Being queer and Filipino in Calgary: When religion interferes
by Riggs Zyrille Vergara, Publishing Editor
I hate you.
Three words one can never think their parents would ever tell them at any point of their life.
But the 24-year-old Information Design student Carla Villeta still clearly remembers that day; the day those three words reverberated through her ears, when her mom said it straight to her face.
Back in 2017, Villeta was at a friend’s party when her parents called her asking if they could use her car. Naturally, she said yes. Minutes after, her parents called her back asking to urgently meet with them.
Her parents saw a handmade photo album in her car. It’s filled with pictures of Villeta and another girl being intimate with each other on different trips and parties. Furious at what they saw, her parents confronted Villeta with a question: “Are you gay?”
Villeta told them about her relationship with the now 23-year-old Mount Royal University (MRU) Broadcasting student Hermie Ocenar.
Ocenar made the photo album as a gift for VIlleta for their then one-year-old relationship.
“What the f*** are you doing?”
“You’re such an embarrassment.”
“All the Titos and Titas are going to look down on you”.
“You’re going to hell.”
These are statements her parents successively threw at her, not even letting her have another word.
(Tita is a tagalog word for Aunt, Tito is a tagalog word for Uncle and bobo means that someone is dumb or stupid)
Villeta had to stay at Ocenar’s house because of how intense the exchange was between her and her parents.
“It was very traumatic.” Villeta said.
Ocenar was on the phone listening in on that conversation but had to hang up because it was just too much.
“I know of some Filipinos who have been through the hardest when it comes to coming out, but to hear it firsthand myself, it was really hard.” Ocenar said.
When Ocenar came out, she too had to run away from home.
She first came out to her mom during a simple conversation at a dinner table. Ocenar had to tell her mom to put down the cob of corn she’s eating and listen to what she’s about to say. When she finally told her that she’s a lesbian, her mom just went back to eating and said, “I have no choice, right?”
But Ocenar had to run away from home when her mom finally told her dad.
“I was so scared of having to deal with it, because you know how Filipino families are. If they shun you, they will definitely shun you. I think that was my biggest fear,” Ocenar said.
But when Ocenar finally came home, she was greeted with open arms by her father.
He told her, “You’re still my Hermie.”
Discovering your identity
The first time Ocenar saw Vanessa Hudgens in her elementary days, she immediately developed the biggest crush on her. This is one of the first times Ocenar knew that she likes girls.
“I remember crying because I love her so much. I never understood why, but I would just always cry every time I thought about her.
Naya Rivera’s character from Glee is also another big influence on Ocenar’s understanding of her own gender identity during her high school years.
“It was that one episode where she came out to her grandma that made me think ‘Am I gay?’.”
This also led her to meeting another big fan of Glee on the social networking site Tumblr. She developed feelings for her and at that point she was sure that it’s either she’s a lesbian or she’s bisexual.
“I like you the way I’m supposed to feel for boys,” Ocenar recalls, when she confessed her feelings.
But with the discovery of her identity and this newfound love online, Ocenar felt the burden of that one question queer teens always ask themselves: who can I tell?
She tried testing the waters with one of her friends who happens to be Christian. But when she told her about her online relationship, that friend made a statement that until now Ocenar cannot figure out if she meant it or not. But it still hurt her confidence immensely, nonetheless.
“So when I told her that, she looked at me and she threw her hands up. Then she said, ‘Don’t rape me’,” Ocenar said.
The only thing running through Ocenar’s mind at the time was “Is this how it’s going to be?”.
This propelled a great deal of feelings of self-hate and internalized homophobia for Ocenar as she continued her high school years.
“I remember feeling so disgusted with myself,” Ocenar added.
She recalls trying hard not to show any sign that she’s a lesbian in front of everyone in her school. She curled her hair all the time, painted her nails and avoided anything flannel.
It was also in high school when she first realized that there is another part of her identity where she can experience discrimination – being Filipino.
