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Overcome doubts to be happier version of yourself, says gay Ateneo grad who topped 2018 bar exams

Openly gay, Atty. Sean James Borja obtained the highest score of 89.3060%, leading the 1,800 aspiring lawyers who passed the bar exams.

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Photo credit: Facebook/Atty. Sean James Borja

“Definitely there were a lot of times I doubted myself but I’m happy to say that I did overcome those doubts and insecurities and I’m just happy to be me right now.”

These are the words of now Atty. Sean James Borja, an Ateneo de Manila University alumnus, who topped the 2018 bar exams.

Openly gay, Borja obtained the highest score of 89.3060%, leading the 1,800 aspiring lawyers who passed the bar exams.

Interviewed by ABS-CBN News Channel following the Supreme Court’s announcement of the results of the 2018 bar exam, Borja was asked if he had ever felt that “being gay did not make you worthy to follow your aspirations.”

Borja was quoted as saying that “definitely… I guess especially during grade school — you know how grade school is like when you’re being bullied for being different and it was during that time… where you think you’re not good enough to be at the top; to be a lawyer to fulfill your dreams just because of who you are.”

When Borja delivered his valedictory address for class 2018 of the Ateneo Law School, Borja actually talked about his being part of the LGBTQIA community.

The rest of the top 10 are:

  • Marcley Augustus Natu-el, University of San Carlos, 87.53%
  • Mark Lawrence Badayos, University of San Carlos, 85.842%
  • Daniel John Fordan, Ateneo de Manila University, 85.443%
  • Katrina Monica Gaw, Ateneo de Manila University, 85.421%
  • Nadaine Tongco, University of the Philippines, 85.032%
  • Patricia Sevilla, University of the Philippines, 84.859%
  • Kathrine Ting, De La Salle University-Manila, 84.857%
  • Jebb Lynus Cane, University of San Carlos, 84.805%
  • Alan Joel Pita, University of San Carlos, 84.693%
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The 2018 bar exam posted a passing rate of 22.07%, which is lower than the previous year’s passing rate of 25.5%.

People You Should Know

What it’s like to be a lesbian artist in this generation

Meet Pixie Labrador, an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, who laments the under-representation of lesbians in the music industry, which is unfortunate because she believes that music can help mainstream discussion of LGBTQIA issues. “Lesbians get invalidated, discriminated and fetishized because of who we choose to love, and it’s disappointing to know that… some people would choose to overlook the passion and dedication we’ve put into honing our art,” she says.

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Photo courtesy of Pixie Labrador

“Lesbian artists in the Philippines are not being represented enough. In fact, if I’m being honest, it would’ve taken me a while to name a few at the top of my head, which is alarming and something I’m not proud of. It’s a shame because we are part of such a talented, inspiring community, and very few people recognize it.”

That, according to Pixie Labrador, is the current state of representation of lesbian artists in the Philippines.

And for her, this is bad because “lesbians get invalidated, discriminated and fetishized because of who we choose to love, and it’s disappointing to know that the close-mindedness of some people would choose to overlook the passion and dedication we’ve put into honing our art.”

Pixie is an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, with over 9,095 monthly listeners on Spotify. Her most popular song on Spotify – “What’s it Like” – is about unrequited love, but uses just the right amount of pronouns for fans to openly identify her pride on her gender identity. The same song – which has a stanza that goes: “And I know from a distance| That I can’t compare | To the burn in her eyes | Or the love that she bears | It’s too much to hand over | But you never cared | For as long as your heart was with her” – is also included on her first album, “Does It Hurt””.

“Sometimes people would assume that in my music, I’m talking about being in love with a man (even) when the pronouns I use are very clear in the lyrics of the song,” Pixie quipped. “It’s another case of heteronormativity and invalidation, and It needs to be stopped.”

Being a lesbian “kind of” affects her craft/music, Pixie said, “in the sense that my music is heavily targeted towards the queer community, and it’s mostly based off of my personal experiences on loving other women.” However – and Pixie stressed this – “although I feel that rather than saying ‘being a lesbian’ is affecting my music, it’s really more of just me being my genuine self, if that makes sense. Like, I don’t write because I’m a lesbian. I’ll write what I feel and think regardless of what I identify as, simply because it’s something I love to do.”

