Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I was always conscious of how I’m perceived by the people I photograph for visibly presenting as queer. As if the camera I came along with wasn’t daunting enough. Surprisingly, in the three years I spent integrating with various Lumad communities, not once did they close their doors on me for looking the way I do.
It became a personal quest to find our common interests despite the differences that separate us. With my fair share of exposure with the Lumad community, it eventually dawned on me to have the courage to ask if people like me even exist among their ranks. That was when I met Dats Anne, who told me her story of being an indigenous person, an activist, and a member of the LGBT community.
“Sa aming tribo na Lumad, talagang nahirapan ako dahil bawal ang ganitong katayuan. ‘Bakit ka tomboy? Maiimpyerno ka,’” shares Anne. “Ang mga magulang ko naman, sa umpisa, hindi nila ako tanggap. Pati na rin sa mga kapatid ko, lahat. Bakit ganito daw ako, lalo na sa mga taong simbahan.”
Dats Anne is a Manobo-Pulangion hailing from Quezon, Bukidnon. ‘Dats,’ as she is called, is the colloquial term for “datu,” but the term could also be used to refer to the then-famous local noontime show segment “That’s My Tomboy” as she identified as one. She looked quite young for her age, and she moved in the same masculine way that I do.
She is small in stature, but do not be fooled by the gentle commanding presence that she radiates. On top of her clothes, she wore a colorful Lumad garment called kinaraan — but a kinaraan traditionally used by the men in her tribe. She is a farmer, and she earns a living through the land they till and harvest. She is also a community leader, known for being full of wisdom in matters concerning life, love, and land struggle.
It was easy to talk to her, as she spoke Tagalog, too. From our first encounter to our lengthy conversations, our bond grew and she became my closest Lumad friend. Maybe it was because of this unspoken kinship we had, as we reminded ourselves of each other, sharing many experiences unique to being Filipino and gay.
“Noong Grade 3 ako, nadiskubre ko ang tunay kong kasarian. Nagtago talaga ako. Pagpunta ko sa Maynila, hindi alam ng mga magulang ko na LGBT ako. Doon ko binigay ang pagkatao ko,” she says.
Like most of us queer Filipinos, Dats Anne hid her identity to everyone, most especially to her parents, in fear of going to hell or being forced to marry a man. According to her, being gay is considered an illness in some Lumad communities and should be cured through rituals held by community elders. As a form of escape, she went to Metro Manila and saw it as an opportunity to be her true self. For 11 years, she worked in a food factory, coincidentally near my hometown in Caloocan. In the city, she met the love of her life, Jaylen, a Bisaya residing in Marikina. What started out as friendship, eventually turned into something more. At the time, Jaylen had a boyfriend, but eventually chose to be with Dats Anne.
“Umpisa, hindi pa talaga nila ako tanggap,” Anne shares. “Pinaglaban ko ‘yung sarili ko, na talagang hindi ko kaya na hindi ko matanggap na babae ako. Ang puso ko talaga, iba. Hanggang sa tumatawag na ‘yung mga magulang ko, nangamusta, baka daw may pamilya na ako. Sabi ko nga, ‘Pa, babalik ako diyan, pero sana matanggap niyo ako na may dadalhin ako.’”
Jaylen came along when Dats Anne decided to go back to her community in Bukidnon. Dats Anne shares: “Lakas-loob ako. Pagbalik ko sa Bukidnon, nagulat ang mga tao, nagulat ang mga kamag-anak ko, bakit babae ang dala ko. Kasi ‘yung papa ko, strikto din sa mga ganito. Sabi ko sa mga magulang ko, ‘Sana tanggapin niyo ako dahil hindi ako magbibigay ng problema sa inyo. Kahit ganito ako, ipagmalaki niyo ako balang-araw.’”
But their union wasn’t without its trials. For Jaylen, her siblings opposed their relationship, warning her that there would be no future for her if she chose to be with someone like Dats Anne. There won’t be anyone to take care of her when she grows old with no children to call her own.
Jaylen accepted her fate, and continued to fight for their relationship up until the moment she saw an opportunity for her brothers to get to know Dats Anne beyond her sexuality. Likewise, Dats had her fair share of struggles. Even though the tribal leaders and elders kindly accepted them, it still remains that Jaylen was an outsider and it took her a while to understand the Lumad culture. Gradually, they proved what they were capable of, and they established themselves to be beneficial not only to their tribe, but also to the entire Lumad movement.
