In the Philippines, being a lesbian means being invisible

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“There is less tolerance [for lesbians and trans men] basically because the Philippines is still a patriarchal country wherein women are seen as a substandard group of people as compared to men,” says Ging Cristobal, Project Coordinator for Asia at OutRight Action International. Photos by BARDO WU

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A pink low-rise building stands out among several nondescript houses and apartments somewhere in Quezon City. From the parking lot you can hear hip-hop music pumping out of a small dance studio on the first floor. Through the tinted door, you can also make out the figures inside — a group of masculine 20-somethings rehearsing for their next gig, the 2018 Metro Manila Pride Festival.

TFX, or “T Effects,” is described as the only dance crew in Manila comprised solely of tomboys and trans men.

Twenty-three-year-old Kim Siao is the dance group’s youngest member. Despite being the youngest and, she admits, the slowest at picking up choreography, Kim stands out as one of the most confident.

When asked where she gets this confidence, she answers, “Siguro sa magulang ko. Kasi parang, [sabi nila sakin] ‘Anak, just be yourself, just be who you are.’

Kim already knew she was different at an early age. “Bata pa lang ako, ‘pag binibigyan ako ng regalo ng mga parents ko ... mga pambabaeng laruan, ayoko talaga,” she shares. “Pero pag mga panlalaking laruan tuwang-tuwa ako … ‘Yung parents ko supportive naman.”

She recounts how her father would give her the masculine toys her brother (who is gay and out to their family as well) would reject. “‘Di na napagusapan na parang, ‘Anak, tomboy ka ba?’ Siya na mismo parang, ‘Anak o, ito laruan. Ito damit o.’”

cnn-les-3518.jpg Twenty-three-year-old dancer Kim Siao attributes her confidence to her parents, who she says have always accepted her since she was young. “Siguro [confident ako dahil] sa magulang ko. Kasi parang, [sabi nila sakin] ‘Anak, just be yourself, just be who you are.’" Photo by BARDO WU

While Kim can count herself lucky enough to call her family her safe space, others must choose to find their own family, like 26-year-old Shin Gotis, who is also a member of TFX.

Prior to joining the group, Shin had been a fan of some of its members, who had been contestants of the “It's Showtime” segment, “That’s My Tomboy.”

“Si Kim Andaya at Nicky Song, idol ko po talaga ‘yung dalawa,” says Shin. “So nung nagpost po si Nicky [na naghahanap ang TFX ng miyembro], dun po ako nag-chat kay ... Madam Nariese [their manager].”

At 24, Shin moved to Manila to find her family, who had left her in Bicol with an aunt when she was young. “[Pagdating ko sa Manila] wala po akong kaibigan,” she says. “So naghanap ako [online].”

As she reunited with her family and settled down in Manila, she applied as a waitress and cashier at a Korean BBQ restaurant near the dance studio. But slowly, she learned that her family could not accept her lesbian identity. She eventually had to move out and live at the restaurant for a few months.

cnn-les-3481.jpg When Shin Gotis moved to Manila, she turned to the internet to find friends she could connect with. It was through a post by one of her idols that she found out about an all-tomboy and trans man dance crew. Photo by BARDO WU

“‘Nung habang tumatagal, nagkaroon ako ng partner, doon na lumabas ‘yung lahat ng mga ugali nila,” says Shin. “Sa birthday ko po mismo, sinabi sakin ng tatay ko, ‘Kung alam ko lang na magkakaganyan ka, sana noon pa lang pinalaglag na kita sa tiyan ng mama mo.”

Now, Shin’s family is her crew.

“‘Yung pagsasayaw ko po kasi, dati sa Bicol pinagbabawalan po ako. ‘Wala kang mararating diyan,’ sabi ng tita ko,” she shares.

“[Sa pagsasayaw] parang nagagawa ko lahat. Doon ko naranasan umuwi ng umaga ... ‘yung di ko ginagawa dati, sabi ko, ‘napakalaya ko ngayon.’ Tapos nung napunta ako dito [sa Manila], lalo akong naging malaya.”

***

For 33-year-old Fats Roxas, going to an all-girls college allowed her to feel safe enough to explore her identity.

Growing up with a love of literature and films, Fats says that liking girls “wasn't something that seemed like a possibility … in my head” because the stories available were always between a boy and a girl.

“[Being in an all-girls school] wasn’t so much na ... people will say that because you were exposed to other lesbians [then you will become one],” says Fats. “I think it was more like, there was a safe space for you to explore your identity … It was normal for girls to like other girls. It was something that just happened.”

cnn-les-3520.jpg 33-year-old Fats Roxas shares how straight-passing lesbians are often afforded certain privileges in the workplace. When she came out to her boss in a previous company, she was told, "don't spread it yet because I want you to become regularized before they think about you in any other way." Photo by BARDO WU

Fifteen-year-old Maine*, who identifies as bisexual and studies in an exclusive Catholic school, shares a similar story: “Two years ago I transferred in an all-girls school that accepts diversity and queer people …  the students here do not discriminate nor shame people who identify themselves as queer.”

