Spreading light across prisms: Spotlighting Filipino LGBTQ+ scientists

While working abroad is a common financial goal for Filipinos, for LGBTQ+ Filipinos it may also be a personal one.

For the LGBTQ+ community, Pride Month is a time to celebrate one’s identity and advocate for queer rights; it is about being who you are and loving who you love without shame or guilt. 

With the full colors of the rainbow, Pride also honors the lives and contributions of LGBTQ+ people to the broader society. Many Filipino scientists are loudly and proudly queer, and there is no better a time than Pride to recognize their work and struggles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

Your time to shine

Unsurprisingly, these LGBTQ+ scientists began with curiosity. For Jason Tan Liwag, a gay molecular biology graduate student from the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), it was the fantastical charms of Pokémon and Jurassic Park. “I loved all of those things,” he shares with a bright smile. Liwag currently studies the long-term effects of environmental plastics for one of his research works. 

Meanwhile, John Noel Viana’s story began with his admiration for Marvel’s X-Men, which led him to pursue genetics and biology. With deep roots in neuroscience and genetics, he happily reflects on the social and ethical implications of novel scientific discoveries. Viana is openly gay and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University. 

However, not all stories begin with fiction. Venturing out to the wonders of the sea, Andrian Gajigan is a gay biochemist and oceanographer. His STEM story began with teachers who inspired him to pursue a life of science. It blew his mind to learn that “molecules could dictate behavior, characteristics, and physiology of all biological entities.” He is currently a research assistant and doctorate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a focus on familiar friends: phytoplanktons. 

In another world under the sea, Jandeil Roperos is a proud trans woman in STEM. “I wanted to be a doctor in high school, but I happened to enjoy research,” she pleasantly reminisces, further sharing that it all sprung from her BIO100 course. As a product of her shifting voyages from medicine to academia, Roperos is now a research associate and master’s student at UPD. She currently studies the nutrigenomics and the genetic profiles of staple fish in the Philippines, namely tilapia and bangus. 

Beyond research

In their endeavors, however, these scientists also had to face struggles that non-LGBTQ+ people would not usually have to deal with. Some of these, such as microaggressions, may be less obvious than others but are nonetheless important. Microaggressions, in particular, are so deeply ingrained in society that most people do not think much of them. 

Likewise, Gajigan highlights that although the universities he has attended are progressive, he has still received snarky comments such as, “Sayang naman kayo, may itsura pa naman kayo,” or “Bakit ayaw [niyo] sa babae, sir?” 

(“Your looks are such a waste,” or “Why don’t you like girls, sir?”)

For Viana, he recalls, “I was teased when I was younger, when in Catholic school and in high school as well, but I guess it’s a bit less when you’re in a non-Catholic school.” He notes that in non-Catholic schools such as the Philippine Science High School system, it may not feel like the whole world is against you. 

Ngayon, tolerated [ang mga LGBTQ+] pero hindi pa accepted,” Roperos points out. As a trans woman, the discrimination she has experienced has also extended to the workplace. For instance, she has experienced rejection from companies not for her grades, work ethic, or performance, but for her gender identity.

(LGBTQ+ people are tolerated now, but they are not accepted).

She recalls once being asked in a company interview how she would be able to generate more sales than a non-queer person.  “Kung baga, I [needed] to prove as a transwoman na magkakaroon ako ng mas maraming sales compared sa heterosexual.” 

(Basically, I needed to prove as a transwoman that I’ll have higher sales compared to a heterosexual). 

While their gender and sexuality are a cause for discrimination, it is also important to note that struggles faced by LGBTQ+ people are also influenced by their socioeconomic status. These things are intersectional. 

According to Roperos, an educated or privileged person who happens to be queer may still be presented with opportunities and their sexuality may be tolerated in society. On the other hand, LGBTQ+ people in marginalized sectors are likely to experience far more struggles, thus creating a larger difference between socioeconomic groups. 

A glimpse of freedom

While working abroad is a common financial goal for Filipinos, for LGBTQ+ Filipinos it may also be a personal one. “‘Yung struggle ng LGBT—dalawang beses siyang inooppress sa lipunang ito. Una, dahil sa kaniyang gender, pangalawa, discriminated siya dahil sa kaniyang economic status,” Roperos asserts. 

(For the struggle of the LGBT—they are oppressed twice over by this society. First, because of their gender. Second, they are also discriminated against because of their economic status).

Liwag shares similar sentiments. He says that the Philippines is just generally corrupt. With the faulty political systems that are constantly being upheld, a lot of the opportunities to change and to improve as a society are not taken. 

When it comes to going abroad, he considers these economic issues more than the treatment of his sexuality in the country. “Parang gusto ko pumunta ng US, kahit just to go visit a gay bar there. [But] I don’t think it’s necessarily tied to my personal limitations brought about sexual orientation, identity, or expression,” he says. 

(I kind of want to go to the US.) 

On spotlighting safe spaces 

Despite the challenges of being queer in the country, social media has allowed queer scientists to find and to create their own safe spaces. The formation of these communities has important sociopolitical implications. “Carving queer spaces in STEM would open up spaces…for women, for [those in the] low-income class, for indigenous folks to participate in science,” Gaijan affirms. 

Viana also underlines how having queer people in the STEM community opens up discussions on science issues that are not tackled by cisgender or straight people, such as intersex surgery, hormone replacement therapy, and sex education. These discussions are catalysts in forming solutions to the problems LGBTQ+ people face. “We need queer spaces to even initiate these discussions,” he stresses. Moreover, having these spaces in STEM helps bring the narratives of LGBTQ+ Filipino scientists into society, fostering a stronger acceptance of queer scientists in the Philippines.

Liwag discusses how they started a visibility campaign on social media to humanize queer scientists and to empower younger scientists-in-training called Queer Scientists PH, which are on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They also post articles about LGBTQ+ scientists on their Medium. He says he started the project with “the idea of what it means to contribute to science, and also what it meant…to be a queer in STEM.” Giving queer scientists adequate support for their education, work, research, and rights benefits not only the queer and scientific community but also other underrepresented communities as well. 

Ultimately, there is still a long way to go with the acceptance of queer people in the country, especially in the scientific community. After all, the growth of science and technology is hindered by our lack of support for scientists and the barriers that LGBTQ+ scientists have to overcome. But by continuing to shine a spotlight on LGBTQ+ narratives, there is hope that help could be given to pave the way toward a more inclusive and accepting future for all.

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