What It's Like To Be A Gay Woman In A Conservative Asian Country

being a lesbian in an asian country, LGBTQ in conservative asian countries, being gay in asia, life as a gay woman in asia, life as a gay woman in a conservative country

Being gay isn’t easy. It becomes even more difficult when you live in a conservative country. I was born and raised in Manila but studied high school and some college in the United States. Since moving back to my homeland, I had to get used to being a social anomaly in a traditional South East Asian society.

1. I’m Tolerated but Not Accepted

Tolerance and acceptance are not the same. There’s a huge difference between them. Despite living in one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world, there is no such thing as complete acceptance. I’d argue that “Gay-friendly” is a huge misnomer. This supposed friendship is superficial. Philippine society tolerates gay people who live by established stereotypes (we’ll talk more about stereotypes a little later). If you don’t fit into these stereotypes, you’ll either be forced into it or be told to just stay in the closet.

2. I’m Expected to Conform to a Certain Acceptable Stereotype

I’ve been told many times by both straight and gay people I’m not gay because I don’t look gay. Umm…what exactly does a gay woman look like, anyway? Filipinos expect lesbians to be butch, pudgy, like sports (particularly basketball), probably works as a security guard, and enjoy drinking San Miguel Pale Pilsen beer. Just to make it clear- I love my butch lezzie sisters. There’s nothing wrong with being big-boned and having a masculine appearance, but this aesthetic does not represent all lesbians.
Yes, I know I don’t fit the stereotype of what a typical Filipino lesbian should look like. I’m a femme. I’m a hard femme, which is already a difficult concept for most Westerners to grasp, let alone uber-religious conservative Philippine society. My odd blend of both feminine and masculine qualities leaves most people scratching their heads. There have been many times I’ve been asked absurd questions that a lesbian with clearly defined gender roles will never have to deal with. “If you’re really a lesbian, why are you wearing makeup? Lesbians don’t wear makeup!” “But you don’t look like (insert name of butch lesbian celebrity here)?” “No! You can’t be a lesbian?! You’re slim, fair, and pretty. Lesbians are fugly.” Unfortunately, the last comment is the most common reaction I get from men.

3. The Amount of Religious Bigotry is Suffocating

The Philippines is still a largely conservative Catholic country. Anything that taints Christian values is considered unnatural, sinful, and in more extreme cases, called satanic. I went to a prestigious Catholic girls’ school for ten years, where I learned that I must suppress my homosexual tendencies, lest be punished by the Lord. By the time I turned ten years old, I was convinced God hated me because I had a huge crush on my classmate. I still hear the bigotry all the time. “Homosexuality is a sin!” “You’re a freak of nature!” “Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember, Sodom and Gomorrah!” I hate self-righteous religious moralist. They find what they want in the scriptures and use it to justify their toxic hatred. People who use the Bible to offend, belittle, name-call, attack, suppress, and malign others are just as bad as the people they accuse wickedness of.

4. Two Women Can Hold Hands in Public. Gay Men Can’t

Oddly enough, it’s socially acceptable for two women to hold hands and even hug romantically in public. I’m fortunate to hold my date’s hand whenever we go out, but my gay male friend doesn’t have the same privilege. Gay men will draw so much flak for doing anything seemingly “sweet”. Proof: I once saw two gay men happily holding hands while strolling in a mall. I saw my father, a quasi-liberal man, grimace. If they were women, I doubt he’d have the same reaction.

More proof: Years ago, a billboard ad for a popular local clothing company featured two men holding hands. The ad is a picture of a real-life celebrity couple, Vince Uy and Ninno Gaddi. They weren’t even kissing in the picture, but the hands were mysteriously painted over (more accurately, vandalized) with black paint. To top it all off, rants from self-righteous religious homophobes flooded Facebook.

5. I Have No Legal Protection Against Discrimination

There’s no law that protects LGBTQs from hostility and discrimination. I can be denied of services, accommodation, and enrollment by establishments, and they’d cite their internal policy or religious freedom for doing so. Because I look femme, I don’t experience much discrimination compared to more masculine-representing queer women. However, I have experienced being denied service in barber shops because I’m a woman despite me having shorter hair than some men in thereTraditionally male-dominated businesses such as barber shops and car auto repair shops rejecting or overcharging services to women and LGBTQs is a huge problem all over the world.

