COVER STORY

Coming out and coming of age outside Manila

Much of what is recognized as the mainstream LGBTQ advocacy is based in Manila. However, in many places across the country, you hear stories that make one realize that keeping the rainbow flag furled is still the safer bet for many people.

 

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Across the country, rainbow flags unfurl in the stormy month of June in their own way. In a small hostel on the island of Guimaras, the Iloilo Pride Team gathered participants from across Visayas for a days-long workshop on advocacy for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer women’s communities. “Given safe spaces and a chance to be heard, LBQT women have powerful stories to tell,” Irish Granada Inoceto, a dedicated lesbian activist who helped organize the activity, says over Facebook. “It's time we listen.”

Iloilo City, for one, did seem to be listening, as they approved an Anti-Discrimination Ordinance just days before their workshop. Further south, Mindanao Pride, whose members hail from Cagayan de Oro to SOCCSKSARGEN, announced that it was opening its doors new members after a full year of organizing and consolidating its group. They also publicized plans to hold a Mindanao Pride March in December of this year, joining many other communities who will be doing their own celebrations beyond June.

This is not necessarily a shared experience, with many rainbow flags remaining furled regardless of the weather. While Metro Manila is by no means an absolutely safe space — this is a country where you hear stories of LGBTQ children being told that they should be nailed to a cross and where, on one occasion, “a lower court dismissed the case of child abuse committed by a school principal against a young girl who refused to wear skirts and was made to parade in school grounds wearing a curtain” — much of what is recognized as the mainstream LGBTQ advocacy is based here. Indeed, much of the historicizing LGBTQ Filipinos do see Metro Manila, specifically Quezon City, as the birthplace of Asia’s first Pride March.

Bret.jpg Katherine Bretaña, who goes by the name Bret, is a transgender man from Iloilo City. Bret is eager for the opportunity to get more people to listen to their communities in the Visayas as he sees being LGBTQ as a jumping point for larger struggles for justice. Photo courtesy of BRET

The challenges of the LGBT youth in the Philippines

However, in many places inside and outside Manila’s walls, you do hear stories that make one realize that keeping the rainbow flag furled is still the safer bet for many people. “The LGBT youth continue to suffer from stressors in the forms of discrimination, exclusion, and gender-based violence,” Prof. Hadji Balajadia of Ateneo De Davao University’s Department of Psychology tells. She puts the situation bluntly: “Their potentials and well-being are shattered and shaken.”

“Believe it or not, many LGBTQ+ youth are living in the dark and are afraid to come out,” says Prof. Riyan Portuguez, the Co-Convenor of the LGBT Psychology Special Interest Group of the Psychological Association of the Philippines There is a prevalent stereotype of LGBT people as bundles of infinite joy that, while something that might be nice to aspire to, does not reflect the full reality. “I’ve been receiving e-mails, direct messages, and even personal messages on how to help them cope with their coming out issues. It’s alarming. It’s heartbreaking hearing their stories.”

It is worse, she adds, “when those people who are supposed to encourage them to embrace themselves and to encourage them to just be themselves left them in isolation questioning their very existence.” With similarly blunt language, Prof. Riyan sums up the situation: “LGBTQ+ youth don’t thrive because they aren’t talented: they don’t thrive because they feel unsafe, insecure, and neglected.”

“Minsan nagsusumbong ang mga kapatid ko na inaasar sila kasi may kapatid silang bakla. Pero sinasabi ko na hayaan sila kasi hindi naman nakakabawas sa pagkatao niyo yan.” — Rhegie Vergara

But still, more and more young LGBT Filipinos strive for the opportunities we take for granted. They are unfurling the rainbow flag in spite of the odds, in what Indonesia-based Advocacy Officer of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus Lini Zurlia describes as initiatives to “reduce internalized homophobia so LGBT people can start to love themselves instead of hating themselves.” Lini, on her part, knows this well. She lives in a country where both citizen and state, in a flurry of militant religious fervor, band together to crack on any kind of celebration of diversity and unity in differences.

