f/pilipino/x by Mia Little
Mia Little on being nonbinary and Pilipino.
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Before there was language to validate, code, and conceptualize the fluidity of gender, there was just a feeling. Growing up I was caught in the limbo between cultures. In both Filipino and United States culture, there are decisive boundaries to categorize what is and isn’t appropriate, female male, sinful or celebrated. These boundaries were drawn by shame and stigma even if they were enforced by family that was well intentioned. What does a child do when they sense that their way of existing goes against what is right? They craft closets around the parts of themselves that cross those binary boundaries. I felt the incongruence between how I felt in my own skin with how the world saw and languaged me into girlhood. Tomboy, rebellious, too independent was language put upon me by family to categorize my otherness, but it never satisfied the questions of sino at ano ako? Who and what am I?
Questioning gender was a start and stop process. Without the safety and security to parse out what it meant to be gender diverse as a child, gender was something dormant and hidden behind the going-along-with-it-ness of prescribed femininity. There was no one to consistently look up to in regard to defying the binary. There were only fleeting interactions hyperbolic media representations that reduced queerness to being a joke at best and a threat at worst.
Experiences of being seen, seeing other gender diverse people, and being among QTPOC chosen family were essential to finding the answers to my questions about gender. Although I hadn’t become close with anyone trans or gender diverse until adulthood, sharing time with fellow closeted family opened doors to possibilities when it came to transcending those cultural boundaries that confined me to girlhood.
The first time I met someone who was like me I was about seven. I was visiting my mother’s side of the family in the Philippines and my mom brought a cassette recording of the song I performed with my dance class at a recital months ago. The recording was made on a toy karaoke machine and was on a scratchy tape with background noise. It was only ever really intended for rehearsal purposes in the privacy of my parents’ bedroom while everyone else was elsewhere.
The expectation was to perform this dance for my relatives. For what purpose, I do not know. Maybe to reprise how dancey I was when they last saw me as a sickly wobbly chubby toddler? Maybe to give them a taste of American culture? The world will never know.
I remember having a sea of family members gathered in the small balmy living room crowding on wooden cushioned furniture and on conjured up plastic chairs. Butiki clung to walls eating mosquitoes and were privy to the family gathering. My mom sat among her siblings she hadn’t seen in years and with her mom, Inang. As much blood as we shared between us, they were strangers with familiar faces. The pressure to perform my half-remembered dance routine made my skin sticky. Never had I ever in my short life seen that many pilipino kin all together.
The music started and I wiggled, sashayed, and bullshitted a lot of the routine. There was a comfort in my seven year old brain in knowing that logically songs generally come to an end. The happiness that radiated from the family in front of me eclipsed the burning embarrassment I swallowed down in having to perform this odd girlish number. My face burned at being made to perform in front of so many strangers that were family. I felt like a foreigner in my American-ness and the strangeness of the situation. An Ate met my eyes with sympathy as the music drew to a close and it was the most welcoming reassuring lifeline I needed to feel reconnected with this faraway family.
As a child, my mind tried to gender their perceived androgyny. I kept coming arriving at confusion. Who is this person? What is this person? Why do I feel like they are like me in some way? More than confusion, there was a feeling of resonance with this cousin. At seven, I didn’t have the language or understanding to put into words the feeling that sensed familiarity from someone who may be different like me. They validated the awkwardness and discomforted that weighed down my feet through that stilted dancing and didn’t give me fake exuberant applause. They acknowledged the awkwardness that came in performing femininity and still gave me love all the same. My knowledge of ways of being outside cisgenderheteronormativity was limited as a kid, but I knew that the acceptance and sympathy from Ate made me feel safe about myself in a way that I hadn’t before.
At the time I couldn’t pin why. Queerness is not always something we language or understand with overt conversations as we develop. Talking openly about anything that challenged gender norms is taboo in many respects in pilipino culture. We don’t talk about things. We choked down secrets and the pain that comes with secret keeping to not disrupt community or family. Queerness at that point in my life was terribly lonely and locked away. Meeting and sharing time with Ate showed me that it’s okay to have that queerness exist outside of the hidden away thoughts I kept to myself.
