In a TV5 interview in February 2016, Manny Pacquiao, who was then running for the Senate, provoked a storm of controversy with his views on same-sex marriage and relationships. Homosexuals are “worse than animals,” the conservative Christian said on national television, quoting the Bible as reference for his statements. Social media was abuzz for several weeks, and the divisiveness was palpable. Articles from writers like Shakira Sison of Rappler started resurfacing, strongly advocating support for same sex marriage. In one article, the staunch defender of LGBT rights bemoans those who claim to be friends with LGBTs insofar as they are “funny for calling out what’s wrong with [that girl’s] outfit” but are against the more fundamental issue of the LGBTs’ equal rights to marriage.

Homosexuality has always had a contentious relationship with religion. With the common perception that religion outlaws homosexuality, some members of the LGBT community have fallen out of their congregations, with some turning into agnosticism, or simply becoming non-practicing Christians.

Amidst the usual rituals of Visita Iglesia, processions, fasting, confessions, and retreats, the recently concluded Lenten season, on the other hand, is a time for introspection. In this regard, Volunteer Spotlight goes through the stories of three LoveYourself volunteers whose relationship with their faith goes beyond the judgment of society.  In fact, as I will later find out, that against the background of traditional and religious values, there is actually much openness and love within these religious congregations for the LGBT community.

Beginnings and Coming Out

What matters to Jesus is what is in your heart

Coming from a family with deeply-rooted religiosity, the religious life has always appealed to Rye Tumbaga, who joined LoveYourself late in 2016. Eloquent and well-versed, the native of Nueva Ecija engaged me in deep conversation as he shared the pains and struggles of coming out and the moving compassion of those who gave him support and acceptance. Rye  spent 13 years’ worth of extensive education and sabbaticals as part of his formation as a future priest. His time off during sabbaticals gave him many experiences, including failed relationships with women, as well as his first true relationship which lasted for 9 years – with someone of the same sex. “Gays are very much capable of love,” Rye reflects. “In fact, the best love I’ve had was with a gay man.” It was also during this time Rye felt the need to come out to his parents. “I saw my father in tears, holding on to our statue of the Blessed Virgin, asking where he had gone wrong. But my mother was the stronger one. She took the pain and stood by my father. In the end, they both accepted me.”

Rye recounts the support of his brothers in the congregation about his sexuality. “I actually encountered no resistance. In fact, my confessor told me that ‘what matters most to Jesus is what is in your heart.’ God is love!”

Rye retells the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman in the Gospel of St. John. Jesus makes a stand before the pharisees and the crowd who were condemning the woman convicted of a crime punishable by stoning. Jesus asked those who were without sin to cast the first stone, to which no one responded, and the woman was eventually set free. It is this story that Rye talks of the acceptance of the Church – “Its members are all sinners but are bound together by love. We are all human – and we sin. But the Church that we are part of is divine.”

Singing is a grace that touches the lives of people

Gibs de los Santos is a chorister, a bass singer of the esteemed choral group, Koro Ilustrado, led by renowned former University of the Philippines Madrigals singer, Anna Piquero. Gibs’ talent and love for singing was apparent from a young age. At 9 years old, he started singing as part of his local parish choir. He continued singing regularly, getting trained in the disciplines of Classical, Sacred, and Contemporary singing. Hailing from the southern city of Cagayan de Oro, Gibs was assistant conductor at the choir at Xavier University, where he took up nursing.

With a conservative Catholic background, Gibs grew up with a zealous determination to be of service to others. His experience at a Jesuit-run University deepened the drive, and after graduating, he spent a year at the seminary as he considered becoming part of the Society of Jesuits.

With life running smoothly as it were, Gibs struggled within with questions about his sexuality. Upon entering the seminary, he asked a mentor, a Jesuit Father, if he was doing the right thing. “More bluntly, I asked him if a gay person like me can become a priest.” And he was taken away by the priest’s answer, “Why not? What God looks at is what you’ve done for Christ, and what you will do for Christ.” And he recounts another memorable word of encouragement from a priest in the confessional, “Who you are now is because of His love.” Gibs’ qualms were abated, and this also gave him the courage to come out to his parents.

