When I was six, I liked playing with toys like swords and Matchbox cars. I enjoyed competing in rough games like wrestling and tree climbing. I resented my brothers for not letting me join them when they'd run around, build tree houses, and explore abandoned warehouses. My parents believed that I'd outgrow my tomboy stage and assumed I was the way I was because I grew up the only girl in a family of four boys.
At age 10, I was obsessed with Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Ms. Grace*, our religion teacher, found my copy of the lyrics to “Kiss the Girl” lying on my desk and ripped it in half. I almost cried. I couldn’t see what was so wrong with that.
MY THREE "SINS"
I went to high school at an exclusive all-girls Catholic school in Quezon City. It was a school run by conservative nuns. Our teacher would measure our skirts using a ruler, and since I preferred to wear my skirts longer than the two-inches below-the-knee requirement, I was always reprimanded. I also wore my hair in a crew cut. I didn't understand why having short hair was considered unacceptable in school. Was I less of a woman if I had shorter hair? The school’s answer: Yes. For them, short hair was a telltale sign of lesbianism. I was placed on probation for it. When I refused to grow it long after some time, they recorded my consistently short hair as my first major offense. From that time on, school authorities kept a close watch on me.
Just like in any exclusive convent school, writing letters to girls you liked was normal. However, it was also common for school authorities to look through students' bags for "love" letters if they suspected a girl of having a relationship with another girl. These could be used as valid justification for a student's probation, suspension, or, for repeat offenses (strike three and you’re out), expulsion.
When I was thirteen, I often wrote Anne*, a girl I liked. Anne was one of the most popular girls in school. I knew she liked me because I would see her wait for me to enter the school gates with her friends. A mutual friend of ours told me to court her and since I also liked her, I gave it a try. The relationship wasn't anything serious; we were just fond of each other and expressed this through affectionate letters to one another.
Her mother discovered my letters to her and turned them over to the school. My parents were called to the disciplinary office to be told of my offense. This was my second "sin."
I don't know if it was their way of coping, but for the longest time, my parents were in denial. They didn't want to believe I liked a girl, even though my letters to Anne--as they had heard and read--proved otherwise. I didn't want my brothers to find out about this incident, but they eventually did. They felt I fell in with the "wrong crowd." I felt like the black sheep of the family.
The third and last straw came when a friend of mine and I were cramming to complete an overdue assignment in the restroom after recess. After every break, students had to fall in line outside the classroom for the roll call before entering class. We escaped this by slipping into one of the restrooms near the cafeteria.
When a teacher entered the rest room, we panicked and hid in one of the cubicles. I was afraid because I was already in deep trouble with the school. Unfortunately, the teacher caught us and reported us to the authorities. She surmised that we were doing something we weren't supposed to be doing inside the cubicle. This incident, together with my short haircut, my "butch" mannerisms, and my intercepted letters were enough reason for them to expel me. This was in the middle of my second year in high school.
My parents were called again to the disciplinary office. The disciplinary committee head explained the situation to my parents and told them that expulsion was in my best interests. My parents tried to fight for me, pleading to the school to give me another chance. But the committee said that the school's decision was final.
My parents were silent with resignation when they got home after the meeting. When they told me that the school was expelling me, I couldn't believe it. How could they let it happen? Why didn't they do anything to stop it? I blamed them for it. I thought they pressured the school to kick me out since they wanted to transfer me to another school.
But in fact, they warned the school that they'd bring the case to court, as there were no legal grounds for my expulsion. The school struck a deal with my parents: as long as they didn’t sue and as long as they transferred me to another school, my record would not reflect any misdemeanor or offense.
That day I was expelled, I knew a chapter of my life abruptly ended. Sure, my old high school was suffocating, but it was the only world I knew at that time, and all of my friends were there. I spent eight years studying in that school, and now I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. The shock was so overwhelming that for a while I contemplated suicide.
I was out of school for about a month. My parents tried enrolling me in several other high schools, but none of the would take a dropout in the middle of the school year.
My mother knew that I had to finish high school. She pleaded with a principal of one of the better-known all-girls schools to give me a chance. Moved by a mother's tears, the principal decided to offer me admission to the school. I was relieved to get this new lease on an education, but the trauma of expulsion, being shunned, and losing touch of all my friends still haunted me. I lost confidence in myself. I lost the motivation to study. I didn't want to talk to anyone or make friends. I lost my faith in God because I thought He was persecuting me.
