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Struggling within the struggle: Being gay in Filipino activism

John Ryan Mendoza laments how non-LGBT activists continue to not pay as much attention to LGBT-related issues, with many even expressing anti-LGBT sentiments. He hopes for the time to come when the problem of homophobia is regarded as a peoples’ issue and not just the exclusive domain and burden of the LGBTQI community.

Photo by Mary Louise Dumas

I am a community-based health worker.  And I am gay.

My years of development work and activism in rural communities in Northern Mindanao have been challenging even before I came out as a gay man. Living and working with small farmers, fisherfolks, and lumads (non-Islamized indigenous peoples in Mindanao) always meant that I tone down how I express myself and to act “normally.”

The question “Minyo na ka dong (Are you married)?” has been a staple question in each community I have integrated in. Each family who adopted me always hoped that I will fancy a girl in their village, and wished that I fall in love and get married there. They can only wish.

I did (and still do) not fit the stereotype of how gay people are in rural communities in the provinces – the parlorista (parlor gay). I somehow evaded the discrimination that bayots (gays) and tomboys (lesbians) usually faced in these villages. Seeing how they were mocked and not treated like people pushed me further back in my closet. I was in that constant dilemma between being true to myself and losing the trust and respect of these communities that I work with.

There was never money in this work. I am only given enough to live on the most basic necessities. I stayed all these years, even as almost all of my nurse colleagues already went abroad, for the love to serve these people. But as a gay man, I started to become really unhappy.

I have become an ardent activist for health, land, and indigenous rights, and I always thought that my issues as part of a sexual minority group were not as important. For years, I learned to postpone my own problems to give way for all else that are deemed as more of a priority.

It was in 2011 when I attended an international activist conference with my farmer and lumad colleagues to provide them with technical support needed during the workshops. It was then when I felt my heart leap when the program listed a workshop for LGBTQI people. I decided to sacrifice my participation in the indigenous workshop to be where I have always longed to be.

It finally felt like a space to breathe. Activists who primarily work for other issues, such as migrant and indigenous issues, begged off their initial commitments to the other workshops just to be there. We were just a few out of the many we knew could have also been there, but the discussions were very revealing. LGBTQI issues have long been postponed so that among the ranks of activist organizations, only very few has done any to ever address them.

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At the plenary, where each workshop presented a report, members of the LGBTQI workshop stood up to represent our small number. But small our group may have been, we had a big message: We exist and have our own issues. I finally came out in front of hundreds of colleagues while Rev. Shaun, our Canadian priest friend, flashed a slide of a gruesome picture of young gay men hanged publicly in Iran.  A community doctor who I have worked with all these years came to me and just hugged me so tight. I tried hard to hold back my tears as I just felt so liberated and happy at that moment.

Photo by Ina Alleco R. Silverio / bulatlat.com

Photo by Ina Alleco R. Silverio / bulatlat.com

Now, I still work with these communities with a better sense of who I am. Yet I realized that coming out was just the first step of struggling within the people’s struggle.

Even among highly respected activists, homophobia still is very apparent. I had an argument with a prominent indigenous leader from the Cordillera who found it offensive to see two women kiss or hold hands in a Pride March organized by her colleagues. I argued how these simple expressions simply show that LGBTQI people are no different from everyone else, and simply challenge what most people think is normal.

A woman’s rights activist would discuss with us on how to correct her son’s effeminate behavior. An urban poor activist has also mentioned agreement in one of our meetings that eating chicken does make someone gay because of injected hormones. A labor union worker once mentioned that homosexuality is a Western import. Farmer activists would just innocently joke on other’s actions that are deemed weak, cowardly, or effeminate as “binayot” (gay-like). My fellow health worker told me she respects my decision to come out, though she still hopes that I marry a woman someday.

I cringe constantly at this display of unconscious bullying. For years, my issues have been considered as a bottom priority; and now, I still have to endure this homophobic culture within the ranks of people who fight for a common goal to change the dominant but deteriorating economic, political, and cultural system.

I am not alone in this observation as there are other activists who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender in the people’s movement who have experienced the same. We know in ourselves that the task to push for changes among our fellow activists is greatly upon our shoulders.

I know that education on the intersections of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE) issues with other economic, political, and cultural issues in the country is one step to raise better awareness among activists.

I just hope that we can find concrete ways to work toward the International League of People’s Struggles (ILPS) resolution that recognizes the role of the LGBTQI community as a potential potent force in the anti-imperialist formations and struggle, and the problem of homophobia is regarded as a peoples’ issue and not just the exclusive domain and burden of the LGBTQI community. I hope it wouldn’t end up to be just lip service.

The challenge to serve the people remains undaunted, and the desire to organize and mobilize the community I belong to continues to strengthen.

I still am a community based health worker. And I am gay.

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And yes, I am damn proud of it.

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