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Raquela Rios: Courting the Queen

Raquela Rios, hailing from Mandaue in the Province of Cebu, stars in The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (which looks at the plight of transgenders in the Philippines), and helps re-define what it means to be a woman.

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Raquela Rios
Actress, The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela

“I was not being positive (with playing the lead role in Queen Raquela). I’m a type of person who prefers to live a life in private. But then a realization dawned on (me). I realized I could serve as an inspiration to many; not just to the transgenders or transsexuals, but to everyone in the society – as a Filipino, as a transgender and transsexual, and as a citizen of a Third World country,” says Raquela Rios.

Her Facebook account has, at one time or another, used Valerija Kushukskina, Snježana Yevteushenko, and Ilena Kokkinopoulou for her profile name – but she may well be more known as Queen Raquela, the main actor in a female role of Poppoli Productions’ documentary movie The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela, which won the 2008 Teddy Award for Best Featured Film at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival for Panorama Fims.

She is, of course, Raquela Rios, the MTF transgender hailing from Mandaue City in the Province of Cebu, who, when asked when she realized she was in the wrong body, said: “For as long as I can remember, though I was never a toy-oriented person (like playing with Barbie or with guns), as a kid, I liked to play baha-bahayan and I liked portraying the role of the housewife. At that time, I still had no idea what I am, who I am. But it eventually dawned on me that this is me, this is what I am – and what I am is not a boy, I’m a girl.”

The realization did not make life easy for Raquela.

“It was a bit hard for me growing up since many were against my effeminate behaviour,” says Raquela, who also recalled having to “blend in with the norms.” “Having been taught that homosexuality/transsexuality is a sin and is bad, I was scared, naive, not knowledgeable of the truth. And when people teased me as bakla, I always just cried, picking fights with anyone and everyone to deny the fact that this is me.”

“I don’t know how much of the story can be said to be completely mine,” Raquela Rios says, smiling. Then turning serious: “But then looking at the film – how it was done and how the story line flow – it really talks about the reality of most TGs living in the Philippines, on how they live their life, et cetera, even though it doesn’t talk about sex change and transformation and the likes. It is more about penetrating the lives and their daily encounters.”

Her living differently from the stereotypic normative did not make it easy for others, too, so much so that “at first, I had to be discreet about it, about being me because while I know they knew (my being different, just about everyone was) against it.” In fact, when she reached college, she had to somewhat live two lives – “Every time I was out of the house, away from the eyes of my family or neighbours, I’d come out from my shell,” she recalls.

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Eventually, though – and fortunately – “they came to accepted me (for being me.”

Life being difficult particularly for TGs hasn’t changed much – at least if Queen Raquela the movie is to be used as basis.

Queen Raquela the movie follows the life story of, yes, Raquela, a sex worker Filipino MTF transgender (dubbed, a la TGs in Thailand, a “ladyboy”) who wanted to escape the streets of Cebu City for a (assumed, at least) better life in Paris, France. Stopping working the streets, Raquela instead started working in the Internet porn industry – which was how she met an Icelandic “ladyboy”, Valerie, as well as one Michael, the owner of the Web site she worked for. Valerie is the one to help Raquela go to Iceland; Michael, eventually, offers her access to Paris.
With a character named after her, the first question that comes to mind is exactly how much of the character Raquela’s story is based on the life of the person playing her.

“I don’t know how much of the story can be said to be completely mine,” Raquela says, smiling. Then turning serious: “But then looking at the film – how it was done and how the story line flow – it really talks about the reality of most TGs living in the Philippines, on how they live their life, et cetera, even though it doesn’t talk about sex change and transformation and the likes. It is more about penetrating the lives and their daily encounters.”

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Like Raquela in the movie, Raquela, too, met Icelandic Olaf de Fleur Johannesson “via social network online – I (have forgotten) what site that was – but I thought he was looking for a date or girlfriend or something, so we (chatted). At that time, I was looking for an online date or a relationship.” However, “I didn’t see any future with him since all he did was talk about his job in the film industry, et cetera. I felt like I had to ditch him because he was not coming over to the Philippines anyway.”

After a few months, however, the filmmaker sent Raquela an SMS, telling her he was coming over to shoot a film. Even then, he was interested in her as the subject of the film even if “I wasn’t interested to be an actress since I never dreamt of becoming one. But I told him I would be happy to help him find his subject until the time we met for real.”

Raquela was persuaded to do some test shots, at which point, “I already grew to like the (developments),” she says, eventually making her accept the role of Queen Raquela.

Not that, from then on, things already went smoothly.

“At first, it was all awkward,” says Raquela. “I was not being positive (with the experience). I’m a type of person who prefers to live a life in private.”

But then a realization dawned on Raquela. “I realized I could serve as an inspiration to many; not just to the transgenders or transsexuals, but to everyone in the society – as a Filipino, as a transgender and transsexual, and as a citizen of a Third World country,” she says.

And how has life changed for Raquela after her foray with, well, fame?

“It bettered my standards in looking for a man in my life,” she beams. And then, on a more serious note: “I can say it empowered me as it (helped teach me maturity) – even if, at the same time, I also gained some recognition and made new friends from all over the world.”

Raquela’s way of seeing has long broadened, as she has also worked as a GLBTQI rights advocate in Cebu City to fight against discrimination and give rights to GLBTQIs (specialization in safer sex practices).

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In her Facebook profile, Raquela states that she is a “pre-op transsexual.” The thing, though, is that this identification is more for other people’s ‘comfort’ than for hers. “To be honest,” she says, “I prefer to be a non-op transsexual. The only reason I (use that descriptor) is because not all know what a non-op transsexual is.”

The point is the deconstruction of the heteronormative – often erroneous – beliefs.
“For me everyone is entitled (to be who and what) they want to be,” Raquela says. “If one wants to undergo sexual reassignment surgery to be happy, go for it. But for me, I choose to be a non-op since I know I am a woman, a transsexual woman. I don’t need (any) process of going under the knife to make me a woman.”

