Leo, my gay friend, and me
JUST RECENTLY, my six-year-old granddaughter Maddie asked me: “Lolo, what is a gay man?” To which I replied: “Uhmm, a man, like Vice Ganda.” And then she said: “So, gay is a boy who wants to be a girl. Right, Lolo?” I was jolted by her remark. I wanted to clarify my answer right there and then. But I decided not to and just smiled at her. I knew then that she would eventually understand when she grows up and gets to meet a gay. Like I did years ago.
Unlike my granddaughter, my initial awakening to the reality of homosexuality came only at the onset of my teen years. It came at a time when I also confirmed my own heterosexuality. I was in first year high school then and had a crush on one of my batch mates in the girls’ section. I could not seem to get her attention. So, in a joint class activity one day, I decided to act out being gay like Dolphy in his movies. But still I failed to attract my crush. Not only that, I also became the butt of jokes among my classmates as “bakla.” I started to dislike gays from then on.
I became aware once again of the reality of homosexuality in the seminary where I went after high school. The word was spoken only in whispers even in the secluded world where we lived. But there were strict written rules that clearly suggested it. They forbade us to engage in “particular (exclusive) friendships” with another seminarian. We had to walk in threes and never in twos. We were forbidden to hold hands with another while walking, to touch, etc. And worst, anybody who disobeyed these rules would be dismissed from the seminary because he posed a “danger” to other seminarians.
I would learn later on that the Church considers homosexuality “intrinsically evil” and gays to be “living in sin.”
I got stuck in this negative image of a homosexual until I met and befriended Leo (not his real name). It all happened after I got married and worked—first at the Philippine First Asylum Camp in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, and later at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Morong, Bataan.
It was in Palawan where I first met Leo, a refugee trainer and teacher supervisor. I had the impression at first that he was a straight male given his demeanor in his speech and general
appearance. Later on, as I got to know more about him, I was able to observe what I considered his effeminate ways. His passion for the finer things in life like curtains in his office and flowers on his desk, his choice of colors, and his attention to details were examples. He was also a great cook and could whip up an excellent meal in an instant or prepare a full course dinner complete with all the works of a fine dining experience. What impressed me most of all, however, was his being a very kind-hearted and loving person, always ready to help not only the refugees but also fellow employees who were in need. He was a natural caregiver in many ways.
I got to know him better and became close to him when we decided, together with two other camp staff, to rent a house and just share the expenses in order to save money. Already, other people had warned me about his being gay but I did not mind it. Leo and I were good friends and we respected each other as persons. He was also close to my wife and children. For me, that was good enough.
I got transferred to the Bataan refugee camp later and found myself entitled to a family staff house. But since my family was not with me, I invited Leo, who also got his Bataan assignment then, to stay with me. One day, in a sharing moment over dinner, Leo admitted to me that he was gay and asked me whether I was afraid of him. I replied that I was not homophobic. I told him too that I had my suspicions, but that I could not care less. I assured him then that I considered him a friend and I respected and admired him as a person no matter what his sexual inclination was. That must have touched him because he next bared his soul to me as he talked about his inner struggles early as a “boy who wanted to be a girl,” his nonacceptance by playmates, his heartaches, his fear of being rejected from receiving communion, and his fear of eternal damnation.
We became even closer after that. Later, when he finally decided to get married (to a woman), he asked me to be one of his wedding sponsors. He is now a happy, married man and a father of one. And we continue to be close friends to this day.
As I write now, I realize that Leo seemed to have integrated within himself his gayness and has made sense of his own life. I personally experienced his being a very loving and caring person. I knew even then that he truly cared for me without sexual undertones whenever he prepared our meals and made sure that I liked it. But most of all, I saw his human side and compassionate nature in his social concern for others.
Having known a gay like Leo has truly enriched me as a person and enhanced the quality of my encounters with people of similar sexual orientation. Because of him, I have moved on from dislike and mere tolerance toward true acceptance and nonjudgmental recognition of gays.
Today, I realize that a gay is not just a “man who wants to be a woman.” As Pope Francis has said of gays who are intent on loving God and his neighbor: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Danilo G. Mendiola, a retired HR and admin practitioner, does volunteer work in his Quezon City parish as a pastoral counselor. He has four children and four grandchildren.
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