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But by and large, for Pixie, sexuality does not really matter when creating music.

“That’s the great thing about art: anyone can make it, and it’s so expressive and limitless. I don’t think it would make sense to have sexuality matter in making music. I feel like it disregards people who are questioning or unsure of their own sexuality, as well as people who just don’t give a damn about labels, which is also entirely valid. It just so happens that I have a specific style of writing that touches on my sexuality, but it doesn’t mean everyone has to do it that way. Basically, you don’t have to question yourself to make music. Just do it.”

TOUCHING LIVES

Pixie is actually fortunate that “my audience, my family, and my friends have all been so accepting and supportive of me… When I started writing more frequently, and was trying to find my own unique style, writing in regards to loving as a lesbian just came so naturally to me. I published ‘Maybe’ and the response was so overwhelming. I didn’t realize how many people I’ve helped with just one song. So after that, there was a click in my head that made me think: ‘This is what people need: LGBT representation by LGBT creators.’ So I wanted to give exactly that. Eventually, my fans started giving me nicknames like ‘Lesbian Queen’, ‘WLW Icon’, ‘Queen of The Gays’, and things like that. It’s because of them that it kind of became my branding. My family seems to recognize this too, and they’re all for it as well. My parents show their support by coming to whatever gigs they possibly can, even though they’re heard me live dozens of times. I feel really blessed.”

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Pixie is also “lucky enough to not have experienced discrimination during gigs, and hopefully I never will. Most of the gigs I’ve been to were at safe spaces, and I’m glad I can feel comfortable working with trustworthy organizations, and in certain venues.”

MUSIC FOR THE STRUGGLE

Pixie recognizes, however, that the struggle of the LGBTQIA community particularly locally is far from over.

“There is still so, so much we need to fight for before we can even get close to the kind of acceptance we hope to achieve. Every time I think we’re getting closer to our goal, I would see something on social media, like a news headline, about something terrible that’s happened to someone in the community. It’s truly devastating,” she said.

But for Pixie, “the LGBT community is really the strongest bunch of individuals that I know. Despite the challenges that come with being our true selves, we push through every day, 365 days a year. We might not be where we want to be right now, but I know our struggles will all be worth it someday.”

And how does Pixie use her platform as an artist to help the LGBTQIA community?

“I’d like to think that as an I artist, I touch on topics that are very real and relatable, especially to people who are still figuring themselves out. It’s actually quite cliché when you think about it. ‘Maybe’ is about falling in love with your best friend. ‘For You’ is about being in love. ‘What’s It Like’ and ‘Use Me’ are about unrequited love. It’s not all that different from mainstream media. When it comes to my writing, I don’t talk about the LGBT community in such an ‘in your face’ kind of way; but it’s more of using real, firsthand experiences to make unaccepting people realize we’re not as alien as they think we are. We are capable of feeling what they do, and we deserve to be loved just as much as them. I think this whole thing also applies to the community itself. By writing about these things so casually, I’m putting out a message that basically says ‘Hey, I’m gay, and it’s okay to talk about it.’”

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And so, as an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, “to me, it feels really empowering to be fighting for equally every single day, and with every song that I write and put out into the world. It’s so heartwarming to see milestones of the LGBT community being recognized – like the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, or the Metro Manila Pride March reaching over 70,000 attendees, for example. In a more personal case, I’ve gotten messages from listeners saying that my music has given them the courage to come out, or has just helped them through difficult times in general. There may be pitfalls every now and then, but I do strongly believe that we are progressing towards a more love-filled world; and it’s a nice feeling to think that I am and always will be a part of what made that happen.”

BETTER REPRESENTATION

But it wouldn’t hurt if – as she earlier mentioned – lesbian artists in the Philippines start getting being represented enough.

“It would be nice if the media (shone) light on a more diverse range of lesbian artists. Like people of different skin tones, different body types, different ethnicities, et cetera. Because there’s no right or wrong way to ‘look like’ or ‘be’ a lesbian. It doesn’t have to feel so limiting,” she said. “Plus, there may be a number of under-appreciated but extremely talented lesbian role models whom the world needs to know about.”