The necessary change, stresses Raquela, is in the recognition of the individual differences.

“If there is a law that recognizes TGs in their own gender, then for me, it will be not necessary to go for any operation just to change one’s identity from male to female or female to male (the deemed identifiers of sex and gender differentiation),” she says.

That there remain stereotypes about transgenders, including association with sex work, is true, but “we are all different individuals and you can’t just conclude one to be such or such,” she says, adding that even if assumptions may prove to be true, too, “we still have to respect every one as human beings – after all, (even for TGs in the sex industry, they still) have to make a living in a harsh world, considering the harsh treatment they experience every day.” And this is even if TGs “could offer a lot of other things just like all of the other people out there (when given the chance).”

These are issues, of course, that the GLBTQIA community, as a whole, needs to deal with – something problematic since “there’s often no unity in (the GLBTQIA community) so that many actually marginalize themselves into gay versus TG versus lesbian versus bisexual. There remains so much hate even within (our ranks),” Raquela says.

Hopefully, however, films like Queen Raquela can help remedy the situation.

“(Through such efforts, hopefully) people will get a glimpse of the life, the struggles of being GLBTQI – especially of living in a country where we are not protected by laws and we are not recognized to have human rights.”

Raquela remains hopeful, nonetheless, inspired by the “the existing sisterhood/brotherhood, too, (in the GLBTQIA community),” she says. “(Our community) is colourful, full of life – as such, it is fun, not just tediously serious all the time.”

What’s next for Raquela?

“To come out of a ‘depression’ stage,” she says, as Raquela continues to finish her studies, yet to decide if she’ll pursue becoming a chef or a haute couture fashion designer. The dream, though, is to “maybe go back to Europe to build a ‘normal’ life – “my experiences (there) opened my eyes to (a TG) life’s possibilities.”

For now, though, remember her as “Queen Raquela, the innocent/naive but street smart girl who touches everyone’s heart.”

"If someone asked you about me, about what I do for a living, it's to 'weave words'," says Kiki Tan, who has been a writer "for as long as I care to remember." With this, this one writes about... anything and everything.

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Gay in the highlands

What is it like to be gay and belong to an ethnic tribe in the Philippines? For Romnick Ampi, he only knew of acceptance and being encouraged to live a better life, showing that LGBTQIA people can achieve more. And he hopes for this to be the general concept – i.e. that looking down on LGBTQIA people stop to focus on what they can achieve in life.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Romnick Ampi, 27, from Barangay Meohao in Sitio Palusok at the foot of Mount Apo in Mindanao, was in elementary school (“Around 12 years old”) when he knew he’s gay/a member of the LGBTQIA community.

“At that time,” he said, “hindi ko maiwasan magkagusto sa kapuwa ko gender (I couldn’t help myself from getting attracted to other men).”

At first, Romnick thought that what he was feeling wasn’t real. “But I observed that what I really feel for men is different. Yung puso ko ay parang puso pa rin ng babae (Like heterosexual women, I was attracted to men).”

But – belonging to the Manobo ethnic tribe (his mother is Visayan, while my father is Diangan) – Romnick said he only knew of acceptance.

“And even when I go to more mountainous areas, no one is surprised with a gay man like me. No one there bullies people with the same gender as me.”

“Yes, I told my family about me being gay. They did not have bad reactions. I am happy that they even support what I do. They particularly support my means of living that is aligned with my being part of the LGBTQIA community,” he said.

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Romnick noted – and stressed – that “nirerespeto po nila gaya ng pagrerespeto nila sa kaloikasan atsaka ng mga ninuno. So sa tao po, nirerespeto nila kung ano po ang LGBT (members of our tribe respect LGBTQIA people, just as they respect nature and our ancestors. They respect people, including LGBTQIA people),” he said. “We are not discouraged to live as LGBTQIA people,” even if part of this acceptance is anchored in the stereotypical expectation that LGBTQIA people (gay men and trans women, in particular) “bring… happiness particularly during local celebrations.”

This acceptance makes Meohao an ideal place for Romnick. In fact, he said, if one goes even higher in mountainous areas, it’s common to see members of the LGBTQIA community. “And even when I go to more mountainous areas, no one is surprised with a gay man like me. No one there bullies people with the same gender as me.”

Not surprisingly, “ang feeling ko ay happy, sa tingin ko ay walang kalungkutan na mangyayari ditto sa Meohao dahil nakita ko naman na ang lugar na ito ay peaceful at mapagmahal yung mga tao (I feel happy here; I feel that there’s no sadness here. The place is peaceful. And people here are loving/accepting),” he said.

“Members of our tribe respect LGBTQIA people, just as they respect nature and our ancestors. They respect people, including LGBTQIA people.”

Romnick’s family was originally from Davao, but because of his father’s belonging to the Manobo tribe, they moved to Meohao.

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Romnick has four siblings; he is the only one who goes to school. “All the others stopped going to school because of financial issues,” he said. “This is why I am studying hard so I can graduate and then be able to help them. I particularly want to help my siblings make a living.”

Romnick currently takes up Bachelor of Science in Food Technology at the University of Southern Mindanao, a course that is in line with his field of interest – i.e. events organizing.

“Perhaps this is also God’s gift to me – to take a course that is in line with the skills I now have,” he said.

Now moonlighting as an events organizer, Romnick had an early start working. “I discovered I have skills in organizing events when I was still in elementary school. While watching my teachers do the decorating in school events, such as the closing ceremonies, they told me to give decorating a try,” he said.

And nowadays, “per event, I earn from P5,000 – at least for the smaller events.”

Now single, Romnick said that not having a boyfriend is, for now, ideal. “Mas mabuti yung wala pa akong jowa para makapag-focus ako sa family ko at sa sarili ko (This way I can focus on my family and myself).”

