Kinship and Generational Differences:
Navigating LGBT and Filipino-American Identities
Shanahan Europa is a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles majoring in English and minoring in Classical Civilizations. She is currently a fiction editor for Westwind: UCLA’s Journal of the Arts and a staff writer for UCLA’s FEM Newsmagazine. She loves creative writing, reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, and befriending stray cats. After completing her B.A. in English, she hopes to get a M.A. in English and become an independent author and editor. She hopes to contribute to a new tradition of literature dedicated to increasing accurate representation of women, the LGBT community, and people of color in novels and short stories.
In her study “Filipino American Culture and Traditions: An Exploratory Study,” Amanda Bautista writes, “Filipino American practices are highly influenced by Filipino values brought back from the Philippines” (18). Therefore, a foundational understanding of Filipino culture is necessary to best define Filipino American attitudes about the LGBT community. Presently, “Filipino culture can be defined as a hybrid of indigenous and colonial values, beliefs, customs, and traditions” (qtd. in A. Bautista 17).
Compared to modern Filipino culture, the indigenous Filipinos had a fluid understanding and construction of gender. The indigenous Filipino language reflected this fluidity as it possessed a gender-neutral pronoun system. This system reduced the development of any gender-coded or misogynistic language. This pronoun system affirmed the ways in which the indigenous peoples did not believe or think in heteronormative binaries or strict gender roles (M. Bautista 145).
The Spanish introduced Catholicism and, by extension, heterocentric gender roles and stereotypes to the Philippines when they colonized the island nation from 1521 to 1898 (“Philippines: The Spanish Period”). The Spanish friars conducted a massive campaign to provide Catholic education to the natives, which significantly reframed the Filipino’s fluid gender system into a rigid binary. The 1898 to 1946 United States occupation of the Philippines solidified and popularized Catholicism and heterocentrism, which now compose the basis for many modern Filipino beliefs about marriage, gender roles, and sexuality (Borlaza and Hernandez).
This new Filipino culture that was created—with pervasive heterocentric conceptions of relationships and sexuality—has since influenced the creation and evolution of the Filipino American culture in the United States (A. Bautista 19). In their study “Sharing of Culture: Adult Grandchildren’s Perceptions of Intergenerational Relations,” researchers Wisscott and Kopera-Frye discovered that culture is primarily passed on through the family but specifically by grandparents. Thus, older generations of Filipino immigrants to the United States usually have beliefs and values that align mostly with traditional Filipino culture. Therefore, these older generations of Filipinos (i.e. grandparents) become the most direct source of Filipino culture—and by extension cultural homophobia— for Filipino Americans.
In a study on the role of grandparents in Filipino American families, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with Filipino American grandparents and found “a cultural gap between the grandparents and children that at times resulted in intergenerational conflicts” (qtd. in A. Bautista 17). LGBT acceptance is a major ideological conflict between different generations of Filipino Americans. Older generations of Filipino Americans hold stronger Anti-LGBT sentiments than the younger generations. The enormous impact American values have on Filipino American families and culture explain this difference in LGBT tolerance as younger generations are more likely to assimilate to American culture and its higher acceptance of the LGBT community (A. Bautista 7).
The purpose of this research is to investigate how kinship and generational differences work individually and intersect to influence an LGBT Filipino American’s ability to assert and express their LGBT identity within their families. I argue that close degrees of kinship and smaller generational differences are the factors allow for more freedom and acceptance between LGBT Filipino Americans and respective family members, while large generational gaps, regardless of kinship, suppress their desire and ability to express their sexuality. I focus on sexual orientation explicitly, as I believe that gender identity should be studied separately. My research questions include:
How does kinship affect an LGBT Filipino American’s desire to come out and express their sexuality?
How do generational differences affect an LGBT Filipino American’s desire to come out and express their sexuality?
How do both kinship and generational differences interact in this context?
This study used first-person interviews and observations of the participants’ social media to examine the experiences of LGBT Filipino Americans. All the interviews were conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus in dormitories. There was a total of six participants in the study altogether; two participants were women, two were men, and two were gender nonbinary. Both men identified as gay, one woman identified as lesbian and the other identified as bisexual, and the two nonbinary participants identified as pansexual. The average age was 19-years-old for the women, 20 for the men, and 19.5 for the nonbinary individuals. Four of the participants were second-generation Filipino American (born and raised in the United States), and the remaining two were immigrants from the Philippines. All interviewees were undergraduate students from UCLA.
