Beyond Pura Luka’s drag: Democracy and diversity

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

I’ve wanted to write about the issues surrounding drag artist Pura Luka Vega for some time, but with other pressing matters that needed addressing previously, I had to set this topic aside. However, the recent arrest of the 33-year-old artist in Manila on Wednesday, October 4, gives me the opportunity to now share my thoughts.

Luka, whose legal name is Amadeus Fernando Pagente, has faced criticism for impersonating the Black Nazarene in drag acts. Police executed an arrest warrant issued by the Regional Trial Court in Manila that ordered Luka’s arrest for an alleged violation of Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code on “immoral doctrines, obscene publications and exhibitions, and indecent shows.”

Members of the Hijos del Nazareno-Central and Balangay officers of the Quiapo Church filed a complaint against Luka. They said Luka mocked the Filipino Catholic hymn “Ama Namin” in a bar, imitating the Black Nazarene, which they described as a blasphemous act. Others in Quezon City filed similar complaints, particularly the Philippines for Jesus Movement.

Notably, no one within the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the country has filed a complaint against Luka. However, in at least 11 localities, Luka has been declared ‘persona non grata’ due to the drag artist’s “Ama Namin” performance. Cebu City is among those localities, with the City Council having passed a resolution to that effect last August.

When this issue first arose, my initial question as a Roman Catholic was, “Was I offended by Luka’s acts?” The answer is no. I wasn’t offended, though I was taken aback and found the act somewhat odd and senseless. But I did ask myself: Are we really that touchy about our religious beliefs that a drag artist who mocks the image of Jesus stirs such controversy and condemnation? Do we really need to react that strongly, or with heightened emotion, to perceived affronts to our beliefs?

My next question was, “What would Jesus, the man himself, have done to Luka?” Considering Jesus’ teachings and his emphasis on mercy, forgiveness, and understanding, it’s likely he would have approached Luka with compassion and open dialogue.

I won’t delve into the merits of the current cases Luka faces in the prosecution office and courts. But Luka’s recent arrest raises concerns for me about our society’s grasp of democratic ideals. For me, the true test of free speech in a democratic society lies in how the majority treats the minority, especially those they disagree with. A society’s genuine commitment to democracy is marked not only by accepting voices that align with the norms but also by tolerating those that might shock, or are considered taboos, or fall outside accepted conventions.

A common misconception about democracy, if we still claim to have one in this country, is that it is merely the rule of the majority. Democracy isn’t just about the majority’s voice. Relying solely on this can lead us down a dangerous path. If it were only about majority rule, minorities could easily be oppressed or marginalized. True democracy respects all rights, not just popular ones. Everyone deserves a say. No single person or group holds all the answers.

With this I am reminded of the poignant words penned by Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo in the case of ‘Ang Ladlad LGBT Party versus Comelec’ (GR No. 190582, April 8, 2010): “One unavoidable consequence of everyone having the freedom to choose is that others may make different choices – choices we would not make for ourselves, choices we may disapprove of, even choices that may shock or offend or anger us. However, choices are not to be legally prohibited merely because they are different, and the right to disagree and debate about important questions of public policy is a core value protected by our Bill of Rights. Indeed, our democracy is built on genuine recognition of, and respect for, diversity and difference in opinion.”

In the said case, the Supreme Court held: “We cannot help but observe that the social issues presented by this case are emotionally charged, societal attitudes are in flux, even the psychiatric and religious communities are divided in opinion. This Court’s role is not to impose its own view of acceptable behavior. Rather, it is to apply the Constitution and laws as best as it can, uninfluenced by public opinion, and confident in the knowledge that our democracy is resilient enough to withstand vigorous debate.”

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