This is why we fight
Art by Neal P. Corpus
This is why we fight
Rey Valmores-Salinas (The Philippine Star) - July 24, 2020 - 12:00am

Women like me aren’t supposed to be visible.

Growing up in downtown Tacloban City, I knew from a young age that there was something wrong with how I was made to navigate the world. How I was forced to cut my hair short, to wear a polo and pants to school, to act, move, decide and behave a specific, blue-coded way.

And yet even in my earliest memories, I knew I was a woman.

For so many people like me, our childhoods have been spent repressing these kinds of thoughts. We spend most of our lives trying to fit into society’s expectations. I was no different.

Being born into a conservative family, I grew up creating a completely different version of myself that was more to the liking of my household. I forced myself into a “masculine” facade, because I knew that the alternative was being thrown out to a world where I couldn’t even yet tell up from down.

In grade school, I remember how my name wasn’t Rey — it was “bakla,” “bayot,” “bading,” “faggot.” I floated around quietly and aimlessly, searching for friendship amidst the daily agony of bullying and exclusion. Even my teachers, whom I thought were the people I could finally seek comfort in, would attempt to “help,” to psychoanalyze me, to “benevolently” speak to me after class and say: “Try mo mag-basketball, Rey, nang sa hindi ka na maging bakla!” (You should try playing basketball, Rey. That would cure you of your homosexuality!). School, which teachers callously dubbed my second home, was, in truth, my second hell.

After all, my first hell was at home. My father — a tycoon, politician, and a strongman — was the stereotype of hypermasculinity. He would often scold me for being charitable to homeless people, saying “a man shouldn’t be too soft.” In his worst moments, he was violent — especially when it came to my effeminacy. Whenever he caught me choosing Cinderella figurines over toy guns loaded with painful rubber pellets, I would face his fury at the edge of his leather belt. He was a wealthy capitalist. He owned numerous businesses that even I couldn’t list down. He was a mayor, with a faded trail of briberies and corruption behind him. It was too embarrassing for him to have to admit that his only child was a daughter all along.

It was in my college years at UP Diliman, finally away from home and in a comparatively less constricted space, that I began exploring who I was. It didn’t take long for me to come to terms with my truth: in my junior year, I decided to transition as a transgender woman.

But unlike many inspiring coming-out stories full of love and acceptance, breaking out of my shell was a tumultuous time in my life. When I began transitioning, because of my family’s furious rejection of my truth, I faced the very real threat of becoming homeless, abandoned, and even almost forced into prostitution to make ends meet. I eventually found solace in my mother — who, ever so slowly, though it was difficult at first, found it in herself to accept me — and in the few friends I have met along the way who helped keep me standing.

As queer folks, many of us understand that family isn’t born into, but chosen. And that was when I found (the LGBTQ+ activist organization) Bahaghari, and the national democratic movement.

Becoming a part of Bahaghari was a critical part of finding my voice. It was through Bahaghari that I learned I could organize and lead — just as much as anyone else. Over months of organizing, staging rallies and more, that little child who was too traumatized from abuse at home and exclusion at school to even recite in class… became a woman who, with her comrades, dared to speak truth to power, to lead protests and rouse the anger of fellow oppressed peoples, and to direct that anger into pushing for systemic change.

We in Bahaghari organized the Pride March of 2020 in Mendiola. Mendiola is a historic place, because it is where oppressed peoples come together to stage protests where our words bleed, word for word, into the ears of those in Malacañang. It was there that I saw for the first time how legitimate and peaceful assemblies are met with violence and police brutality by the state. For the first time, I experienced being illegally arrested by elements of the Manila Police District, who eagerly filed trumped-up charges against 20 of us, earning us the moniker “Pride 20.” We endured five days of violence: of maltreatment, sexual harassment, acts of lasciviousness, and various forms of torture from the Manila Police District. Violence that we will, of course, not let pass with impunity.

Alongside my chosen family and comrades, I will continue to fight, and I will continue to struggle. After all, that is what our experience as queer folks in a world as gruesome as this have sharpened us for: fighting, struggling, resisting, surviving. But if there is anything I have learned in all my years doing exactly these things, it is that we cannot simply fight, struggle, resist and survive for ourselves; we must learn to do so for the broad mass of oppressed peoples. As I have learned in my time as an organizer in Bahaghari, there is no Pride for some of us until there is liberation for all of us.

Through Bahaghari, I immersed myself in the plight of the masses. I found myself not only fighting for my own rights as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but in marching alongside other sectors in society who, like me, are exploited and “othered” by the same oppressive system. In fighting for the rights of farmers, workers, the urban poor, national minorities, and so many other marginalized groups, there comes the greater understanding that activism should not end with the mere acknowledgement that our struggles as LGBTQ+ collide with others’. Beyond recognition of intersection, we must elevate LGBTQ+ activism to a praxis of revolutionary unity: to liberation that includes the LGBTQ+ tilling fields, the LGBTQ+ within factories and working spaces, the indigenous LGBTQ+ whose ancestral lands are being bombed, and to the peasant- and working-class people in our society at large.

Against the backdrop of a patriarchal world, my transition as a transgender woman has been marked with the decision to raise my voice, lift my placard, and be one with the striking masses.

Only in doing so can we truly shatter our chains, and our closets.

* * *

For more information on Bahaghari, visit facebook.com/BahaghariLGBT and follow them on Instagram at @bahagharimm.official.

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