To people who belittle LGBTQIA people, Romnick said “don’t look down on us.”

For him, LGBTQIA people thrive – and this is even if they are not supported by their parents/families. “Because LGBTQIA people are skillful. They will find ways to make a living,” he said. “I’m seeing it now in the world, and for myself, that LGBTQIA people can do good things even if they’re (just) LGBTQIA people.”

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This is also what he eyes to do in life: Do acts so that others to see that not all gay men are weak, that gay people are also skilled. “What heterosexual people can do, LGBTQIA people can do, too.”

To people who belittle LGBTQIA people, Romnick Ampi said “don’t look down on us.”

Particularly for younger LGBTQIA people, Romnick advised: “Huwag kayong huminto o huwag kayong ma-discourage kahit sa ano man yung sasabihin ng ibang tao. Dahil hindi nila alam ano ang feelings ninyo as… LGBT. At ipagpapatuloy ninyo dahil alam ko sa bandang huli… and Panginoon nga may plano sa ating lahat (Not to stop being who they are; or be discouraged because of what other people say. These people do not know what you feel as LGBTQIA people. So just continue being who you are because I know that in the end, God has plans for all of us).”

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All the world’s a salon

With many people belittling LGBTQIA people, trans hairdresser Maureen Mejia Chan says “we should consider making something of ourselves”, such as by opening a business. And in her case, by being an entrepreneur, she ended up becoming her family’s breadwinner, while proving to the world that LGBTQIA people can go the distance.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Siyempre kung magbukas ka ng business, dapat tutukan mo, dapat alam mo. Hindi lang pag gusto mo magbukas (magbubukas ka). Kasi pag ganun ang nangyari… wala din. Siguro mag-la-last lang siya ng one year kasi ikaw mismo may-ari hindi mo alam eh ang trabahong pinapasukan mo (Of course, if you open a business, you have to give it your complete attention.  You need to know about the business you’re going into. You don’t open one just because you feel like it. Because if you open one without intending to pay close attention to it, it won’t succeed. Perhaps it will just last for a year. It won’t last because even you, as the owner, do not know what you’re getting yourself into).”

That, in a gist, is the advice that can be given by Maureen Mejia Chan, 28 years old, a trans entrepreneur from San Antonio Village, Makati City.

Maureen, in fact, recommends for others to also open a business in a field they’re familiar with. “Particularly for LGBTQIA people, this is a good step to better your position in life. When you have a business, people can’t just belittle you. I want you to open business so people won’t look down on you. Having a business means having something to be proud of.”

BECOMING MAUREEN

Maureen knew she’s trans when she was still in elementary school.

Sinusuot ko yung mga bra ng mama ko, tapos yung panty niya… yung kumot naming, nilalagay ko sa ulo ko para (kunwari meron akong) mahabang buhok (I used to wear my mother’s bra, her underwear. And I used to put a blanket on my head, pretending it was my long hair),” she recalled.

In high school, Maureen fell in love with a man, which – she said – made her realize “that what I was feeling was what people said those belonging to the ‘third sex’ experienced.” This continued in college, when she continued to engage with other men; leading to where she is now.

Also in high school, Maureen had a friend whose name was… Maureen. “I said to her: I want that to be my name.” And so the name stayed.

Sa pamilya namin, walang bading or transgender na sinasabi (kaya) hindi ako matanggap (There are no gay men or transgender people in my family. So they couldn’t accept me),” Maureen said.

In fact, they tried to turn her “straight” by making Maureen work in the farm, tilling land and doing what were deemed stereotypically masculine jobs (and as if there are no gay farmers).

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But seeing Maureen not changing, “unti-unti, natatanggap nila ako (they slowly accepted me).” Perhaps, she added, because “napapakita ko sa kanila na hindi lang ako basta-basta bading katulad ng ibang bading na naglulustay ng (pera nila). Tumutulong ako sa kanila. Pinapaaral ko yung mga pamangkin ko, ang mga kapatid ko. Tapos nakakatulong din sa kanila (I was able to show them I am not just a faggot… like some who just waste their money doing undesirable things. I help them. I send my nieces and nephews to school, as well as my siblings. I also financially support other family members).”

Maureen admits that “mahirap ang maging isang trans dahil hindi pa open-minded ang mga tao. Pero kahit mahirap, eto na ako eh; masaya ako ditto. So kahit na dinidiscriminate nila ako, okay lang. Basta alam ko sa sarili ko na wala naman akong ginagawang masama at hindi ako nakaka-apak ng tao (It’s hard to be a trans person because many people are still not open-minded. But even if it’s hard, this is me. I’m happy being like this. So even if I encounter discrimination, it’s okay, as long as I know I’m not doing anything bad and I don’t hurt others).”

Maureen, in fact, recommends for others to also open a business in a field they’re familiar with. “Particularly for LGBTQIA people, this is a good step to better your position in life. When you have a business, people can’t just belittle you. I want you to open business so people won’t look down on you. Having a business means having something to be proud of.”

Maureen encountered actual LGBTQIA discrimination before.

While in Tarlac, after work, they decided to party, drinking with some boys in a bar. These boy started picking on them, eventually bashing us. “That was the most painful experience I had: to be bashed. We never thought something like that could happen to us.”

Note that when this happened, Maureen – and her friends – never considered filing official complaints so as not to complicate matters. Instead, “we just move to another place and party there,” she said. That is, experiencing discrimination in one place just makes them avoid the same and look for another place; no rectifications done, only moving on.

In the end, “I’m happy like this, so I choose to be like this.”

ENTER THE TRANS ENTREPRENEUR

Maureen was able to finish Practical Nursing in the Dominican College of Tarlac in (school year) 2007-2008. “But I took that course just to be able to say I didn’t only finish high school;

that I also have a college degree.”

