UPDATE: On March 31, 2020, food microbiologist Alonzo Gabriel died from complications due to cancer. He was 39 years old.
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — This Pride Month, the still conservative Philippines is slowly making room for more color, from the hurdling of an anti-discrimination bill in Congress to the hearing of arguments for same sex marriage.
In the meantime, support for the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ+) community lies mostly on personal initiatives and — to an extent — city-wide ordinances.
Even though causes for LGBTQs seem to have come to light only recently — perhaps amplified by social media and pop culture — members of the community have always been active contributors to the Philippine economy and its advancement.
In the public consciousness, perhaps LGBTQs are more associated with the arts, like fashion and theater. But as the community is diverse in its sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE), it is also diverse in its careers and vocations.
Some of the uncredited minorities are those in the scientific and technological community, who are taking social and scientific discoveries to new heights. Here are some LGBTQ scientists to meet.
Cristina del Rosario, user experience researcher and designer
Cristina Del Rosario married science and art when she finished Industrial Design, along with courses in cognitive and social psychology, at Georgia Tech University.
In college, she designed a medical device to more easily administer vaccines in rural areas in the Philippines. She was a finalist for the International Design Excellence Awards, and a biomedical company patented her invention. For her undergraduate thesis, she worked with mechanical engineers in the transport of vaccines and health equipment — this time in rural Papua New Guinea.
When she returned to the Philippines, she juggled two jobs: designing land surveillance drones for the military and financial literacy mobile apps for sari-sari store owners.
For Del Rosario, fulfilment comes with empowering people through technology — “to use tools that ordinarily wouldn’t be usable to them,” as she puts it. The first prototype of the financial literacy app, SariLoad, took three hours for respondents to understand. After 20 usability tests, owners could finally figure out the app within eight minutes of first holding a smartphone.
“One sari-sari store owner told me she created an email account and a Facebook account after she learned to use a smartphone because of our app!” Del Rosario recalls. “Another sari-sari store owner said she would try online dating.”
Del Rosario now works at a start-up that designs software for small business owners and older users. Despite one instance of rumored discrimination from a colleague, she says she feels at home among her co-workers and the larger tech industry.
“When workplaces are inclusive, employers are able to widen their hiring pool for talent,” she says. “Some of the most talented developers I know happen to be LGBT.”
Del Rosario is tying the knot with her Australian partner of five years, after Australia legalized same-sex marriage last December. However, she still hopes the Philippines would pass civil unions: she wants to adopt her partner's last name, be legal parents, share assets, and be each other's emergency hospital contact.
“Some of these are little things that many traditional couples take for granted,” said Del Rosario. “If LGBTQ scientists can’t get this security in the Philippines, we may look for it in other countries, and the Philippines may lose some of its brightest scientists.”
Alonzo Gabriel, food microbiologist
Growing up, Alonzo Gabriel's family bakery was the birthplace for a love of cooking — and the science behind it.
“I remember my fascination of how yeasts in bread turned sugar into gas that eventually leavened the bread,” he says. “To me, food systems are more than mixes of ingredients. These are complex soft materials that have unique chemical and biological characteristics worth exploring.”
Gabriel picked culinary arts for a high school elective course, which led to an undergraduate degree in food technology, and a doctorate degree focusing on food microbiology and hygiene from Hiroshima University.
In particular, he studies how to control food spoilage for safe, shelf-stable food. He is also interested in developing food products for disaster relief, school feeding programs, and military supply.
He now teaches at the College of Home Economics in his alma mater, University of the Philippines (U.P.) Diliman.
“When I was a young instructor, there was this one meeting where we were asked to define what ‘family’ means,” Gabriel recalls. “I remember feeling uncomfortable when a colleague remarked that some people are violating the definition of ‘family’ because of homosexual relationships.”
Gabriel did not take his colleague's remarks against him. Since then, the faculty of the College of Home Economics — traditionally a woman's world — has grown to accommodate both gay and straight men. He even lives in the faculty housing with his partner of 12 years, along with Gabriel's mother and brothers.
“So much has changed in terms of how my colleagues accepted me and other LGBTQ members,” he says.
Although Gabriel has not experienced harsh discrimination in the workplace, he still believes the government should pass anti-discrimination laws for the LGBTQ+ community.
“This is not asking for special treatment, this is asking for equality,” he says. “What our school system can do is start educating our young generation that there is strength in diversity, and that there is complexity beyond the binary male/female, boy/girl genders.”
Gabriel was one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines in 2013. He was also awarded Outstanding Young Scientist that same year by the National Academy of Science and Technology.
James Doble, social psychologist
“Science is supposedly 'objective' and 'unbiased,' in that as long as you do good science, there is a place for you,” says James Doble, a psychologist who conducts research on interpersonal relationships. However, he noted that it is “easier to signal” one's sexuality and gender in the arts, as opposed to the scientific field.
