On Sunday afternoon, I woke up to a message on Instagram from a stranger saying:
“Condragulations* in your inclusion in Attitude 101! Pinoy Pride!”
I didn’t understand what he meant. Was this spam? Confused, I asked him: “Are you sure it’s me?” Last online: five hours ago. He was in another country so there was bound to be a time difference. It will be unlikely that he will reply so soon. What was this list?
I've had enough ‘hits’ getting my NBI clearance to know that the name Jason Tan Liwag was more common than I thought. But I googled my name and there it was: "Jason Tan Liwag - Molecular biologist" in an article called Attitude 101: Meet the LGBTQ Trailblazers Changing the World Today by Attitude Magazine, one of the best-selling gay magazines on Earth.
How likely was it that there was another person who 1) had the same name as mine, 2) who was a molecular biologist, and 3) who was also openly gay? In my mind, pretty likely. I quickly went through all my emails and all my social media accounts to check if I received anything. Surely, they would’ve sent me interviews or some form of request to publish my name? I checked all my writeups from previous entries in 500 Queer Scientists and other sites and they all included contact details. If they didn’t contact me, maybe this was someone else.
I began messaging friends to ask if they had access to the issue or if they knew anyone who did. It was weird, needing to pay for access to my own story. After a few hours of asking around, someone messaged me the write-up.
It was me.
Whatever joy I felt was quickly replaced by panic and anxiety.
We’ve come to know through various stories that being out on social media does not necessarily translate to being out offline. I came out in my sophomore year in Ateneo de Manila University, but I was largely not out to my family or to the rest of the people in the province. In publicizing my details outside of my chosen social media platforms without asking for my permission, they inevitably put me on the accelerated path of being outed, a path I hadn’t been ready for.
There was no way to ask it to be taken down. It would take days until I received a reply and there was no way my messages would be responded to by their social media accounts (I tried and failed). The issue had already been published and the list had been up for more than a week. If a stranger could message me through Instagram about it, then there was a chance that family members from other parts of the world had already seen it. The situation was a ticking time-bomb.
So I told my sisters (“Congrats, bhie!”, they’ve known for forever) and told them it was time. I decided to share it on social media platforms after we got home from (a socially-distanced) mass. The church was quite empty and most of the ceremony was a blur. All I remember, really, is praying intently for the first time in a long time for things to be okay.
It felt like the only thing I could do, at least at the time, was accept it.
People told me I was gay before I even knew what being gay meant. "Bakla" was hurled at me throughout elementary and high school because of my voice or how my arms moved; the word was always more of a weapon than a word. To be gay in a Catholic school in the province was not only sin, but it meant that you were treated at times like a joke.
Growing up, I didn’t really think it was possible to be a scientist. I grew up watching "Jurassic Park" and playing a lot of Pokemon and this is where I encountered the faces of scientists — white men with beards in fancy laboratories. If you’re a kid from the province, you don’t hear those stories; you don’t see any of those things. To be a queer scientist seemed, to me at the time, a double impossibility.
I was already in grad school when I came across visibility campaigns like Pinoy Scientists and 500 Queer Scientists. I remember seeing those who submitted their stories and thought to myself: “Where was this all along? Why don’t we have this?” I submitted my own entry and have since gotten more opportunities to talk to other scientists in LGBTQIA+ communities around the world about what they’ve faced and what they’re facing.
Visibility is an underappreciated value, especially in the sciences. People forget that, as scientists (heck, even as 'regular' people), we constantly fight for the space to be visible: citations, publications, poster presentations, talks… all of those are an effort to let our research, our stories, be told. There are so many visible "scientists" with "authority" who are completely detached from social realities or even evidence-based research. On the other hand, there are so many individuals doing good work who have impostor syndrome; who don’t feel like they’re good enough to be called a “scientist”; who feel like their experiences aren’t valid. People forget that scientists have struggles too and these scientists are encouraged to keep quiet about it for the sake of objectivity.
Queer scientists are in a space of triple marginalization: you’re Filipino, you’re a scientist, and you also belong to the LGBTQIA+ community. Globally, there isn’t a lot of data on how members of the LGBTQIA+ community fare in the scientific landscape. But in some countries, LGBTQIA+ individuals had higher drop out rates, lower retention rates in STEM courses, more barriers to upward mobility in the academe, and higher risk of mental health problems. To be a queer scientist meant that you enter spaces that were always meant to keep you out.
I had forgotten exactly how hard this was. The process of "coming out" and all of the possible violence and self-loathing that came along with it. Was there ever going to be a way to unburden myself, all of us, from ever doing this? I hope there will be. But at this moment, I don’t know.
The organization that we started called Queer Scientists PH was a visibility campaign-turned-advocacy organization that I started the week of my birthday during quarantine — coincidentally aligned with Metro Manila Pride. We wanted to let Filipino scientists from the LGBTQIA+ community speak up about their experiences — all the highs and lows that came with being triply marginalized. It was an attempt to create a community to combat the anti-science sentiments of the country, but also as a way for queer scientists to reclaim science after it’s been used and weaponized against the LGBTQIA+ community.
But more than that, we created the organization to empower younger generations to have people to look up to and for older generations to provide them with inclusive environments and to abolish whatever barriers to mobility there are. But what kind of leader would I be if I couldn’t lead by example? How could I convince others to be brave if I was held back by my childhood fears? Who will queer kids from Pangasinan look up to if I remained safely hidden in the closet, guarded by my privilege?
It wasn't as if my family were rampantly homophobic. We’ve always been incredibly close. Whenever I get anxiety attacks or need a laugh, I call my parents. The main reason (and maybe the only reason) I haven’t told them is because there just hasn’t been a window of opportunity. And now there is.
Still, I had forgotten exactly how hard this was. The process of "coming out" and all of the possible violence and self-loathing that came along with it. Was there ever going to be a way to unburden myself, all of us, from ever doing this? I hope there will be. But at this moment, I don’t know.
I waited all night and all day, and it seemed as though my parents either didn’t see the news or hadn’t minded. They weren’t on social media much, but the ‘congratulations’ posts had been pouring in from all sides. Relatives were beginning to say their piece and part of me knew it was only a matter of time.
On Monday evening, we were having a midnight snack when my mom suddenly just said:
"Ano itong list?"
She was holding her phone, reading a text from one of our relatives. I had trained myself to read upside down as a child so I knew it was from one of our titas. She was congratulating me, saying she was extremely proud. My heart was thumping. I spoke up, remembering I had a voice:
"Trailblazers from around the world, mom. They picked me." She squints at the screen and pouts.
"Bakit? LGBTQ ka ba, Jase?"
I paused. Was this how I wanted all of this to happen? I don’t know. But I’m at peace with whatever happens. Maybe this unravels everything, but maybe it puts everything into place. I'll only know after.
"Yeah, mom. I am."
*"Condragulations" is the congratulatory message used by Ru Paul in the television series "RuPaul's Drag Race."