An open secret: Uncovering queer stories from all-girls schools

In many all-girls schools, glass ceilings are typically shattered and stained with the various hues representing one’s social identities. Strict handbook guidelines, indoctrinated curricula, and tumultuous student-to-student dynamics are ever-defining of how one comes about with their comfortability in expressing their truest selves.

While these institutions stand separately from how their students choose to identify, one cannot negate the experiences these individuals bring with them as they come out of these environments—truly, there is a myriad of intricacies to how gala-wearing sisterhood eventually transforms into pride flag-bearing feminism.

Under the table

Remaining tightly intertwined with their conservative roots, all-girls schools—taken in and of themselves—can be conduits for thinly-veiled forms of discrimination. Being former students in all-girls institutions, Alyssa Clemente (I, OSD-LGL) and Cheska Rugayan testify to the prejudicial curricula and discussions borne in their schools. “There’s so much homophobia implied into everything,” Rugayan remarks.

Gender presentations become determining factors of the kind of treatment one receives. Though Rugayan observes that there were no explicitly homophobic clauses in her school’s handbook, she contends that there was a myriad of microaggressions infused in its directives. A case in point is the school’s rule against short hair, which actively restricts non-feminine types of gender expression. 

After having shaved her head in an undercut, Rugayan was overcome by a sense of confusion when she was subject to a teacher’s reproach. “I was a student who was really involved in academics, extracurriculars, [and] student leadership…why was [my gender expression] taken against me, or why did she feel like it was something I could be in trouble for?” Rugayan recalls with frustration.

In Clemente’s school, heteronormative family roles dominated the discourse. They relayed how teachers would constantly mention that their students would get married to men in the future; presupposing this standard as a fixed norm unopen to to the idea of non-traditional families. This was in spite of the fact that many of their peers in school openly identified as queer. “Teachers chose not to acknowledge it (the LGBTQ+ community in the school), maybe as a sense of denial,” they notice. Queerness, Clemente says, was more of an “unspoken thing.”

These values set the stage for the attitudes LGBTQ+ all-girls students carry to this day. Clemente particularly points out that such stances are hammered into the minds of children in their formative years. Though having left her own all-girls school for a more progressive university abroad, Rugayan laments, “I still catch myself [thinking that] maybe if I present myself [as] too masculine [or] cut my hair too short, I’ll be too gay… I think it’s just the all-girls Catholic school in me.”

In the broader picture, school-wide discrimination stands as a mere microcosm of the nation’s deeply homophobic culture. “The echo chamber that was in [my school] was just a mirror of what was going on outside,” Rugayan asserts. “The homophobia didn’t stop—it was also in our households, in our government, and [in] everything surrounding us.”

Ironing pleated and plaid skirts

Despite the deluge of issues meeting all-girls schools, they too serve as fertile ground for female empowerment and sorority. Clemente remarks how at their all-girls school, the absence of male students opened up avenues for them to take up responsibilities. From logistics to leadership, the environment “made me more comfortable with my own sex [and] I was more proud to be a woman, [because] no matter who you are, or whatever the task is, it’s always a woman who shows up to the job,” Clemente reflects with delight.

On the other hand, Rugayan, a current freshman at a co-ed university abroad, had quite a different story to tell of her time in an all-girls school. As Rugayan lays out the highlights of her basic education years, she prefaces her responses by saying that coming from a conservative educational background fanned the flames of the suppressed identity issues she carries. “The school is supposed to be a safe space, safe and nurturing, but instead …[coming out] was kind of seen as an act of rebellion or deviating,” Rugayan explains. 

Touching on internalized homophobia, Rugayan imparts, “If a student is trans, gender nonconforming, or [simply] queer [in my school], it’s not really hidden. It’s kind of just like an open secret.” Clemente echoes the same sentiments, sharing experiences of the same cloth. While impositions of strict heterosexuality or femininity were not laid out, there has always been an unspoken hint to follow heteronormativity. In their process of coming out, a sense of hesitation slowly rose. “It was difficult to go against what I previously [identified as],” Clemente expresses.

As a cisgender bisexual, Clemente still believes that they had it easier than others because they presented as feminine. They only came out as bisexual in their last year in the institution, so they believed that the environment was safe enough for them to come out to their peers as their queer narrative did not stand alone. Claiming that the school they came from is deemed a “lesbian breeding ground”, they share that coming out “wasn’t something where I did stand out from the crowd, and I was very much comfortable in [my school].” 

As Rugayan and Clemente recount their days in their previous schools, both feminists quickly affirm that the years they have spent in these institutions have become catalysts for shaping who they are now. Although Rugayan reiterates that her high school wasn’t perfect, she mentions that she still owes to it a lot of who she has become. In a similar vein, Clemente takes pride in the reputation their academy has for being one of the most progressive pedagogies in the Philippines. “[We had] opportunities to form our own opinions…we were able to step out of conservative ideology,” they explain with enthusiasm.

Ways to #DoBetter 

Progressive movements such as the #DoBetter campaign in 2020, which tells the stories and experiences of students of Catholic all-girls schools, may mark the start of a more open and vocal environment where the community can bravely share their experiences with the world. Huge modifications in school setups that significantly impact students from all-girl schools, such as updating the student handbook, have also occurred. 

However, amid these changes in same-sex institutions, be it socially or culturally, Clemente believes there is still much more to do to make these spaces more inclusive. They convey, “We have come a long way, but there [are] still a lot of people who stay silent because they’re too scared.”

Coming from the enclosed bubble that was her all-girls high school, Rugayan admits feeling freer after leaving. Her current school in San Francisco is definitely a more accepting place, allowing her to realize how more Catholic educational institutions in the Philippines still have a long way to go. Citing the instance when DLSU allowed students to change their display names to their personal preferences, she shares, “We’ve been doing that [here ever] since. You [will] realize talaga when you’re outside [that] that’s not enough.”

Nevertheless, Clemente hopes for a future where students can be more expressive about their gender orientation. Above all, they desire to be acknowledged not just as people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community but for who they are as individuals. “Just because I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community, that’s all that I am seen [as]. LGBTQ+ members have personalities [and] lives outside of their sexual orientation,” Clemente airs. And this dream can only be achieved if society fully embraces them with open arms, without judgment and prejudice, recognizing them beyond their sexuality—with schools as the starting point. 

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