“Being in an all-girls school is a very important part of my gender identity,” she adds. “It’s a safe space made by the students … A Grade 10 section even paraded the LGBT flag and sold rainbow cupcakes and LGBT merchandise during their culminating activity. Their items were immediately sold out.”

***

Though over 30 years Maine’s senior, RK Gimeno, who is going to be 50 soon, only started coming out 10 years ago. Even if she had already recognized her attraction to women long before then, she said there was no one to confide in. “I didn't know what to do. I didn't have many lesbian friends.”

It took 10 years for her to “complete” her gradual coming out, which involved cutting her hair shorter, getting tattoos, and slowly donning more masculine outfits.

There was also the challenge of coming out to her children — she has four — whom she did not want to burden with the complexities of gender and identity at such a young age.

Instead, she would “silently watch ‘Ellen’ at home” and sneak off to the computer shop to find out more about being queer. The internet, she says, helped her identify her feelings: “[I recognized] ‘yung feeling na, ‘Ah, ito pala ‘yung tawag sa ganito,’ nung adult na ko, nung may internet na. Kasi sa work, nung pager days, tago ‘yun. Hindi pinag-uusapan ‘yun.”

Rk1.jpg 49-year-old RK Gimeno only started coming out 10 years ago, as she says there was very little information on being LGBTQ during her formative years. When the internet became more accessible, she says it was able to help her identify her feelings: “[I recognized] ‘yung feeling na, ‘Ah, ito pala ‘yung tawag sa ganito.’" Photo courtesy of RK GIMENO

***

At a hotel cafe, a woman in her mid-30s sits at a table waiting for us. She looks like your average, everyday Filipina if not for her hair, or lack thereof.

Mylene Hazel De Guzman is an assistant professor at the U.P. Department of Geography. While one might think of mountains and rivers when one hears the word geography, Mylene is more interested in the intersections of geography and gender.

“Geography is the study of spaces ... When you consider gender, we have what you call ‘safe spaces.’ I'm interested to know how identities play out in certain spaces,” she says.

“Where you are in influences how you would act, even unconsciously,” she adds. “For example, [in Church] hindi kami mag-ho-holding hands [ng partner ko] kasi it's not normal for two women to hold hands there. But for a heterosexual couple ... that's okay.”

cnn-les-3551.jpg Cultural geographer Mylene Hazel De Guzman talks about the importance of studying the intersection of gender and geography. “Where you are in influences how you would act, even unconsciously,” she says. Gay bars and lesbian-only events allow LGBTQs to let loose and be who they really are because they are "discriminated against in normal spaces.” Photo by BARDO WU

Just as Shin found solace in the safety of an all-tomboy and trans man dance crew, and Fats and Maine could come to terms with their sexuality in an all-girls environment, lesbians and queer women in the Philippines depend on these safe spaces to escape from the harsh realities of a society that is only LGBT-friendly on the surface — a 2013 research found that the Philippines was the most tolerant nation in the Asia-Pacific region after Australia, yet in another survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) from March 23 to March 27 of this year, 61 percent of 1,200 respondents were against legalizing same-sex marriage.

As Mylene points out: “What does ‘tolerate’ mean? It means you have to live with something that you don't necessarily want to deal with.”

Of the many negative experiences unique to lesbians and queer women in the Philippines, Ging Cristobal, Project Coordinator for Asia at OutRight Action International, says it all goes back to our religious, patriarchal, machismo-laden culture.

In Roselle V. Pineda's "Bridging Gaps, Marking a Struggle: The History of the Filipina Lesbian Struggle in the Philippines," she writes of the problem of "lesbian invisibility," "in history as both a practice and a struggle."

She examines how, historically, lesbian existence was not only discouraged but sanctioned as well, relegating them to outcasts in society, like witches, spinsters, and prostitutes — women who were considered deviant for engaging in behavior and sexual practices wherein men were absent, and thus threatened male dominance.

Today, though stigmatization is less severe, the situation is more or less the same, especially in a country like the Philippines.

“Society thinks it's cute. Society thinks that you need a man's kiss ... for you to be ‘normal’ or heterosexual … And they use religion because they don't want you to burn in hell. So the intention is supposed to be good, because they want to ‘save’ you. But in fact it's wrong.” — Ging Cristobal

“There is less tolerance [for lesbians and trans men] basically because the Philippines is still a patriarchal country wherein women are seen as a substandard group of people as compared to men,” says Cristobal. “[We still live in] a male dominated society. And for transgender men, they are seen as ‘pseudo men’ or fake men.”