The participants were recruited by email announcements that were sent to UCLA’s Samahang Pilipino (SP) Organization Kabalikat Committee, an LGBT Committee for SP. Interested participants contacted me and we scheduled an interview time somewhere on campus or in the dormitories that worked for both parties. Before beginning the session, all participants were informed that their responses would be confidential and secured. The interviews lasted approximately one hour. There were no incentives for participating. I asked a number of open-ended questions to elicit an open and honest conversation about the participants’ experiences. Sample questions included:
How do you feel about being LGBT and Filipino American?
How open are you about your sexuality in different social environments (school, work, home, etc.)?
Describe your relationship with family members you have come out to, plan to come out to, or never plan to come out to?
Are there aspects of being Filipino that you feel are contradictory with an LGBT identity?
As stated previously I am the only principal investigator of this study. I am a bisexual second-generation Filipino American woman and was a first- year undergraduate student at UCLA during the time of the interview. In order to analyze the qualitative research neutrally, I met with my project advisor to discuss any potential biases, values, or assumptions that would be detrimental in the analysis of the data collected. For example, one bias was that I assumed participants would be able to openly discuss nuances of being both Filipino and American; I also discussed how there may be different perspectives according to the participants’ gender. In admitting my assumptions, I aimed to minimize the bias during my interview and data analyses.
Results and Discussion:
Alongside the initial domains of investigation, kinship and generational differences, two additional subdomains arose from the interviews: the Filipino cultural value of utang na loob and Catholicism. Utang na loob had a strong correlation with kinship, and Catholicism had a strong correlation with generational differences, and thus the paper is organized in this manner.
Regarding kinship, all the participants expressed the importance of coming out to their immediate family first and thought it was unnecessary to come out to their extended family. All the participants were out to their siblings and had recently come out, were in the process of coming out, or never planned to come out to their parents. None of the participants had any desire to come out to extended family members (cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.) for two reasons: one, by coming out to their parents, they confidently assumed the latter would eventually tell the rest of the family by virtue of gossip, and two, the participants did not have close enough relationships to their extended family members for coming out to be significant.
The participants all agreed that siblings were the easiest family members to come out to while parents were the most difficult. One gay man offered insight on this outlook when he described how he found out he was gay:
“I was searching up the Naked Brothers band and instead I found gay porn [laughter]…I always felt different from everyone else and I finally found the word for what I was. But I immediately knew there a cultural stigma and hid my sexuality and thought ‘I can’t show my parents.’”
His urgency to hide his sexuality is a tragic reality for many LGBT Filipino Americans. All the participants shared that they felt they had to conceal their sexuality and keep their LGBT-related activities secret to avoid coming out to their parents before they were ready. They all expressed anxiety about their parents reacting with disapproval or disappointment towards their sexuality. For example, Erin, a lesbian woman, had been volunteering at Lavender, an LGBT group on campus, and had kept her involvement secret from her parents for two years before coming out to them. Erin said that she deliberately refrained from talking about her LGBT-related school activities when she visited home. Not being able to talk about all her involvements in school created distance in her relationship with her parents. Since coming out, her relationship with her parents has greatly improved, given that her parents had needed time to adjust to this new knowledge about her lesbian identity.
Additionally, all the narratives revealed that Filipino parents often silenced their children indirectly, either through denial or lack of acknowledgment of LGBT topics or relationships. The participants also appeared to mirror this behavior, masking their sexual identity when they were in the company of family. Jason, a gay man, said that it was difficult suppressing the impulse to explain why a comment was homophobic and wrong. He told me that forcing himself to stay quiet in his own home was one of the most painful experiences in his life. Some of the participants shared similar experiences where they had to withhold replies to derogatory comments made by family members about the LGBT community out of fear of creating conflict.
Utang na loob:
This cultural nuance of silence is commonly understood through the Filipino value of utang na loob which roughly translates to “internal indebtedness” or “debt of gratitude.” In his article entitled “Utang Na Loob: A System of Contractual Obligation among Tagalogs,” Charles Kaut describes utang na loob as a social system where indebtedness stems from an act of theoretical volition such that a gift or service is offered by one person to another of his own free will. He states that one of the most important aspects of utang na loob is reflected in the proverb “ang utang na loob ay hindi mababayaran ng salapi,” literally “a debt of volition cannot be paid with money.” Thus, the repayment of this debt is considered unquantifiable. Put into context, children feel utang na loob towards their parents for bringing them into the world, raising them, and, in this case, financially supporting their children in college.
