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Gay in the highlands

What is it like to be gay and belong to an ethnic tribe in the Philippines? For Romnick Ampi, he only knew of acceptance and being encouraged to live a better life, showing that LGBTQIA people can achieve more. And he hopes for this to be the general concept – i.e. that looking down on LGBTQIA people stop to focus on what they can achieve in life.

Romnick Ampi, 27, from Barangay Meohao in Sitio Palusok at the foot of Mount Apo in Mindanao, was in elementary school (“Around 12 years old”) when he knew he’s gay/a member of the LGBTQIA community.

“At that time,” he said, “hindi ko maiwasan magkagusto sa kapuwa ko gender (I couldn’t help myself from getting attracted to other men).”

At first, Romnick thought that what he was feeling wasn’t real. “But I observed that what I really feel for men is different. Yung puso ko ay parang puso pa rin ng babae (Like heterosexual women, I was attracted to men).”

But – belonging to the Manobo ethnic tribe (his mother is Visayan, while my father is Diangan) – Romnick said he only knew of acceptance.

“And even when I go to more mountainous areas, no one is surprised with a gay man like me. No one there bullies people with the same gender as me.”

“Yes, I told my family about me being gay. They did not have bad reactions. I am happy that they even support what I do. They particularly support my means of living that is aligned with my being part of the LGBTQIA community,” he said.

Romnick noted – and stressed – that “nirerespeto po nila gaya ng pagrerespeto nila sa kaloikasan atsaka ng mga ninuno. So sa tao po, nirerespeto nila kung ano po ang LGBT (members of our tribe respect LGBTQIA people, just as they respect nature and our ancestors. They respect people, including LGBTQIA people),” he said. “We are not discouraged to live as LGBTQIA people,” even if part of this acceptance is anchored in the stereotypical expectation that LGBTQIA people (gay men and trans women, in particular) “bring… happiness particularly during local celebrations.”

This acceptance makes Meohao an ideal place for Romnick. In fact, he said, if one goes even higher in mountainous areas, it’s common to see members of the LGBTQIA community. “And even when I go to more mountainous areas, no one is surprised with a gay man like me. No one there bullies people with the same gender as me.”

Not surprisingly, “ang feeling ko ay happy, sa tingin ko ay walang kalungkutan na mangyayari ditto sa Meohao dahil nakita ko naman na ang lugar na ito ay peaceful at mapagmahal yung mga tao (I feel happy here; I feel that there’s no sadness here. The place is peaceful. And people here are loving/accepting),” he said.

“Members of our tribe respect LGBTQIA people, just as they respect nature and our ancestors. They respect people, including LGBTQIA people.”

Romnick’s family was originally from Davao, but because of his father’s belonging to the Manobo tribe, they moved to Meohao.

Romnick has four siblings; he is the only one who goes to school. “All the others stopped going to school because of financial issues,” he said. “This is why I am studying hard so I can graduate and then be able to help them. I particularly want to help my siblings make a living.”

Romnick currently takes up Bachelor of Science in Food Technology at the University of Southern Mindanao, a course that is in line with his field of interest – i.e. events organizing.

“Perhaps this is also God’s gift to me – to take a course that is in line with the skills I now have,” he said.

Now moonlighting as an events organizer, Romnick had an early start working. “I discovered I have skills in organizing events when I was still in elementary school. While watching my teachers do the decorating in school events, such as the closing ceremonies, they told me to give decorating a try,” he said.

And nowadays, “per event, I earn from P5,000 – at least for the smaller events.”

Now single, Romnick said that not having a boyfriend is, for now, ideal. “Mas mabuti yung wala pa akong jowa para makapag-focus ako sa family ko at sa sarili ko (This way I can focus on my family and myself).”

To people who belittle LGBTQIA people, Romnick said “don’t look down on us.”

For him, LGBTQIA people thrive – and this is even if they are not supported by their parents/families. “Because LGBTQIA people are skillful. They will find ways to make a living,” he said. “I’m seeing it now in the world, and for myself, that LGBTQIA people can do good things even if they’re (just) LGBTQIA people.”

This is also what he eyes to do in life: Do acts so that others to see that not all gay men are weak, that gay people are also skilled. “What heterosexual people can do, LGBTQIA people can do, too.”

To people who belittle LGBTQIA people, Romnick Ampi said “don’t look down on us.”

Particularly for younger LGBTQIA people, Romnick advised: “Huwag kayong huminto o huwag kayong ma-discourage kahit sa ano man yung sasabihin ng ibang tao. Dahil hindi nila alam ano ang feelings ninyo as… LGBT. At ipagpapatuloy ninyo dahil alam ko sa bandang huli… and Panginoon nga may plano sa ating lahat (Not to stop being who they are; or be discouraged because of what other people say. These people do not know what you feel as LGBTQIA people. So just continue being who you are because I know that in the end, God has plans for all of us).”

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The Mindanao group of islands in southern Philippines has long been called as the country's "Promised Land" - albeit this is often said as a yet-fulfilled potential, instead of highlighting what the place now has to offer. We don't only believe it's wrong; we also strongly believe time to correct this and highlight everything about this place that is, indeed, a land full of promise. So here's... Mindanaw Magazine!

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