of finding a convenient segue for anti-imperialist nationalism. Talk about bad faith.

More than a week after Jennifer’s death, Pemberton was under the custody of US authorities until October 22, 2014, when he was transferred to the custody of the Philippine military after not showing up in the preliminary investigation on October 21, 2014. In fact, the US Embassy left it to Pemberton whether to appear before the Olongapo City Prosecutor’s Office for his preliminary investigation. The Laudes have filed a case against Pemberton, with lawyer Harry Roque leading the prosecution.

Meanwhile, Malacanang and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to which both President Noynoy is chief, have made a very strong position against citizens who are critical of the VFA. The VFA, according to these offices, is not the culprit but “the bigger picture” upon which the general strategy for national security depends. Under the VFA, US authorities may have custody of an erring soldier and any violation perpetrated by an American soldier can only be settled within one year. Otherwise, it is business as usual.

Time is galloping down the road and in all directions, yet situations involving US military violations keep having their turn again and again. A nation only needs a puppet president like Aquino, and wretched sectarian statements from political parties like Akbayan that practically exonerate the reinforced presence of US troops in the country to chase after false gods. Foreign investment, foreign capital, foreign military bases, we must keep attracting them. That is the kind of absurd and subservient nonsense that we get from the Aquino-Akbayan pushbike.

Fetishization of sexuality

To divorce the killing of Jennifer from the presence of US troops in the country is to fetishize the discourse of sexuality, the kind that is not advancing the LGBT struggle in any way. Sexuality is not a thing. To fetishize sexuality as an object is to erase the conditions that shape its (de)valuation and to deny the social whole in which it is accounted for as a vital part. There is no need to fetishize sexuality. Sexuality is not even an object of repression, though bodies are. But false equivalences have no use for liberation. Sexuality is not a truth about a person to be discovered by self-reflection or clinical investigation. The process of coming out or owning up to a non-heterosexual gender identity is not necessarily a discovery about oneself but a rightful assertion of power in a heterosexist society.

Indispensable insights on the relationship between capitalism and sexuality can be drawn from Michel Foucault’s first volume on the History of Sexuality. Interestingly, this volume is the last of his structuralist ouvre as the succeeding volumes take on some considerable degree of ludic twists. The deployment of sexuality is a relation of power that also works as a disciplinary mechanism in and through which everyday strategies by individuals and state apparatuses/institutions recognize or reject pleasures and sensations, form expert knowledge, deploy moral discussions, political controls, and subversions of the foregoing. It is not an accident that the discipline of Demography was founded upon the consolidation of the capitalist system. The study and control of populations is necessary for the creation of value by human labor for profit accumulation.

The production of knowledge on sexuality has created focal points around knowledge and power. This combination exerts control over a population through the deployment of different categories that constitute the dominant discourses on sexuality. The “hystericization of women’s bodies” creates and recreates the figure of the hysterical woman and locates female bodies at the center of reproduction and state control of populations. The “pedagogization of children’s sex” subjects the “masturbating child” under close monitoring by guardians who believe that sexuality poses a dangerous threat to children. The “socialization of procreative behaviour” normalizes a social preference/demand for the “heterosexual couple” and their role in the “survival of the species.” Lastly, the “psychiatrization of perverse pleasure” which effectively produces the figure of the “perverse adult” is the dire result of the psychiatrization of sex. It is the kind of medicalization that emphasizes deviant sexual behavior and pathologizes anything beyond heterosexual. These four deployments do not repress sexuality. Rather, they frame sexualities to align them with the requisites of capitalism. This discourse on sexuality frames our position on issues that intensify the fraught contradictions between structures and bodies.

Horrible statements unleashed by bigots on Jennifer aren’t ideas that were invented by individuals themselves. They form part of the discourse on the “perverse adult” that guarantees the hold of global capitalism on our lives. If the ancien régime maintained itself, partially, through the reinforcement of kinship ties or through the “deployment of alliance”, modernity/capitalism maintains itself through the deployment of sexuality, among other mechanisms. The dominant discourse on sexuality still uses the rules of the alliance to determine what is permissible and impermissible in modern times. In fact, capitalism has functioned to nurture the discourses framed by the deployment of alliance. The modern kinship ties/family is still the nucleus for the perpetuation of private property under the logic of profit accumulation and the site for the effective reproduction of bodies that will labor to create value for capitalism. It is high time to disabuse ourselves of the enlightenment arrogance that paints the present as superior to the past.

The global financial elites and their comprador allies in the neocolonies are the first to violate all that we have come to know and embrace about rights and freedoms. Liberty, fraternity, and equality are all capitalist inventions that marked the system’s progressive break with feudalism. But the crises that plague capitalism force ruling elites to trample upon rights and freedoms at the expense of laboring peoples worldwide. And they do so through crisis management that shapes our lives through economic, political and military multilateral and bilateral agreements. One concrete example of crisis management by the global ruling elite and its comprador allies in client states is the propagation and maintenance the global network of US military bases.