“[Nabastos ako ng] kaklase ko nung nag-vocational ako sa Bicol ... Sabi niya, ‘Babae ka pa rin. Kailangan mo pa rin ng lalaki,’” says Shin, recounting a time when a male classmate would insist on going to her house to borrow money, and verbally assaulted her when she refused.

Cristobal also notes how people use religion to justify homophobic attitudes and corrective behaviors, such as the belief that lesbians and trans men need to experience being with a man in order to be changed back to “normal.”

“But that's abuse of my right as an individual on how I express my right to expression,” says Cristobal. “And society thinks it's cute. Society thinks that you need a man's kiss ... for you to be ‘normal’ or heterosexual … And they use religion because they don't want you to burn in hell. So the intention is supposed to be good, because they want to ‘save’ you. But in fact it's wrong.”

Cristobal also shares how, in the old days, local media representations of "lesbians" were of masculine or tomboyish women who would suddenly turn more feminine upon falling in love with a man.

More recently, the trailer of the "Maalaala Mo Kaya" episode based on the hit song "Titibo-Tibo" highlighted a scene wherein the lesbian character's mother is elated to find that her daughter is dating a man, which sent the message that "turning" straight was an option — one met with celebration — and overshadowed the LGBT positive messaging of the actual episode.

In line with this thinking, many queer women and trans men experience corrective rape — sometimes even by friends and family.

Meanwhile, in exclusive Catholic schools where same-sex relationships are common, school administrators use religious reasons to reprimand, suspend, and even out students to their parents if they continue their relationships.

In the case of 14-year-old Al*, who used to identify as lesbian but now prefers the term “trans masculine” and he/him pronouns, the school called his mother in to tell her that he was in a relationship with a classmate, basically preempting his coming out.

Because of that, Al says that he had to “prove myself by studying as hard as I can to prove that I can balance studying and a relationship.” This notion of “proving oneself” often comes up in the interviews as well.

“There is less tolerance [for lesbians and trans men] basically because the Philippines is still a patriarchal country wherein women are seen as a substandard group of people as compared to men.” — Ging Cristobal

In RK’s case, she would often speak about being thankful for coming out later in life because she was able to gain the respect of co-workers and family before revealing her sexuality.

Cristobal explains this as a response to the tolerance-as-acceptance and conditional attitudes Filipinos have towards LGBTQs. “There's always a condition before you are accepted or even tolerated. There is this phrase that [Filipinos] use: ‘We accept you but…’ But you have to temper showing your gender expression or how lesbian you are in terms of clothing, your manner of speaking, the content of your messages.”

“That's why it's important for us to have [safe spaces]. Kaya maganda na ‘yung Nectar may Girl Nation Thursdays. Kasi this is an avenue na pwedeng magpakita ng tunay na kulay ang mga tao,” says Mylene. “Kaya nga we also have gay bars. That's why we have these kinds of specific spaces kasi we are discriminated against in normal spaces.”

***

Though safe spaces exist for some lesbians, bisexuals, queer women, and trans men, these often provide respite rather than total protection. Perhaps in breaking off from mainstream society these spaces create even greater divides between the LBQT (lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans) and straight community.

What is needed, instead, are national laws — such as the SOGIE Equality Bill — to be implemented in order for LBQTs to experience total protection across all spaces.

As Senator Risa Hontiveros said, “With a law, there is behavioral change that is expected at the societal level.”

For now, Cristobal says it is the obligation of the LGBTQ community and its allies to “challenge stigmatization and the stereotypes. And we can only do that by being out and proud and showing our diversity and educating people.”

For Fats, who is often presumed to be straight, it means recognizing one’s privilege, especially since this gives her an advantage in her work in the corporate world.

“I always have to remember that one of the things that I have [is] a sort of privilege because I'm straight passing,” she says. “I think a lot about it because [my colleagues] don't have to be reminded of it constantly, as opposed to somebody who would like to dress more masculine.”

Mylene, whose mother was very accepting of her when she came out, wants to share her story to let others know that not every queer story is tragic nor does it have to be. “What I want to point out is that it's possible to have this kind of narrative. It's possible and I'm not the only one.”

She also hopes that other people use their voices to educate the next generation. In her case, she takes time to teach her kids about consent and sexuality even at an early age. “I think what's important also, lalo na this ‘woke’ generation, should be raising kids who are woke as well. Who won't have to deal with the same challenges that we in our generation had to deal with.”

For others, it is in the small yet powerful act of taking pride in one’s identity.

Five years ago, when RK’s daughter learned that her mother was a lesbian upon discovering a letter penned by her girlfriend, she said, ‘I understand but I do not accept it.’ To which, RK replied, “But I'm not asking to be accepted. I'm not asking you to accept me or not. This is me. It's your choice. This is my choice. This is my life. And I think it's okay.”

***

*Name changed at subject’s request.