On that visit, the Philippines was a different planet with its constant hiss of motorcycle cabbies, jeepnies, and the sound of bustling flip-flopped feet and familiar language filling in the thick hot air. On that trip, I found family who made me feel okay to wonder about my orientation and water a seed of curiosity when it came to gender. During that trip, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my rejection of those binary notions of how to be. With great relief, I learned for the first time that in my family I wasn’t alone. There are others like me.
Years and years later after that family visit to the Philippines, my mother told me what I had understood at seven. That ate was gay. Bakla siya, my mother said casually while we cut vegetables for that night’s dinner. She said it as if I wasn’t raised on taken for granted homophobic values that built a closet around her own queer kid.
Language is clumsy. When asked about gender, the answer is never quite the same. Gender nonconforming, genderqueer, femme daddy, baby enby princeling, filipinx, or something-something to the effect of existing outside of binaries. It’s always a mouthful and never simple, but boils down to an acknowledgement of the fluidity, tensions, and contradictions of gender. There is satisfaction in language’s inconstancy because it reflects the constantly changing relationship to gender.
At times I feel a certain closeness to ideas, feelings, and ways of being in womanhood that I inherited from my mom, titas, Lola, and Inang. This closeness is to my culture, lineage, and the specific nurturance that has been handed down through the generations. I’ve inherited their resiliency, tenacity, and genes that give us our shared hands, feet, and cheek bones. It’s as if I can stand side by side and make sense of every fine detail, wrinkle, and notion of ancestral womanhood to have its arms wrap around me, but never step completely into womanhood. I am fine being embraced and influenced by it and know that I am not totally of it.
Being outside of womanhood does not inherently mean stepping into or toward manhood. Cisgendered binary notions are confining and reductive. Femininity and masculinity in my mind are ways of intrapersonal and relational nurturance. They offer ways of showing up and caring for and understanding self and community.
A question that I keep returning to in regard to identity is bakit sila filipinx? when pilipino is already gender neutral and wala ng f sound in tagalog. Ng f signifies the distance between me and my origins and x marks the spot where I’ve carved out space for that gender fluidity as a pilipino. I will always know hindi ako taga pilipinas. The Philippines will always be an estranged family homeland that is both achingly familiar in its faces, smells, tastes, and heat and alien at the same time. As much as my blood is from that land, there isn’t a felt sense of home or the safety that comes with that because I’m far removed from my roots. I was raised in the in between space of a pilipino household and the States. Taga States siya, relatives in the Philippines would explain to each other to make sense of my poor tagalog and American way of carrying myself. I may not be of that land, but chosen f/pilipino/x pamilya reminded me that I am of that people.
Being genderqueer is the continued experience of arrivals and departures of self. Are the spaces I enter and the people I stand beside ones I am safe enough with to stand as myself? Tinataguan ako so often after a split second appraisal of safety and risk. Being out and open sometimes means just peeking a toe, a foot, a leg out of the closet before taking the chance of stepping completely out. With queertranskin in our quiet at home gatherings, I find that there is eventually no closet to step out of. There is just being in the incomparable arrival and settling into a self that is safely myself in the arms of family.
Kumakain na umuwi-Eating my way home
Connection to those parts of self is built through shared meals with queer and trans kin. Hot food and vulnerable conversations in the safety of community makes me feel like I ate my way home to genderqueerness. Food is a vehicle for nurturance, community, and conversation in pilipino culture. Being offered food signals love, care, and acceptance. Saying I love you can be a struggle of pilipino elders who often are more conservative with their expressions of emotions. The coded way they express loving, concern, and care comes in how they ask are you hungry? Have you eaten? And offering merienda and meals.
That is love in our culture.
Kuya Em is a feeder and an eater. They were also my first fellow pilipinx sex working queertranskin. Our relationship is punctuated by the sharing of food, time, and space. Em is kuya in that they were the first to truly teach me about daddy transmasculinity in its tenderness, openness, and nurturance. Kuya Em and I are the type of daddies who reject the cold stoicism of masculinity with a preference for the woowooness of emotional connectedness to self and relations. We’re the type of daddies who both model the catharsis of crying and serve as the driver for fam-bam road trips.
