As of writing this blog post,
it’s been a year since I came out publicly. It’s been quite a year – one that’s opened my eyes to so many people and ideas, only to make me feel like I still know very little.
I often think about the innate need for all humans to feel accepted, by friends, my family, by society. While the fortunate ones have developed a thick skin and brushed off any need for external validation, most of us still care about what others think about us, and seek support and understanding.
Living in Manila means existing in an environment where who I love is not always supported. In my case, it might not be obvious discrimination that I confront on a daily basis, but it’s the little things that I notice. I’ve slowly become guarded in public, subconsciously avoiding eye contact when I’m out with my girlfriend in a way to shield myself from unsolicited judgement from onlookers. It’s the process of coming out time and time again, being subject to some pretty intrusive questions from those who may not have ill intentions, but nevertheless make me feel uncomfortable. It’s having to prove that my current or past relationships were valid. It’s being told that my identity is just a phase. For the first time, I was experiencing first hand what it means to live a life where your existence isn’t validated, accepted, or protected.
So, this past year was also a time where I was forced to examine the layers of privilege that I had taken for granted for most of my life. Despite my own struggles here and there, coming out as queer was, on the whole, relatively uneventful. My new identity didn’t affect my work or my friendships. The short period anxiety I experienced from media attention soon subsided, and for the larger part life continued as usual. Part of understanding my privilege was also recognizing that my experience is not representative of many others in the LGBTQ community. And part of understanding my role in this world is that I’m not always going to have the right answers, I’m not always going to say the right things, and I’m not always going to communicate them in the right way. But I have a duty learn and help those who aren’t as fortunate as I am.
I took my recent trip to Israel as an opportunity to do just that: to learn more about queer communities around the world. I wasn’t sure what to expect, leaving a predominantly Catholic country to visit a predominantly Jewish country. Whilst my image of Israel was mostly a place of history and religion, I had heard of Tel Aviv’s reputation for being “queer friendly”. What I didn’t expect, was to feel so strongly about how it feels to be in an environment where who I loved was a non-issue.
The overwhelming emotion I experienced while walking down the rainbow flag lined streets in Tel-Aviv was one of relief. As shallow as it might sound, the mere sight of the flags was a constant reminder that my identity was accepted and supported, not just tolerated or dismissed. I could finally let my guard down and walk around without the fear of judgement, aggression, or unsolicited advice.
The Tel-Aviv Gay Center, a restored Bauhaus building is a municipal establishment that houses community services for the local LGBTQ community, is the center of Meir Park and also happens to be the starting point of the pride march. On June 14th, I joined 250,000 people and walked from King George Street down to Gordon beach. The parade itself was a magnified experience of how I felt walking around rainbow covered Tel-Aviv. One of acceptance, one of understanding, one of community. Seeing families and young children made me particularly emotional, knowing that there were kids out there that could grow up embracing who they are without judgement from their parents or family. For better or for worse, this march felt more like a celebration and less like a protest.
Pride month aside, the reality is that it’s not all rainbows and butterflies for the for the LGBTQ community in Israel. I visited Beit Dror, a therapeutic emergency center for LGBTQ youth in Israel. They provide a safe space for adolescents who had left home by choice or had been forced out of institutions for their sexual orientation or identity. As well as providing food, shelter and psychological support, Beit Dror aims to find long term solutions for those at their shelter. The fact that these institutions are in great demand speaks volumes about the reality of what is really happening in what is often known as the most gay friendly city in the world.
Just 40 minutes away from Tel-Aviv lies Jerusalem. For all its beauty and history, I felt a sense of unease walking around the ultra-conservative city. Mindful that I was encroaching on their space and territory, I tried to minimize myself and the space I was taking up. Keeping in mind the conservative dress code, I covered up more than usual, but it didn’t stop me quite feeing out of place. Walking down the road holding my girlfriend’s hand was out of the question.
While touring the narrow cobbled streets of the ancient city, floating from pomegranate juice stand to a small vendor where I sampled the best hummus I’ve ever tasted, I couldn’t stop thinking about what life would be like as a queer person living in Jerusalem. Even in a country known to be queer friendly, it’s evident that there’s still so much work to be done.
That being said, I came back to the Philippines with hope that one day, I’ll see the streets of Manila full of 250,000 people marching for equality. That one day, government backed programs will cater to those who need protection. That the rights of the LGBTQ community will be protected in law, that people can love and exist freely as they are.