Coming out as gay to my family in the wake of my 33rd birthday was easy. But the last twenty years that led me to that self-defining moment were definitely not.
I was born into an ultra-religious family, which by definition and practice, means I have a father who is a pastor, and a mother who is a deaconess at church. I, and my siblings, were practically raised in Sunday schools and grew up studying Bible stories and memorizing Bible verses. This also means having to grow up in an environment–which I could only describe now as a very harsh one–that practically tells a young boy full of dreams and hopes– who happens to be gay–that he is destined to burn in hell for all eternity.
Though uncertain at which specific age this mystery of gayness started, I can still very well remember having to walk home from my kindergarten school being laughed at and called names by construction workers from a nearby lot for, I think, something about the way I walked.
I can also very well remember being accompanied by my lolo to the straight man’s barbero to have my usual gupit binata ‘do, but then having to beg him after to buy me one of those cheap replicas of Barbie dolls spread and sold by vendors on the sidewalk, or watching Sailormoon with so much glee, playing the Pink Ranger Kimberly every time I played physical games with other boys on the street, or sometimes spending afternoons in elaborate luto-lutuan or a fine tea time with the girls on the street corner.
But perhaps my awakening to the sad and often violent reality of growing up gay is when I was literally told–no, actually warned–by my mother to never again “act” gay after she caught me wearing one of my sister’s dresses when I was about five or six. “Bubugbugin ka ng Papa mo,” she said.
To be fair, she might have said that out of concern, knowing that my father is the disciplinarian, one who does not think twice when he hit his children with a leather belt, wooden stick, or even the classic slipper. This, plus a number of sexual assaults and all the other name-calling and insults I endured from people cemented the thought in my head: the gay life is a life full of rejections and hardships.
Looking back, I had spent my teens and twenties trying to earn people’s respect and validation—especially from people whom I love. I persevered to excel in school. I financed myself to graduate with a Master’s degree in one of the most prestigious universities in the Philippines and tried to build a career worth respecting. But all these seemed to be overshadowed by the thought that if people knew the real me, they might think less of me. I had put this enormous pressure on myself to always be of worth, to be kind, compassionate, and understanding, expecting that one day, people will look at me with the same kindness, compassion, and understanding. I waited for many years in hiding when that day would come.
One of the tolls of being closeted for many years is that it eventually affected my mental health. In my mid-twenties, I started feeling emotionally and mentally restless and unsatisfied with how I was living my life.
It was schizophrenic most of the time, having to compartmentalize my personality just because one aspect of myself was not acceptable to the other realities I am living. It also led me to envy other people who are living their truth, which also almost bordered on homophobia. I also had to deal with the physical effects of stress after having been diagnosed with alopecia areata, which manifested as patches of bald spots on my head. To date, I have been living with alopecia for more than ten years now.
The last ten years were a struggle of having to constantly reaffirm to myself my worth and my place in the world. But it was also full of grace.
I was able to come out first to my best friends, Maree, Clarisse, and Dennis who have been very supportive and loving in this journey. I was also able to meet many wonderful and inspiring people from Alopecia Philippines who made me realize that I am more than my hair. Here, I had a life moment that helped me prepare for my coming out: If I can unapologetically flaunt the bald spots on my head, why can I not let the world see the real me? I was also able to work with my amazing therapist-turned-friend, MJ, who helped me put the pieces back in place and prepared me, mentally and emotionally, for that big moment I did not even expect to happen on my birthday last year.
Maree wrote this touching message in one of her IG posts for my birthday last year: “I have always thought that if the world knew the secret you’ve always held inside—that part you thought made you ugly, undesirable, and uncertain about how to live, but is the very truth of you—they’d want a piece, play some part, dip in joy with the beauty of who you truly, greatly, magnificently are. People would still want in, because it’s you, Joey to the world.”
In the last twenty years, I have learned that denying my truth to myself means denying myself the life that I deserve.
Now that I am celebrating my first Pride month as a gay man, I am also continuously learning that my struggle is more than personal. It is historical, political, social, economic, and cultural. I acknowledge that this pride is a gift, built on years of oppression, violence, struggle, activism, and hope.
That my being a part of this community compels me to look back and perceive the world in the eyes of those who first dreamed before me. To see beyond the colorful parade and glittering outfits but the dream of equality. I stand on the shoulders of giants who fought for this piece of freedom, those who stood and marched in fabulous heels and died in dedication to the dream: a world without closets, and one where no child would ever need to come out just to live their truth.