“I’ve known from the start that I’m not born as just female,” said Joanna Yap, a 30-year-old based in Manila, Philippines. “I’m not a woman, not a man, but you can consider me as both.”
While some people have gender identities that fit neatly into the “gender binary”—the idea that there are only two distinct genders, man or woman—others, like Yap, do not. Instead, they may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from these terms. There are a few terms people choose to describe this, one of the umbrella terms often used being “nonbinary.”
Because nonbinary people can identify as both and neither man or woman, the breadth of their expressions is incredibly diverse. This can be difficult for many people to understand, especially in a country like the Philippines, where the LGBTQ community still struggles for recognition and acceptance.
One of the things that makes nonbinary recognition tricky is that people might not know exactly what to recognize. Some nonbinary people have conventionally masculine and feminine gender expressions, while other nonbinary people have a more androgynous gender expression.
Yap, for example, has a traditionally feminine gender expression and often comes across to people as a straight woman. “But I don’t really identify myself as a female. I just don’t want to be in that box, and also I don’t want to be in a male’s box,” said Yap.
Yap hesitated to come out as nonbinary, they said, precisely because the way they looked didn’t make their being nonbinary particularly obvious. But their queer friends assured Yap that being nonbinary isn’t just about the way they look, and that they could still embrace their feminine side as a nonbinary person.
While Yap said they weren’t seeking a label to encapsulate the identity they were always sure of, they think being out and proud as nonbinary helps widen other people’s understanding of the gender identity. Yap added that doing so could help other nonbinary people see that they can express themselves in many ways.
Sai “D.Von” Galman, a 29-year-old, also from the Philippines, described being nonbinary as “just being myself.”
“I don't fall [in] any of the categories that fall under male and female—I blend in that masculinity and femininity in me,” said Galman, who decided not to use any pronouns, a reflection of not conforming to gender norms.
On some days, Galman might wear clothing considered more feminine—like high heels and short shorts—while on others prefer more masculine outfits—like being shirtless with denim jeans. Galman also wears outfits that blur the lines between masculinity and femininity.
“It really depends on my mood,” Galman said, adding that identity isn’t necessarily hinged on clothing.
“Gender is not tied in just male or female, woman or man. There are others who feel comfortable being both, and there are others who don’t fall [in] any of the two. That's just who we are,” said Galman.
The way Galman presents raises some eyebrows in the Philippines. Galman said that this is sometimes because people are surprised that nonbinary people exist and can present themselves in the way Galman does. But Galman thinks the surprise is often rooted in a lack of understanding, and believes that nonbinary people should be able to wear whatever they want to wear—it shouldn’t be a big deal.
Jenzel Mhar De Jesus, 22 and also from the Philippines, began expressing their identity as a nonbinary person by growing out and dying their hair, something they said made them feel “so happy.”
But the relatively simple and common change was still difficult for other people to accept. De Jesus said others tell them to cut their hair, because “long hair doesn’t look good on boys,” which is how they insisted on seeing De Jesus.
For De Jesus, “nonbinary is going beyond both ends of the gender identity spectrum. And nonbinary goes beyond the imposed gender roles. Nonbinary is boundless and unrestrained.”
“Nonbinary is going beyond both ends of the gender identity spectrum. And nonbinary goes beyond the imposed gender roles. Nonbinary is boundless and unrestrained.”
Part of the difficulty of explaining the idea of being nonbinary is that, while it doesn’t fit into the categories of “man” and “woman”, it still has to use those categories to define what it is. In other words, in order to show that they don’t quite fit into the norm, nonbinary people often first have to acknowledge these very norms.
Galman and De Jesus both said that being nonbinary in the Philippines can often get tiring, because people are still largely bound by the gender binary. Things like getting gendered properly, for example, still require some sort of explanation. Galman said that some people, even within the local LGBTQ community, just can’t wrap their heads around what nonbinary means, no matter how hard Galman tries to explain.
“Being nonbinary in the Philippines can feel exhausting, at least in my experience. Somehow, the society that we have here—that is still heavily conservative—makes me feel like a misfit. But embracing my gender identity is far more important than what anyone will say about it, and I’m glad I have the courage to just be myself,” said De Jesus.
“But embracing my gender identity is far more important than what anyone will say about it, and I’m glad I have the courage to just be myself.”
This is different for Yap, who doesn’t immediately come off as queer, and doesn’t always get questions about their identity. Yap acknowledged that this is a privilege in a country where hate crimes against LGBTQ people still happen. They haven’t had negative experiences as a result of being nonbinary, they said, but Yap thinks that’s largely because of how they look. When people learn that Yap is nonbinary, they said many likely tolerate it precisely because they don’t see it, and don’t really have to talk about it.
The privilege does, however, also give Yap the opportunity to educate people on the different ways gender can be expressed.
At the moment, Galman simply wants Filipinos to acknowledge that nonbinary people exist and will continue to exist.
“And it’s important to us to live, to dress, and have our gender respected at work, at school, and at public spaces,” Galman said.
“People don't have to understand what it means for someone to be nonbinary, but as long as there is respect, it’s OK.”
De Jesus had similar thoughts: “The one thing I want to see more in my country is not just acceptance, but empathy towards queer people.”
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