In her article, “Reciprocity in the Lowland Philippines,” Mary Hollnsteiner describes parent-child utang na loob as follows:
Children are expected to be everlastingly grateful to their parents not only for all the latter have done for them in the process of raising them but…for giving them life itself…Thus, a child’s utang na loob to its parents is immeasurable and eternal…[Conceptually] nothing he can do during his lifetime can make up for what they have done for him. (396)
All the participants implicitly or explicitly expressed that utang na loob was the reason why they either had reservations coming out to their parents or why they never plan to come out to their parents. For instance, when asked about her hesitancy to come out to her parents, Kim, a bisexual woman, sadly admitted, “My parents have sacrificed a lot for me, I don’t want to disappoint them by coming out. [sigh] I’m scared things will be different.” Essentially, all the collected responses about this topic illuminated that many participants had sacrificed their need to self-express or to be heard because they did not want to shame their family or feel disconnected from them.
This social system of utang na loob can also explain why the participants prioritize coming out to their immediate family more than their other relatives. The interviews revealed that utang na loob within nuclear families (both parent-child and sibling relationships) had considerably more emotional sentiment attached to it than utang na loob with extended family. Considering how large families can be through bilateral kinship, individuals are usually forced to choose certain relatives who will be closer to them than others. Factors influencing his choice include simple geographical proximity, traditional family preferences, and the compatibility between two personalities (Hollnsteiner, 398). Thus, the participants lacked strong utang na loob with their extended family and saw no need to come out to these relatives.
In addition to kinship, large generational differences greatly affected participants’ desire to come out and express their sexuality due to significant dissimilarities in LGBT acceptance and ideologies regarding romantic relationships. Overall, I found that it was easier for the participants to come out and express their identities to people of the same generation. Justin, a gay man, explained why he thought it was easier to come out to siblings and cousins, stating:
“[Generation Z] is more open-minded, there’s a general sense of tolerance and willingness to learn why people are different. Also, we’re more open about sexuality and gender [than older generations].”
All the narratives agreed, sharing similar values and mindsets about how LGBT culture and acceptance within their generation contributed to the ease of expressing their sexuality with their siblings and cousins.
The participants’ social media reflected this attitude. I found that the participants only posted LGBT related material on social media platforms where older relatives did not follow them (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter). The option to set their profiles to private allowed them to only accept follow requests from family members that they were comfortable being open with, mostly siblings and cousins. They posted little to no LGBT-related material on Facebook where many older relatives were their friends.
Many of the participants attributed general Filipino American acceptance of the LGBT community to growing up in the United States. Lian Mae, a nonbinary pansexual, explained that “the older generation of Filipinos were [mostly] all born in the post-colonial Philippines, where being LGBT is not as accepted compared to the United States.” In his article “People Who Can Be Friends: Selves and Social Relationships,” Carrier compares the Western conception of the autonomous self with the Melanesian situated self. The latter is similar to the collectivism of Filipino culture in the sense that social relations are prioritized over the individual. Therefore, the act of “coming out” deviates from the collectivist beliefs of older Filipinos and aligns with Carrier’s Western autonomous self. Conflict occurs because many Filipinos may feel coming out to be a superfluous and unnecessary process and attribute young Filipino Americans’ desire to come out to American assimilation. Adopting the perspective of older generation Filipino Americans, had the younger generation not been influenced by American culture, LGBT identities would be a less contentious topic within families since it would essentially be ignored (Corpus et al. 167).
The different levels of LGBT acceptance between generations can also be explained by the dominance of Catholicism in the Philippines. The Philippines is the only Asian country where 90% of the population subscribes to Catholicism or Christianity (Corpus et al., 167). Thus, Filipinos adopt a heterocentric view of relationships and marriage that characterizes homosexuality as morally wrong (Corpus et al., 169). The participants stated that many of their older relatives, including their parents and grandparents, were practicing Catholics that generally espoused traditional beliefs of gender and sexuality. When I prompted Lian Mae about her thoughts about Filipino Catholicism, she sighed and recalled the following memory:
“My aunt is a Jehovah’s Witness member, and she always gave booklets to my family…I remember that she gave me one, I opened it up, and it said something like “being queer and Catholic is contradictory.” I tried not to take any more booklets after that.”
All the participants articulated that they thought the combination of being LGBT, Filipino, and Catholic were competing identities that could not be reconciled because of the prevalence of heteronormativity in their family’s culture and religion. Catholicism seemed to impede the assertion and expression of sexual identity, especially with religious family members.
The controlling nature of Filipino parents desiring heterosexual relationships for their children is paralleled in Yan’s findings from her article “Youth Autonomy and Romance in Courtship.” In her study of spouse selection in the Chinese village of Xiajia, Yan found that it was the creation of social spaces where young men and women could socialize together that contributed to increased youth autonomy and decreased parental dominance. In a similar way, the presence of pro-LGBT legislation and LGBT networks and resources in the United States contributed to the formation and acceptance of a Filipino American’s LGBT identity. Their presence fosters a strong desire to come out against the wishes of their older family members. In both cases, parental interference and influence create tension between parent-child relationships, a tension which stems from different beliefs regarding relationships due to generational differences.