But at least for now, her music is helping fill a void as Pixie Labrador continues to be a lesbian artist particularly in this generation.

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NEWSMAKERS

Pinoy wins Mr. Gay World 2019

John Jeffrey Carlos won as Mr. Gay World 2019, the second time the title went to the Philippines (and Asia).

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Screencap from John Jeffrey Carlos' video for Mr. Gay World 2019

Pinoy rainbow pride.

John Jeffrey Carlos won as Mr. Gay World 2019, the second time the title went to the Philippines (and Asia).

The 41-year-old local of General Trias, Cavite is not new to pageantry, first trying his luck to represent the country in the same pageant in 2016. He placed fourth runner-up then, losing to John Raspado, who ended up winning the first Mr. Gay World title for the country.

Carlos is actually also already relatively known in various circles – e.g. in Facebook and Instagram, where his repeatedly “liked” photos range from showcasing living a luxurious lifestyle in Manila, traveling from one country to another, flexing his muscles during a workout, or wearing swimming trunks and posing provocatively for no other reason but to satisfy the fantasies of his social media followers.

Carlos – who obtained his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at the Cavite State University, where he also played for the men’s varsity volleyball team – also appeared in some movies directed by the late Wenn Deramas, such as “Moron 5.2: The Transformation” (2014) and “Wang Fam” (2015).

“When it comes to pageantry, the best trait of Filipino representatives [in general] is they always surprise people with their biggest ideas, just like what Catriona Gray did [in Miss Universe],” he said to Outrage Magazine in an earlier interview.

Perhaps typical of many beauty titlists who are new to their advocacies, Carlos only recently partnered wth Mental Health PH, an organization that promotes awareness about mental health through social media, a few days after winning the Mr. Fahrenheit 2019 title.

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All the same, he said that “I think it’s a very good platform for me to push my advocacy, as it is very timely and relevant, especially with the LGBTQI community… We’ve heard so much about mental health issues and things are getting worse. In my own little way, I want to spread awareness about depression, so people will know what to do in case they feel some of the symptoms of this mental illness, affecting us and our loved ones.”

As Carlos wears the second Mr. Gay World title for the Philippines, he stressed: “We have to reach out to people with depression. Together, we can turn this illness to wellness.”

Carlos – who competed with 21 other contestants in Cape Town, South Africa – has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years.

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People You Should Know

John Jeffrey Carlos eyes Mr. Gay World 2019 title in South Africa

A closer look at John Jeffrey Carlos, a 41-year-old realtor and online entrepreneur from Cavite, who will compete with 24 other gay men in the 11th installment of Mr. Gay World contest in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Images courtesy of Mr. Gay World Philippines Organization

It may be difficult to fill the void left by John Raspado, who won the country’s first Mr. Gay World title in Maspalomas, Spain two years ago because the original always seems better; and to keep pace with him, the next Filipino Mr. Gay World aspirant needs to be worth twice as much.

When John Jeffrey Carlos first tried his luck in Mr. Gay World Philippines pageant back in October 2016, he was deemed by the pageants fans and pundits as “the one who would make the others compete harder.” Prior to the competition, he was already known to some circles via Facebook and Instagram, with repeatedly “liked” photos ranging from living a luxurious lifestyle in Manila, traveling from one country to another, flexing his muscles during a workout, or wearing swimming trunks and posing provocatively for no other reason but to satisfy the fantasies of his social media followers.

But the judges that time didn’t give this flawless-skinned gay hunk from General Trias, Cavite high enough scores to enter the final round of the competition. “Janjep” (his nickname) finished in fourth place. It was Raspado, a native of Baguio City, who walked away with the top plum. He would later on become the Philippines’ first Mr. Gay World victor, in Maspalomas, Spain.

Fast forward to the present and Carlos was teary eyed while thanking everyone who attended his send-off press conference arranged by Mr. Gay World Philippines national director Wilbert Tolentino, at The One 690 Entertainment Bar in Quezon City. Winning the Mr. Fahrenheit search three weeks ago gave him the golden-ticket opportunity to wear the Philippine sash in Mr. Gay World 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa between April 28 and May 5.