“I wanted to come out simply because I wanted to. It felt heavy keeping this [homosexuality] as a secret,” shares Gibs. However, he lost the opportunity to tell his mother who passed on. His mother’s demise placed further pressure on Gibs to tell his family about his identity. Despite knowing its possible consequences, he pushed on. “My father banished me, and this is the reason I moved to Manila.” It was 2013, and Gibs found himself alone in a big and alienating city. In spite of the sad outcome, there seems to be little resentment in Gibs’ rendering of his story.

In fact, things were to take a turn when he moved to Manila. Gibs easily found a job in the BPO industry, and in September 2016, he joined Koro Ilustrado, a choral group he has long admired. “I would attend their concerts in Cagayan de Oro, and Miss Anna, the head of the chorale, gave master classes, and I made sure to sing for her and she would tell me techniques on how my singing can be improved. I admire her a lot.” Gibs was able to pass auditions. Now, he juggles time with his work at night, and the chorale’s rehearsals and busy tour schedule.

Singing in the group has improved Gibs’ technique and has allowed him to “touch the lives of people.” In this way, Gibs strongly feels he is able to serve people – a fundamental mandate of Ignatian spirituality. “A dying man’s daughter persistently requested our group to sing at her father’s funeral even before the man passed away,” recounts Gibs. “The group regularly doesn’t accept requests for funerals. But she was persistent, and we had to say yes. At the funeral, the daughter and the other relatives were so grateful for us. That’s when I realized that it was because our music moved them and for us to sing on that occasion meant a lot to them.”

Going back to the issue of coming out, “It has actually improved my relationship with people. I used to fight a lot with my brother. Now that I’m open about being gay and him knowing it, we have never gotten along any better,” he smiles. Slowly, his relationship with his father is improving. “We are pretty much civil. We don’t talk too much, and there’s much to work on, but when I go home to Cagayan de Oro, we are OK.”

Art and God

A prolific graphics designer and visual artist by profession, Geno Maglinao talks about himself with a sense of stoicism and elusiveness. The Lucena native tells about the deep religiosity of his family. “Every trip we do is almost like a pilgrimage – even if it were a holiday in Cebu or Bohol, we always made it a point to visit the Church or hear mass if we can.” Every Good Friday, he and his family participate in a procession. Faith is a major force that shapes Geno’s personhood, and on his arms are tattooed the words sining (art) and Diyos (God).

As a child, Geno manifested artistic inclinations. “I used to perform in plays, and I loved to draw. The turning point that made me realize that visual design was what I wanted to pursue, and what I see as my first break, was when I designed the invitation card for my high school’s JS Prom,” recounts Geno. Quite surprisingly though, Geno did not pursue higher education in arts and design, but went to the seminary.

“My family is active in the Church. Also, I was a Boy Scout back then, and my experiences of reaching out and helping those who are in need made a strong impact on me,” says Geno. It is the image of service that struck Geno back then and that was when he wanted to become a priest and be a missionary. “I simply wanted to be of service to others.”

However, Geno did not finish his formation in the seminary as he was also deeply interested with design. He found himself traveling to Manila during weekends to take courses in design. “Whenever I had the time, I would go through all the functions of a certain design software and study them.” After finishing his pre-novitiate course in Philosophy, Geno found himself working for a small graphics design company. He eventually would move on to freelancing.

In contrast to the experiences of Rye and Gibs, Geno did not feel the need to come out with the truth about his sexuality. “In the family, I was the one inclined to the Arts. And it was like an open and accepted fact already. It was apparent. With my friends, when I told them that I have a boyfriend, it was something that they have been expecting.” However, the acceptance didn’t come to Geno in the easiest way. “It was all a matter of perception. I was very much straight acting back then.”

Joining LoveYourself: Being of Service and Living the Faith

What a person needs is a compassionate heart

With a few conversations with people who were living with HIV (PLHIV) while waiting in a hospital for a consultation, Rye got to know about LoveYourself.  During one of his reflections, Rye came across a few verses from the book of St. James. “Faith without works is dead,” the excerpt reads. This pushed him to join the organization, where he trained to become a counselor.