The effect of large generational differences is epitomized by the dynamic between an LGBT Filipino American and their grandparents. When asked about their desire to come out to their grandparents, all the participants said that they had no desire to do so and saw that the interaction would be futile. Jade, a nonbinary pansexual, said: “Talking about my gender identity and sexual orientation would be beyond [my grandparents] because of the different time they grew up in.” All the participants held the belief that their grandparents would be incapable of understanding any form of homosexuality because they were considered the most conservative and traditional of their older generation of family members. Utang na loob also influenced the participants’ decision to conceal their LGBT identity from their grandparents; obligations to their grandparents are extensions of the parent-child utang na loob, such that suppressing their LGBT identity served both their grandparents’ and parents’ interests.
The primary purpose of this study was to understand the experiences of LGBT Filipino Americans within their families. The results of my study supported my argument that closer kinship and smaller generational differences allow for more freedom and acceptance of an LGBT-identifying Filipino Americans and that large generational differences, regardless of kinship, suppress the individual’s desire to assert and express their identity. Utang na loob and Catholicism appeared to be the most influential factors within kinship and generational differences when an LGBT Filipino American is determining whom they can come out to or express their identity to.
Further research may investigate how LGBT individuals’ immigration generation affects their attitudes towards and identifications with the LGBT community, as some individuals in this study immigrated to the United States from the Philippines while others were born in the United States. Research can also be conducted on how the age of the LGBT Filipino American when they immigrated to the United States affects their acceptance of their sexuality and the LGBT community. Finally, studies that focus on LGBT Filipino Americans can be essential in capturing the full experience of LGBT Filipino American community, and studies that focus on other LGBT Asian American ethnic groups (e.g. Vietnamese, Asian Indians) can reveal the spectrum of LGBT experiences in the Asian American community (Corpus et al. 174).
Although this study provides insight about LGBT Filipino Americans, it is necessary to identify the limitations of this current study. First, I recognize that the sample is small (n = 6) and did not include any transgender participants. Additionally, the study only included undergraduate college students from the ages of 18-21 who were all from California, shared general liberal and progressive views, and were “out” with their sexual identities. This may not be reflective of LGBT Filipino Americans, especially youth discovering their identities or those who grew up in more conservative environments.
Bautista, Amanda Vinluan. Filipino American Culture and Traditions: An Exploratory Study. May 2014, p. 70.
Bautista, Marie Lou Frias. “Historical Influences on Gender Preference in the Philippines.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 1988, pp. 143–153.
Borlaza, Gregorio C., and Michael Cullinane. “Philippines: The Spanish Period.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 Mar. 2019, www.britannica.com/place/Philippines/The-Spanish-period.
Borlaza, Gregorio C., and Carolina G. Hernandez. “Philippines: The Period of U.S. Influence.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 29 Mar. 2019, www.britannica.com/place/Philippines/The-period-of-U-S-influence.
Carrier, James G. “People Who Can Be Friends: Selves and Social Relationships.” The Anthology of Friendship, 1999, pp. 21–38.
Corpus, Melissa J. H. and Kevin L. Nadal. “‘Tomboys’ and ‘Baklas’: Experiences of Lesbian and Gay Filipino Americans.” Asian American Journal of Psychology, vol. 4, no. 3, 2013, pp. 166–175., doi:10.1037/a0030168.
Hollnsteiner, Mary R. “Reciprocity in the Lowland Philippines.” Philippine Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, July 1961, pp. 387–413.
Kaut, Charles. “Utang Na Loob: A System of Contractual Obligation among Tagalogs.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 17, no. 3, 1961, pp. 256–272., doi:10.1086/soutjanth.17.3.3629045.
Strobel, L. “Babaylan: Filipinos and the Call of the Indigenous.” 2010.
Tubeza, Philip C. “PH Ranks among Most Gay-Friendly in the World.” Inquirer Global Nation 70th Anniversary of the Infamous Rescission Act of 1946 Comments, Inquirer Global Nation, 8 June 2013
Wiscott, Richard, and Karen Kopera-Frye. “Sharing of Culture: Adult Grandchildren’s Perceptions Intergenerational Relations.” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, vol. 51, no. 3, Oct. 2000, pp. 199–215. Crossref, doi:10.2190/0UY5-MXXP-W81K-VXCU.
Yang, Yunxiang. “Youth Autonomy and Romance in Courtship.” Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 2003, pp. 42–63. Stanford University Press.