Mr. Gay World, a “four-day challenge” founded by Australia-based philanthropist Eric Butter, is now on its 11th year of determining which cisgender gay man supposedly best represents his national spirit while serving as an ambassador for LGBTQI rights worldwide.

Carlos, a realtor, online entrepreneur and “cyber star” from General Trias, Cavite, who is already 41 years old, will be competing with 24 other gay men to be the successor of Jordan Bruno, a 26-year-old Australian reality TV chef, cookbook author and owner of an LGBTQI cooking school. 

Though Carlos wants to replicate Raspado’s historic feat, he said to Outrage Magazine that he’s uncomfortable being likened to the titlist.

“When it comes to pageantry, the best trait of Filipino representatives [in general] is they always surprise people with their biggest ideas, just like what Catriona Gray did [in Miss Universe]. Perhaps I’ll just take my inspiration from her. It’s like from day one, she’s [already] a fighter… I will surprise them with my ideas, like what she did, from what she wore, from the way she spoke, everything… well-planned. That’s how I prepared, with the help of my mentor and our national director, boss Wilbert, and Sir Rodgil Flores of the Kagandahang Flores camp. They really groomed me for Mr. Gay World 2019.”

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Janjep Carlos, a realtor, online entrepreneur and “cyber star” from General Trias, Cavite, who is already 41 years old, will be competing with 24 other gay.

Without revealing what he would be wearing during the preliminaries and coronation night, he – nonetheless – named those who helped him: Albert Andrada, the designer behind the iconic royal blue evening gown of Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach, provided his formal wear; Razen Montero, for his national costume; and Domz Ramos, the official swimwear designer of Binibining Pilipinas pageant, for his swimwear.

And if Gray has “lava walk” and “slow-motion twirl,” Carlos has the “baklava walk”.  

GETTING PERSONAL

Carlos obtained his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at the Cavite State University, where he also played for the men’s varsity volleyball team.

Striking the ball before it touches the ground gave him everything—his education was paid for, along with his food and board. It also gave him a support group—teammates and coaching staff who all wanted him to succeed and strive for excellence, in and out of the court.

After he got out of school, started working, paying for his own expenses and providing for his family, he realized how incredible it is to graduate not owing any money.

He also appeared in some movies directed by the late Wenn Deramas, such as “Moron 5.2: The Transformation” (2014) and “Wang Fam” (2015).

Carlos has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years. And even if he’s openly gay, there are still women who get attracted to him. “There were cases wherein some of them were very vocal about their feelings toward me. But I never concealed ‘the real me’ ever since. They tell me they know that I’m gay, so I don’t have to explain myself,” he said with a wide smile.

Janjep Carlos has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years.

MENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATE

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If his Mr. Gay World Philippines predecessors focused their respective reigns on HIV prevention, de-stigmatization and care, Carlos is taking a different route.

“My advocacy focuses on fighting depression, through my #IllnessToWellnessCampaign,” he said.

A few days after he won as Mr. Fahrenheit 2019, he partnered with Mental Health PH, an organization that promotes awareness about mental health through social media.

“I think it’s a very good platform for me to push my advocacy, as it is very timely and relevant, especially with the LGBTQI community… We’ve heard so much about mental health issues and things are getting worse. In my own little way, I want to spread awareness about depression, so people will know what to do in case they feel some of the symptoms of this mental illness, affecting us and our loved ones.”

A month before joining Mr. Fahrenheit, Carlos traveled to South Africa. It included a trip to a psychiatric rehabilitation facility catering to impoverished communities.

“I had a chance to visit Cape Mental Health and I saw the situation there. We have to be informed. We have to reach out to people with depression. Together, we can turn this illness to wellness. I’m happy to come back in Cape Town, as I am now more familiar with the port city as well as with the people’s way of living.”

