This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.
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.
“Bakla” is the most fearsome word in my life. It means “gay” in Filipino, a label I wanted to stay far away from, growing up. Like many Filipinos, I was raised in a devoutly Catholic home and went to an all-boys school run by priests most of my life. My family, teachers, and friends never talked about homosexuality, all I knew was that I should avoid it.
In reality, I began to fear that I might be gay when I was six years old. I did not understand it yet then, but I knew I was different and that scared me. What if someone found out? There was a long period of repression. I wanted to believe that my homosexuality was temporary, telling myself that when I found a girl to love, I would become straight. I didn’t go to gay bars nor hang out with gay people. Then, at 35 years old and after becoming a lawyer, I entered the Jesuit Novitiate to become a priest. I was there for over a year before I was kicked out for having sex with another man. That was when I finally came around to accepting the truth about myself. It’s ironic that this happened as I was supposed to be preparing for a celibate religious life, but I have come to see it as a blessing.
I realised that God wanted me to be who he created me to be.
I think the Catholic Church is misguided in its teachings on sexuality but, ultimately, I choose to stay because this is the Church I grew up in and I have found a personal connection with a loving God here. Inside the Church, there are sacraments that make me feel God’s presence more intensely. As Catholics, we believe that God is most present in the Eucharist, so when I go to Mass, I know that God is there. The Church gives us an experience that is lived and enfleshed in our being. It turns something spiritual into something tangible. I often find myself bursting into tears during Mass because I would get overwhelmed by a feeling of God’s personal love for me. It’s a connection I still look for, especially during a pandemic that has me locked up in a room. I have cried during online masses too, but for me, going to church is important because it underscores this sense of community.
I did not always feel this way. After leaving the novitiate and coming out to my family and friends, I stopped going to church regularly for eight years because I no longer felt welcome there. But I never stopped examining my beliefs. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field,” Rumi wrote. But finally, I returned to the Church of my childhood in a proverbial field while living in Cambodia, where I worked as a refugee lawyer for 10 years.
Living in a non-Christian country freed from the pressure of tradition and judgment, I found that it was the Catholic Church that gave me a sense of home.
It became a place of comfort instead of fear, which it once was.
While living there, my nun friend helped me realise that God has been misrepresented as a taskmaster, someone with a list of Ten Commandments that one has to follow — you have to go to church, you have to dress this way, you have to behave like this, you have to avoid offending people. But the bottom line is that God is love. And a loving God would not create something evil.
I had to leave my country before I could come full circle and come back home. I finally came out publicly at age 38. I had already told a few friends and family members that I was gay, but this was the first time I was really open about it.
In 2013, Pope Francis was elected. I was in my apartment watching the news alone and could not believe it. We had never had a Jesuit pope, an order known for being liberal, nor one from Latin America like him. I saw God’s fingerprint in his election and started going to Mass again that same weekend.
I appreciate how Pope Francis, in his own ways, is welcoming LGBTQ people to the Church again. I can also see that in priests like Fr. James Martin, S.J., a consultant at the Vatican, who is known for actively building bridges for the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ community. I also personally know of many Filipino priests who are doing the same.
This is important because many gay Filipinos usually reduce their relationship with the Church to “fuck off,” likely because they have been so ostracised. Among the gay community in the Philippines, most do not care about being part of the Church anymore. They do not need the Church to define them because it’s just easier to talk about LGBTQ rights without putting God into the picture.
Knowing that the Church still has value for LGBTQ people, I have tried to create bridges in my own ways. In 2010, I wrote a memoir called God Loves Bakla (later released internationally as Of God and Men: A Life in the Closet) as a document to help other Filipino gay Catholics who might be going through the same thing. I have received many positive responses and in at least two cases, I was told that it had actually prevented suicide.
Most people compartmentalise their personal lives from their religious identities. I do not think anyone needs to be validated by religion but I do think there’s a need to reconcile one’s sexuality with one’s faith. This might not be in line with official teachings but that’s OK. And if someone criticises me for it, then that’s fine too. Priests are not God, the Pope is not god. God is bigger than them; they are an infinitesimal portion of the divinity of God. I have a personal experience with a loving God. It’s deep and it’s a part of who I am.
I’m 54 years old now and have had more than five decades of serious inner struggle. But I’ve also lived a good life. I wrote a book that has touched people. I helped resettle refugees with whom I’m still in touch today. I’ve had a partner for eight years. I do not claim credit for any of that, it was all God.
So if you look at the fabric of your life and you see nothing but good things, how can anybody tell you that you’re bound for hell because you’re gay?
I wish I could say this to more people and give them a hug because I can still feel the pain, and my heart bleeds for the young people who are struggling like I did. I wish they could hear that God loves them, instead of all the hateful things people say. God’s love is like a radio on maximum volume. No matter what we do, God can’t love us any more or any less. How can you exceed infinity?