‘I was torn because I was happy to be welcomed yet appalled by this world of ‘real’ men’

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“Everyday, we gear up for the emotions we have to combat, shifting in and out of spaces where we sometimes blend in and sometimes stand out.” On Transgender Day of Remembrance, transman Julian Tanaka recalls his experiences of adapting and surviving. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I’m sure you’ve heard many stories about the struggles of being LGBTQ+ in the Philippines. It goes without saying that being different in our country comes with a lot of difficulties. I cannot speak in behalf of the entire transman community. I can only do so much as share my personal experiences, actual accounts of some of my brothers’ experiences, and my opinions.

I was 19 when I realized I was trans. On the same year, I asked my family and friends to transition with me by calling me by my preferred name (Julian/Tolits) and gender pronouns (him/his/he). I was fortunate enough to have been in the University of the Philippines where progressive ideas are welcomed and embraced. I was also fortunate to gain a wider understanding of the community by being a member of UP Babaylan, the premier student LGBT organization in the country. The access we had to each other’s life stories (coming out, family life, confessions, etc.) paved the way to my own story of how I came out and built my relationships.

Eventually, I earned my parents’ support, and began hormone replacement therapy at age 20. Medical transition was also made less difficult thanks to the support group Pioneer Filipino Transgender Men (formerly known as Pinoy FTM), which has always given premium to educating each other on the technicalities and the real-life experiences of those who braved the transition before us.

Transgender men in the Philippines, like many members of the LGBTQ+ community, experience a lot of pain growing up. Sometimes, we have to remember that our parents too, were confused, and didn’t know any better. For me, the real pain begins when you start speaking up with a sound mind and a brave heart and be rejected by the only people you’ve known to love so far in life. I have trans brothers who, because of this rejection, had to grow up on their own too early in life. Some of my brothers had to face the world alone at an early age after being pushed out of the house that was supposed to be home. Some brothers had to stay in the house and tolerate their family praying over them until they were old enough or brave enough to find a home somewhere else.

These are only some of the more painful examples of how a transman's journey begins. And when your “initiation” starts that way, it is as though everything else that follows may seem like easier hills to climb. But of course, we can only really prepare so much for how life really is as a transgender male in the Philippines.

There were things I was prepared for, and things that I did not expect.

The beginning of a transman’s social transition (including but not necessarily medical transition) is always the biggest hill to overcome. I remember the days when I avoided peeing in public bathrooms at all costs. Before I head out to start my day, I always made sure to empty the tank at home. I kept a visual memory of all the areas I frequented and which places within those areas had single occupancy bathrooms. Sometimes, when I didn’t have a choice but to use a public bathroom, I would ask one of my male friends to come pee with me and made sure he waited for me in the bathroom until I finished.

On my first year of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as part of my medical transition (again, this is a choice, not a requirement), all the changes happening in my body were very exciting. My voice was getting lower, hair everywhere was growing thicker, etc. The privileges that came with these changes strengthened the feminist in me. Because my body was helping others see me as male, I noticed that suddenly, people started to listen to what I had to say.

This was especially true when people don’t know that I’m trans. I’m glad that my ideas were being heard but I kid you not, some of these were the same ideas I had when I was perceived as female. My attitude towards a task was now suddenly inspiring when it used to be dismissed as mayabang and bossy. My attention to detail was now suddenly admirable when they used to be dismissed as maarte. All of a sudden, I was valid and powerful. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy being empowered (because who wouldn’t want to be?) but this was very disturbing, especially when dealing with older men.

Being suddenly privy to locker room talk was even more disturbing. One of the most memorable ones was when some of my titos suddenly told me about how much simpler their boys team got over losing a big game as compared to girls teams having to have long meetings with tears and all. They bragged about how they’d simply have to drink and share sex workers on a trip out of town. I admittedly gave it a nervous laugh and said nothing to call them out on it. I was confused because I felt that they shared this information as a gesture of outspokenly recognizing me as a man since they knew me in my younger days. I was torn because I was happy to be “welcomed” yet appalled by this world of “real” men. I was ashamed of not speaking up, but I was more afraid they’d think that I was “still a girl after all” because I didn’t go with the flow. That was the day I decided to grow into my own man, often consciously rebelling against using the words bro, pare, etc. because I did not want the toxicity of masculinity to consume me and reel me into something I do not want to be part of.

But of course, I slip sometimes.

I catch myself feeling so out of place when I see photos of me standing beside cisgender men, or sometimes women who are taller than me. I catch myself lowering my voice when I’m talking to a group of guys. I catch myself worrying if my female partner might not want to be with me because we cannot produce biological children. I catch myself feeling like I will never be a man because all the pieces of paper that identify who and what I am say differently. And every time that happens, I feel as if I have to compensate by going with the flow. And that sucks because when I don’t compensate, I sometimes fall into the trap of self-pity and hate. So in a way, I did some of those things to survive.

I do cringe at myself and my trans brothers when we sometimes work too hard to adhere to these rules and roles to help each other feel valid, safe, and tough. We know that we need to push each other to be well because we know it’s probable that in our lifetime, we will always have to explain what we are and why at job interviews, ID renewals, immigration counters, and nervously hope that we are not in trouble.

***

On the surface, it’s easy being a man in the Philippines until you have to explain why your documents say otherwise. It’s very difficult in the beginning when you’re experiencing all these changes, all these new interactions, and adding new things in your routine. Everyday, we gear up for the emotions we have to combat, shifting in and out of spaces where we sometimes blend in and sometimes stand out. It gets better in time with the help of family who do not only protect us, but also encourage us to be happy. Eventually, things become manageable. Some days we don’t notice that we are different anymore when we go for days without an incident that reminds us otherwise.

Some might argue that we have it easier because being a man in this country comes with privileges ten-fold from when we weren’t perceived as one. But at the end of the day, we are hindered from being truly free to be ourselves by the acts of physical and social violence that begin with denying us the slightest bit of legal protection from discrimination. The SOGIE-Equality Bill (formerly the Anti-Discrimination Bill) has been forcefully stuck for more than two decades by leaders in government who have nothing better to do but make sure we stay where we are. If that first step will take forever to be made, how much longer will it take until we can fully push for our recognition?