Global network of US military bases

The second half of the twentieth century was witness to both the creation and spread of US the global network of US military bases on the one hand and the upsurge of localized protest movements against US troops on the other. The politics of US military bases is part and parcel of the US war economy that promotes the idea of militarized security as one of the keys to economic development of host countries. US military power comes with territorial expansion and the economic control over the resources of a neocolony. At the level of international politics military power is bungled badly by America in the pretext of democracy-in-capitalism as the name of the only game for economic and political success. Through neoliberalism—an economic doctrine that doubles up as social discipline— US imperialism browbeats peoples of its neocolonies into taking the US bases as a symbol of American goodwill and diplomacy.

Neoliberal ideology generates consent for the maintenance of a global order that is based on the uneven development of nations. Countless families in the Philippines, Okinawa, Vicenza in Italy, Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago, Pyeongtaek in South Korea, and other places throughout the world where US bases continue to exist have forced them to sacrifice their communities, households, and farmlands to maintain the US bases. In host societies, the ideology of US military security has worked to keep the daily lives of the common folk nervous and insecure. Even the laws of the land no longer guarantee the neutrality and protection of the national government. Instead, as in the case of EDCA, President Aquino has managed to use state legitimacy as an instrument of US imposition. Aquino’s culpability for EDCA remains unchecked despite the fact that its text effectively demonstrates that EDCA is a treaty of “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities… in the Philippines. By no means is it exempted from the constitutional prohibition in Section 25, Article XVIII of the Constitution reads:

“After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement the Republic of the Philippines and United States of America concerning Military Bases, foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

In short, no foreign government can put up military bases, deploy troops, and install facilities after 1991. Of course, EDCA’s text does not talk about permanent military bases. But its so-called “agreed locations” is euphemism for a military base in different parts of the country. We are now confronted with the same problem that the Filipino people had faced prior to the splendid power that the Filipino people themselves gathered on September 16, 1991, the same enlightened force that ended the symbols of colonialism and the Cold War in the country. The US pivot to Asia is a post-Cold War agenda that must be seen not only as a military reinforcement but as an economic retooling of US imperialism. The US war economy needs boosting amidst the continuous blows of the financial crisis on the US economy. Since the 1980s, a direct correlation between US economic depression and US wars of aggression has been established.

War signifies both a crisis and an attempt to resolve it. It is the US military industrial complex that grants some spark to the US economy and maximized profits for investors who work for the US government. We are dealing with the hegemony of a geopolitical power that is economically collapsing before our very eyes. Yet President Aquino and his ilk want us to believe that America is our savior. Historically, the US ruling elite has always viewed institutionalized cooperation with the Philippines with so much scepticism and condescension.

At the start of the 1990s the World Trade Organization and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade became a mobilizing organization for the world to further open itself to “free trade” as it celebrated the end of the Cold War and the bipolar world system. Welcome to the “new international order” with “trickle down” guarantees.

By now, the debate on free trade and trickle down is clearly an argument won by the Left, only that it comes with a very sad story that goes on and on. And at this point, radicals cannot but dutifully pick up and wave the banners of liberal freedoms that have been thrown and trampled upon by their capitalist inventors. The communists of China, before the country’s capitalist inflection under Deng Xiaoping, had to make the same gesture in order to cultivate international solidarity and pursue permanent revolution. On December 11, 1953, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai explained the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” (FPPC) in a venue that hosted a discussion on foreign relations between the Tibetan local government of China and the Indian national government. These five principles will later become the basis for Sino-Indian relations.

These principles of peaceful coexistence invoke equality, non-interference, non-aggression, peaceful settlement of disputes, confidence-building and cooperation for mutual benefit. The FPPC has been an important reference in international gatherings that discuss political, cultural, economic, and military affairs on the global level. They are, indeed, a good starting point for creating the conditions for a people-based, non-exploitative international relations.

None of these principles are respected nor practiced by the US government in relation to the Filipino people despite the fact that they don’t shake the foundations of this system. This world is in a very bad shape. It is the same world in which US imperialism asserts and reasserts its status of being the global police state committed to the export of democracy in places where brutish and dirt poor people are led by hospitable and corruptible bureaucratic brokers.

LGBT rights, now

In a world where liberal freedoms like LGBT rights are deemed as incitements to moral degradation, to be a radical is to fight for these freedoms. Is the brutal killing of Jennifer Laude a hate crime? It certainly is. What does it have to do with the US troops in the country and imperialism as the solution to the crisis of the capitalist system? Everything. Gender preferences do not fall from the sky.

Foucault’s exposition of the history of sexuality demonstrates how it is a vital component of disciplinary regimes that undergirds the logic of accumulation. Bodies are disciplined and sensibilities are normalized and reproduced by the family unit and other social institutions to ensure that labor remains productive for capitalism. Ensuring the productivity of labor goes beyond reproducing the the 8-hour docile worker. Docile labor power is reproduced through surgical methods that target bodies and sensibilities. The family is an institution where future laborers are trained and properly oriented to the norms of global capitalism in order to reproduce the next generation of laborers. This is done without cost on the capitalist.

