After Taiwan legalised same-sex marriage last year as the first country in Asia to do so, there have been many suggestions and debate about which country would follow next. Despite the powerful role of the Catholic Church with its conservative ideology around what constitutes love, sexuality and marriage in the Philippines, the island nation is at the same time seen as one of the most liberal and accepting countries in Asia-Pacific. While LGBTQ people are generally described as ‘tolerated’ in Filippino society, their situation remains a far cry from being ‘accepted’. After the new Filippino President Rodrigo Duterte dominated the news surrounding the country with his brutal ‘War on Drugs’, he caught many by surprise when he declared himself in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. While his comments gave hope to many members of the Filippino LGBTQ community, most remain sceptical after Duterte had previously opposed the issue, using it to attack liberal Western countries.
Across the South China Sea in China, the situation seems even more grim. While its large industrial, more modern metropolises give LGBTQ people some degree of anonimity and thus protection to live their lives as they wish. Yet Chinese society by and large remains conservative and strict, especially when it comes to family and marriage. What is regarded as a private and very much personal aspect of one’s life in many other countries, is used to heavy influence of both government and extended families. While Taiwan’s legalisation put the government in Beijing in a certain conundrum, as it insists that China should not have gay marriage yet that Taiwan is part of China, so ‘part of China’ indeed having same-sex marriage. Politically, the government remained strict on such issues and in many ways clamped down even stronger on queer culture, media and arts, such as by blocking gay-themed movies or TV series.
This interview intends to shed some light into how the realities of community, relationships as well as finding acceptance and happiness play out for affected people in both countries and what prospects and hopes for future improvement there are. Marco comes from the Philippines and has lived many years working in Mainland China. Jarvis was born in China and has travelled to the Philippines, where he could compare local culture with his experiences at home. Both have been in a relationship since they met in Guangdong Province.
How was it to grow up gay in the Philippines and China? Did you come out and did you feel accepted?
Marco: Growing up gay in a Catholic country that regards being gay as unacceptable was really quite hard. I often used to get teased and belittled by people solely because of my sexuality. During my time in high school my dad asked me whether I was a ‘guy’ or a ‘gay’. Since I did not answer, I got beaten up. All of these experiences contributed to the person that I am today and I feel like they made me stronger and braver in the long run. Until I graduated from high school I was the only LGBTQ student I knew around me. Even though most people at school were ‘ok’ with me being gay but I still got teased and made fun of regularly. The worst ridicule came from my school principal, yet still I did not let this mess up my life and I tried very hard to be a good person in general.
I never really ‘came out’ in the conventional sense since I very early showed signs of being gay and people just seemed to gather the information by themselves. Once I got into college I felt much more accepted in the new environment. I became more confident and felt proud of whom I was, especially because I did not let other people’s opinions influence me too much. I think the reality of sexual minorities in the Philippines is much more an issue of being acknowledged but not really accepted. I hope and feel like this situation will improve in the future as Filipino society becomes more tolerant and accepting.
Jarvis: I never gave much thought about being gay as a child, so for me growing up gay felt similar to what I imagine growing up like a straight boy to be. I never thought much of the future, since my family and school told me how I would get married when I grew up. As a result, it wasn’t really a struggle simply because I never struggled against any of it. After I came out, I was very grateful to the support of my siblings.
When and how did you meet other gay people and learn that you’re in fact not alone? Could you easily find more information on LGBTQ issues?
Marco: I mainly met other like-minded people online or at times also through mutual friends. I tried to inform myself online and feel like I learned a lot from other people’s stories and experiences.
Jarvis: At my school in China, I didn’t learn or hear anything about homosexuality, so in this environment I naturally never told any of my friends or classmates about what I felt as I thought that would make it easier for me. I only came out when I was 26 years old and for as long as I was in schools there were a lot of jokes about queer people and classmates would tease you if you weren’t straight-acting or ‘straight enough’, in whatever way the students would interpret this meaning.
How did your family react when you told them? Were they supportive?
Marco: I told them separately, one by one. I am closest with my sister, so I told her first. Actually, she was the only one that I actively told the truth myself, the others just asked me or told each other afterwards. I never spoke to my dad about it personally; I just assumed that someone would have told him. I am very grateful for my sibling’s support in particular as my parent’s acceptance and support would have been much harder without that I presume.
Jarvis: While it wasn’t easy at all for my mother to accept my identity, she ultimately came around after talking more with my siblings about the whole situation. But I never talked to my father about this and I don’t think I will. We don’t really talk much about personal issues. I still consider myself lucky though, since at least part of my family has been so supportive.
Did you find it difficult to find a boyfriend/relationship in China?
Jarvis: Yes, I think it was a little difficult, because not everyone is looking for a boyfriend. Many just want to have sex. Maybe you can meet someone through friends but most use the internet today. It does help meeting other gay people I think, to make your life easier but I don’t think the difference is that big. If society would be more open, it would definitely make it easier for gay people to live.
What was your experience with systemic discrimination in the Philippines and China?
Marco: Personally, I haven’t experienced such discrimination in terms of being gay in a work place. I guess nowadays people are more tolerant of diversification in the office thnan before. I guess it just so happens that the industry that I was working for in a long time (BPO industry) is more welcoming of gay people in general. I have yet to see in this new company that I am working for whether being gay would be an issue.
Jarvis: Luckily I have not experienced serious bullying or discrimination myself in China.
Can you tell me about your experiences dating in China and the Philippines?
Marco: Not much of a difference in terms of dating, the only thing would be the language barrier and cultural differences. Chinese men are more conservative in terms of dating [than Filipinos].
Jarvis: I’m not sure, because I have never dated a Chinese man, but there’s something different for sure, cultural differences I guess. Well I think Filipinos are more open and more accepting of the LGBT community in the Philippines. I don’t think there’s much of a reason why I never dated Chinese men, it just so happened.
What do you think about gay marriage in Taiwan and its future prospects in China and the Philippines?
Jarvis: I thought it’s nice for them but I don’t think it’s going to happen in China soon. People are still a bit conservative I guess, maybe with the next generation more people will be supportive of gay marriage. Actually it’s not really that important for me personally. But if it came to that, I guess I would move to another country in order to get get married in the future.
Marco: For China, it will be a long shot, as this country is very traditional and conservative. For the Philippines, I hope it will be in the talks soon as our President has been in favour of this lately and people are supporting it. Personally, I think that I rather doubt that gay marriage will happen anytime soon because of the church. But I hope in the future while I’m still alive that I can marry the person I am with now.
By Fabien Schuessler