Though she already did the hair and make-up of school-mates and teachers in school, “nagsimula ako sa trabaho (sa salon) doon sa dati kong amo; kinuha niya ako sa Tarlac tapos dinala niya ako dito. Pinasa-pasa ako [I started working (in a salon in Metro Manila) when my former boss hired me all the way from Tarlac. He brought me here (to Metro Manila); and I got passed around (from one salon to another).”

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After seven years, Maureen decided to open her own salon. The total capital she spent reached approximately P200,00.

Actually, she said, it’s hard to open a salon, particularly if you don’t have equipment. “Kailangan mo bumili ng materyales na medyo mahal; at mga gamot (You have to buy equipment that can be expensive; you have to buy your stocks of beauty products).”

Luckily for her, “at least my (regular) clients still avail of my services even if my salon is quite far from where I used to work.”

Maureen: “It’s hard to be a trans person because many people are still not open-minded. But even if it’s hard, this is me. I’m happy being like this. So even if I encounter discrimination, it’s okay, as long as I know I’m not doing anything bad and I don’t hurt others.”

Despite the challenges, “ito ang gusto ko (this is what I wanted to do),” Maureen said. “Although nakatapos naman ako ng (course sa college) pero dito ako dinala eh. Ito siguro yung talent ko… Ito talaga ang hilig ko (I may have finished a course in college, but life brought me here. Perhaps this is where my talent lies… but this is what I really liked to do).”

Looking at where she is now, “hindi ko ma-imagine na ito na ang kahihinatnan ng buhay ko ngayon. Kasi dati, basta makapagtrabaho lang ako, makakain, makapaglalaki syempre, makapagbigay ng sustento doon sa family ko, yun na. Hindi ko naisip na magtatayo ako ng parlor (Never in my mind did I imagine I’d reach this level in my life. In the past, I was already fine just having a job, food to eat, be able to give money to my boys, send money to my family… I thought that was that. It never really occurred to me I’d open my own beauty parlor).”

But then, she said, “I thought: Do I get old without attaining anything? Of course, people should have dreams. So, slowly, I worked to attain mine; I saved money; my old employer (Mommy Doods) taught me how to run a salon… And when I already knew the ins and outs of running a salon, I opened my own. I still can’t believe I already have my own salon.”

A salon isn’t always profitable, Maureen admitted, and “you don’t earn a lot every day.”

Particularly, from September to December, a salon can earn a lot; but outside this period, “we don’t earn a lot. So what you earned in December, you use to cover the expenses for the lean months.”

Pag sinabing business, akala nila ang yaman-yaman mon a. So nakakautang ka rin lalo na kung medyo mahina. Pero kahit papaano naman nakakaraos, nakakabayad ng upa, yung pagkain naming, naayos naman… okay na (When you have a business, people immediately think you’re rich. This isn’t so; you still need to borrow money, particularly if you’re not earning a lot. But you get by somehow. You can pay the rent, buy your food… so it’s all okay),” she said.

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Maureen is dreaming bigger, wanting to open more salons in the future. So she’s not training her staff who may man these future salons.

Sa lahat ng gustong magka-parlor, dapat siguro mag-aral muna lalo na yung may-ari. Pag ang may-ari kasi marunong, hindi ka pagmamalakihan ng mga trabahante mo. Pag ang may-ari di marunong… siyempre magsasara ka talaga (To people who want to own a business, it’s good if you study about your kind of business first. If you know about your business, your employees will respect you. When running a salon for instance, if the owner doesn’t even know how to cut hair, that salon will eventually close),” she said.

CHOOSING IT ALL

Maureen has a boyfriend now, and they’ve been together for almost three years now. The good thing is that he has a job, she said, just as Maureen also has her job.

Ang iniisip kasi ng ibang tao, lalo na yung hindi pa open-minded, ang akala nila kung makikipagrelasyon ka sa ibang lalaki, akala nila pera ang habol nila. Hindi nila alam na hindi lahat (Close-minded people think that when an LGBTQIA person has a relationship with a  straight man, the latter is just after the former’s money. They don’t know that this isn’t true for everyone),” she said. “Siguro naka-tiyempo lang ako ng ganung klaseng lalaki na nagtatrabaho hindi lang para sa sarili niya kundi para sa family niya. Nagtutulungan naman kami; kung sino ang meron, siya nagbibigay (Maybe I was just fortunate to meet a guy who works not just for himself but for his family. We help each other. The person who has the resources helps the other who does not).”

One time, Maureen recalled being made to choose between love and her work/business. But Maureen’s a realist, saying that her business is her “bread and butter”, and that if she gives this up, they’ll both suffer. “So we talked about this, and I explained to him that this isn’t just good for myself but also for our family.”

Maureen: “When you have a business, people immediately think you’re rich. This isn’t so; you still need to borrow money, particularly if you’re not earning a lot. But you get by somehow. You can pay the rent, buy your food… so it’s all okay.”

LIFE LESSONS

Para sa mga LGBTQIA na party lang nang party, sige, mag-party lang sila; lustayin nila pera nila kasi doon sila masaya eh (For LGBTQIA people who love partying, continue doing so as long as you have money. Spend your money on partying if it makes you happy),” Maureen said. “Saka lang nila ma-re-realize pag naubos na ang pera nila, pag medyo nagkaka-edad na (But these party people will only realize they’re wasteful when they’re broke, or are already getting older).”

For Maureen, “it will be difficult if you wait until you’re already old before you start thinking about your future. That’s already too late. You won’t achieve anything anymore by then.”

And so she wants particularly younger LGBTQIA people to “enjoy your youth. But when an opportunity (to open a business) arises, grab it.  Don’t dilly-dally. An opportunity like this is rare.” In the end, Maureen said that “many people think LGBTQIA people won’t amount to anything. They don’t think we can achieve something even if they don’t know what we can actually do.”

