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Being Queer and Asian

By Tharindi Devasurendra – Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The experience of being queer and dealing with societal issues and norms is one that almost every queer person will have to go through in their lives. It shapes their way of thinking and how they will continue to perceive the world and themselves in the present as well in the long run. While some of these issues will overlap with each other, individuals that grow up in Asian countries face intersectional barriers that conflict within patriarchy, sexism, race, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation and so on. No problem is similar to another and yet they all result in the same compartmentalizations of affecting the growth, development, and the mental state of every queer person.

From a young age, we grow up with a distinct heteronormative programming in our minds that a person born with a specific set of genitals needs to end up with a person of the opposite genitals in order to procreate and live a socially acceptable life.  The understanding that normalcy equals procreation is flawed, since it could very well be applied to couples who cannot have or do not want to have children. This “normalcy” is most often a colonial mindset that has been fed into us and has made us blind to our original cultures and values of diverse identities, sexual orientations, and lifestyles. The colonized nation places itself in opposition to the homosexual body and any act that contradicts the national need for reproduction will be labeled as vile or inappropriate.

In the book Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives: Translated Texts from the Age of the Discoveries by Chandra de Silva, the author speaks of the views of the Portuguese settlers in 1547 in Sri Lanka where they say that, “The sin of sodomy is so prevalent in this kingdom of Kotte that it almost frightens us to live here. If one of the prominent men of the kingdom is reproached for not being ashamed of such an ugly vice, he replies that they do everything that they see their king doing, for this is their custom”. These notions and views have resulted in the criminalization of homosexuality based on acts of “gross indecency” in some Asian countries.

In India, the transgender identity also has a long history. Known as the Hijra, this community can trace their origins to antiquity. They also have a religious significance as they dedicate themselves to the Goddess Bahuchara Mata. Meanwhile Goddess Renuka, worshipped predominantly in South India, is believed to have the power to change the sex of individuals. The Hijra have also developed their own language known as Hijra Farsi. This proves the rich cultural heritage this community has in the Indian subcontinent.

Therefore we need to be aware of our internalizations, biases, and the origin of most of our so-called ‘normal’ values and morals. Decolonizing our society is one that needs to be done with precision and self-awareness while reflecting on what should and should not be upheld just because it has a say within the law. The law in itself is made by people with power, the same way as the histories of our countries. The critique and intellectual analysis of our behavior, laws, morals, and societal values need to be viewed through a lens of humanity and decolonization.

Life in a non cis, heterosexual context comes with its own ups, downs, and twists. Within our own communities, we have learnt to find acceptance, love, and closure, sometimes through chosen families. We have learnt that there are people along the way that will help us embrace who we are and love us as we do. But this is not to say that there is no divide within the queer community or that heteronormative values don’t seep into it either.

As heteronormativity is so ingrained within our minds, we forget or find it difficult to unlearn certain nuances. We tend to judge queer people if they do not act or look queer sometimes. But what exactly does acting or looking queer mean? To be accepted within an already marginalized community, does one need to change their personality or certain aspects of it in order to be deemed queer enough? Hence is there a qualitative standard for being queer? These are some of the questions that most people in the community deal with in one way or another. Does being gay mean that you need to dress in a particular way? Does it mean that your outlook needs to conform to a certain sexual lifestyle or preference? Or, if you are gay and too outwardly flamboyant, does this mean that you’re “too gay”? With the presence of a queer community, there also comes expectations as people try to label themselves and others. It must be understood that a label cannot define queer individuals or ideals because a label cannot contain or cohesively explain what it means to be queer as a whole. It cannot define one’s likes, dislikes, talents, personalities, attitudes and a million more other factors into one word. Individuals, queer or not, are whole complex human beings who just happen to be a part of, and may have, a diverse spectrum of sexualities, indentities, and conformities.

Even in the midst of these slivers of chaos, one of the most wholesome things within the queer community is the aspect of a chosen family. The belief that family is who accepts you and loves you and is not necessarily who you’re born with and into. Family is who you find and connect with along your journey and helps you overcome your hurdles and barriers. This love and affection in found families can be overwhelmingly complete.

However, this is also not to say that issues like biphobia and transphobia are not prevalent within the queer community. Queer women have less visibility in comparison to others due to the double marginalization by the patriarchy within their communities. Bisexual individuals are often invalidated if they date someone opposite their gender. They are asked to pick a side or to “not be so picky”. There is an internal fetishization of queer women and trans people that come from heteronormative values and they are often subjected to mistreatment or invalidation of their sexuality because of this. There is also the concept of lesbian relationships being viewed more as an aesthetic rather than an actual relationship. These notions could often be influenced by pornography and thus potrays how heteronormative society views queer women for their own pleasure rather than as individual with their own identities, thoughts, and needs.

