Up until I was 5 years of age, I always thought I was a girl.
I grew up in a country where religion played an important role in everyone’s life, including mine.
My name is Roman Vincent Canillas, also known as Chi. I was named after my paternal and maternal grandfathers--both alpha males. Up until I was 5 years of age, I always thought I was a girl. One day at a family reunion, I was playing with my female cousin, Maricar. After engaging in some physical activities at the nearby park all afternoon, we were naturally all soiled up and sweaty. That evening we went back to a relative’s house where the reunion was being held, our nannies had to dress us up and prepare us for dinner. As we were having our clothes taken off, I noticed my cousin’s privates were different from mine. I was bothered and had to get it out of my system. Even before dinner could start, I rushed to mom and asked her why Maricar’s genitals were different from mine. Mom looked at me, puzzled. She then goes on to say, because she’s a girl and you are a boy. There was a long pause. My world was shattered, and it felt like a ton of bricks fell over my head. I knew then my life would never be the same.
They thought I had a disease that needed a cure.
I was sent to study in a boys school, and as I walked the cold corridors and saw all these boys walking to their classes it was a harsh realization that I am, in fact, male. I was disgusted and depressed. I did try to change and do all the things that boys did. I wanted to please my parents and conform to what society expected of a lad like me--you see we live in a middle class suburb where everyone knew each other, went to the same church, gossiped about the slightest things. It was a place filled with hypocrites who were quick to judge.
My parents were quite known in our community. They were active members of our parish, they knew almost everyone and I wasn’t going to be the one to cause such a stain on their reputation, or so I hoped. But in January of 1987, I turned 13--I couldn’t live a lie anymore. It felt like I was about to burst and if I did not tell them about my struggle, I probably would’ve gone crazy, or at worst committed suicide. I felt it was time to come out and tell my parents the truth about how I feel, who I am, and who I want to be in order for me to survive.
The first 2 years of my High School life was hell. I was harassed, bullied, hit on, shamed, called names, made fun of, ridiculed, etc. But unlike others living in the closet who do so to not experience such hate, I chose to live my truth.
Times were very different in the ‘80s. After admitting to my parents my truth, I was disowned by my father--which up to now he refutes my claim--and my mom reassured me that I could change. It was heartbreaking. I was sent to see a priest, a psychiatrist, and when nothing worked my mother had to seek an intervention from my grandparents whom I respected so much. They thought I had a disease that needed a cure. As if that wasn’t enough, I was entering High School and had to transfer from the boys school that I have grown accustomed to and made friends with so many of them who was never bothered by my effeminate mannerisms, to a co-ed one filled with homophobic juveniles trying to impress girls. The first 2 years of my High School life was hell. I was harassed, bullied, hit on, shamed, called names, made fun of, ridiculed, etc. But unlike others living in the closet who do so to not experience such hate, I chose to live my truth. I chose to wake up, get up, and dress up every morning for 2 whole years and face my adversaries. I would rather be bullied than hide in the dark and be miserable.
The last 2 years of High School were a bit more tolerable. By this time I had made some friends, mostly girls. I felt more comfortable having female friends, maybe because I always felt like one. I became more accepted in a school which was dominated by intolerant boys who have probably never met a gay person--ever. I always described my transfer from one school to another like living in the 50’s who moved from New York to Alabama. I felt that they were ill-informed of what they called the “third sex.” I could not decipher how these supposedly young men who come from good families act feral. It scared me a bit knowing that they will someday grow up, get married, and have children who will be taught that it’s okay to hate people like me--it was hard to imagine how they can be proactive citizens of the future. I mean sure, the 80’s wasn’t really a great decade to be gay, but I have never experienced such hostility and hate from a group of individuals.
A couple of years have passed, and just when I thought everything was going well, I then had to deal with homophobic teachers. I mean if they would do now what they did to me then, for sure they will be out of work. One teacher even told me, “You know, behind that beautiful smile of yours is a very lonely person.” Like, what?! Seriously?! When you tell that to a 15-year old kid, things can get ugly. I almost believed her.
But at this point, my mother had probably accepted the fact that although her son is not everything she hoped he would be, she loved him anyway. He was after all her flesh and blood. So mom would always remind me to be strong. She would always remind me to be kind in spite of all the bad around me. She said, “Never hit first, but if they hit you, learn to hit harder.” She doesn’t believe in everything I do or did but she always guided me, called me out when I did wrong and supported me when she felt I was right. Mom made sure I grew up to be a determined passionate person, and more importantly, a good human being. She knew the world wasn’t going to be kind to people like me, so she did her best to arm me with lessons and reminders, almost on a daily basis. It is because of my mother that I had the courage to not believe in what that teacher had said to me. Because the truth is, my smile was not only beautiful, it was genuine.
One teacher even told me, “You know, behind that beautiful smile of yours is a very lonely person.” Like, what?! Seriously?! When you tell that to a 15-year old kid, things can get ugly.