Ocenar was at a clothing store here in Calgary with another Filipino friend when an old white woman complimented her red Nike shoes.
They went on to have a nice conversation about it when all of a sudden, the old woman asked “Are you two Filipinos?”.
A bit weirded out, the two high school girls said yes.
But her second question astounded Ocenar. “Are you two nannies?” the old woman bluntly asked.
“I was only 16 at the time. And this was my very first racist interaction with someone. After that, I remember just putting everything away in my hand and immediately left the store,”.
Ocenar’s mother was once a nanny, and she looks up to all the hard work she has done for their family. But she also emphasizes that it’s a problematic stereotype to assume every Filipino woman you meet is a nanny.
For Villeta, she did not have a hard time making friends and socializing in school. Even though she considers her younger self as a bit of a tomboy, her friends didn’t seem to mind. It was in her religious family home that she had to conceal her gender identity of being bisexual.
Religion is a big part of almost any Filipino family anywhere in the world, and Villeta’s family is no different.
Every time Villeta visited the Philippines, she would bond with her outspoken gay cousin Dana who presents herself in a very much tomboy manner. Villeta always feels safe when she’s around her.
But at the time, nobody in Villeta’s family knew she was gay. Her titas would tell her to convince Dana to suppress her gender identity. They would even candidly insult Dana in front of Villeta.
“They would ask me to tell Dana how disgusting she was, how she should change her ways, how no one’s going to love her and how she’s going to hell,” Villeta said.
Villeta even recalls one of her Titas shuddering in repugnance while saying the word “disgusting” as she asks Villeta if Dana is actually gay or not.
“The things that they say about Dana…it didn’t make me feel safe. So, I just wanted to hide myself when I’m with my Titas. I never told them,” Villeta added.
Ocenar also had spent time around Villeta’s extended family and she too did not evade the side comments they bluntly make about Dana.
“They would tell Dana to shave her legs, shave her face, grow your hair long, paint your nails, don’t wear this shirt, dress like that,” Ocenar said.
Due to the nature of Villeta’s aunts and uncles, the couple had to hide their relationship from Villeta’s relatives.
“When I’m around them, I had to present myself a bit more feminine, just so they wouldn’t have hints that I’m her girlfriend,” Ocenar added.
Despite this, Villeta’s aunts love Ocenar according to her significant other. She even joked that if they were to find out, they would splash holy water all over them.
But now at the fifth-year chapter of their relationship, things have gotten a bit better for the couple.
Even though Villeta’s mom is not entirely on board with their relationship yet, her dad has become fully supportive and is now even close to Ocenar.
“I think he loves Hermie so much,” VIlleta said.
“Yeah, we’re pretty tight,” Ocenar added.
Ocenar’s mom also has an affectionate bond with Villeta. At first, Ocenar’s mom didn’t even want to know Villeta’s name or anything about her. She just calls her Ocenar’s “syota”, a Filipino slang for a romantic partner, but now she calls her “daughter in law”. She even keeps asking them for an adopted child. To which the couple responded a resounding no.
Villeta and Ocenar’s love for each other have only grown deeper. One can see how full and rich their connection is through the twinkle in their eyes when they look at each other. Effortless are their words that make each other laugh and smile.
“Nobody can make me laugh as genuinely as Hermie, that’s when I knew this is who I want to be with,” Villeta said.
“With her, I felt this connection I didn’t want to just throw away,” she added.
For Ocenar, she found refuge in Villeta; someone she can always run to when she’s going through something.
“I get overwhelmed by a lot of things. I have a lot of anxiety, but Carla is definitely someone who makes me feel safe and makes me feel like the world is less dangerous and scary than how I make it up in my head.” Ocenar said.
The couple looks forward to moving to a safer place where they feel like they can be more celebrated, and their careers can flourish. Ocenar and Villeta’s relationship is a true testament of no matter how many people, circumstances and challenges come in the way of love, it will stand strong.
This article is one of four stories included in the series “Being gay and Filipino in Calgary”. To access more of these stories, click here.