We had originally met doing porn. Back then we looked like twins as far as having the same long black hair with bangs and a brown body that was read as femme. At the subsequent reunions we have gone on to share, we come closer and closer looking like and feeling like ourselves. Kuya became kuya when we first shared time outside of work as they were undergoing their own transition. Although we are not far apart in age, Kuya Em became my first queer trans elder who showed me that there is more to existing than the girlhood pushed upon us by our families of origin. Feminity had been a mask for us to slip on for a session, scene, and safety, but it didn’t define who we were beneath it.
Years after our first meeting on set, we acknowledged the hesitation we both felt being booked to shoot with another filipina performer because of the discomfort, hate, and angst we felt toward our culture. We also were aware of how our race was being fetishized as Asian performers of the same race, general height, and haircut. It was a complicated beginning to our relationship. Growing up first gen, we shared animosity toward filipino culture because of the harm we experienced as youth from our culture’s take on patriarchy. As professional porn performers about to put our bodies through their paces on an electroslut shoot, we had to table our internal conflicts and put on a BDSM show. After we wrapped, we had apparently decided this other pilipino was not that bad after having been bonded together with jute rope, a double ended ball gag, electricity, and a performance of making that all seem oh so sexy.
Often the first questions we ask of each other when we get together is do you wanna eat something? Are you hungry? When they first moved to Los Angeles, I visited them in the typical small first apartment most folks have when they move to that city. We sat on laminate wood flooring in the dim light to escape the searing LA summer sun and its oppressive hazy heat. We ordered in pizza that arrived with the cheese still plasma hot, not that deterred our chatty hungry mouths. We sprawled on the floor barefooted catching up. A slice or two into the ricotta dolloped with crisped sausage pizza, I knew that they were the first person I felt safe enough to vocalize the questions I had been asking myself about my own gender transition.
In the tentative steps away from cisgender womanhood toward my home in fluidity, Kuya nourished me with food and acceptance. The nodded and chewed at the same time. Kuya Em was willing to walk alongside me as I questioned myself. They never doubted that slow painful process of becoming and never asked Are you sure? or contradicted where I thought I was with who I was. They would ask instead Are you hungry? Do you have enough to eat here? and this case Should we put red pepper flakes on this? Kuya Em modeled for me the radical acceptance of transition, change, and questioning that I had yet to learn for myself.
That meal contrasted so many meals I had with my parents where I choked down my voice along with the steaming hot food they made. As a closeted queertrans kiddo I found myself challenging and questioning the messages from my parents that I needed to be a quiet, not waving making, please-dear-god-be-a-nurse-and-have-good-grades-and-don’t-date-until-you-have-your-college-degree type daughter. Independence was reprimanded. Curiosity about sexuality and gender were silenced with anger and locked up with shame. That curiosity was condemned as something wrong with my thinking. My voice ultimately would leave my parent’s table hearing my father’s disgusted response to the news of marriage equality that played on the TV in our kitchen. I took my meals in silence apart from the passing and calling for kain at ulam.
I grew up in a closeted box that was too small, too binary, and too violent for me to feel safe enough to grow into myself. Kuya Em taught me that I can experience love, gratitude, and joy in being filipinx. The risk I took to share with them the transition I had started in myself was met with food and care that nourished that voice and sense of self. And through food and conversation, they taught me that it was safe enough to come home to being genderqueer. Notes:
 sino at ano ako translates to Who and what am I?
 butiki are common house geckos native to the Philippines. They are charming creatures that cling to the walls and help keep bug counts down. They are nocturnal and would escape the brightness of the sun by hanging out in my Nanay Berneng’s house.
 Inang translates to mother in Tagalog and what my maternal grandmother went by. I don’t know her actual name.
 Ate is a tagalog honorific indicating an elder female sibling or cousin
 Bakla siya translates to They are gay in tagalog
 titas, Lola, and Inang refers to aunts, paternal grandmother (Lola), and maternal grandmother (Inang)
 bakit sila filipinx? translates to a question of why are they filipinx? To ask why not pilipino/pilipina/pinay/pinoy?
 wala ng f translates to there is no f sound in tagalog
 Ng f translates as The F sound
 hindi ako taga pilipinas translates to I’m not from the Philippines
 Taga States siya translates to my relative’s explanation that I’m from and was born in the United States
 Tinataguan ako translates to I hide myself
 Kuya is an honorific for male or masculine elder siblings or cousins