March of 1991 was an exciting month. I was leaving High School and moving on to college in June. I then decided to start my transition. I began growing my hair and taking hormones. College for me would mean liberation. I was going to be reborn. It was the point of no return. University life was very different from the world I grew up in. I met different types of people from all walks of life, it was like a can of worms had opened, and then I realized how sheltered I was. I wanted to know more about people like me. I wanted to know if it was possible for someone to fall in love with someone like me. After all, growing up in a small suburb filled with churches, I was told that gay people were undeserving of love, that we will rot in hell. I always believed that using religion to spread hate is not God’s way. To be honest it never really bothered me, maybe because deep in my heart I knew that my God was a forgiving God, it wasn’t my fault to feel the way I feel. I know my God is perfect, therefore I was never, and will never be a mistake. As I have mentioned earlier, I grew up in a country where religion played an important role in everyone’s life, including mine. Yes there are LGBTIQ people that believe in God. Religion--just like love--is not exclusive to heterosexuals.
I never got to finish my studies, and had to stop on my third year of college. I had to work as my father got into a freak accident and had to be in bed rest for almost a year. His accident put a strain on our finances. I had to step up for my mom and my two younger brothers. I had to work even on holidays. I think God has a funny way of putting things into perspective. At this point, I really had not spoken to my father since he disowned me--but after his accident he has then forgiven me. He saw how I took care of the family that he cherished. He finally realized I wasn’t evil, or an embarrassment to his name. He finally saw me as a blessing. It felt good, and it was then that I knew I was capable of being loved and although we had a bumpy relationship, my father eventually was the first man who made me feel that.
Because the truth is, my smile was not only beautiful, it was genuine.
I have then met several men in my life, Filipinos who had fetishes or would say how much they liked you but were totally embarrassed to be seen with you in public--and that’s okay, to each his own. I have dated foreign men who didn’t care much about public opinion, but no one really swept me off my feet. I had a long term relationship with an American but after several years of being together, he just dropped me like a hot potato for a younger trans-woman. I was devastated. I couldn’t sleep, eat, and felt worthless. But life had to go on, carrying with me all the life lessons mom has taught me. I had to focus. I had to work.
By this time I had been a wedding planner for almost 10 years, but my first job was in real estate. I was assigned in sales and marketing of high rise condo units. The company that I was working for hosted a lot of parties to launch their new projects and developments. Through these events I have then met a lot of clients, some of them who work in Advertising and other lines of creative work. I was fascinated by them, and I decided to shift from sales and marketing to production work. The 90’s was a great decade. The economy was booming. Fashion trends reached Philippine shores faster than ever before. I, together with my business partners, produced plenty of events including fashion shows. One day a model friend asked me to do her wedding. Wedding planners were unheard of during those days. I told her I had no idea on how to organize a wedding, and she told me it was just like doing a fashion show. She was right. OK, well not entirely, but pretty close.
Religion--just like love--is not exclusive to heterosexuals.
A year into my break-up I met this tall, chubby--which I don’t mind, as I am a chubby chaser--albeit stiff Australian man. We met at a wedding which I had organized. His name is Frederic, or Fred for short. He is a son of French immigrants from Australia, Fred had been working in Manila for a few years. As we were packing up after the wedding, Fred came up to me and asked for my card. At first I thought he was interested in acquiring my services for his future wedding. We didn’t really have time to chat as I was in a rush to get to another event. He called me a week after, we had a quick conversation over the phone, and he asked me if I wanted to meet him for dinner. I of course said yes, still thinking this was going to be a professional meeting and not a leisurely one.
I met up with Fred at a Thai restaurant, he was alone, and our table only sat 2 people. That was when I realized this wasn’t a meeting. We started talking and hit it off immediately. We had a lot of things in common. But of course at the back of my mind, I kept thinking if he knew about my gender. I mean, I have dated men who had no idea, but Fred was different--I really liked him and I wanted to be sure he knew about me. Besides I didn’t want to get into trouble and get beaten up, or be found lifeless in some alleyway in Makati. He asked if I wanted to go back to his place, which was not far away from the restaurant, for some coffee and dessert. I don’t drink coffee but I could never say no to dessert, so I then had to ask if he knew about me. He said, “I don’t know what you mean, but if you’re talking about you being a transwoman, yes I know.” That was a relief, for sure.
It was then that I knew I was capable of being loved and although we had a bumpy relationship, my father eventually was the first man who made me feel that.
Back at his place I started asking him about his experiences with transwomen. To my surprise he said he has never been with one. He admitted that he was so attracted to me that even though the groom had already told him I was trans, he still took a chance and got my card and wanted to get to know me more. He was previously married to a Filipina and has always been fascinated with the Filipino culture. Fred never had kids--I guess that was a plus for me since I wouldn’t want to get in between a father and child relationship. I feel that men who have children are more likely to have a difficult time explaining his association with a transwoman to their kids. Having said that, Fred and I never really talked about our relationship. Although we would get together a few times a week, the topic never really came up, and this was fine by me since I had just gotten over a breakup and wasn’t looking for anything serious. Besides, I knew he had to go back to Australia soon, as his work contract in Manila was about to end.