Because for her, “tayong mga LGBT… andaming gusting mangyari para makatulong. So hangga’t anong meron, sige lang tayo nang sige (LGBTQIA people are never contented; we want to achieve a lot. We want to do more so we can help our parents, help our families. So we don’t stop trying to do more. For as long as we can, LGBTQIA people persevere).”

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Searching for Beauty

Trans hairdresser Bella Abac partially makes a living by joining beauty pageants, intending to do so for as long as her body can. It is in these beauty pageants that LGBTQIA Filipinos like her push for equality… to a certain point, ending up promoting the limiting gender binary even as they also call (at least onstage) for better treatment of LGBTQIA and gender non-conforming people.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Para sa akin po, ang attraction ng pagsali ko po ng pageants, pakiramdam ko po kasi sa sarili ko na parang doon ko lang nailalabas lahat ng kasiyahan ko (Beauty pageants are appealing to me because they allow me to express my happiness),” Bella Abac, 24, said. “Feel ko po na hindi makukumpleto ang pagka-trans ko kung hindi sumasali ng pageant ng mga trans kasi po (dito ay) napapatunayan ko sa mga tao na karapat-dapat pa ring respectuhin, na kahit bakla ka, may talino at talent kang maipapakita sa kanila (I feel incomplete as a trans woman if I don’t join a pageant. It allows me to show to people that I still merit respect).”

Bella is, obviously, one of the now-regular trans “beauconeras (regular beauty pageant competitors/contestants)”, a staple – if you must – in a beauty pageant crazy country like the Philippines.

GROWING UP TRANS

Bella always identified as a woman. “Since nung nagkaisip na ako, nalama kong babae pala ako. Puso (ko ay) babae (For as long as I can remember, I always identified as a woman; in my heart, I am a woman),” she said.

But it was only in high school when she came out. “Nung bata pa ako may komportable po akong makipaglaro sa mga babae. Kaya masasabi ko po na naramdaman ko na trans ako dahil sa mga nakakahalubilo ko, nakakasalamuha na mga barkada (As a kid, I was more comfortable hanging out with girls. I’d say I knew I’m transgender because of the company I kept),” she said.

At the start, Bella tried to hide her true self from her family, particularly since she was the firstborn male child and grandchild. But when she deemed she already looked feminine enough, she then started living as a trans woman.

Nung nag-out po ako… siguro nabigla din sila (When I came out, perhaps they were also surprised),” Bella said. “Pero never naman po nila akong pinagbuhatan ng kamay (But they never hurt me).”

Having grown in a generally welcoming family, Bella Abac said family acceptance is important because this will have affect particularly the minds of young LGBTQIA people.

Pastora Raquel, Bella’s grandmother (who raised her) said she noted that when Bella was in high school, she had all-female friends. And so, even then, she already suspected Bella is trans.

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Minsan… parang tinatanong ko ang sarili ko, bakit nagkaganito ang apo kong ito (Sometimes I ask myself why my grandchild is like this),” Nanay Paz said, “pero wala naman ako magagawa kundi tanggapin (But there’s nothing I can do but accept her).”

It is also acceptance that Nanay Paz wants other parents/guardians to learn; to “learn to love your children instead of driving them away.” It’s a choice, she said, of accepting them as they are, or losing them if they are not accepted. And for her, “I’ve learned to just accept it without reservations.”

Now and then, Nanay Paz worries for Bella, “particularly in these times” when people can get in trouble even if they did nothing wrong. But she said “sinabi ko lang sa kanya, mag-ingat siya… Baka ako ang unang manigas diyan (kung may nangyari sa kanya) (I just tell her to be careful… If something happened to her, I don’t think I can bear that. Perhaps I’d die myself).”

Having grown in a generally welcoming family, Bella said family acceptance is important because this will have affect particularly the minds of young LGBTQIA people. “Maaring mag-rebelde po sila o maaring maglayas. At baka maging against pa sila sa pamilya nila (They may rebel or run away if they are not accepted. They may even think badly and be against their own families).”

After coming out and openly hanging out with other trans women, Bella was introduced by a close friend to beauty pageants; this friend encouraged her to join, and she, herself, wanted to manage Bella.

PART OF THE INFORMAL SECTOR

Based in Bacoor, Cavite, Bella now works as a hairdresser.

Right after high school, Bella’s aunt helped her study hairdressing in a vocational school. By the time she was 19, she was already working.

Masasabi ko po na sapat ang kinikita ko sa salon. Sa isang araw po, kahit P100 lang po; then pinaka-maximum po, P1,000 (I can say I earn enough while working in a salon. In a day I can earn at least P100, reaching to P1,000),” she said.

Bella doesn’t get regular salary; instead, she gets a cut of the day’s profit of the salon where she works at. She is, therefore, further driven to entice people to avail of the services that they offer, since having more customers means possibly earning more.

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Having work helps Bella in joining pageants since she has (some) money to spent.

BEAUCONERA’S LIFE

Bella “only” joins pageants as a hobby; it’s just for fun for her, and only when she has spare time.

She learned that in this industry, “hindi siya ganun kabigat (it isn’t financially burdensome),” she said; at least just give some money to the handler/s for them to be able to travel to the venue of the pageant, and then while there, at least feed them.

Usually, a candidate spends from P100 per pageant, though this obviously goes up to thousands, depending on one’s entourage and on where the pageant is being held. A big chunk of the expenses goes to the “handlers”.

In Bella’s case, “mahigit kumulang P500 din nagagastos ko per pageant (personally, I spend approximately P500 per pageant).”

Bella Abac: “I feel incomplete as a trans woman if I don’t join a pageant. It allows me to show to people that I still merit respect.”

The handlers actually do just about everything for the candidate (aside from competing), from providing the clothes to be worn, providing hair and make-up, and even training (e.g. walking, answering questions, et cetera) as needed.