There are definitely a lot of drawbacks within the aspect of being queer in an Asian society. These need to be addressed at a grassroots level but unfortunately within the everpresent fabric of remnants of colonization and whitewashing that one sees in the media and society, the progress of positive inclusivity and cohesion is very slow. Although younger generations are coming forward and expressing their views publicly with the aim to educate and empower more queer youth, our hope for a better and acceptable future lies in the collective efforts of all of us working towards this goal. It will help ensure a better future for us and for the future generation equally.

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JAN GABRIEL CASTAÑEDA

Philippines
He/Him
Board Member

Jan is passionate about seeing through the potential contributions of psychological sciences and human rights advocacy in LGBT people’s lives. He is currently Program Associate of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus and is a member of the LGBT Psychology Special Interest Group of the Psychological Association of the Philippines. He has written for various platforms and publications on a diverse range of topics from gender and sexuality to human rights experiences in different contexts. Jan’s desire is to engage in productive and meaningful work that bridges scholarship with practice rooted in people’s real experiences.

PATRICK JUANICO

Philippines
He/Them
Graphic Designer

Currently, Nico is a college student studying in the Philippines and is simultaneously working for Youth Voices Count as one of the graphic designers for the organization. He lists producing the brand logo and look of HRPlus Asia as one of his significant achievements. His interests in literature and creating films have also honed and continued to improve his skills in graphic designing.

JAN ELLA BRILLANTES

Philippines
She/They
Social Media Officer

Jan Ella is currently taking up her undergraduate studies at the University of the Philippines Visayas and has been a consistent academic awardee since 2019. She is involved in various organizations such as the Catalyst UPV as the Volunteer Director in 2021, former Publications Committee Head for UP Lipad and former member of Iloilo Pride Team.

JE-ANN PALMAIRA

Philippines
She/Her
Project Finance Officer

Je-ann is the current Project Finance Officer under the Finance Department. She graduated from the University of San Agustin with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration major
in Marketing Management.

Her involvement in her University’s Little Theater organization led her to find an interest in theater, films and the arts. Aside from theater arts, she also partakes in the company’s production work including stage management and most notably, heading the organization’s marketing team.

MARION REA CAMEROS

Philippines
She/Her
Accounting Associate

Marion graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Accounting Technology which has made her suitable for being the Accounting Associate of Youth Voices Count. She lists watching movies as one of her hobbies that helps her wind down during her leisure time.

ATTY. RONIFELLE L. BARRIOS

Philippines
She/Her
Legal Counsel

She is a graduate of AB Political Science from West Visayas State University (WVSU), in Iloilo City. In her days in college, she was the founding Prime Minister of WVSU Debate Circle, the ROTC Corps Commander and later a Volunteer Instructor in the Air Force Reserve Command. When she ran for the first time in their University Student Council, she was elected number one councilor. Her interest in leadership grew when she joined the 10th National Youth Parliament, organized by the National Youth Commission in 2014, where she later on became the Regional Convener for Western Visayas.

She then pursued her studies to take up law in San Beda University in Mendiola, Manila. As a law student, she was still active in student organizations: She joined moot court competitions, she served as layout artist in 2 of San Beda Law’s Official Publications: The Barrister and San Beda Law Journal. In her last year in law school, she was the President of San Beda Law Human Rights Advocate (HRA), where she was later conferred Leadership Award by the Association of Law Students of the Philippines (ALSP) and her organization, HRA was awarded top advocacy organization.

She passed the 2019 Bar Examinations and became a full-fledged lawyer by 2020.

She worked as Associate of Javier Santiago Torres & Panghulan Law Offices. She now runs her own RLB Law Office as a solo practitioner and serves as Notary Public for and in Quezon City. She serves as legal consultant to MSMEs and Non-profit organizations. At present, she is the Vice President for Communications of the National Society of Parliamentarians, Inc., the Chief Legislative Staff of Councilor Quin Cruz of Pasig City Council and part-time law instructor in Malayan Colleges Laguna – a Mapua School. Interestingly, she is the creator and blogger of The Young Lawyer PH. Recently, she served as Resident Parliamentarian during the Bangsamoro Youth Parliament held last Nov. 7-11, 2022 at Cotabato City.

A lawyer by profession and an artist by heart.

LOUELA MARIE PRADO

Philippines
He/She/They
Admin Officer

An advocate at heart, Louela is a part of several youth-led organizations in the Philippines with various advocacies ranging from climate justice, environmental protection, gender equality, human rights, SRHR, mental health prioritization, youth empowerment and HIV/AIDS awareness. She is currently the Interim Chairperson of Iloilo Pride Team after serving the organization for 4 years as the Admin Officer, Executive Secretary at Proyekto Philippines, Member of Team Dugong Bughaw, and more.

She graduated as Summa Cum Laude at West Visayas State University majoring in English Language Studies and is currently taking up her Masters in English Language Studies at the same institution. During her stay at the university, she served as the Vice Chairperson at the University Student Council and Federated Student Council where she organized programs and initiatives that advocated for student involvement in societal causes and being the voice of the students that lobbies their concerns to the administration.