In a big way, social institutions like the family, mass media, church, and education contribute to the normalization of heterosexuality. Through the process of normalization bodies become gendered. Simone de Beauvoir explains it best: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

The reproduction of labor under capitalism has historically depended on the unpaid labor of women. With the flight of capital (through portfolio investments) to non-capitalist formations, economies in these spaces have absorbed the labor of women. Thus, demand for women’s household work in less developed countries has meant the monetary exchange for domestic work through labor migration. Case in point is the export of cheap Filipina domestic labor to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Filipina domestics cross the boundaries of nation in the name of maternal sacrifice. Imagine how hard it would have been for a system to maintain itself without the uneven development of countries and the disciplining of sexualities which results in the normalization of heterosexuality.

The struggle for cultural recognition of LGBT has pushed advanced economies to accommodate lifestyle preferences and did not simply come from the intervention of scattered gay people who decided to fight for their rights as gay individuals. Capitalism itself created the conditions that challenge normative sexualities. The organization of one’s personal life separate from the family unit is the result of the socialization of production through wage labor. Under feudalism, marital unions were a function of political and economic consolidation. Marriages were fixed to preserve and consolidate already monopolized private property. Marriage on account of love is a recent invention whose correlation only became possible under capitalism. Under this system, people gained the capacity to organize their personal lives away from their families. People had to leave their homes to become workers in urban centers and start out on their own as individuals. Marital unions built around eroticism and emotional attachment became possible. And so was one’s attraction to a person of the “same sex”. But this consequence needed to be disciplined to some degree.

In a way, capitalism ‘s position on the celebration of gender difference is contradictory, if not totally antagonistic to the whole notion of freedom. As a source of profit for niche markets, LGBT identity is celebrated by capitalism for what this community can consume. But the system has imposed restrictions upon what the LGBT community can fight for and win.

Capitalism grants the LGBT consumer full freedom as it restricts his/her political freedom. The crisis in capitalism inflicts the worst kind of discrimination against subjects who do not fit into its normalized standards of sexuality. What societies like the Philippines confront is not directly capitalism but the retooling it undergoes on account of its own crisis. The proliferation of military bases all over the world is one such example of imperialist reconfiguration through neoliberalism.

Under neoliberalism, the LGBT community is systematically exposed to all sorts of risks by a system that deprives vulnerable sectors access to social services. Neoliberalism is capitalism’s way of maximizing profits amidst economic crisis. It also doubles up as a mechanism for social discipline that includes an ideological enforcement of people’s consent to the expansion of military power in neocolonies. Thus, in relation to the expansion of US imperialist military power, neoliberalism deploys and reinforces the most backward sensibilities that have historically oppressed marginalized groups.

Part of global capitalism’s social discipline is to put people in a box where dissenters can only suffocate. What is deeply sad and painful about the brutal murder of Jennifer is the well-known fact that transwomen, and members of the LGBT community are placed in a more difficult box. That is how it has always been, history hurts. The same community finds it harder to clinch well-deserved accommodation, recognition, and basic service from a government that is not only homophobic but also one that has always brokered Filipino/Filipina bodies for the entitlements that it has itself granted to its imperialist master.

However, Bagas and Hontiveros cannot be accused of being narrow practitioners or propagandists of identitarian politics. They know the bigger picture, which just happens to be, in their case, defending the Aquino government’s pro-imperialist foreign policy. It is in service of Aquino’s subservience to the US that they wilfully narrow and dumb down their LGBT advocacy – which is a disservice not only to the nation, but to the LGBT sector they purport to serve and speak for. So when Akbayan LGBT advocates like Bagas attack the anti-imperialist activists for highlighting US military aggression in the brutal killing of Jennifer, he has to be reminded that it is the concrete realities of the world, specifically the unequal relations between the US and the Philippines that impose on society the need to oppose such unjust structures.

There is no refusal on the part of national democratic activists to mobilize sexual liberation in the anti-imperialist struggle. It is the concrete persistence of US imperialist incursions that places the struggle of sexual liberation within the realm of a larger struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation, within the nation and beyond. To refer to anti-imperialism as a larger struggle does not diminish other struggles. It simply means that all sectors within a national formation suffer the violence of national oppression inflicted by imperialism upon various spheres of life. Akbayan members Hontiveros & Bagas are throwing the ball too low, it does not even hit the J of the word Justice, much less, of the name Jennifer. (

Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Center for International Studies (UP-CIS Diliman) and a member of the National Executive Board of the All U.P. Academic Employees Union. She is the current National Treasurer of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the External Vice Chair of the Philppine Anti-Impeiralist Studies (PAIS). She is also a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.

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  1. Wait, Jeffrey or Jennifer ?

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