For much of the world, June traditionally means Pride Month, which traditionally means parades and parties. But as this year's parades and parties have been cancelled, we're taking Pride online. Over the next week, VICE is releasing a series of articles to celebrate the LGBTQ community, and champion the individuals and collectives who push for greater visibility and equality.
Growing up, I didn’t know what it meant to be an ally to the LBGTQ community, nor did I know much about the community itself. My eyes were finally opened when I moved to the Philippines as a teenager and began working as a model. Most of my first friends, from stylists to photographers, were LGBTQ. I’m grateful that I formed these relationships before I was given the opportunity to have the platform that I have now. Because of these relationships, becoming an ally became a personal passion.
One of my most defining moments as an ally happened in 2018, the year I was crowned Miss Universe. That year, the pageant took a big leap towards diversity. For the first time in over 60 years, a trans woman competed for the title, when Angela Ponce represented her country Spain. This decision garnered a lot of varying opinions and, honestly, at first, I did not know how to feel about it.
The pageant world was suddenly required to take part in the discussion and ask what is the definition of a woman? I too asked myself the question, but I knew there was more I needed to understand. So I reached out to my trans friends and asked them about their personal experiences. It really broke my heart to hear their personal stories of discrimination, misunderstanding, and conflict. I also asked them, what did it mean to you to have a trans woman representing your country in Miss Universe? It spoke volumes, they said, that it allowed them to feel seen, represented, and valid.
I knew then that it was not only right to have Angela raise her country’s flag on the Miss Universe stage, it was also powerful.
I believe that as contestants, we’re not on a stage just to look pretty. I believe that we’re there to stand for something.
For me, it was to champion education and equal opportunities for all. For Angela, it was to represent the trans community and to call for inclusion.
I was in tears backstage as the show paid tribute to her. It was so beautiful to see a trans woman being celebrated by the Miss Universe community. It provided a sense of hope, not just to pageant aspirants, but all of the trans community who see themselves in her.
To take a stand on anything, we first need to form a personal understanding of an issue. I lived in New York during my year as Miss Universe and I loved it because everywhere I looked I could find people who expressed their identity in a multitude of ways. There was no uniformity and it didn’t feel like anyone was trying to fit in. I wish we could have more of that in the Philippines.
Through my volunteer work, I’ve heard personal experiences of people who can’t come out, afraid of what their loved ones might say. They fear being their true selves, so they hide just to please other people. It's selfless but in a negative way. That’s something most straight people take for granted, the fact that we can express ourselves freely and dress how we want to dress and be who we want to be. For other people, even just to take that simple first step is a fearful one.
Photo: Courtesy of Catriona Gray
As Miss Universe, I was able to diversify my understanding by meeting people from LGBTQ communities from multiple countries and cultures and hearing their stories. These experiences allowed me to become even more steadfast in my allyship.
It’s an advocacy that’s particularly important for me to speak up about because it affects so many LGBTQ Filipinos, many of whom I’ve connected with through pageantry. I’m honoured to represent them as an ally and through organisations that champion their rights.
I can never know exactly what they’re going through but what I can do is listen, and when I can, lend my voice for those who cannot raise their own.
But before we can become an ally, a protector, a voice, we need to humanise the community so that we care, not just about them as the LGBTQ community, but as fellow human beings. As allies, that's the foundation on which we stand.
My country has a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Here, I feel the community is more tolerated than truly accepted. There are so many misconceptions about what it means to be gay, lesbian, and trans, and I feel it’s mainly due to lack of representation and diversity in the media and the business sector. We're such a religious country and I feel like it makes certain topics like sexuality, self-expression, and identity much more difficult to talk about, and that in turn fuels the stigma that negatively defines so many Filipino’s lives. It’s difficult to open these conversations because religion is weaponised against the LGBTQ community. And as a Christian, I don’t believe that’s right. I believe religion should never be used as an excuse to hate. Most religions, at their core, teach love.
There is also this misconception that LGBTQ issues only matter to those who identify as LGBTQ. It concerns them and not us, some people think. There is a divide but people need to realise that the fight, whether it be legalising same-sex civil marriage or putting legislation in place against discrimination in the workplace, is not about giving special privileges but providing equal rights. That’s why ally voices are so important. We need to stand up and say that this is not just about the LGBTQ community. It’s about all of us.
To be better allies, we need to educate ourselves. It's not the LGBTQ community's responsibility to educate us.
That means asking the hard and uncomfortable questions and seeking out answers. Humbling ourselves when we’re wrong. It won’t be easy. It's not a Miss Universe Q&A where, in 30 seconds, you can fit your entire understanding of the topic.
I’ve experienced a lot of learning curves in my journey as an ally. For example, I didn’t know the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Our learning all starts somewhere. What matters is that we choose to listen.
We should be constantly asking ourselves how we can be better allies to the community. I’m joining a panel discussion this month to celebrate Pride. I love panels because they give people the opportunity to have a discussion in an educational environment. We don’t do that enough. Sure, sometimes we can feel awkward or uncomfortable but it’s important to take part in these conversations because after educating ourselves, we can educate others.
Being an ally starts with small acts every day. When you’re in the workplace and someone says something offensive about LGBTQ people, stand up and say that it’s not right. They too may be unaware. It’s about seeing discrimination where it's happening and doing something about it that makes a difference.
This is why Pride Month is so important. It's not just about whipping out your rainbow flag. It’s a reminder of how far we've come and to look how far we still have to go. It allows us to reflect on the challenges we still need to overcome and the solutions we still need to find.
As allies, let’s ask ourselves, why do we care?
For me, it’s because I’ve heard other people's stories and it bothers me that we’re not all treated the same. No one should be made to feel unsafe, disrespected, or lesser than. To get to that point, we need to humble ourselves, embrace our learning curves and once we feel capable, raise our voices for those who cannot.
Catriona Gray won Miss Universe in 2018, where she competed as the Philippines’ representative. She is a model and singer, and advocates for LGBTQ rights through LoveYourself PH, among other organisations.