“If you’re an LGBTQ+ artist, then your art can have themes about your being LGBTQ+,” says Doble. “If you’re an LGBTQ+ scientist, how exactly do you make your sexuality and gender known to your fellow scientists?”
Assigned female at birth, Doble is a bisexual gender non-conforming transgender man. He is completing his doctorate degree at U.P. Diliman, while sitting as a committee head in U.P. Babaylan, the school’s premier LGBTQ+ organization.
A lot of Doble’s psychological research is concentrated on relationships in gray areas, stuck between friendships and romantic relationships. He also noted studies from other scientists that observed differences between straight and LGBTQ+ couples, such as how roles are less gendered and fights are less hostile in the latter.
“Love, desire, and heartbreak are great equalizers, so there’s a lot of common ground between non-heteronormative and heteronormative relationships,” Doble explains. “Regardless of the partners’ SOGIE, relationship satisfaction and quality are the same, but the experiences of people of diverse SOGIE influence their relationships.”
“Non-LGBTQ+ people have a lot to learn from relationships between people of diverse SOGIE,” he adds.
In the academe, Doble believes that a lot more can be done to accommodate people from the LGBTQ+ community apart from the obligatory “diversity hire.”
He explains he still has trouble with his name and title when it comes to conferences. There are no gender-neutral affixes other than “Dr.” or “Prof.” — and because he is neither, he goes by “Mx.”
“I submitted an abstract to a local conference recently, and there wasn’t an option to have my chosen name alongside my legal name,” said Doble. “I still don’t know which name to put in papers and presentations.”
Other measures include gender-neutral restrooms, supporting Pride Month, and a clear institutional stand against SOGIE-based discrimination.
He says, “If the academe indeed values diversity and champions equal opportunity, then it should accommodate people like me.”
Krista Melgarejo, marine molecular biologist
Krista Melgarejo is completing her master’s degree in Marine Science (major in Marine Biotechnology) at the U.P. Diliman. Her graduate research study covers how environmental stresses affect marker genes on endangered giant clams.
“This study would provide us deeper knowledge on the conditions — temperature, salinity, pH — that will be used for the restocking efforts of these endangered giants,” she explains.
“Currently, we're still testing out if the genes we've selected are good marker genes. If everything goes well ... [the genes] may be used to determine if the organism is stressed at this certain temperature, salinity, or pH.”
Also a pseudo-instrumentation physicist, Melgarejo hopes to continue working on ocean projects. With luck, her team's findings will help inform future long term experiments, particularly in climate change studies.
Her postgraduate track is a shift from her undergraduate degree in food technology, obtained from U.P. Mindanao. Her mentor introduced her to biotechnology, and she took the plunge to try something different — but also because of an “affinity and curiosity for the ocean.”
Melgarejo says being a queer person in the Philippines has situated her in two worlds: one that accepts her, and one that judges her.
“When I'm outside of those safe spaces, reality sets in and I do experience some type of awkwardness and discrimination in public places, especially public restrooms,” she says. “While I can't really blame people for reacting that way when they see me, I just feel that I am merely reduced to what is underneath all these clothing when I'm inside a restroom.”
Apart from more gender neutral restrooms, Melgarejo stresses the importance of cultivating a culture of acceptance in homes, schools, and workplaces. Other than that, she says all Filipino scientists — LGBTQ+ or not — are racked by a lack of funding and unjust contractualization.
“The government should give more support and funding for research,” she says. “[We science and technology] workers deserve to be given decent salaries and benefits in exchange for the work we do.”
Popo Ramos, chemist
In his high school years, Christian Paul “Popo” Ramos dreamed of becoming a chemist to work in the manufacturing of cosmetic products. Upon entering college, he fell in love with materials science.
Now a registered chemist, Ramos is finishing his masteral degree while working as a University Research Associate 1 at U.P. Diliman's Natural Sciences Research Institute.
His previous work, which was focused on separating two forms of pharmaceutical drugs, was presented at conferences in Malaysia and Japan. Ramos is also preparing for an internship in Academia Sinica in Taiwan, where he hopes to work on his next big project: research toward a possible treatment for HIV-1. He says his internship professor has had previous research with an anti-HIV-1 agent isolated from a fungus.
“This will not only protect the LGBTQ+ scientists but the whole community as well from any discrimination,” says Ramos. “It is important to produce anti-HIV-1 agents synthetically since it will be impossible to extract them all the time from the fungus.”
Outside of science, Ramos was also an active member of U.P. Babaylan. He calls on the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill, and suggests that universities and other institutions conduct surveys among LGBTQ employees to check if whether their working environment is healthy for them. He also recommended that institutions partner with non-profit organizations to conduct gender sensitivity training seminars.
While Ramos says his community has welcomed his identity, he lamented that scientists in general still have to go abroad due to a lack of funds for research and development.
“Unlike science, there is no perfect formula for SOGIE,” says Ramos. “I want to be peculiar and different. Just like science, I want to be limitless.”