Rye is rich with reflection as he recounts his experiences as a counselor. “There is much similarity in the religious life and being a LoveYourself volunteer. It’s all about love. The only difference is the expression.” Counseling has enabled Rye to be more compassionate to others, as he listens to his clients’ stories and reaches out to them about practicing safe sex and giving them hope when they turn out to be reactive.

Being an HIV counselor entails certain technicalities, such as limitations on showing emotions and physical contact with the client, and it is with these rules that Rye finds himself, to a certain extent, at odds. “Sometimes I just have to wonder about the restraints of clinical counseling,” muses Rye. “The stigma of HIV is so great it is just difficult to keep yourself within these rules,” says Rye. “What someone needs is a compassionate heart. If I can’t help it, I cry with my client. I want to let him know that he’s not alone in all this. Most importantly, I want him to know that God is there for him.”

I want to be the light for others

When Gibs moved to Manila, with the wounds of the rift between him and his father still fresh, he found himself searching for a community to belong to. He came across an online ad – one of LoveYourself’s first “Discreet Dudes” series – a yearly event hosted by the organization aimed at giving gay men a space and opportunity to meet others and discuss issues openly. Gibs felt encouraged by the openness and warmth of the community, and he immediately signed up for the next batch of recruits.

However, the decision to join LoveYourself goes beyond Discreet Dudes. Gibs, who was then already employed in a BPO company, wanted to look for opportunities where he could practice his profession as a nurse. Upon joining LoveYourself, he trained to become a counselor and also serves as a phlebotomist from time to time. Gibs also credits his aunt who is an HIV nurse and advocate as an inspiration.

Gibs sees his volunteering for LoveYourself as a form of service. “I want to be the light for others,” he says. “By helping others, I am also serving God. Despite our identity, we can also serve him.” Joining LoveYourself and getting to know other volunteers have likewise helped Gibs accept himself more.

Art as Service to Others

Upon finishing his pre-novitiate course, Geno pursued his dreams of working as a graphic designer. He found himself busy with freelance projects, but was unfulfilled with the temporary nature of the projects – he was looking for something long-term, in the design sense.

The Lucena native also calls Malate his home, with his family’s Manila residence located in the neighborhood that was, during the first decade of the 21st century, the center of the country’s gay scene. Geno has become accustomed to the clubs and bars in the area and would go there with his friends. When one of his friends acquired HIV, he felt he needed to do something.

Back then, Geno was already friends with Ian Alquiros, one of LoveYourself’s founding members. Ian had invited Geno to join the organization, but the latter hesitated, citing the stigma of HIV/AIDS being at the heart of LoveYourself’s advocacy. “I saw joining LoveYourself back then as a confirmation to the world that you’re gay. And I wasn’t just ready back then.” But when one of his friends turned out to be HIV-reactive, Geno was spurred to join the organization.

Unlike Rye and Gibs, Geno did not train to become a counselor. Instead, he dedicated his love for visual arts to help the organization continually improve its branding and campaigns. Now, Geno is the Creatives Lead of LoveYourself’s Communications Committee. “With a long-running advocacy like HIV/AIDS that I feel strongly about, I am able to contribute my skills and be of service to others,” says Geno as he contrasts the experience with paid projects that are temporary in nature. Furthermore, Geno is part of the Events Committee.

It is all about Love

The Philippines is a staunchly Catholic country, and it is undeniable that faith plays a central role in the lives of Filipino people. “We know that there are a lot of our LGBT brothers and sisters who have fallen out of the Church. But in reality, it is a welcoming place for everyone – everyone’s a sinner. It’s just that we allow the misdeeds of a few to dishearten us,” opines Rye. The former seminarian who still dreams of becoming a priest someday, encourages everyone to hold on to their faith. All three were interviewed separately, but all have an astonishingly similar and resounding view on the issue of faith and the LGBT community. “Some people may choose to be agnostic, but as long as I see the love in them, I still see God in them,” says Geno. “At the end of the day, we have to respect each other – whether they are a believer or a non-believer.”

Text by Kris Tangco
Photos courtesy of Kris Tangco & Geno Maglinao

LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.

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