When I was young boy in Fremont, California -- just 40 miles away from San Francisco -- I lived a pretty ordinary life. Like other kids who grew up in the 1980s, I watched Saturday morning cartoons, memorized Whitney Houston songs, practiced Michael Jackson dance moves, and tried to stay up late to watch Solid Gold.
There were many parts of my childhood that were probably not-so-ordinary. As a child of immigrant parents from the Philippines, I was just as American as I was Filipino. I pronounced English words with a Filipino accent, prayed the rosary on Saturday nights when I'd rather be watching Diff'rent Strokes and we ate Kentucky Fried Chicken with home cooked rice for dinner.
As the youngest of three boys, I knew I was different from the moment I realized that I would rather play with my girl cousins and their Barbie dolls, instead of playing sports with my brothers. In fact, most things I liked did not match what my male peers did. I liked performance and musical theater; they liked WWF wrestling. I liked art and fashion design; they liked muddy football games. At seven years old, I joined a Little League baseball and a church basketball team -- not because I had any interest, but because that was what little boys were supposed to do.
It was around this time that I first learned the word bakla (Tagalog pejorative for "gay" or "faggot"). I cannot remember the first time that someone called me this word because it happened so often -- usually when someone was disgusted with something feminine I did. While I could not articulate this back then, I knew being bakla was bad, and that in order for me to stop being taunted or harassed, I would have to give up the very things that made me happy. At age 12, I quit the theater and convinced myself that I hated performing.
For most of my adolescence, I did what I could to blend in, in order to avoid being bullied -- a task which became a daily obstacle. I repressed my sexual feelings, and I pretended to have crushes on girls. As a teen, I had downlow sexual experiences with men I met on AOL chat rooms- which was the closest we had to Grindr back then. While the sensation of being with a man was exhilarating and pleasurable, I always ended up feeling so bad about myself immediately after.
I was probably 19 years old when I first read Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City and 21 years old when I read David Sedaris' Naked. In these nascent days of Amazon.com, I actually went to bookstores to pick up these copies -- pretending I was buying them because I was an open-minded heterosexual and not because they spoke to my soul. A few years of secretly reading these books written by gay white authors, I felt a need to find something that also resembled my experiences as a Filipino American. When I first picked up Noel Almuit's Letters to Montgomery Clift and Martin Manalansan's Global Divas, I felt validated. I finally had the literature and research to support that I was not the only one.
This is why Queer and Trans Studies are important. We need to ensure that LGBTQ people's lives are studied, understood and represented across all educational levels. K-12 students can learn age-appropriate lesson plans about LGBTQ legends like Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson. College students can be assigned readings like Jonathan Ned Katz' Gay American History or audre lorde's Sister Outsider to understand the nuances of sexuality and identity, and how intersectional identities influence our experiences. When we don't learn about queer or trans people in our Social Studies, History, or English classes, we inadvertently learn that they don't exist and that they have not shaped the world to be what it is.
Today, I'm a proud queer man with a proud queer husband and a (likely) queer dog. I am a professor and a researcher who has studied and written about how people of marginalized groups, especially LGBTQ people and people of color, are affected by systemic discrimination and microaggressions.
I'm also the Executive Director of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies -- the oldest university-based LGBTQ research center in the U.S. For the past 25 years, we have been at the forefront in promoting the study of diverse sexualities and gender identities in the U.S. and across the world. This week, we celebrate our 25th anniversary at the City University of New York, with a conference that brings together past alumni- including our founder Martin Duberman, a majority of our past Executive Directors, and a spectrum of scholars and activists who made Queer Studies what it is today.
As I think back to my own history, I often wonder if I was introduced to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room in my high school English class if, or how, my whole life would be different. I also think about how far we've come, as well as how desperately far we need to go. While same-sex couples can now get married, they can also get fired or evicted from their homes in many states across the union. And though Caitlyn Jenner proclaimed her identity as a proud transgender woman, transgender women (especially trans women of color) are being murdered at horrific rates.
Sometimes I just wish that LGBTQ kids today could live both ordinary and extraordinary lives. I hope their lives are ordinary, in that they are taught they are normal and that they don't experience any more pain or trauma than the next kid. I also hope that their lives are extraordinary, in that they learn they are beautiful and fabulous, and that they can thrive in ways that previous generations hadn't been able to.
If Queer and Trans Studies can help LGBTQ people to live ordinary and extraordinary lives, why wouldn't we integrate them into every educational institution across the world?