'Stand up for equality' - UP Los Baños valedictorian

One afternoon in my childhood, I witnessed a middle-aged man, who was watering his plants, suddenly point his hose with running water at a crossdresser who just happened to be passing by. The transgender man, baffled, just ran away, soaking wet. Can you believe it? Hosing down an innocent passerby just because he was a crossdresser? But the thing is, as a child, I was conditioned that bullying the quote-unquote third sex was nothing out of the ordinary. I was led to believe that a man dressing up as a woman is indeed a heinous crime.

 

But before I get carried away with the main point of my message, allow me first to perform my task for today.

To our guest speaker, Dr. Romulo G. Davide; members of the Board of Regents; officials of the University of the Philippines System; Chancellors of other UP campuses; officials of the University of the Philippines Los Baños led by Chancellor Fernando C. Sanchez Jr.; parents, teachers, friends, and fellow-graduates, a pleasant evening to all.

Many of you may wonder about what Development Communication is. Even I had difficulties explaining it to my curious relatives during family gatherings. Whenever asked, I would default to the staple answer of Development Communication students: “parang mass comm din po”. It is an easy way out, but it does not give justice to the field. Devcom differs itself from other communication courses that focus on a mainstream audience. Devcom’s bias is for the poor, marginalized communities. This makes it necessary for development communicators to use simple messages that can be easily understood, even by the unschooled.

That’s why in Devcom, we were taught time and again how important it is to have a clear, specific message. For what good is a broad, comprehensive text if it would not be understood, if it would not be remembered?

Being remembered. Many of us have this frustration of leaving a mark in this world, of having our existence forever etched in history. Being remembered. For what is life, if death would soon render us irrelevant?

And because I know, statistically speaking, that there is very low probability of me making it on the cover of Time Magazine, tonight I want to talk about something special. As many as the thoughts I want to share with you tonight, and you wouldn’t believe how many subjects I have already listed at the back of my pocket notebook, I want to focus on a specific message very close to my heart. Even just for tonight, I want you to remember me as the boy who spoke about equality.

I was born and raised in the small town of Paete, Laguna. I grew up in a middle-class family of five children, a family who has an outstanding regard for education. I worked very hard in school, so when I found out I would be entering UP in college, I was one of those people who were led to believe that it was my industry and intelligence that got me in. I believed I deserved it.

But UP crushed my ego. UP opened my eyes to the harsh realities of the world, that we are lucky, but not special. We are lucky because we are only some of the fortunate few who can afford premier education in the country, but not special, because numerous other children out there deserve it, too.

We call ourselves the cream of the crop, but are we, really? I’ve been to indigenous people’s communities in Ifugao, Bataan, and Mindoro, and you wouldn’t believe how incredibly smart these IPs are. If they could be given equal opportunities in education, I don’t think many of us would be here, sitting comfortably under this roofed Freedom Park. So what good is a UP diploma then, knowing that plenty other intellectually-strong children out there are deprived of the right we have enjoyed?

Then there’s Ms. Tiffany Uy, an unbelievably talented girl who recently shot to fame with her record-breaking 1.004 general weighted average (we all know who she is, right?) Perhaps it is only we – UP students – who can completely grasp how unimaginable it is to have a Transcript of Records lined with straight 1.0s and a single 1.25. And yet critics like to talk about her part-Chinese descent. Sure, it is valid to discuss how her social status could have given her an academic advantage, but bringing up her race in the issue is either utter bigotry, or bitterness. If any UP student is free to vie for the summa cum laude title, what is so wrong about a hardworking, part-Chinese scholar achieving the coveted honour? (READ: Don't stay silent in the face of racism)

And since we’re on the topic of equality, why is it that only Ms. Uy of UP Diliman and Mr. Manuel of UP Visayas seem to receive the praises of many? Why do we not hear stories of a child of farmer parents, for instance, who had to till the land in the morning and study at night just to finish college? Or the story of a working student, perhaps, who would finally graduate after prioritizing the education of his or her siblings? I believe these are the kinds of stories media should pay more attention to.

I studied in a Catholic high school, where girls should wear long sleeves despite the heat, because they need to cover their skin from the eyes of hormonally-charged teen-age boys. I grew up in a community where girls who liked to wear skimpy clothes were referred to as “kire”, or “malande”, whom adults would warn other girls not to imitate, lest they wanted to get pregnant unexpectedly.

But my UP education taught me that no, if guys can wear sandos on a humid weather, why can’t girls do the same without being criticized? My UP education opened my mind to question our social norms, and understand that equality is not only a mathematical concept, but also a principle one must consciously apply in everyday situations.

In a patriarchal society where women wearing provocative clothes are blamed for sexual abuse incidents, my UP education allowed me to understand that rape is never the victim’s fault. Women should not be ostracized and punished for the indecent whims of their assailants. For what good is a UP diploma, if scholars don’t champion women empowerment?

Very recently, the passage of the same-sex marriage law in the United States broke the internet, and led me to witness people in their nastiest behaviours. I was appalled by how people are too narrow-minded to understand a very simple concept: If heterosexuals can marry, then is it not only just that homosexuals be granted the same right? People should not even refer to it as same-sex marriage, but simply, “marriage” – the same right heterosexual people enjoy.

If only the LGBT sector is widely-accepted, how many families could have been closer together, and how many children’s lives could have been saved from fear and shame and disgrace? How easier it would be for homosexuals to sleep at night, knowing that they are free, and that they are loved, and that there is nothing wrong with them? Is it not ironic and hypocritical how a lot of people can love God, and yet hate one another?

So going back to when I witnessed this crossdresser get hosed down, at the time I could not have stood up for her rights. I was powerless. But my background in Development Communication gave me the mind to distinguish oppression of rights, the heart to sympathize to the plight of the marginalized, and the spirit to fight and change the faulty social system. UP taught me genuine respect, and love, and genuine respect for all forms of love.

I’m sure we can do so much more than changing our Facebook profile pictures to rainbow-colored ones. For what good is a UP diploma if we, UP graduates, don’t stand up for equality?

All of us will perish, with no one left to remember our names. But we, UPLB scholars of Class 2015, are in a formidable position to be change-makers. Wouldn’t it be a fine legacy for our generation to be someday known as the brave who fought against all social injustices? A generation that made love win?

This is my challenge to the UPLB graduates of 2015.

Congratulations, and may we all keep fighting for equality. - Rappler.com

Paoloregel B. Samonte graduated from the UPLB College of Development Communication. The speech was republished from his Facebook page.