Erina Interviews Their Brother, Gene, on Coming Out.
by Erina & Gene Alejo
Erina: Ok Ugel [Gene’s childhood nickname]. When did you find out you were gay?
Gene: It was actually early on when I was three or four, with this constant pattern of my teleserye craze helping me build and establish my identity. I was three years old, watching Mula sa Puso (From The Heart), starring Claudine Barretto as Via. I related most to Via and crushed on the male lead, Gabriel, portrayed by Rico Yan. Back then, I was like, why did I like the guys? And at the same time, I identified with the female characters.
All of a sudden, Pangako Sa’yo (The Promise) aired starring Jean Garcia as Madam Claudia, the main antagonist. Jean’s character provided me strength and courage to be stronger as a person that’s different from everyone else—to dare to be different.
E: On a related note, I recall a time you used a Madam Claudia quote on those boys na hinampas mo with your lunch box sa Filipino Education Center. Can you share more about that?
G: Yeah, I used a hugot (punchline) used by Madam Claudia’s character!
[Laughs] I was like, “Mga walang hiya kayo! Kinukuha niyo ang laundry detergent ko!” (You are shameless! You’re taking away my laundry detergent!) And then hinampas ko silang lahat. (I hit them all). ‘Cause they were trying to take my things away, like my baon (lunch bag).
Back then, I didn’t know the proper ways to tackle bullying. I was constantly teased as a youth. I felt insecure around other boys back then because they were more masculine and athletic, in comparison to me who was the exact opposite. At tsaka nga, nung una, ayaw kong magsumbong. (At first, I didn’t want to snitch). Instinctively, I believed na kailangan kong labanin yung mga umaapi sa akin (I had to fight those who were oppressing me.)
E: Do you feel like those kids were homophobic?
G: Yeah. Very machismo (masculine). I found my elementary experience as very masculine, machismo and male-centric. I had more female friends back then, and to this day. It took about a decade for me until I turned 13 when I understood that I wanted to be romantically involved with men instead of women.
E: Did you have a male figure growing up?
G: I always looked to female figures. My only male figure was Lolo (Grandpa). And at the same time, Lolo was a bit homophobic, but regardless he loved and cared for me kasi nga apo niya ako (because I’m his grandson). While he wasn’t directly supportive, hindi niya ako pinigilan (he didn’t prevent from [coming out]); nobody did. While I kept thinking, “Bakit ako iba sa ibang tao?” (why am I different from others?), nakahugot ako ng lakas ng loob (I had a strong instinct) to be different and to be my true self from watching Filipino teleseryes, especially around and with Lolo who watched along with me!
E: Well, you know that mom and I already had an idea you were gay. Virgie [Erina’s best friend], helped me confirmed it, and then she and I came out to each other later in college. Look how we all turned out to be queer and gay [laughs]! You came out, much, much earlier, in high school. What was that process like?
G: It was hard. Paano ko ba sasabihin? (How would I say it) Hindi ko masabi, so pinakita ko na lang. Kasi, bakit ako mahihiya sa sarili ko? Eh ano, pamilya niyo ako eh, unless itapon niyo ako palabas ng bahay. (I couldn’t say it, so I showed it instead. Why would I be ashamed at myself? I am part of your family, unless you throw me out of the house.)
E: Do you remember how mom would approach being LGBTQ when you came out?
G: Oo, yung lifestyle choice daw (Yes, [my mom thought] it was a lifestyle choice), that’s what she had thought. I was like, paano magiging lifestyle choice yan? (Why would [being gay] be a lifestyle choice?) Hindi ba tungkol yan sa tunay na pagkatao? Kasi ang lifestyle choice is, kakain ka ng paleo—(A lifestyle choice is you eat paleo) you practice that for awhile, versus, ang pagiging becky or kafederasyon—yun ang tunay mong pagkatao (—is about your true identity).
G: Kafederasyon means you’re part of the queer community among the Filipino diaspora. Yun yung becky term doon (That’s a queer term [in the Philippines). So, kahit na walang direct na queer figure sa mainstream filipino media, humugot ako ng lakas ng loob sa mga female antagonists and protagonists. (Although there are no direct queer figures in mainstream Filipino media, I get the inner strength from female antagonists and protagonists.)