Many countries have laws that protect marginalized people from discrimination, so why can’t we? An Anti-Discrimination Bill still lays dormant in the halls of a largely homophobic Senate. When I’m in London, a barber shop runs the risk of breaking the Equality Act law if they discriminate against me on the grounds of my gender. Here in Manila, I’m told to “Shut up and deal with it!”

6. Many LGBTQs Stay in the Closet

In a country where homophobes abound, coming out can be a traumatic experience. Many LGBTQ people stay in the closet for fear of both social and professional ostracization. When you come out, family and friends will treat differently you. You get misunderstood. You could lose friends. Your co-workers might question your job competence (this is more of an issue for gay men). Worse, you could get fired from your job.

7. Dating and Maintaining a Healthy Relationship Is a Struggle

This homophobic culture makes dating and relationships difficult. Do you know how hard it is to date someone who’s still in the closet? It’s a nightmare! Every date is riddled with fear and anxiety. She’d be too scared to go to popular restaurants for fear of being seen. She’ll insist on going to places she knows none of her friends would be. Ad infinitum. Dating someone in the closet is bound to fail. Dating NearQueers is the most frustrating of all. They’re stuck in denial and pass themselves off as being bisexual, bi-curious, or even “straight with a pinch of bi”.

Heteroflexibility can be a turnoff when a person solely uses the label to distance themselves from the stigma associated with LGBTQs.  I know a lot of gay women who refuse to call themselves lesbian despite being in a lesbian relationship for years. I’ve met queer women who reluctantly married men just to make their families happy. These same queer women will eventually take on female lovers or mistresses within a few months after the marriage. I know a handful of gays in lavender marriages or in long-term lavender relationships.

8. Most People are Ignorant of Gender Issues and they Refuse to Learn

I won’t sugarcoat it- Filipinos don’t give a damn about gender issues. The term LGBTQ is unfamiliar to most people and they refuse to learn about it. Why should they? There are more important issues to deal with like poverty, malnutrition, and widespread corruption, right? Wrong! We need to talk about gender issues. Many people don’t realize that local gender issues contribute to a country’s socio-political landscape. By discussing topics like how gender roles affect people negatively and the economic disadvantages of gender minorities such as women and members of the LGBTQ community, we can create solutions to help solve not only gender inequality but also economic inequality.

9. We Probably Have the Most Heterosexist Law in the World

The Philippine Constitution has this extremely infuriating portion in our civil code: The Family Code of the PhilippinesThe Family Code starts off by stating… “Marriage is a special contract of permanent union between a man and a woman entered into in accordance with law for the establishment of conjugal and family life.” -Executive Order No. 209, The Family Code of the Philippines (6 July 1987), Article 1

It even has a section detailing the legal obligations between husband and wife: “The husband and wife are obliged to live together, observe mutual love, respect, and fidelity, and render mutual help and support.”
-Executive Order No. 209, The Family Code of the Philippines (6 July 1987), Article 68

The Family Code has been a source of plight and frustration for millions of unhappy Filipino couples since the law makes divorce unconstitutional. The Philippines is among the only two countries in the world where divorce is illegal. It’s also the reason legalizing gay marriage is almost impossible here. Even the possibility of legal partnerships seems like a stretch. We’d need to have a major referendum to re-haul our Constitution if divorce, gay marriage, and civil partnership is to be made legal.

10. My Family Doesn’t Support Gay Marriage but Says They Want Me to Be Happy

I’ve had a long heated discussion with my parents months ago about gay marriage. Things didn’t end well, and I stormed out of the room fuming. What I couldn’t understand was their half-hearted support for me, their only child! Despite having a gay daughter, my parents are devout Catholics who are staunch anti-gay marriage supporters. I shouldn’t be surprised. Many families who accept their gay children do so unenthusiastically. The infamous “Love the sinner, hate the sin” banner is the churches go-to advice to parents of gay kids. It may be comforting to hear that they love us gay folk, but the truth is people spite anything remotely homosexual. 
I’m a realist. With the way things are, I know gay marriage will never be legalized here. Same-sex marriage is still taboo. I know it’s stupid, but I still dream of finding my princess charming and marrying her one day. My parents may take pleasure in knowing I could never marry the woman I love but I’ll be f**cking miserable. If my family genuinely wants me to be happy, they’d be open to the idea that love can exist between two women or two men.

Written by Catherine Tabuena


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