‘Ang pamilya ay pagmamahalan, walang pinipiling gender’

Five LGBTQ+ families on what it means to build and raise a family in the Philippines.

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — This year, three countries ruled to legalize marriage equality. Ecuador, Taiwan, and Austria joined 26 other countries around the world that have moved to legally recognize marriages between same-sex couples. Yet in the Philippines, the Anti-Discrimination Bill, which should grant everyone the basic legal protection from Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE)-based discrimination, remains the longest running bill in the period of interpellations.

Still, there is no shortage of LGBTQ+ Filipino families here — from gay dads, lesbian moms, to trans parents, and nonbinary guardians. For Pride Month, CNN Philippines Life presents five stories of LGBTQ+ families to show that there is more to the meaning of family than the traditional concept of a mother, a father, and their children. Letting us into their homes, these families show us the challenges that are unique to the LGBTQ+ experience, and the joys of raising children as LGBTQ+ parents.

At its core, family is about love. “Ang pamilya ay pagmamahalan, pagtutulungan, walang pinipiling gender,” says gay father Edwin Quinsayas. “‘Yung pagpapamilya, pagmamahal talaga ‘yun. Pag-aaruga.”

Trans man Deejei Reyes, his wife Eunice Estrella, and their two-year-old son Jiggy. Photo by JL JAVIER

Trans parenting
Deejei Reyes, Eunice Estrella, and Aniel, Yano, and Jiggy

In a 2018 report by the United Nations Development Programme on how the law affects and protects transgender individuals in the Philippines, it states that “full recognition of the gender identity of transgender people remains elusive.”

Currently, there is no such thing as a gender recognition law in the country, and changing your gender marker on your birth certificate is often an impossible task. For many trans folks, this can lead to harassment and discrimination when it comes to renewing IDs, applying to government services, seeking employment, and traveling abroad.

For trans man Deejei Reyes, this absence in the law creates a disparity in his two-year-old son Jiggy’s documents. Deejei is listed as Jiggy’s “mother,” but at home, Jiggy recognizes him as his daddy, and sees Deejei’s wife, Eunice, as his mama.

“Ako ang daddy, at siya talaga ang mama niya. Kasi sobrang mas malapit [siya] sa kanya. As in talagang ‘pag tinignan niyo silang dalawang magkasama, nandiyan man ako or wala, iisipin niyo na nilabas niya ‘yung bata,” Deejei shares.

Aside from Jiggy, the couple is raising two children, nine-year-old Aniel and eight-year-old Yano, whom Eunice had in a previous relationship. Though they can’t marry, the pair refer to each other as “wifey” and “hubby.”

“We have kids, we are a family, so for us mas comfortable kami na tawagin ko siya na wife instead of girlfriend,” says Deejei. “Parang, okay, tatlo na ‘yung anak niyo tapos ‘girlfriend’ lang?”

Jiggy points to his ate and kuya in their family photo. Photo by JL JAVIER

Even before they met, both Deejei and Eunice have always longed to raise a family. As fate would have it, the two got to know each other through an online dating app and quickly fell in love. Eunice shares that it was discovering that Deejei was raising a son that drew her to him. For Deejei, part of it was also seeing how Eunice wholeheartedly accepted her son Yano when he revealed that he was transgender himself.

“Nung nagkakilala kami, nalaman ko na ganun nga si [Yano], tuwang-tuwa ako! Natuwa ako in the sense na, hindi dahil katulad ko siya, kung hindi dahil nakita ko na accepting [si Eunice] as a parent,” says Deejei.

“Kasi, nung panahon ko, hindi ganoon kadali na natanggap ng magulang ko kung ano ako,” he adds. “Kaya sabi ko, sobrang suwerte ng anak namin na hindi na siya mahihirapan mag-out sa pamilya kasi hindi na niya pagdadaanan ‘yun. Three years old pa lang siya, alam na niya kung ano siya, ang tingin niya sa sarili niya, at tinanggap siya ng buong angkan.”

Deejei says that he is happy to be there to guide Yano through the experience of growing up trans. When Yano gets older, Deejei hopes to be able to impart wisdom from his own experiences to help him navigate a world that might not be as accepting as their home.

