We Filipinos do this thing when we greet our elder relatives. We take one of their hands into ours, slightly bow and press our forehead against the back of their hand. This is what we call "blessing" our elders, and it's a sign of respect -- a tradition -- that I grew up with.
You see, I always explain that Filipinos are the Italians of Asia. We have large, Catholic families, we love our food, and we literally "yell" at each other when we're just five inches away, which constitutes a normal conversation.
My father has seven siblings. My mother has five. Between all of them, I have well over 40 first cousins. My sister and I are the only cousins on my mother's side to have been born and raised in the U.S., but most of my cousins on my father's side grew up with me in the suburbs of Detroit, as first-generation Filipino Americans. Needless to say, Filipinos have very close, tight-knit families, and mine is no exception.
(Consider all that fair warning if you meet a Filipino!)
I knew I was gay around puberty; before that, I never really felt different in that regard, but as a person of color, I most certainly felt different for most of my adolescent years.
First things first. My name -- my real, full name -- is Reynaldo Aquino Tungol Jr. (That's Ray-Nahl-Dough Ah-Key-Noh Tongue-Goal June-Your. Nice to meet you!) Hence, I go by JR. I grew up somewhat embarrassed by my name, which I inherited from my father. Kids would snicker and make jokes, like asking, "Where's Reynaldo?" when my name was called out during attendance, and they would challenge my being Filipino: "Wait, you're not Chinese? Japanese? What's Filipino? Is that, like, Hawaiian? Mexican? What is that?" Or, "What kind of Asian name is that?" Ugh.
Can you imagine? As an impressionable, sensitive kid, I interpreted that as, "What are you?" as if there were something wrong with me. That hurt. I eventually just started telling people that I'm Chinese, because that's apparently the only country that exists in all of Asia, and I guess I should be, right!?
My Filipino identity and upbringing were all I knew, yet my peers couldn't relate. I realized that my world of eating rice three times a day (insert Asian joke here), hearing languages other than English at home, having my Lola (grandmother) live with us and blessing my elders were not a part of my friends' worlds.
But despite those feelings, my parents assured me that there was nothing to be ashamed about. They constantly told me that, sure, we are not like other families. We have different values because of our culture. I learned to be proud of that. But they also stressed, "You will not disobey us, and you will respect what your parents have sacrificed to give you what you have." That was the message engrained in my head.
When I hit puberty, my homosexuality was something I could not let slip. I did not want to disappoint my traditional Filipino parents, and in that vein, I grew angry toward them and thought that they would never understand my feelings and what I was going through.
So I basically rejected them. I ignored anything that had to do with being Filipino. I loathed family get-togethers, Filipino events and anything that had to deal with the community, because I thought that like my parents, Filipinos -- whom I constantly heard mocking gay people, calling them "bakla," which can be interpreted as "faggot" -- couldn't possibly fathom what it actually means to be gay.
I spent about 10 years, from around age 13 to when I came out to my parents at 22, discovering and cultivating my gay pride. That became my priority, and my culture was put on the back burner. Although I wasn't out and proud, I was internally out and proud, and that's all I needed and all that mattered. I read every gay news outlet out there, which made me feel that I was not alone and that I was part of the greater LGBT community. I especially cherished all the coming-out stories that resulted in acceptance and love. I'd well up, let go and cry, and ultimately I'd ponder whether I too could have the strength to tell my parents that I'm gay. I'd fantasize that my story could one day be told.
So when I was 20 or 21, with only a few friends who knew I'm gay, I started going out into "the scene," if you will, and ultimately dating and hooking up. My gosh, I felt like I needed some sort of gay manual. Has anyone written that yet? The Baby Gay Manual: Things A Gayby Should Know About Being Gay.
As I became more comfortable with the scene, I started feeling like an outsider again. I'd look around the bars, chat with guys online and on Grindr, and notice that many of the men were white. Well, that's fine, I'd think at first. I love my white boys (and everyone else!), but jeez, where's all the diversity? I then consciously started paying attention to what openly LGBT people, specifically out gay men, looked like everywhere else -- on television, in business and politics, in the stories I'd read, in porn, you name it -- and I found that the majority of them were white. Even in the big metropolitan areas where I've lived -- Detroit, Chicago and New York -- racial divisions in the gay community are apparent. There are separate black Pride events, and I even know the spots and 'hoods to go to if I want to chill with the black and Latino gay men. If you look, you'll see the lines. I was disheartened by all this.
But what hurt the most, and what was even more disheartening, was the rejection. As much as I love myself and who I am, I can't even begin to tell you how many times men weren't interested in me because of their racial hangups. 'K, go fuck yourself, you dumbass bitch! I'd think. (Sorry for being so crass! I have a tendency to get carried away with profanity. Filipinos are the most emotional people on Earth, FYI.) We've all heard and seen it before in our community. "No Asians!" "No black guys!" and the like. But those instances when my race was brought up as an issue made me feel like utter shit. I mean, come on, guys. I get racial preferences and all, but that's just mean. Once again, my ethnicity left me feeling different.
I hate the fact that because I am Asian, because I am Filipino, and because of my race, even within the gay community, which I spent years wanting to be a part of, I feel rejected and, at times, invisible and underrepresented.
The gay culture that we predominantly see in mainstream media is white and is not an entirely accurate representation of all our experiences. As much as I love Neil Patrick Harris and Anderson Cooper, I can't fully identify with them because, yes, they don't look like me.
I've had numerous open and honest discussions with gay male friends of all colors, including my lovely white friends, and I am not afraid to proclaim that I think it's much easier being gay if you're white.
In no way do I wish to come off as whiny; I only wish to open a healthy dialogue about issues that many gay men of color identify with when it comes to the greater LGBT community. It's called intersectionality, a term that refers to intersections between minority groups, like racial and sexual minorities, and it's a subject that I am extremely passionate about.
Last month I read a poignant piece by HuffPost blogger Todd Clayton, "Gay Will Never Be the New Black: What James Baldwin Taught Me About My White Privilege," and it really struck a chord with me. I absolutely loved the piece and its message, but what had me jumping up and down and running into the walls was the fact that Clayton himself is a gay white guy. He thoughtfully wrote, "Baldwin, more than anyone else, taught me that although I am gay, I am white, and that being white always involves persistent privilege that must be recognized and accounted for. ... Mainstream gay culture privileges the white narrative, and it does so at the expense of its own legitimacy."
I thought, Here's someone who gets it, a gay white guy who's evolved enough to recognize that there is another layer, another dimension of complexity, when it comes to being a person of color in the LGBT community; that although there is all this wonderful progress in gay rights and visibility in the U.S., racial minority groups and immigrant families are still catching up, trying to understand what being LGBT means; and that we do exist; being LGBT is not a "Western, white phenomenon."
So, over time, I've learned that my culture and sexual orientation are not mutually exclusive. They both are the very essence of who I am. I was kidding myself by thinking that if I were out, my life would be so much better. It has been, of course, but I forgot where I came from, something my parents would never want.
When I eventually came out to my parents at 22, I was not only seeking their love and acceptance; I was seeking reconciliation. When they told me that they love me for who I am, for being gay, I took that as an implicit message that being Filipino and being gay do work together, and that I should be proud to be both!
Cheers, Mom and Dad! You have a proud gay Filipino son, and I can assure you that your future grandkids will be blessing the shit out of you!