Queer and always queering: The resilience of LGBTIA+ Filipino-Australians
Adolfo Aranjuez was 15 when he moved to Melbourne, Australia from the Philippines in 2003 with his older sister. As a child growing up in upper-middle-class Manila, Adolfo remembers developing an interest in cooking and sewing, taking up dance and cheerleading at school instead of more traditionally male-centric interests. As he entered adolescence, conversations started to revolve around masculinity and becoming a man.
Without the direct influence of his parents, he forged his own way of thinking and behaving, borrowing aspects from both his old and new cultures. As someone who has “always been unashamedly progressive and ambitious” Adolfo says he was able to detach from some of the traditional aspects of Filipino culture, “particularly obedience, shame and indebtedness.”
Interwoven here is the complex dynamic between the physical space and culture of the Philippines and Australia, and the personal notion of sexuality, ultimately informing the queer experience. However, to what degree do the practices of their predecessors pervade the identities of queer Filipino-Australians?
Adolfo, editor of Metro Magazine, admits things would be undoubtedly different had he continued living queer in the Philippines, where 80 per cent of the population are Catholic,, revealing he would be “much more repressed and rigid, less willing to take risks.”
His personal response challenges the fact Philippines rank as the “most accepting” Asian country of same-sex relationships, according to the 2013 Pew Research study on the Global Divide on Homosexuality. The study claimed 73 per cent of FIlipinos surveyed responded positively to the issue – just behind Australia, ahead at 79 per cent.
The sentiment, however, held by many members of the Filipino LGBTIQ+ community surrounding their country’s prestigious title of progressiveness is one of unified disseverance. ‘Tolerated, not accepted’ is the mantra commonly used to discuss the treatment of sexual and gender diverse individuals in the Philippines.
“Pero ito, kahit ikakamatay ko, hindi ko kukusintihin na maging Jake Zyrus,” said Tess Relico, in a message to her grandchild. Loosely translated from Tagalog to English, she warned, “But even if it kills me, I won’t accept this Jake Zyrus.”
This publicly heeded warning followed after the global Filipino Superstar posted his first tweet using his new name – changed from Charice Pempengco. The exchange paints a large picture of the cultural and social attitudes towards the LGBITQ+ Filipinos, who are more likely subject to violence, institutional discrimination and lack of educational and medical resources.
Like the Philippines, Australia has a long way to go in creating a fair and equal environment for the queer community. Despite same-sex marriage still being unlawful there has been significant changes made in the last decade. This includes the legalisation for same-sex couples to adopt (bar within Northern Territory) and the overturn of the gay panic defence (except in South Australia). Additionally, ACT and South Australia allow for transgender people to change the sex listed on their birth certificate without medical intervention.
21 year-old, Divina Blanca from Sydney’s south-west describes herself as an incredibly proud queer Filipino-Australian. For her, this identity “means being attached to Filipino culture while revelling the safety of the Australian community.”
The Australian Institute of Family Studies denotes that “first-generation Filipino settlers carry with them strong values and beliefs which determine to a large extent the way they think and behave in their new environment,” framing the way an individual should act.
Divina came out when she was 19, leading to a confused response from her family who had trouble understanding her sexuality and gender expression.
Some older members of her family “felt that coming out as a lesbian meant coming out as transgender” and thought “queer women must be masculine,” a label she didn’t embody at the time. This confusion delineates from the stringent views on gender, understood in the Philippines as solely biologically-based – a concept brought over during the process of Spanish colonisation in the 16th Century along with the relentless influence of Christianity. Before then, gender non-conforming members of society were known as ‘Babylan’ and were respected spiritual leaders.