“Ako ang daddy, at siya talaga ang mama niya," Deejei says about Jiggy. "Kasi sobrang mas malapit [siya] sa kanya. As in talagang ‘pag tinignan niyo silang dalawang magkasama, nandiyan man ako or wala, iisipin niyo na nilabas niya ‘yung bata.” Photo by JL JAVIER

“Ang pagdadaanan na lang niya ngayon is ‘yung challenge sa labas ng bahay. ‘Yung sa school, sa mga magiging kaibigan niya, sa mga makaka-relasyon niya in the future,” says Deejei. “Ang gusto kong ituro sa kanya ‘pag may isip na siya, is ... just be himself. Na kung ano talaga ‘yung tingin mo sa sarili mo, ‘wag kang mahihiya, express yourself kung paano mo nakikita ‘yung sarili mo. Huwag mong papansinin ‘yung mga nag-di-discriminate sa iyo.”

“As long as hindi ka nakakatapak ... ng ibang tao, okay lang ‘yun,” he adds.

Yano and Aniel study in Bicol, and although generally provincial environments are more traditional and conservative than the city, Eunice shares that Yano has not experienced discrimination from students or teachers. In fact, the school allows him to wear pants rather than a skirt.

When asked if the couple have any fears when it comes to raising a family like theirs, Deejei says that he worries their children will question why they’re so different, especially when they come face to face with bullies and bigots.

“Pero again, habang lumalaki sila, ang gusto namin is ipaintindi sa kanila na ganito tayo, ito kami, and gusto lang naming siguraduhin na lumaki sila ng punung-puno ng pagmamahal,” he says. “Kumbaga, pare-pareho lang tayo ng kinakain [ng ibang mga pamilya]. Gusto kong maintindihan nila na normal pa rin ‘yung buhay namin kahit na ganito ‘yung setup ng family namin because merong love within the family.”

“Pinapaintindi ko naman na normal naman talaga kami,” says Eunice. “Wala naman ‘yung porke’t ganyan si Yano, na iba na kami. Hindi. Pinapaintindi [ko sa kanila] na pare-pareho lang naman ang tao.”

Ida Ramos, Sandy Aloba, their son Liam, and their dogs Patsy and Junior. Photo by JL JAVIER

Moms and me
Sandy Aloba, Ida Ramos, and Liam

When Ida Ramos was working as a professional dancer in 2009, she was hoisted in the air and fell 36 feet after her harness broke. Around this time, she and her partner, Sandy Aloba, were finally ready to have kids. Everything was set, they had already found a potential sperm donor, then the accident happened. Suddenly, their priorities had to change.

Ida had broken several bones and had to endure a year-long recovery period. But this time didn’t just lead them to take a step back and reevaluate their lives, it also shone a light on the many legal barriers they would have to face as a same-sex couple.

Because marriage equality does not exist in the Philippines, LGBTQ+ couples cannot be recognized as each other’s legal spouses. This means that in the case of hospitalization, same-sex partners cannot give consent on medical decisions if the patient is incapacitated.

After each of Ida’s many surgeries, Sandy had to wait outside the recovery room until Ida’s mother arrived. She also couldn’t sign for anything for Ida or make decisions on her behalf, despite already having been together for 13 years at the time.

Luckily for the two, Ida’s family wholly accepts their relationship. Hence, Ida’s mother would consult with Sandy before signing anything. Some couples with less than tolerant parents would not have been as lucky.

Though the accident had altered their chances of having a biological child, Liam entered their lives just a year later. Liam’s birth mother, Ida’s cousin, was a teen mom, and Liam was being cared for by Ida’s grandmother. It was upon her insistence that the couple decided to raise Liam as their own.

“Her lola kept teasing us na kunin na namin si Liam … that he was born for us,” says Sandy, who shares that even when he was just a baby, she already felt a special connection. “We had a love affair from the beginning. When we would visit him on the weekends, kapag nag-a-eye contact na kami nito, meron kaming something.”

“So finally when he was two, we [said], ‘What are we waiting for?’”

The couple has been taking care of Liam since then, and has been very open with him about their "unconventional" situation, from the circumstances of his birth and care, to his mothers’ relationship.

When asked whether there are any unique challenges to raising Liam as two moms, Ida says, “[There’s] nothing special just because we're two moms.”

“We had a love affair from the beginning," says Sandy. "When we would visit him on the weekends, kapag nag-a-eye contact na kami nito, meron kaming something.” Photo by JL JAVIER

“I think, for us, we face the same challenges other parents do,” says Sandy. “Plus, we don't really [adhere to] these archaic gender stereotypes,” she adds.

