UP College of Law Class 2017 valedictorian speaks of gender, privilege, and rule of law

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On Gender, Privilege, and Rule of Law

Valedictory Address, UP College of Law Class 2017

June 26, 2017

Carlos S. Hernandez Jr.

Eight years ago, I was working in a pharmaceutical plant in Laguna for 12 hours a day, from Monday to Saturday. It was a 12-hour shift, six days a week, in the middle of the production line. I was a chemical engineer. I loved my job then but my childhood dream of becoming a lawyer continued to haunt me while I supervised the production of drugs.

Attending law school after work from Laguna was impossible.  It was only when I was able to find a job in Makati that finally I looked up the evening sky and saw that the stars had aligned to make my childhood dream of becoming a lawyer closer to reality. The LAE was the only entrance exam I took, not so much because I adore UP Law but because UP Law was the only law school I could afford. I was a working student, and I attended classes at night. I would report to work at 7AM so that I could leave at 4 PM and avoid the MRT rush hour on the way to school. The MRT becomes a war zone during rush hour. I would read my cases while standing inside the moving train, in a jampacked, canned-sardines scenario where I was sandwiched between fellow passengers. Reading cases was an act of bravery, and sometimes I was not that brave enough.

I would also read inside jeepneys, unmindful of the heat and traffic congestion around me. Learning the law in solitude while commuting became a ritual. It became my sweet escape.

My mother, on various occasions, asked me to quit my job and offered to finance my education. I would only look at her and say nothing because I know that she would be borrowing money again just to send me to school. The love of a mother is pure.

My story is similar to the stories of many of my classmates in the evening block. Their stories, though, are far more inspirational. A blockmate who is also graduating today is a breadwinner who had to send his three younger siblings to school with his meager salary. A blockmate has to put her baby to sleep after class. Another blockmate still has to work after class for his graveyard shift in a BPO. The road we had to take to arrive at this moment of so much joy and great pride was paved with sweat, tears, but most of all, love.

Our stories are a testament to the truth that the doors of the UP College of Law will be opened to those who are brave enough to knock, and stubborn enough to knock repeatedly and persistently.

This is not to say that sheer determination alone is enough to reach one’s dreams. I do not want to contribute to the spread of the big lie that poverty is not a hindrance to success. It is. Poverty IS a hindrance to success.

Five years in law school was both a humbling and rewarding experience. The experience made my resolve stronger to fight for the things that are worth fighting for. Allow me at this point to share my thoughts on three issues that are close to my heart. These are gender, privilege, and most importantly, rule of law.

ON GENDER

At first I thought law school would be an ultraconservative enclave. I once feared that students like me who are members of the LGBT community would have to suppress our gender identity and expression so that we would not attract too much attention to ourselves. I even practiced introducing myself to my professors and classmates in an alpha male voice, which is, of course, not my real voice. I practiced saying “I AM CARLOS HERNANDEZ JR.” in front of a mirror several times.

I was wrong. Because the moment Prof. Gaby Concepcion entered the room for my first class in law school, I knew right then and there that I belong, that I did not have to use a different voice to introduce myself to her and to my classmates. In my fifth year in law school, together with my LGBTQ+ friends in Malcolm Hall, we founded the UP OUTLaws, an organization of law students who self-identify as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders, and many more.

We also found an unlikely rainbow ally in Dean Pacifico Agabin. Dean Agabin is of the view that “to bar the lesbians, the gays and the transsexuals from the civil right to marry would violate the guarantee of equal protection,” and that the concept of marriage under the Family Code as a contract between a man and a woman is obsolete.

I fear that there are those who still think that a lawyer is less effective or less credible simply because he is gay or is flamboyant. That is why I think gay lawyers suppress their gender for professional reasons. I am confident that the members of the UP Law Class of 2017 would not entertain any such homophobic notion. One of the reasons why I studied so hard is because I want my competence to be measured based on merit alone, and that my gender would not get in the way of me getting retained, hired, promoted, or even appointed.

It’s about time that we extend the equal protection of the laws to the people who do not fit into the oppressive gender and sexual binary by passing the Anti-Discrimination Bill, and by making the institution of marriage accessible to everyone, and I mean everyone.