E: That’s true, and your high school had a lot of queer LGBTQ figures!
G: Sa SOTA (Ruth Asawa School of the Arts), mas nagkaroon ako ng ((At SOTA [Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, I encountered) real-life LGBTQ figures who were my teachers. Like si Mr. Wedge, bading din siya (Mr. Wedge is gay). Si Elliot, na initially lesbian tapos naging (Elliot who was initially a lesbian and transitioned as a) trans man, pero this doesn’t mean na kailangan niyang magpa-gender change (but it doesn’t mean they need to go under gender change).
E: And your SOTA classmates too, right?
G: Yeah. Like si MK na alumna ng American Idol. Doon ako mas nagkaroon ng ng loob na maging matatag sa sarili ko. Kasi hindi pala ako nag-iisa, versus nung nasa elementary ako. (MK, an alumna of American Idol. There, I had the courage to be strong for my self. I realized, I was not alone, compared to when I was in elementary school). I felt so isolated. I only had a few friends, pero hindi ko masabi kung ano ba talaga ako. ([at that time, I could not say who I really was.) Sino ba talaga ako? Pero doon sa SOTA, nagbukas ang malawak na pintuan. Meron din pala sa totoong buhay na ((Who am I? At SOTA, it opened a wide door [for me]. There are real life) queer folks aside from the characters I related to in my teleseryes.
E: It’s cool that you’re out and proud, and also in your community work. What’s that like?
G: Actually, since nasa San Francisco naman tayo, bakit ko itatago ang tunay ko na sarili? At the same time, regardlesss of religious views naman, sa ating mga Filipino, even though we are 80-90% catholic, tanggap natin ang LGBTQ presence. Hindi lang tinotolerate; it’s a part of life. Sila yung mga pang-alaga, magpakumbaba, and at the same time, yung level ng tiwala sa pakikitungo for example yung tumawag saakin kay Sister Gene na cliente, pero that shows na tanggap niya kung sino ako kasi natutulungan ko rin siya, sa kanilang pinagdadaanan. (Actually, since we are in San Francisco, why would I need to hide my true self? At the same time, regardless of religious views among Filipinos, even though we are 80-90% Catholic, we fully accept the LGBTQ presence. It’s not only about tolerance; it’s a part of life. They are caring, compassionate, and at the same time, the level of trust, for example from a client who calls me Sister Gene, shows that she accepts me because I help her with her [personal] struggles.)
E: Yeah you work with hella religious manangs (older women).
G: Yeah okay lang iyon (that’s fine).
E: Any final comments?
G: Masaya lang ako at nagpapasalamat ako sa pamilya ko na tanggap nila ako ng buong-buo, kahit yung mga pamilya ko doon sa Urrutia side. Sa Alejos, slowly, tinatanggap na nila ako. Kasi nga meron ding LGBTQ presence sa previous generations natin. At nagpapasalamat ako dito sa Amerika, mas malawak at hindi lang sa pagtanggap, pero din sa pakikitungo sa mga LGBTQ na folks. (I am happy and thankful to my family that they full accept me, even in the Urrutia side of my family. In the Alejo [side] they slowly accept me. It’s because there are LGBTQ presence in the previous generations [of our family]. I am also grateful here in America, [because] it’s more woke, not only with acceptance, but how they acknowledge LGBTQ folks.)
Erina Alejo is an artist, researcher, and educator. Sometimes writing, always taking photos and archiving, Alejo examines the affective, collective and ephemeral role of the city, family, and body in displacement and cultural memory. A San Francisco Arts Commission grantee, Alejo is creating works on the iconographic and transgenerational impact of their hometown, SOMA Pilipinas (San Francisco's Filipino Cultural Heritage District). // erinacalejo.com
Gene Alejo is a community organizer and historian and who co-facilitates SOMA Pilipinas Ethnotours with community elders and culture bearers like MC Canlas. // somapilipinas.org