In July 2022, she was awarded by JCI Regatta as one of the Top Outstanding Students in Iloilo and a Top Circle Awardee which is the most prestigious recognition given by the award-giving body.

RONAN JAMES B. PENUELA, RN

Philippines
He/Him
Project Officer

Ronan passed the Philippines nursing licensure exam in 2022 immediately after graduating his Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from the University of San Agustin. While juggling his academics, he was elected governor of his college’s student council (Nursing Student Council) in 2021 and board member in 2019 where he was awarded the leadership award and Agustino para sa Tao award due to his excellence in service. He is also a certified Safety Officer (SO1) after completing his training.

He is currently a dialysis nurse in training. He handles the Intersex projects of YVC.

ANFERNEE NENOL KAMINAGA

Marshall Islands
He/Him, They/Them
Project Officer for IGNITE! Empowerment Grants Program

Having done some activism for the Marshall Islands both locally and regionally with climate change, youth empowerment, LGBTQI rights, and nuclear injustice, Nenol takes pride in being an advocate for the causes he is passionate in, being a part of Youth Voices Count and taking a step in amplifying young LGBTQI+ voices. This also inspired him to co-found the first Marshallese LGBTQI Youth Support called Brighten the Rainbow. He is featured in “We Have a Dream” which is a collection of stories from young leaders around the world.

THARINDI DEVASURENDRA

Sri Lanka
They/Them
Project Manager

Tharindi is currently a feminist activist and researcher based in Sri Lanka, and has worked with the Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka (YANSL). They are a trainer on advocating for comprehensive sexuality education and providing knowledge on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) where they actively advocate for safe abortion and bodily autonomy for women.

One of Tharindi’s brainchild initiatives is an Instagram page which mainly focuses on the process of reaching out to queer women in Sri Lanka, a platform that helps in providing them visibility and strategy direction on programming through social media and other means.

They have completed their Bachelors (BA Honors) in English and Linguistics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka.

JOHNMEL ESTIMAR

Philippines
They/Them
Finance Manager

Johnmel M. Estimar is the founder and senior adviser of La Villa Pride, a grassroots-level organization for LGBTQI in Villa, Iloilo. They are also a member of the Iloilo Pride team, a Community Based Screening motivator for HIV and an LGBTQI Rights Activist. Miles, as they like to be called, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University-Molo, Inc. They also hold an Associate Degree in Cruise Ship Management in the same University.

They have ample experience in clerk and accounting work for nine years from their previous employer, they are currently employed with Youth Voices Count as Finance Manager since 2019.

ANTHONY DE VICENTE LOPEZ

Philippines
He/Him, They/Them
Deputy Executive Director

Mx. Toni graduated with a bachelor’s degree of secondary education majoring in English at the Capiz State University back in 2021. Aside from this, they sought out other educational opportunities such as Advocacy and Project Management at the Women Deliver Digital University (2015), International Women’s Health and Human Rights at Stanford University (2014), and Global Health and Humanitarianism at the University of Manchester (2013).

An advocate of many causes, they are members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and Y-PEER Pilipinas, founder of the Y-Cap for SRHR, founder of United Colours of CapSU, and Alumnus of Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Back in 2018, they were awarded as the SDG 5 Youth Champion due to the amiable service they have rendered for gender equality.

JUSTIN FRANCIS BIONAT, MA HRD

Philippines
He/His/Him
Executive Director

A learner for life and a seeker of knowledge, Justin graduated his Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Political Science at West Visayas State University, Philippines and took on a Master’s of Arts in Human Rights and Democratisation (International Program) at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand under the APMA / European Union Scholarship. At present, Justin is pursuing a Juris Doctor (JD) degree (Law Degree) from the College of Law, University of San Agustin, Philippines.

Justin entered Youth Voices Count, Inc. in 2018 while studying in Thailand. He later took on the role of Executive Director beginning 2019 and successfully set up the legal registration of the organization in the Philippines under the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Since then, he has been leading the organization in various programs and projects centered around LGBTIQ children, adolescents, and youth. Outside Youth Voices Count, Inc., Justin is active in other initiatives in the field of research and law. He was a law student fellow of the Legal Education Advancement Program (LEAP) of the Legal Education Board and the UP Law Center in 2022.

As an aspiring lawyer, he hopes to one day be instrumental in providing legal support for marginalized populations. Justin has also published reports, journal articles, commentaries, and book articles in the fields of law, HIV/AIDS, LGBTIQ, and Human Rights.

In 2018, he was awarded the Young Achiever HERO Award by APCOM Foundation during the HERO Awards reception at the Royal British Embassy in Thailand for his outstanding work on equality and human rights. He is one of the Youth Council members of the Global Fund, an international financing and partnership organization that aims to “attract, leverage and invest additional resources to end the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria”, and a Board Member of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia Committee.