“We did our best with him … to try not to teach him gender with toys, colors,” says Ida. “Kaya lang … ang lakas din ng pull ng [society]. So, he's gonna turn out the way he's gonna turn out.”

“[We wanted him to] not be afraid of femininity ... Like, there’s nothing wrong with liking pink and there's nothing wrong with trying to play with a doll, things like that,” says Sandy.

At the end of the day, the couple says that just like any other set of parents, they want Liam to learn the importance of respect.

Right now, Sandy and Ida are in the process of adopting him. However, the couple faces another legal challenge. Though Philippine adoption laws don’t disallow adopters on the basis of sexual orientation, same-sex parents cannot adopt jointly because they are not married. Instead, only one of them can apply as a solo parent.

In Liam’s eyes though, Sandy and Ida are both his mothers.

Tey Lopez, Edwin Quinsayas, and their five-year-old daughter Ania. Photo by JL JAVIER

It takes a village
Tey Lopez, Edwin Quinsayas, and Ania

There’s a saying that goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” For five-year-old Ania, she has a mama, a dads, a tatay, and a papa.

Tey Lopez and Edwin Quinsayas are Ania’s tatay and papa. The couple met in 2009 through friends and wed in an intimate, informal ceremony surrounded by loved ones the year after. Even before getting together, Tey had already wanted to be a father. But after three failed attempts, the couple had grown weary.

“[‘Yung third time], sobrang devastating nun sa amin, lalo na sa akin na longing for a kid for such a long time,” says Tey. “Talagang down kami for weeks noon.”

But three months later, Tey’s sister gave birth to Ania. At the time of her birth, Ania’s biological father was working in Mindanao. So Tey and Edwin offered to take care of her and her mother in the meantime. In those two months, Tey says they felt an instant connection with her.

“Lalo na sa akin kasi ‘yung biological father niya noon takot pa siyang hawakan kasi ang liit pa ni Ania,” says Tey. “So ako ‘yung unang lalaking humawak sa kanya. Tapos nung nahawakan ko siya, para siyang ngumiti.”

“May lukso ng dugo,” Edwin remarks.

“Doon ko ... na-realize na, ‘Anak ka namin,’” says Tey.

Tey says that in the first few years, there was no conscious understanding yet of how involved the couple would be in raising Ania. “Mas ‘yung talagang tito [kami]. Kapatid ko [‘yung mama niya], so i-su-support ko siya.”

“Pero habang lumalaki siya, dahil pareho silang nagtatrabaho, tapos mas flexible ‘yung oras namin, maraming times talaga na nasa amin si Ania,” says Tey. “So hanggang nag-grow na siya with us, tapos … biglang siya na rin mismo tinawag niya na akong tatay. Tinawag na niyang papa si Edwin. Tapos parang nagkaroon na ng shift sa dynamics ng relationship namin. Pati sa kapatid ko parang, okay, para na rin kaming magulang ni Ania.”

"[When Ania was born], nung nahawakan ko siya, para siyang ngumiti,” shares Tey Lopez. “Doon ko ... na-realize na, ‘Anak ka namin.’” Photo by JL JAVIER

The transition wasn’t always smooth, and the couple share that they went through a period of questioning the extent to which Ania’s biological parents and other relatives considered them her co-parents.

But Tey shares that nowadays, Ania’s parents fully recognize them as her tatay and papa. “Nung Father's Day binati ko... ‘yung bayaw ko ... Tapos bumati rin sila sa amin na ‘Happy Father's Day sa dalawa pang tatay ni Ania.’”

When asked how they helped Ania understand their set-up, Edwin explains: “Alam niyang kami ‘yung parents niya at pareho kaming lalaki. Pinapaliwanag namin na ganun talaga, na iba't-iba ‘yung situations. Sa situation niyo sa bahay, meron kang si mama at si dad, tapos pwede rin na ang magulang mo ay si tatay at si papa. Mahal ka ni dads, mahal ka ni mama, ganun din ‘yung pagmamahal sayo ni papa at saka ni tatay.”

The discussions also open up the concept of gender roles, which Tey says they try to unpack with her. Though they say that sometimes it becomes confusing for her, they also understand that she’s only five. Instead, they look to her actions.

