Resounding success for first Queer Filipinos in Canada conference

Academics, artists, activists and a drag queen

Sofonda Cox at The Open Gallery

Sofonda Cox at The Open Gallery

They’ve been called bakla, tomboy, bading, silahis, and tibo. And on January 23rd and 24th, they were recognized as community leaders and role models.

At Diasporic Intimacies: Queer Filipinos/as and Canadian Imaginaries, Filipino-Canadian history was made with the first-ever queer Filipinos in Canada conference. For lead organizer Professor Robert Diaz, the three events were a huge success, with over 250 attendees and a strong display of public support.

Interdisciplinary artist  Jo SiMalaya Alcampo (second from left) with professors Martin Manalansan, Robert Diaz, Patrick Alcedo and Roland Coloma

Interdisciplinary artist Jo SiMalaya Alcampo (second from left) with professors Martin Manalansan, Robert Diaz, Patrick Alcedo and Roland Coloma

Organizing committee member Karlo Azores emphasized that this event was possible because of the tremendous presence of queer Filipinos in academia. “Imagine this: most of the Filipino professors in Canada are queer,” he said. “The contribution of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender, Queer) scholarship is immense.”

Diaz asked former OISE professor Roland Coloma to give the opening keynote. He credited Coloma with making research into the Filipino-Canadian community’s queer history possible. “This is a groundbreaking event for Canada and North America,” Coloma said. “Even in the U.S., we’ve never had anything like this… This event is one of a kind.”

Filipino presenters came from across North America to speak about topics as varied as indigeneity, community organizing, intimacy, dementia, mental health, bathhouses, beauty pageants, and more.

Some audience members reflected that this was their first time hearing terms like homo-normative, cis-gendered, and hybridity. Others were inspired by presenters Melanya Liwanag Aguila and Pj Alafriz, who spoke about community organizing before social media. Current OCAD students were excited to learn about Babaylan, a Pinay lesbian support group formed over 20 years ago.

Emmy award-winning producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson was a highlight, with her political Pride parade costumes. Using colourful dresses, dance-proof headpieces, and strategically-placed signage, she protested against refugee health care cuts, Rob Ford, Stephen Harper, and more. Her costumes attracted national media coverage for her causes. As Diaz said, “What’s body? Standing in front of everyone as a historical act.”

Pj Alafriz, Christine Balmes, Melanya Liwanag Aguila, Robert Diaz, Jo SiMalaya Alcampo,   J Rivera, and Lisa Valencia-Svensson with political Pride costumes.

Pj Alafriz, Christine Balmes, Melanya Liwanag Aguila, Robert Diaz, Jo SiMalaya Alcampo, J Rivera, and Lisa Valencia-Svensson with political Pride costumes.

Many presenters shared coming-of-age experiences. Teacher and UKPC (Ugnayan ng Kabataang Pilipino sa Canada) Secretary General Ken Santos spoke about a Pinay who told him that because he was gay, he would go to hell, and a York University student who told him that he was gay because he had chosen to be.

Ben Bongolan, Settlement Coordinator at The 519, remembered being inspired by a queer leader of the University of Toronto Filipino group, FSAT. He said that her leadership “instilled a deeper responsibility to create a world that I want other people to live in”— a lesson which inspires him in his settlement work today.

Revolutionary activist Kim Abis honoured the friends, family, and UKPC members who encouraged them as a youth, noting that their own queer high school classmates did not have the same supportive networks, and that youth are often mistaken to be anti-social.

Receiving support was also key for interdisciplinary artist Jo SiMalaya Alcampo, who noted that it was important to talk about “those who do not make it.” She said, “When I came out, my mom stopped speaking to me. She actually told me, ‘You will be the only gay Filipino in the world. Parents need support as much as we do. Their intentions are loving, but it can cause soul wounds.”

With enthusiastic participation from the arts community, attendees also enjoyed moving performances by singer Casey Mecija, and Pantayo, an all-women’s kulintang collective.

At the Open Gallery, a packed audience witnessed the glamorous Sofonda Cox, Canada’s top drag queen, whose performance was so tremendous that it spilled out of the gallery and into the street.

Queer Butterflies and Hybrid Costumes by Julius Manapul.

Queer Butterflies and Hybrid Costumes by Julius Manapul.

At the Artist Dialogue event, Julius Manapul showed how he had re-claimed words like Rice Queen, bakla, and bading by using them in his artwork. “I realized that my work became stronger right when I accepted those queer texts that I had been forgetting,” he said.

OCAD student and Clutch artist Blessie Maturan noted that the art was also about being a member of the Filipino diaspora. “The content also has to do with our parents’ hardships,” she said. “Nurses, nannies, and more… It’s the first struggle for an economy that is rising. This is putting us on the map. I’m proud to be included here.”

For Robert Diaz, the conference is over, but his work supporting the LGBTQ Filipino-Canadian community is not. He is now taking nominations for the first Queer Filipino/a Community Service Award. This will honour an individual who assists those who are marginalized due to class, gender, sexuality, and/or ability.

The recipient will receive $250, a letter of recommendation, and acknowledgment at the closing of the art exhibit. Nominations are due on February 13th, and application forms are at queerfilipinosincanada.ca.

In his closing keynote speech, renowned Asian-American professor Martin Manalansan ended the conference with the words, “Let us continue telling our stories with a critical eye and a flirty stance.” Through a conference that has united artists, community workers, and academics, there is hope that we will move together towards a future where all identities are not only accepted, but celebrated.

Note: The “Visualizing the Intimate in Filipino/a Lives” art show will be exhibited at the Open Gallery (49 McCaul Street) until February 15th. Admission is free.

Artist Julius Manapul addresses the crowd at The 519 Church Street Community Centre. All images by Jennilee Austria.

Artist Julius Manapul addresses the crowd at The 519 Church Street Community Centre. All images by Jennilee Austria.

This article was originally published in The Philippine Reporter on February 15th, 2015.