For about two years, I didn't want to act on my feelings towards women even though some of them showed interest. There was one girl who caught my eye, Rina*. My past, however, held me back from fully pursuing any romantic feelings I had for her or for any other woman. It was in my new high school that I became comfortable with my feminine side. I learned to wear dresses and blouses, and grew my hair long. I finished high school with good grades and was accepted by a co-educational university. Here, I opened myself to the possibility of liking guys; after all, I used to have occasional crushes on boys and male actors when I was a kid. I heard of the notion that going to a co-ed school was the best cure for a girl's tomboyish tendencies. But somehow, I just didn't feel attracted or comfortable enough with men to initiate a relationship with any of them.
I expended all my energy on my studies. I amazed myself by getting straight As. My parents suddenly became more accepting of me. My dad told me: "Okay lang naman na ganyan ka, basta matino ka (It doesn't matter if you are the way you are, as long as you're a good person)." I consistently made it to the Dean’s List. I grew my hair long. This made my parents happy. I regained their trust and respect by being responsible with my academic and family duties.
It was in my third year in college that I admitted to myself that I really wanted to be together with Rina. I already liked her in high school but I was hesitant to court her for fear of what our family and friends might think. Rina's parents were very traditional and strict. Being gay was simply out of the question. However, we couldn't deny our attraction to one another. We knew our relationship wasn't going to be easy with all the opposition around us. For a year, Rina and I were really happy, even if we had to sneak around to keep the relationship a secret. When I brought her home, I'd drop her off around the corner of their house and never at the gates because we feared the househelp would tell her parents that it was I who brought her home. Her mom suspected, though, and constantly reminded her to steer clear of me. Sometimes, Rina would tell her parents that she had a late night choir practice when she was actually with me. We'd sneak into my bedroom. We were each other’s first lovers.
There was fear and discontent growing in my heart, because I knew I didn't want to stay in the closet forever. I didn't see any reason to be ashamed of loving another woman.
Because I wanted my parents to be part of my life, I wanted them to know that Rina was my girlfriend. I was hesitant to tell them upfront so I dropped hints during family events. I'd have Rina over for meals at home with my family. No one commented on her presence with me, until one night when she and I fed each other at the dinner table. My brothers, who were usually very talkative, had their heads bowed, as if they simply wanted to mind their own business. After Rina left, I went to my bedroom. My mom, who rarely came into my room, followed. She asked: "Bakit kayo nagsusubuan kanina? Kayo ba? (Why were you feeding each other at the table earlier? Are you two together?)" This time, I felt confident and brave. Without hesitation, I said yes, Rina and I were indeed together, and that yes, I was a lesbian.
My mom broke down, blaming herself for my becoming a lesbian, scared about how the world would mistreat me. I assured her that I could take of myself. After all, she taught me that I should be nothing but who I really am, and that people should respect me for it. My dad's reaction both surprised and moved me. He told me that what made me happy would make him happy. He also said, "Mamahalin na rin namin kung sino ‘yung mahal mo (we will love whoever it is you love)."
BRAVING THE STORM
My happiness with Rina ended after two years. I usually accompanied Rina to her choir practices. The head of the choir told Rina's brother and his wife that we were a couple. Rina's brother, mortified at having found out about it from another person, was deeply angry with her. His wife gave the usual "that’s-not-allowed-in-the-Bible" sermon and said that "something that hard (as being a lesbian in a homophobic society) is not God's will." The head of the choir also confronted Rina and asked her to stop seeing me and bringing me to their choir practices or else she would have to leave the group for good.
Rina was angry at her choir group for outing her. She felt they were harsh and cried so much that she decided to quit the group. "It's not worth it," she said. Then, she turned her anger at me, accusing me of "making her life so difficult." It was then that she decided that she couldn't be with me anymore.
Since my relationship with Rina came to an end, there was nothing left to do but cope. I immersed myself in creative activities and sought solace in writing poetry. I spent days in the library, doing research on why lesbian prejudice exists. I grew passionate about the cause of fighting against discrimination.
I don't believe that I was "born" lesbian, but I do not want other lesbians to be denied of their basic human rights. When I think of the freedom, happiness, and love being withheld from me by a repressed society, I feel sad. But I look forward to the day when the world hopefully becomes a freer place to learn and love.
*Names have been changed.
(First published in Marie Claire Magazine, Features section as "I was kicked out in high school for being a lesbian" in November 2005; recounted to Trisha Andres; adapted for use in Female Network)
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