It was 2006. I was 12 years old, on my first visit to the Philippines. My mother took me to a hair salon in Cebu so they could run keratin through my hair. My hairdresser was transfemme, and to my 12-year-old-still-thinking-I-am-straight self, I thought nothing of it. As it turns out, despite her culturally Catholic upbringing, neither did my mother.
Twelve years later, my Filipino mother finds out I am queer. As often is the way, I am not the first one to tell her the news. She finds out from another relative who had stumbled upon this information online. Word quickly spread, I prepare myself for the conversation that ensues and the maternal ostrasication to follow. When we do talk the first thing she asks me is if I identify as a man or a woman. She tells me she has been going to fundraisers for transgender members of her community. The money raised goes towards those seeking surgery because the gender they were assigned at birth is not the gender they embody. I am not ready to tell my mother that sometimes I don’t know if that answer is neither or both, my effeminate demeanour dominating people’s public perceptions of my gender. I tell her I am bisexual, I have had a girlfriend, and I am currently in a relationship and I’d like her to meet my partner.
What I’m really not ready for is to discover that, despite all my millennial insight and understanding, my mother has possessed queer consciousness long before I knew that I wasn’t just watching Xena for the screenplay. You see, my mother is a nurse, and has attended numerous trainings to ensure that she knows all there is to know about queer inclusivity and understanding.
My mother asks about my pronouns, without me initiating that dialogue.
My mother asks about my pronouns, without me initiating that dialogue. She tells me that she goes to all those fundraisers because she recognises that transgender folk feel hurt in their heart, because their body isn’t embodying who they are inside and she wants to do something to help heal that pain.
I think back to my 12-year-old encounter with queerness. Today, unravelling my queerness is recognising the colonial perspectives that had me repressing parts of my identity in the first place. Being a queer person of colour, a third culture kid, and a child of diaspora, is about recognising things didn’t start with you.
After our conversation, I take the time to research the LGBTIQ+ history of the Philippines. Despite being one of the most Catholic countries in the world, the Philippines is the most accepting of queer communities in all of Asia. Prior to Spanish colonisation, the Philippines was a polytheist nation with stories and tradition being passed down by word of mouth. In Visayan mythology, they say that Libuan is the patron god of homosexuality. Lakapati the goddess of fertility and good harvest, is described as transgender, and androgynous and in pre-colonial Phillippines, people would offer her sacrifices before planting a new field. The Tansug people of the Philippines’ South believed in a third gender, women were born as men, the same spirit of people my mother attends fundraisers for to this day.
Despite being one of the most Catholic countries in the world, the Philippines is the most accepting of queer communities in all of Asia.
With the Spanish bringing Roman Catholicism to the Philippines in the 1500s, much of the queer acceptance within in Filipino mythology disappeared from the forefront of Filipino thinking. Being the most accepting country of queerness in Asia is much more a mark of tolerance rather than acceptance, with fights for rights and the right to simply exist continuing to be an ongoing battle.
I think of the time I tried to learn Visaya and how my mother would reply to me in Spanish, falling back on the colonial tradition she was taught to use. I think of just as how I seek to unpack the colonial nature of rejecting queerness, so too has my mother, with her unquestioning acceptance, education and advocacy.
That conversation we had about my sexuality is one of the deepest conversations we’ve ever had. She’s rarely been one to talk about things instead of showing her affection through our regular trips to Bunnings, parcels of food for me and my partner, and finding jeans that will fit my muscular, gym-built thighs. I’ve learnt that her love language is not in her words but in her acts of service. After shelving the latest collection of pot plants she’s provided, I stumble upon some old t-shirts she has turned into muscle tees, a small but symbolic gesture of her acceptance of my queer identity.
Perhaps for her, accepting my identity comes as fluidly as the gender of Bathala, whose stories described them as the intersex creator of the world. I had assumed my Filipino lineage was rooted in homophobia. On the contrary my roots, branch out much further back than I had thought about and my people in all their queerness, much like me, have always existed just as they are.
Charlotte Sareño is a freelance writer and producer of the Melanin Monologues: The Untold Stories of the South Asian Community at Melbourne Fringe Festival in September.