ON PRIVILEGE

There are two aspects of privilege that I would like to highlight about being a UP graduate and a UP Law graduate in particular.

First, our UP Law education gives us a certain level of credibility whether we deserve it or not. This is a double-edged sword. We can use it to educate or to ridicule. The rampant smart-shaming against UP students may have its roots in the tendency of some of us to mock. Maybe we have been using ridicule as a tool of persuasion very often, even at times when the circumstances do not warrant its use. We have been mocking the uninformed and the ignorant as if the quality of the opinions they form and things they believe in are ultimately of their own doing alone, without taking into account that they might not have been exposed to the kind of education we have been exposed to because of circumstances beyond their control such as abject poverty.

Of course, fake news, attempts to revise history, and malicious propaganda being propagated by self-serving individuals must be dealt with, with the full force of what we know and what we believe in. Now more than ever, we need to win the war against untruth, and the battle against memory.

Second, the culture of pervasive “othering” has to stop. I am referring to our tendency to label people who are not from UP as “The Others” with all the derogatory and pejorative connotations we attach to the label. It is harsh to even joke about one’s competence based on the school one has attended. It is a subtle way of speaking highly of oneself by reducing another’s worth.

We raised our voices so that the muted cries coming from the graves of the victims of Martial Law would be heard when Marcos was buried in Libingan Ng Mga Bayani. We protested against the death penalty because it is a cruel and inhuman punishment and the usual victims of wrongful convictions are the poor. We are also the first to express our indignation against the disregard of due process in this administration’s war against drugs. Let us be hated for these reasons, which are principled reasons, and not because we are seen as boastful of the education that we received.

The thing about privilege is that it’s like air: we’re oblivious of its existence yet it’s always there.

ON RULE OF LAW

The rule of law is the raison d’être of the legal profession. It is pointless for all of us here to master the law if we could not even invoke it. We assume that everyone should appreciate and cherish the due process of law.

But we are wrong. We are wrong to assume that we share the same faith in and devotion to the rule of law with the rest of the public. Law or due process is now seen by many as an unnecessary bureaucracy, an inconvenience, or worse, a tool for the dangerous elements of our society to go unpunished and roam free. We are suddenly awakened that our shared belief that the rule of law is beneficial to all is in reality abhorred and despised by many.

We are shocked that many of the poor and the powerless approve of disregarding due process even if it is their only shield against the arbitrary use of the state’s power.

We all graduate today against this gloomy backdrop.

In a world marred by so much inequality, the last bastion of hope in preserving our dignity as men and women is the law. The moment this last bastion collapses, the only alternative left is a revolution which can be bloody and violent.

It is in our best interests as future lawyers that the rule of law reigns forever supreme in our land, whatever political sides we may find ourselves in.

If there is no rule of law, our soon-to-be profession would become obsolete. We would be reduced to mere actors and actresses in a pantomime whose only role is to give a semblance of legitimacy to a legal system run by whoever is in power or who can pay the highest bribe.

I have no doubt that many of us will be successful and brilliant members of the legal profession. Some of us, years from now, will be in positions of power. Some of us will wield the awesome powers of the State. We will become close advisers to those who wield such powers.

My only hope is that when the moment comes that we have to take a position on a simple legal question that becomes complex because of political or financial considerations, whatever creative legal position that we take, may it always be something that fortifies, and not something that undermines, the rule of law.

There are some lawyers who now spit at the supremacy of the courts in all things legal just because they are now ensconced in the other two co-equal branches of the government, the legislative and the executive. They willfully forget the fundamental rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights they once memorized so that they can cling to power. Let us not follow in their footsteps. Let us instead erase those footsteps from the face of the earth.

The people have lost faith in a system they rightly perceive as highly legalistic, always in delay, and serving only the interests of the rich and the powerful.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “We shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

My fellow graduates of the UP College of Law, I am excited to work with all of you, as future great lawyers of this nation, in bending this stubborn arc in the direction of justice.

Maraming salamat po.

Isang mapagpalayang hapon sa inyong lahat.