THREE-PEAT

Tolentino was the first Filipino to compete in the inaugural edition of Mr. Gay World, in Whistler, Canada in 2009. He topped the sports challenge and harvested the Best in National Costume, Best in Formal Wear and Mr. Gay Popularity special awards. He received the local franchise for the Mr. Gay World pageant in 2016, after it was held by Noemi Alberto since its inception a decade ago.

Under his management, the Filipino representatives’ standings in Mr. Gay World improved: Christian Lacsamana, a 30-year-old public high school teacher from San Fernando City, Pampanga, topped the online voting, named Mister Social Media, won the Best in National Costume award, and placed second runner-up to Roger Gosalbez Pitaluga of Spain in April 2016. Raspado, a 36-year-old online entrepreneur of health supplements from Baguio City, made history by becoming the first Filipino and 100% Asian to win the title in May 2017.

But Tolentino shocked Mr. Gay World Philippines devotees when he announced his resignation as national director two months after Raspado won. Coming from a very conservative Filipino-Chinese upbringing, he wanted to spend time with his parents, especially with his aging father, as well as to focus on his then newly born son.

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But “a few months back this year, I dreamt that the Philippines will have three consecutive wins in Mr. Gay World. That prompted me to once again assume the national directorship [for Mr. Gay World]. And this year, we are very proud to say that we have the best delegate. I promised that as national director, I would do my very best in preparing Janjep for his international competition.”

A month before joining Mr. Fahrenheit, Janjep Carlos traveled to South Africa. It included a trip to a psychiatric rehabilitation facility catering to impoverished communities.

Mr. Gay World 2019’s roster also includes Australia’s Rad Mitic, 36, business development manager; Nick Van Vooren, a 22-year-old polyvalent caregiver from Belgium; Botswana’s Oratile Victor Phofhedi, 26, chef and book author; Raphael dos Anjos, a 31-year-old Brazilian teacher and sign language interpreter; Canada’s Josh Rimer, 41, travel vlogger, show host and producer for national LGBT TV station OUTv; Carlos Navarro, a 30-year-old sexual diversity and gender equity activist from Chile; Costa Rica’s Marko Soto, a 25-year-old Greek immigrant, veterinary student and gay rights activist; Ismo Poutiainen, 35, hairdresser from Finland; Germany’s Marcel Danner, 30, marketing officer for an art house cinema group and crowd funding campaigner; Oliver Pusztai, gay rights activist and lifestyle blogger from Hungary; India’s Suresh Ramdas, a 37-year-old information technology executive; and Guilherme Souza, 25, writer for Gay Community News national monthly free gay magazine in Ireland.

Japan’s Tiger Shigetake, 21, multilingual gay rights activist, motivational speaker and international business student; Kaleb Omar, a 30-year-old international business graduate, professional model and sports coordinator from Mexico; Namibia’s Rivelino Reinecke, 21, gay rights activist and law student; Nick Francis, a 27-year-old Samoan immigrant who is an ambassador for New Zealand’s Aids Foundation; Panama’s Iann Carlos Jean, 25, entrepreneur; Jorge Seminario, 28, management officer for an international tourism company in Peru; South Africa’s Chris Emmanuel, a 42-year-old fitness buff and gym owner who champions the need for wider acceptance of the LGBT community; Francisco Alvarado, 29, physician from Spain; Taiwan’s Colin Lu, a 27-year-old health and fitness professional; Chayodhom Samibat, 35, personal trainer, chef and mixologist from Thailand; and Walter Moreno, a 24-year-old model and surfer for Venezuela’s national team.  

Filipinos can help Carlos win the Mister Gay World Internet Popularity special award to advance in the semifinal round, by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvgcps7X34Y and clicking the thumbs up button below the video; they can also register and cast their votes 10 times every 24 hours via https://mrgayworld.com/vote/ until 5:59 a.m. of May 4, Saturday (Manila time).

Mr. Gay World 2019 finals will be held at the Cape Town City Hall in Cape Town, South Africa, and will be streamed live via the organization’s official Facebook page and YouTube channel on May 5, Sunday, 1 a.m. (Manila time).

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#KaraniwangLGBT

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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#KaraniwangLGBT

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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#KaraniwangLGBT

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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