The arrangements with handlers vary (e.g. some take a bigger cut of the earning, some charge fees outright whether a contestant wins or loses, and still some do it for free). And in Bella’s case at least, “it’s your call how to divide the prize money.”

The biggest cash prize Bella won totaled P4,000, after she placed first runner-up in pageants in Batangas and Nueva Ecija. “Yung kalahati po, para na po sa akin, pang-suporta po sa bahay para sa… pagkain po, unang-una po sa bigas (I kept half of that amount to myself, spending it for expenses at home… for food, to buy rice),” Bella said.

The other half, she gave to her handler. “Para fair po (To be fair),” she said, as well as to avoid possible grumblings from people who may complain that it was them who helped her clinch a title.

In total, Bella already joined around 20 beauty pageants.

And she plans to be a beauconera for as long as she is able to compete, perhaps until she reaches 40.

CONFRONTING, YET ENDING UP PROMOTING THE STATUS QUO?

A handful of trans beauconeras actually believe in “separate but equal”.

In Bella’s case, “if you ask me if trans women should be allowed to join beauty pageants like Miss Universe, I’d say: ‘No’.”

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Bella’s belief is anchored in recognizing segregation; that “may mga inilaan naman pong patimpalak para sa mga kabaklaan… kaya hindi natin kailangan pang panghimasukan ang pageant na para lang sa kababaihan (There are pageants just for us. So we shouldn’t impose upon them to accept us to join pageants just for them).”

But this belief is also anchored in the continuing dominant belief of sex/gender binary that, obviously displaces members of the LGBTQIA community.

Dapat pa rin po nating irespecto ang kanilang pagka-babae (We should respect their womanhood),” Bella said.

Being a woman, for Bella, means being able to nurse a child. “Para sa akin po, ang babae ay isang ina na handing kumalinga sa kanyang anak. Kaya dapat irespeto ang kababaihan (For me, to be a woman is to be a mother who cares for her child. So women should be respected).”

The words “hindi ‘tunay’ na babae (not a ‘real’ woman)”, “purong babae (pure woman)” and “pusong babae (literally, woman’s heart; though also weaker heart/cowardly disposition)” also easily get thrown around in trans beauty pageants, referring to the personhood of the candidates themselves, thereby – knowingly or not – pushing for the anti-trans (and anti-LGBTQIA) narratives.

Pageants remain relevant, said Bella Abac, as they allow people to voice out their opinions on particular issues; thereby, they allow the promotion of these issues that – hopefully in the long run – promote equality.

LIFE LESSONS

Bella already had three boyfriends; none lasted. But she’s saying that “I’m not saying that trans relationships don’t last long because there are relationships that involve us that work out.” For Bella, it always “depends on the people involved”, since relationships can help develop people.

And being developed, said Bella, also happens in pageants. Which is why she recommends joining them (particularly to younger members of the LGBTQIA community). “Malay natin yung mga batang trans may kakayahan na maaring mahasa sa pamamagitan ng pagsali ng mga pageants (It’s a way for us to know if they have skills that can be developed through these pageants).”

The world of beauty pageants is “round” – one day you win, one day you won’t. So Bella Abac said not winning may be disappointing, but it isn’t everything.

Pageants remain relevant, said Bella, as they allow people to voice out their opinions on particular issues; thereby, they allow the promotion of these issues that – hopefully in the long run – promote equality. “Pageants can help solve a lot of problems facing different countries,” she quipped.

The world of beauty pageants is “round” – one day you win, one day you won’t. So Bella said not winning may be disappointing, but it isn’t everything. “Masaya (na rin ako) na nag-enjoy ako, at may sumusuporta pa rin sa akin kahit papaano (At least I enjoyed myself. And there are people who supported me somehow).”

To people who continue to look down on LGBTQIA people, Bella said that “kahit ano pang pangyuyurak sa aming pagkatao ang inyong gawin, kahit na kami ay inyong laitin, naniniwala pa rin ako na karapat-dapat pa rin kaing respetuhin (no matter how many times you step on us, and even if you belittle us, I believe that we deserve to be respected).”

But turning inwards, she added: “Sa kapuwa ko (LGBTQIA), gumawa muna tayo ng tamas a kapuw nang sa ganun ay wala silang masabi (To my fellow LGBTQIA people, let’s do something good so people won’t have anything bad to say about us).”

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Gay man in the street

Originally from Negros Occidental, Jorie Salvano Garnado now sells ‘kakanin (snacks)’ in the streets of Manila and Makati, with his earnings sustaining him and his family in the province. He wants LGBTQIA people to learn to “choose your family”, who he hopes will “always be there for you.”

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Sana yung mga baklang kabataan, kung may kabutihang matutulong sila, tumulong talaga sa magulang (For young gay people, if they can do good, they should do good particularly to help their parents),” said Jorie Salvano Garnado, 39. “Gipalaki sila sa magulang nila para makatulong. Huwag muna unahin ang lalaki; unahin muna ang mga magulang (Their parents raised them so they can be of use/they can help. Don’t prioritize your BFs; focus on your parents first).”

Originally from Negros Occidental, Jorie’s parents are actually separated, though not after having seven kids (two eventually died at a younger age). His mom now has four other kids with a different husband; and his dad, another kid with another wife.

In 2016, Jorie moved to Manila, joining an auntie who told him he could look for a job in the big city.

Nagtitinda ako kakanin para makatulong ako sa magulang ko (I sell snack foods to earn to help my parents),” he said. “Kasi mahirap po ang buhay sa probinsiya (Life is hard in the province).”

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Jorie wakes up before 4AM, and is on the street immediately after then. By 10AM, he is done with selling the breakfast goodies. He takes a breather from 10AM to 12PM, and then heads out to the streets again after 12PM to sell the snack fares. He usually heads home around 6PM.