“Pinakita ko sa ginagawa ko, na malaki ang nagawa ko sa komunidad, lalo na sa lupang ninuno,” she says. “Lalo na katulad sa atin na tomboy, mababa ang tingin ng taumbayan. Pero para sa akin, kung ang ginagawa mo para sa lahat, tahado ‘yung tao sa’yo eh. Parang hindi ka maapakan dahil nakikita nila na hindi ka susuko.”
An assignment on indigenous agriculture led me to Dats Anne’s community back in 2017. I was invited to stay at their house, and there I met Jaylen, who welcomed us inside. Their house was built on wood in the middle of crop laden lands. A little flower garden landscaped along the pathway led me to their humble abode. To my surprise, I was greeted by three dogs, two guinea pigs, and their adopted little boy of about five years of age, who hid behind Dats Anne’s legs when he saw us. I was the same age as Jaylen when she committed to Dats Anne at 23 years old. Eighteen years and counting, and I can still see how devoted they were to each other.
Dats Anne walked us through their ‘yutang kabilin,’ a phrase commonly used by the Lumad to refer to their land of heritage. She demonstrated how to harvest cassava, one of the community’s major crops, along with rice, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, corn, and banana. As part of their practice of sustainable farming, they are very careful not to use substances that can harm the environment.
For Dats Anne and other Lumads, the indigenous people serve a bigger purpose not only as farmers, but also as protectors of the earth — that without guardians like them, a chain reaction of human-induced disasters would start. For this same reason, Dats Anne chose to stand up to defend their ancestral lands. As she became an esteemed member of the community, Jaylen not only learned how to farm, but she also joined the community in defending what’s rightfully theirs. Dats, who was once a wayward alcoholic, turned to activism, which changed her life.
“Nung muntik na’ko mamatay, nanumpa ako, kinausap ko ang Panginoon, ‘Bigyan mo ako ng sign na kailangan ko na magbago.’” she says. “Pagkagabi, napanaginipan ko na sarado na ang tindahan. Nakita ko ang logo ng ‘Beer na Beer.’ Sa kabila, pangalan ng Panginoon. Pagkaumaga, napaisip ako, ‘Bakit ganoon ang panaginip ko?’ Kung babalik ako ng inom, ano kaya ang mangyayari?”
Anne adds, “Nagsama-sama ako sa mga rally sa San Fernando. Pagpunta namin sa Malaybalay, hindi ko alam ang gagawin ko. Nandun lang kami sa tabi. Si Datu, siya lang ang speaker doon, eh wala nang boses. Sabi ni Datu, ‘Palit naman kayo dito.’ Natatakot na ako eh, dahil may mga pulis. Tumatatakbo lang kami. Doon ko narinig sa mga pulis na, ‘Kayong mga Lumad, wala kayong silbi.’ Na-trigger na ako. ‘Yung microphone, walang humahawak. Nung sinabihan kami ng mga pulis, ‘Kayong mga Lumad, wala kayong silbi.’ Doon, dinampot ko ang microphone.”
If there is one thing I’ve learned about the Lumad, it is that land is the core of their identity. “Ang lupa ay buhay,” as I’ve first heard from Dats Anne. Their culture, founded on their sacred lands, will vanish once the land is taken away from them. For Dats Anne, it’s this very same identity, being Lumad and queer, that she is fighting for as she speaks in protests, leading the crowd in their resistance against displacement from their territories. As a queer Lumad activist, she inspires me to become myself, most especially on days I feel like hiding. She hopes that one’s emancipation would not only benefit our own, but would also benefit everyone for the sake of human rights.
“‘Yan ang paniniwala ko: kahit anong sasabihin nila sa’kin, ipaglaban ko talaga ang sarili ko, at hindi lang ang sarili ko,” she says. “Lalo na sa lupang ninuno, ang pagka-LGBT ko, ang pakikibaka ko po. Ang pagka-LGBT ko ay lumutang sa pakikibaka, pinaglaban ang lupang ninuno, dahil nga ang lupang ninuno ay buhay ng mga Lumad.”
Through a conversation in passing with a friend who also met Dats Anne, I found out that Jaylen, Dats Anne’s life-long partner, had passed away last year. I think about the life they have built together. A child, a family, a home, a community; which was in itself, a form of resistance against the oppression they faced as queer Lumads. With no means of communicating with Dats Anne, this is my tribute to the wonderful people I met who taught me that to love is to protest. May Jaylen rest in peace, and I hope Dats Anne would rise through this struggle.