And it is not just queer people who are doing all the unfurling, as more and more communities are banding together to make this happen. Prof. Hadji affirmed this, saying that “communities can also be enablers of empowerment for their dignity” and that “we are challenged therefore to continually engage communities to interrogate their values and norms which are not life-giving to our LGBT youth.” Prof. Riyan shares this enthusiasm:

“Isn’t it amazing if we look at the pulchritude of people and help them prosper by showing our support to make this world safe and inclusive for all?”

And when we listen carefully to those outside Metro Manila’s walls, especially those names which may never receive awards and accolades, you hear the voices of pride coming through in their own way.

Triptych 1.jpg Rhegie Vergara, who is 15 years old, gives a voice to their community in Batangas. His story is somewhat different from the usual narrative we hear, since coming out made things easier rather than harder for him. “Mas napadali po. Free ako sa lahat ng bagay. Kaya ko pong mga gawaing panglalaki o gawaing pambabae. Para po sa akin, kaya ko po ang lahat,” he says. Photos by JL JAVIER

Support for LGBT youth across the country

One voice comes from Iloilo City, fresh from their workshop. Katherine Bretaña, who goes by the name Bret, is a transgender man eager for the opportunity to get more people to listen to their communities in the Visayas. He sees being LGBTQ as a jumping point for larger struggles for justice. “Being LGBT here in Iloilo City,” Bret explained over email, “is a good example in our community because they show us, they teach us how to conquer fear and to fight for our rights by giving workshops and encouraging us to speak loudly and become a voice of the youth.”

But their voices are not always loud enough for many people to hear, Bret admitted. “People are missing out on us LGBT people as people, since we seem more one-dimensional and closed off when we keep quiet. Or maybe we seem to be distant and unwelcoming.” But he wants us to look closer: “I would like people to know that there is more to us than meets the eye. There is more to us than our quietness.” And underneath that distance or quietness is the “true essence” of celebrating pride in Bret’s eyes: “public celebrations may still be wonderful and fun to attend, but for me, true pride is determined by how I choose to lead my life on a daily basis: openly, compassionately, and fully expressed.”

In Koronadal City, Anton Jann Labiang’s voice started very young. “I've been out of my closet since I was 4 years old,” he told us. “I was a bit confused and puzzled of having a heart of a woman and at the same time a body of a man. My parents didn't accept me right away maybe because I am the only member of our family who has this kind of gender preference. At first, it was really hard to deal with various reactions of the people towards me.”

Anton.jpg “My life was not like a princess who lives in a kingdom. I had to face the reality that I'm still not safe from the curse, criticisms, bullies and degradations of other people because they believed that I am abnormal,” says Anton Jann Labiang, who is from Koronadal City. He is also part of SHINE SOCCSKSARGEN, an organization that supports LGBTs in South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, and General Santos. Photo courtesy of ANTON JANN LABIANG

Anton’s voice tells a story of hope, but he also emphasized that this hope takes place in a backdrop of continued loss of hope.

“It doesn't affect who I am as a person especially when my family had started to accept, support, and protect me from any kind of judgements that I'll receive. Most people might think that I'm so lucky that eventually my parents had accepted me wholeheartedly, but I'm telling you that my life was not like a princess who lives in a kingdom. I had to face the reality that I'm still not safe from the curse, criticisms, bullies and degradations of other people because they believed that I am abnormal.”

It was around this time that Anton joined SHINE SOCCSKSARGEN, an organization that supports LGBTs in South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, and General Santos. “During that time, there were no LGBT organizations that unite and empower people like me.”

One of the founders of SHINE SOCCSKSARGEN, Cris Lopera, says us that a majority of their members are LGBTQ youth between 15 to24 years old. Poking fun at his age, Cris said that “there are only three founding members who are 33 years old and above, including myself.”

“Sabi ng pamilya ko, tanggap nila ako kung ano ako, basta wala akong natatapakan at sinasaktan.” — Dave Panganiban

Their main activities are about organizing and encouraging young LGBT people to form organizations in their schools and communities to protect them from bullying and discrimination, learn the basics of sexual rights, and engage the school administration and local government in their advocacy.

“We provide referrals to lead government agencies in case of harassment and abuses, as well as psycho-social support and counselling of young LGBT,” Lopera explains.