On a good day, he could earn as much as P1,000 per day; he divides this into two, sending the P500 to the province, and using the other P500 to pay for his living here (e.g. rent, food, his personal loans, and his BF). He actually earns more than enough, saying “nakaluwag na kami (my earnings have made things easier/lighter for everyone)”. Aside from some savings, he was able to help those in the province start a livelihood (“babuyan”/piggery), as well as built a better house.

“At least di ako nag-perwisyo sa iba, naghingi kahit saan (At least I don’t pester others, or ask others for support),” he said.

Also because he’s a main source of money for them, Jorie said he never encountered being bullied by family members. “Hindi ko naranasan na bugbugin ng mga kapatid ko (My siblings never hurt me),” he said, “kay lahat naman ng gusto nila binibigay ko sa kanila (because I always give them what they ask from me).”

Looking back, Jorie said he knew he’s gay at around 12 years of age. “Tanggap naman ako ng magulang ko na ganito ako (My parents accepted me as a gay person),” he said, because “yung bakla pala, yun pala ang makatulong sa kanila (who’d have thought it’s the gay person who would end up helping/supporting them)?”

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There were times – he recalled – when he was verbally abused (by community members) for being gay, taunted as “bakla, bakla (faggot, faggot)!”. “Okay lang po, tanggap ko po. Wala ako magawa eh ang Panginoon nagbigay sa akin na ganito ako (I’m fine with it; I accept it. I can’t do anything about this; God made me like this).”

Jorie’s “boss” now, someone called Ate Tisay, was the one to persuade him to become a street vendor. She told him not to work a regular job; instead, be his own boss by selling on the streets. His only capital: His saliva (for calling out to people). “Kung gusto mo kumita, mabilisan (If you want to earn fast, this is it),” he said. “Kung mangamuhan ka, isang buwan bago ka makakain (If you work a regular job, it’d take you a month before you can earn).”

Not that this line of work is easy, Jorie said. He has to walk all day, basically; chase people’s break times (if he misses the break time of regular clients, then they won’t buy from him anymore for that day, so it’s loss earnings for him); and it can also be dangerous at times (if there are “bad people who choose to do something bad with you”).

Now, “days off” for him include the weekends, though having a special someone (and spending on him) is a “necessity” as it helps him relax.

“Kung iiwanan ako ng jowa ko… okay lang na iwanan niya ako sa ere basta mga magulang ko mga kapatid ko andiyan lang (if he decides to leave me hanging, that’s fine, so long as my parents and my siblings are there for/with me).” For Jorie Garnado: “Lalaki lang yan (He’s just another man).”

Jorie met his BF from Facebook; and just after a day of chatting, they moved in together. They’re still together after five years.

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Nagtatrabaho din siya para makatulong siya sa akin, sa housekeeping (He also works – in housekeeping – to be able to help out),” he said.

Their relationship, Jorie said, is based on being able to help each other. “Kung may problema siya, tulungan ko siya. Kung ako may problema, tulungan niya rin ako. Wala naman ibang tao makatulong sa akin, siya lang (If he has problems, I help him. And if I have issues, he helps me. No one else helps me out but him).”

Despite this, “kung iiwanan ako ng jowa ko… okay lang na iwanan niya ako sa ere basta mga magulang ko mga kapatid ko andiyan lang (if he decides to leave me hanging, that’s fine, so long as my parents and my siblings are there for/with me).” For Jorie: “Lalaki lang yan (He’s just another man).”

Jorie intends to continue doing what he’s doing until he turns 50; and then he wants to go back to the province. There, he said, things are easier (e.g. there’s no rent to pay). He also acknowledged that in the province, “basta todo kayud ka lang, basta may lakas ka pa, mapakinabangan ka pa (so long as you work hard, for as long as you still have strength, then you’re still of use to the world/to people).” For younger LGBTQIA Filipinos, Jorie said they should aim for something higher in life. But that “dapat magtrabaho sila sa kabutihan; huwag sa kasamaan (they should do so doing good things, not doing bad things).”

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Queen Bhee

Bhee Garcia, a trans woman hairdresser in Makati City, believes LGBTQIA people can be empowered by not focusing on negativities thrown their way. Once derided as “bakla (gay)”, she even reclaimed this reference to her identity to show she can turn it into something unique and empowering.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Bhee Garcia – a 23-year-old transgender woman from Makati City – grew up being called “bakla (gay)”. But she did not shy away from the (derogatory) term; instead, “pinalandi ko (contextually: I glamorized it/I made it work)”. And so – while she was also called, among others, Barbie, Amanda, Miranda and Nica – it was this name that stayed with her. “Bhee – it was used to mock me before, but I made it beautiful and my own.”

Bhee added that “di naman big deal sa akin (ang pangalan) as long as may respect ang pagtawag sa akin (What name people use to refer to me is not a big deal as long as they address me with respect)”.

Bhee knew she was transgender since high school. “Alam ko na sa sarili ko na babae ako… simula nung makihalubilo ako sa mga babae at alam ko na belong ako sa kanila (I knew I’m trans when I started mingling with girls and I felt I belonged).”

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As the youngest of eight siblings (and the only member of the LGBTQIA community), Bhee’s family didn’t have negative reactions when she came out. “Prinoprotektahan nila ako (They even protect me),” she said. “May mga nakakasalamuha ako na… matatalim ang mata, ayaw nila makita na bakla ang anak mo o kapatid mo, so pinoprotektahan nila ako (You come across people who do not want to be with LGBTQIA people, and my family protects me from them).”

Not that this spared Bhee from bullying. For instance, in high school, when she already started wearing make-up, people used to taunt her. But Bhee said that though this may have also made her shed some tears, she also learned not to give people power over her personhood; “I just try to see the positive in life’s experience.”

She studied cosmetology, and eventually ended up working as a hairdresser in a beauty salon/parlor.