"How she shows her love to us din, ibig sabihin nun [whether we’re gay or straight] doesn't matter,” says Tey. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Para sa akin, ‘yung response niya, ‘yun na ‘yung sagot. Kasi how she shows her love to us din, ibig sabihin nun [whether we’re gay or straight] doesn't matter,” says Tey. “Siguro may tanong siya dahil bata siya at nakikita niyang hindi [ito] ordinary set up, pero the fact na ‘pag kasama namin siya tapos tinatawag niya kaming tatay ... para sa amin enough na ‘yun na naiintidihan niya ‘yun.”

“Actually, minsan susunduin ko siya [sa school]. Sabi nung classmate niya, ‘Nandiyan na ‘yung tito mo.’ Tapos sabi ni Ania, ‘hindi ko siya tito, tatay ko siya. Meron akong tatlong tatay. Meron akong dads, may papa ako, at saka may tatay ako.’”

Tey and Edwin split their time with Ania with her biological parents, who have her on weekdays. The pair also contribute to financial matters like school tuition and ballet lessons. And as cultural workers and activists, Tey and Edwin are also raising Ania to be more exposed not only to more extra-curricular activities but to different social realities as well.

“‘Yung influence namin sa kanya, ‘yung pagsasayaw niya, ‘yung pagiging exposed niya sa iba't ibang mga activities, iba't-ibang tao, sa urban poor community man ‘yan or sa isang sosyalan na event, dinadala namin siya kung saan-saan ... Kaya talagang nag-grow na rin siya sa amin,” says Tey.

“Pati sa mga rallies kasama siya. Kahit five years old pa lang siya, talagang in-e-expose na rin namin siya sa mga social realities,” he says. “Kasi naniniwala kami na hindi pwedeng sabihin na, ‘bata pa yan.’ Para sa amin, bata yan, matalino yan. Kaya nga nila makaaral ng five languages diba? ‘Yun pa kayang makikita nila’ yung situation [sa iba't ibang communities]?”

Jhun Amado and his niece Jenny. Not pictured above: his aunt Tita Bening and niece, Duday. Photo by JL JAVIER

Of faith and fatherhood
Jhun Amado, Jenny, Duday, and Tita Bening

Once you enter 50-year-old Jhun Amado’s home, you will immediately notice the altar taking up a large portion of the living area. A large statue of the Virgin Mary stands at the center next to other religious figures and family photos. Yet even though Jhun and his family are Catholic, he also attends a Christian church called Open Table Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). The church is known as one of the few in the Philippines that has a “specific outreach to LGBTQ+ families and communities.” MCCs pastor is openly gay. As an active member of both congregations, Jhun sings in the choir of his church in Sta. Mesa on Sunday mornings (he has been doing so since 1991), and attends Sunday service at MCC in the afternoon.

In spite of this strong conviction to his faith, Jhun supports the call for marriage equality, saying, “Oo naman, agree ako sa [same-sex] marriage kung nagmamahalan naman.”

But the single 50-year old says that he has no time for dating or long-term boyfriends, as his focus is on taking care of his family. Jhun looks after his 84-year-old aunt Tita Bening, as well as his two nieces, 21-year-old Jenny and 17-year-old Duday. Before his parents and two aunts passed away, he was taking care of them as well.

“Sa ngayon talaga, wala pa sa isip ko ‘yung ganun,” he says. “Basta mas priority ko ‘yung family ko.”

Even though Jhun and his family are Catholic, he also attends a Christian church called Open Table Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). The church is known as one of the few in the Philippines that has a “specific outreach to LGBTQ+ families and communities.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Both nieces were placed in Jhun’s care at a young age. Duday was only a baby when Jhun took her in as her mother was very young when she had her, while Jenny was 10 years old when she started living with them. Jhun serves as a father figure to the two — Duday refers to him as “Papa” — but he is also reluctant to call himself their father.

“‘Di naman totally na ama [ako nila], parang naging ama na lang rin ako kasi naging responsibilidad ko sila,” Jhun says.

Jhun says that because he spends most of his time working, being the sole breadwinner of his family, he feels that his biggest contribution to his nieces are financial. “Sa tuition, sa mga baon, ganun,” he says. “Pero ‘yung advice hindi masyado, kasi usually gabi na ko nakakauwi.”

Though their set-up is different, and the hardships of life get in the way of bonding, there is respect and love, perhaps best said with small gestures rather than words.

“Naiintindihan nila ‘yung sitwasyon … Actually proud nga sila sa akin,” he says. “Minsan na-su-surprise nga nila ako, binibigyan nila ako ng cake.”