“We don't have the voice to defend ourselves,” says Anton. Until an LGBT community was born and we became empowered and united as one,” he says. “As a teenager, I had observed in our society that we are starting to gain acceptance and respect from other people. And I hope that someday we will have a community wherein gender will not matter to being who you are as a person, and that you will matter because of your little contributions for the progress of our country and economy.”

Photo-17 (10).jpg Rhegie Vergara (left) and Dave Panganiban are from NAVERA Memorial National High School in Concepcion, Batangas. “Dito po sa school, nirerespeto kami, lahat po ng LGBT,” says Rhegie. Photo by JL JAVIER

LGBT teens on hope and acceptance

In Batangas, Rhegie Vergara, who is 15 years old, gives a voice to their community. But even so young, there is already much you can hear from his story. “Sa pamilya po namin, sa friends, sa community po, alam po nila na gay since I was kinder po,” Rhegie says. But his story is somewhat different from the usual narrative we hear, since coming out made things easier rather than harder for him.

“Mas napadali po. Free ako sa lahat ng bagay. Kaya ko pong mga gawaing panglalaki o gawaing pambabae. Para po sa akin, kaya ko po ang lahat,” he says.

Rhegie continued to share his positive outlook on his family, which we wished more families cultivated with their LGBT children. “Dito po sa school, nirerespeto kami, lahat po ng LGBT. ‘Yung mother ko, very proud sa mga ginagawa ko at sinusuporta ako lagi. Minsan nagsusumbong ang mga kapatid ko na inaasar sila kasi may kapatid silang bakla. Pero sinasabi ko na hayaan sila kasi hindi naman nakakabawas sa pagkatao niyo yan.”

Another teen from Batangas, Dave Panganiban, a 14-year-old who is in the same school as Rhegie, shares a similar outlook about his family being accepting of his being LGBT: “Sabi ng pamilya ko, tanggap nila ako kung ano ako, basta wala akong natatapakan at sinasaktan. Hindi ko naman sinabi sa kanila, pero nung bata pa lang ako, ‘yung papa ko mismo ang pumilit sa akin na maging ganito.”

Triptych 2.jpg “Siyempre, pagiging bakla, tinatanong ko: Bakit hindi na lang ako naging babae kasi ang puso ko naman is babae at ako gusto naman ng lalaki? Pero tanggap ko naman ang bigay sa akin ni God,” says Dave Panganiban, a 14-year-old gay teen from Batangas. Photos by JL JAVIER

“Siyempre, hindi mawawala ang mga challenges sa buhay namin,” he admits, while still maintaining the same positive outlook. “‘Yung mga negative na natatanggap naming sa ibang tao, ginagawa naming lakas. Kinukuha po namin para po mas tumatag pa kami.”

We ask Rhegie if he would rather go to Manila where the LGBT community is quite strong. “Actually po, galing po akong Manila at dun ako naging ganap. Tapos lumipat na lang po kami sa Batangas, at dito ko po pinatunayan na kaya ko po, na ito na po talaga ako,” he says. “Siyempre bata po ako at marami pang hindi ko nalalaman tungkol sa pagiging LGBT. Gusto kong mas malaking maunawaan ko tungkol sa paging LGBT.”

Dave admits that he had similar questions. “May mga bagay na laging umiikot sa isip ko. May mga tanong na hindi ko masagot-sagot,” he shares. “Siyempre, pagiging bakla, tinatanong ko: Bakit hindi na lang ako naging babae kasi ang puso ko naman is babae at ako gusto naman ng lalaki? Pero tanggap ko naman ang bigay sa akin ni God.”

Beyond what he wants to know about who he is, Rhegie wants other people to know something: “Para po sa lahat ng tao, tao din naman kami, nirerespeto katulad niyo. Hindi naman kung sinabing gay, parang kakaiba na po. Sana po, nirerespeto niyo rin po kami katulad ng paanong nirerespeto naming kayo.”

And for other kids like him, Dave wants to say: “Sa mga taong katulad ko: ‘wag tayong matakot na ilabas ang sarili natin. Maging 100 percent sure tayo, confidently beautiful with a heart.”