Her job isn’t always easy; one time, a client yelled at her, doubting her skills. But she learned that – aside from being adept at her work – people skills can also make her succeed. And the latter is helped being developed by a good working environment. “Sa salon kasi, masaya pag marami kayo (Working in a salon is fun if there are many of you),” she said.

Earning is “okay lang (just okay)” when working in a salon, Bhee said, though this is always – and obviously – dependent on the customers.

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Actually, “mas mataas ang pangarap ko kesa ini-expect ng iba (my dreams are bigger than people expect my dreams to be),” she said. Lie when she was younger, she wanted to be a “supermodel, a beauty queen”; but “di ko pinush sarili ko (I didn’t push myself to be this). I just pushed myself to have an income, to have money and be able to help my family.”

Bhee had a four-year relationship before. And while it didn’t last, she said that even if there are people who say that relationships with transgender women do not last, it doesn’t mean “you don’t deserve to be loved,” she said.

Bhee wants younger LGBTQIA people to just “go lang nang go (persevere).” “Ako, nararamdaman ko kayo bilang trans sister; nararamdaman nyo sana na ako, lumalaban din sa buhay (I feel you as your transgender sister; I hope you know that I, too, fight to live),” she said.

She wants LGBTQIA people to not focus on the negative hurled our way. “Kailangan natin isaisip na tayo, tinatanggap dapat ng lipunan (We need to realize that society should accept us),” Bhee said. So “hindi (natin) dapat isipin ang mga negatibo na sinasabi ng mga tao (We souldn’t think of the negative things people say about us).” But at the same time, for non-LGBTQIA people to “change your way of looking at us. See us as equals; not as less-than-human that you can step on.”

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People You Should Know

Perseverance in pushing for LGBTQIA issues

Glenn Ricaroz always had a welcoming family that allowed him to express his being part of the LGBTQIA community. But because not everyone is as fortunate as him, the current president of Diwata ng Muntinlupa advocates for LGBTQIA issues, and takes pride in drafting the Muntinlupa City ordinance declaring the last Saturday of June as “Muntinlupa City LGBT Pride Day”.

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Photo by Luwela A. Rodrigo

Glenn Ricaroz has no coming out story. “Simula bata pa lang (ako), ramdam ko na (Even when I was young, I already felt my being part of the LGBTQIA community),” he said.

He was fortunate that, to start, “hindi pinag-usapan ang pag-a-out (sa karanasan ko), naramdaman na lang ng parents ko ‘yun. Walang: ‘Mommy, daddy, mag-a-out po ako’ (this was never discussed at home since my parents just felt it. For me, there wasn’t a situation where I had to say, ‘Mom, dad, I’m coming out gay’).”

His grandmothers were also teachers, and “lagi nila akong ifo-front. Gusto nila kasali ako palagi sa school presentations. Gusto nilang sumali ako rito, sumali ako riyan (they wanted me to join all the presentations in school. They made me join this and that).”

That they let him be who he is without discrimination, and that they allowed him to express himself even made Glenn realize “na malandi ka, na maarte ka (that you’re flirtatious, you’re fussy).”

Not surprisingly, Glenn believes that “kung pinanganak kang ganyan, ganyan ka talaga (if you’re born LGBTQIA, you’d be LGBTQIA).”

But since – particularly nowadays – much weight seems to be given on coming out, even if “ngayon na lang ‘yang coming out (coming out is just ‘normalized’ these days)” – Glenn believes that nearly every day involves coming out. That is, one’s identity is expressed in layers to different people; and these – by themselves – are coming out processes. Thus, “coming out and being out are continuous process.”

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Growing up, Glenn was exposed to Diwata ng Muntinlupa – an LGBTQIA organization established in 1977 in Muntinlupa City. Particularly every summer, he recalled watching volleyball games and seeing members of the organization.

Eventually, he became a member (in 2003).

The initiation for new members was to dance in public. Glenn hosted.

His belonging to the LGBTQIA organization pushed him to advocate for LGBTQIA issues.

In 2007, he worked for the local government as the Supervising Tourism Operations Officer for the City Tourism Office. And there, “I made sure na priority and Diwata ng Muntinlupa,” he said. “Binigyan ka ng pwesto para makatulong at para makapag-share (You were given a position to be able to help and share). So I made it sure I did that (particularly to other LGBTQIA people).”

Glenn also takes pride in drafting the local ordinance declaring the last Saturday of the month June of every year to be known as “Muntinlupa City LGBT Pride Day”. In a meeting in 2016, Councilor Lucio Constantino said that at least one of the activities for Muntinlupa Grand Centennial in 2017 should be for the LGBTQIA community; and this ordinance was what Glenn advocated for.

At that time, the “norm” was just to hold a Miss Gay beauty pageant, which Glenn saw as “off”. He just wanted for LGBTQIA people to be “recognized lang sana“. After almost six months, Ordinance no. 17-084 was signed (in May 2017).

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Glenn Ricaroz also takes pride in drafting the local ordinance declaring the last Saturday of the month June of every year to be known as “Muntinlupa City LGBT Pride Day”.
Photo by Luwela A. Rodrigo

Glenn eventually resigned in December 2018 and started working as a full-time freelance events host.

He was elected president of Diwata ng Muntinlupa also in 2018.

And after years of being in the LGBTQIA advocacy, he learned of perseverance in pushing for LGBTQIA issues.

When the pro-LGBTQIA ordinance was signed in Muntinlupa City, for instance, religious groups sent letters of protest to the City Council. “Pino-protesta nila ‘yung pagkakaron at pagde-declare ng LGBTQIA Day sa Muntinlupa (They were protesting the enshrining of an LGBTQIA Day in Muntinlupa City).”

But while the rejections from numerous groups in the society remain tragic, the circumstances can be improved, he said, until being LGBTQIA is no longer simply tolerated but becomes a non-issue.

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