I don’t know what you mean, but if you’re talking about you being a transwoman, yes I know.
Fast forward to November 11, 2013. I remember that date because I was out celebrating the birthday of a friend. My phone rings at around 9 P.M., and it was Fred. I didn’t pick up as I had no intentions of meeting up with him that night, and besides my friends didn’t know about him. I got home at around 4 in the morning the next day, and I sent him a text message saying sorry I was out and didn’t hear my phone ring. He calls me straight away. He asked if I was busy that night and asked if we could meet for dinner. Naturally, I said yes. We had dinner at his favourite Thai restaurant as he loves spicy food. After dinner, we then headed back to his place.
As I entered, I noticed how empty it looked. Most of his belongings were already shipped back to Australia, as he was leaving in a month. While he was getting some drinks in the kitchen, I was reminiscing on the good times we had at his place. The comfortable couch we would lounge in and watch movies at, or just talking nonsense. The times we spent doing nothing during the day, and just go out at night. While reminiscing, I could hear the song of Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s, “Alone Again, Naturally” playing in my head. Fred then comes out of the kitchen bringing my Coke Zero with lots of ice--just the way I want it.
We got to his house and he was a perfect gentleman, and he asked if I wanted to stay in the guest room. Since I’m no lady, I said I’d rather stay in his room.
He then goes on to say he’ll be gone in 4 weeks. I said, I noticed that he’s all packed and ready to go. He asked if I wanted to go with him? I couldn’t say anything. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know if he was serious or just playing around with me. He continues saying, “Try and see if you like it.” I said, why won’t I like it? He said it’s very different from Manila. Adelaide is very quiet, no traffic, and plenty of fresh air, he said. It was very different from all the things that I love about Manila, the noise, the endless traffic, the smell of smog. Fred knew how much I love Manila. Manila may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine. At the same time I was also very fond of Fred, so I said yes, I’d love to go. He went back to Australia on the 12th of December. Meanwhile, I started to fix my papers and other requirements needed to get a visa.
A few months have passed and after submitting the documents needed for my travel, I got a letter from the Australian embassy and was granted a visa. I arrived in Australia sometime in July, which was the middle of winter. I was anxious, excited, and fearful. Anxious, because I didn’t know what to expect. Excited because I haven’t seen Fred in a long time, and I really missed him. Afraid--because although we were “hanging out” we never really talked about “us.” I’ve never really lived with him. I didn’t know what we were. To me, it felt like our relationship was just a booty call and nothing more. Fred never really told me how he felt about me or if we have a future together. Before landing, I was thinking, what if we don’t get along? I’ll be stuck with him for a month.
Mom made sure I grew up to be a determined passionate person, and more importantly, a good human being. She knew the world wasn’t going to be kind to people like me.
After a 12-hour flight including layovers--and a lot of thinking--I finally arrived in Adelaide. It was freezing but Fred was waiting for me at the airport, and as I saw him with his warm smile, I knew I wouldn’t feel cold at all. My journey to the land down under began. We got to his house and he was a perfect gentleman, and he asked if I wanted to stay in the guest room. Since I’m no lady, I said I’d rather stay in his room, which I did. A few days into my trip, I noticed the differences he was talking about. One striking contrast that I observed was that people weren’t staring when we walked the streets holding hands. People weren’t whispering and pointing while we kissed in the park. People weren’t smirking while we were dining out. I then realized how different it really is from Manila. I love Manila. Manila makes me feel alive. But in Adelaide, I felt free.
As I was heading towards the end of my trip, I was getting sad, wishing I didn’t have to leave. A few days before my departure, I wasn’t able to sleep at all, and Fred was taking me to a winery to have lunch that day. I was tired and exhausted as we drove up to the valley, and I kept yawning. He asked if I wasn’t able to get enough rest. I said, no, I was up all night. He then goes on to apologize saying, “Sorry, your boyfriend snores too loud.” My eyes lit up. I was suddenly awake. I finally got a confirmation from him. Up to this point I didn’t know where we were in our relationship, and I was never one to assume. A friend once told me until a man says “it,” nothing is certain. Fred telling me he was my boyfriend was a confirmation and an affirmation that our future looks bright. I knew I was leaving Adelaide with hope.
I know my God is perfect, therefore I was never, and will never be a mistake.
A few days after, I was back in sunny Manila. Fred is a very structured man, he wants everything planned and scheduled. True to his nature, he organized a timetable where we would Skype Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and talk over Viber on the remaining days at certain times. This went on for 5 years, apart from me dividing my time traveling between Manila and Adelaide. It took that long for us until we finally got our state documents legally confirming our domestic partnership. We then planned my move from Manila to Adelaide. It took us a year to organize everything, since I still had work to finish and clients I had to serve, family and friends I had to say goodbye to, but the day finally came.
I left Manila in November 2018. Packed my whole life in two suitcases. Farewells are always difficult, so I just say, “See you when I see you.” The Philippines--Manila, in particular--will always be a part of me. And although Manila makes me feel alive, I needed to be in Adelaide to be free, so I can continue living my truth.