Drag Cartel's founders Paulo Castro, Peabo Orilla and Mike Lavarez, together with a few of their past winners, drag queens ØV Cunt, Luka, and Aries Night. Photo by JL JAVIER

Queer people get to choose their families
Poison Wednesday’s Drag Cartel

Over the last couple of years, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has become a cultural phenomenon, catapulting the art of drag outside of nightclubs and into the mainstream. And though the prominent images of drag today are glamorous outfits, jaw-dropping performances, and a high stakes competition, the evolution of drag stemmed from a need for a place where one could express oneself and challenge gender norms without reproach, judgment, or discrimination.

For party group Panty Monsters, which has been hosting queer-inclusive parties for the past 10 years, their formation came from a similar place.

“At that time, establishments wouldn't let gay men who dress flamboyantly inside [clubs], especially not our trans sisters, specifically our trans sister Xtina Superstar,” says member Paulo Castro. “It was the reason that we started doing parties. Para if we were excluded from the bigger clubs, we could create our own party and be inclusive for our community.”

Panty Monsters parties became a haven for young queer people who wanted to have a fun night out in a place that felt safe and accepting. Guests were encouraged to come as they are, and would show up in all kinds of garb, including drag.

Fast forward to today, and a trio from Panty Monsters — DJ Mike Lavarez, emcee Peabo Orilla, and Castro, who is the host and promoter — is now hosting Nectar nightclub’s weekly gay party, Posion Wednesdays, where they hold an amateur drag competition called Drag Cartel every last wednesday of the month. With Drag Cartel, amateur and aspiring drag performers have not only a venue to showcase and hone their talents, but a place to find one’s “chosen family.”

“There have been friendships formed there na because of the party. And I think there's really this sense of family in the party that we do, kasi we were all outcasts ourselves,” says Castro.

With Drag Cartel, amateur and aspiring drag performers have not only a venue to showcase and hone their talents, but a place to find one’s “chosen family.” Photo by JL JAVIER

For Drag Cartel queen ØV Cunt, who also performs at Nectar as a Nectarine, the people she has met and worked with at the club are “basically my brothers and sisters.”

ØV’s biological family knows and accepts that they are gay, but aren’t aware they do drag. “It’s not every time that … [biological] family accepts [everything about] who you are, and sometimes, your chosen family gives you the love, the care na hinahanap mo,” she says. “Hindi naman sa pagkukulang ng totoo kong pamilya, pero ‘yung [may] hinahanap ka sa kanila na [understanding].”

“[My drag family] gives me the strength, the happiness that sometimes I need, especially with depression, anxiety, all the psychological things that break people down,” she says. “Sometimes they're even the first person na lalapitan mo kung may problema ka.”

Drag queen Luka shares that the Drag Cartel queens also help each other out by pointing out ways they can improve as performers, offering advice and even dresses and wigs for their next performances. “I appreciate that [about the other queens],” says Luka. “That [there are] moments where they want you to improve your craft.”

You could say that Poison Wednesdays is an extension of that safe space Panty Monsters carved out — one that queer folk can keep coming back to to make friends and gain a community that will have your back in the face of stigma and discrimination.

"So many of kids [who attend Poison Wednesdays parties] are not accepted, not just in their families, they grew up just not being accepted everywhere,” says Paulo Castro. "You'll find a lot of people in the queer community say, ‘I just want to be the adult that I needed when I was growing up." Photo by JL JAVIER

“We also talk about things like activism, HIV, mental health in the middle of the party. Even politics,” says Lavarez. “That's the type of community that we have. Hindi lang siya fun-fun. We also want to educate.”

Castro shares that during bathroom breaks, younger guests would often come up to him to confide about personal problems such as not being able to come out to their families and being HIV positive. “Every week someone would talk to you like that,” he says.

“I believe that that's the importance of queer people finding and creating their own families. Kasi so many of these kids are not accepted, not just in their families, they grew up just not being accepted everywhere,” says Castro.

“Like being bullied in school, I was beaten by my father, the adults when I was growing up didn't listen to me. So you'll find a lot of people in the queer community say, ‘I just want to be the adult that I needed when I was growing up. I want to love and take care of kids the way that I wasn't nurtured and taken care of when I was younger.’”

Drag queen Aries Night puts it best: “I learned this quote from ‘Drag Race’ actually. RuPaul said, ‘We as gay people get to choose our family and the people we’re around. I am your family. We are a family here.’ At the end of the day, we’re a community, at tayo-tayo lang din eh.”

Produced by CHANG CASAL
Photos by JL JAVIER