“Every day is a transition”
As an advocate for LGBTQ rights and equality, trans woman Janlee Dunca shares that shedding light on the experiences of her community, be it one person at a time, is a small ripple today that could greatly and positively impact the future. Here, she walks us through her journey in transitioning from a man to a woman.
via Janlee Dunca on Facebook
Let’s start from the very beginning: your youth. Was identifying with another gender something you felt early on?
Growing up, I didn’t feel I was doing anything that was out of the ordinary. I was just being myself. There were times I’d watch television and be completely fascinated by the women I saw who were in beautiful dresses and gowns—so much so that I would try to replicate their outfits in my bedroom and play pretend with my bedsheets and blankets. To me, that was normal; I was just being a kid and having fun. There was no reason for me to think any of that was wrong or unusual. When I look back on moments like that today, I actually consider them early telltale signs of my being trans. At the time, I may not have had a clear understanding of gender identification, but I did feel deep down that I was different.
When did you come to realize that feeling different had a lot to do with your gender?
That identity crisis happened early on in grade school. I courted girls pa nga eh…even during high school. I genuinely tried to live out what I thought was my truth, which was to be a straight young man. But while I dated girls, I also liked guys. Dating girls, then, became a front for me because I didn’t want people speculating I was gay. I figured that if I kept seeing girls, I wouldn’t have to deal with all that.
Where did the strong desire to prove that you were straight originate from?
Well, I am one of two boys in a family of four kids. My older brother came out as gay way before I did, which my parents were supportive of. They accepted him when he came out. That did put pressure on me though as the youngest child and only other boy in the family. I always thought I had no choice but to be straight because no—just no—there absolutely cannot be two gay sons in this family. So, the responsibility of being the child to live out the gender he was born as, which is male, fell on my lap. At this point in time though, my family never verbalized that I should not be gay; I just really didn’t want to disappoint them.
Given you were dealing with this internal struggle, what was the rest of your grade school and high school life like?
I went from a co-ed grade school to Ateneo High School, an all-boys high school. It was a fun, difficult and interesting time in my life. [laughs] Our class would have soirées with all-girls schools and I took this as an opportunity to court girls again. The thing was that didn’t stop me from getting crushes on boys though. And so the struggle became not only about pressuring myself to like girls; I had to work extra hard at suppressing feelings I had for boys, too.
How did you handle these feelings, these crushes on boys, when they progressed into something more?
[Laughs] It’s a cliché, but I fell in love with my best friend. Of course, as kids do, I interpreted feelings of infatuation as love so there you have it. It was puppy love [laughs]. He was my classmate who later became my best friend and even before I came out as a gay guy in high school, our classmates were already teasing the both of us, saying things like: “Uy ha. Why are you always together?” Eventually, something more did develop between us and I decided one day to confess my feelings for him. This was the first time I ever said it out loud: I like guys. And that was when I decided that I couldn’t keep pretending anymore. I don’t like girls. I like guys. That was that. And that was when I claimed my truth.
The recognition given to the LGBTQ community was, of course, different in the 90s. How did that affect your coming out?
I will say this: My story involves two phases of coming out. I came out as a gay man first and then I came out as a trans woman. Back in the day, I didn’t have a complete grasp of what gender identity was. There were no ready resources that allowed that. It wasn’t in the media, it wasn’t being talked about at home or in school. Back in the day, it was only gay, lesbian or straight. I therefore thought I was gay.
Can you tell us about the first time you came out?
It happened in my fourth year of high school. By this time, I was out in my school and was hanging out with a lot of friends who were also gay. We had very similar experiences and so we found strength in one another. We were different from everyone else, but that difference was what brought us together as friends. One day over the summer, I was just sitting around at home and my mom went up to me and asked: “Anak, bakit lagi nalang kasama mo puro bakla? Bakla ka ba?” I was put on the spot and couldn’t do much else except say yes. And just like that, our relationship was changed. My mom and I cried together. She was upset for a while. And this was the incident that confirmed what I originally thought was just me putting pressure on myself to be straight in theory. I was told: “Your brother is already gay. Ngayon, pati ikaw?”
And how did the rest of your family react?
The dynamics at home were not the same for a long time. There was noticeable tension, definitely. At one point, I wasn’t allowed to go out as much. My coming out affected my relationship with my sisters as well, but they were angry not because I was gay, but because my mom was hurting. And it was valid. A lot of the hurt my family felt also had to do with the fact that I had already done what a straight boy would do. That was one thing that really confused them. They were like, “Why did you date girls then? Why did you even bother courting girls? We really thought you couldn’t be gay because you did all that.” In other words: sana pala, kung hindi ako nag-date ng girls, hindi sila nag-expect.
It was a very difficult time for all of us, but I knew everyone just needed to go through their own process at their own pace. Eventually, my family loosened up and warmed up to me again. Now, we’re closer than ever. We joke about it now and even my dad says things like: “O ayan na! All girls na tayo!” [laughs]
How did you learn about the other dimensions of gender?
I took up Psychology in college and in my fourth year, the course held a special session—it was a one-day-only class—about gender psychology. I unfortunately missed it, but a friend of mine, who today is also trans, was able to attend. We met up afterwards and she told me everything she learned from the class. It was such an eye-opening experience and was, really, my first ever encounter with the word and the concept of being trans.
It’s easy to assume that realizing things about who you are is automatic and clear-cut, but it isn’t. I think that’s one thing people don’t realize about self-discovery and gender identity: It’s not as simple as ticking off boxes with personality traits on a checklist. Not all eureka moments are instant. For me, it was a slow, thoughtful eureka moment. While I didn’t automatically identify as trans because of what I learned, it did mark the beginning of a long process of self-reflection and self-analysis and reading and research. Only then did I feel like I could truly identify myself as a trans woman.
And today, we know that there are way more letters in the queer alphabet that just LGBTQ.
Exactly. The professor in the gender psychology class did share that gender is an entire spectrum. It’s not black or white. In my case, because I had limited knowledge on this back then, I identified as gay. It was the “closest” gender I could align myself with. Now that I’m older, wiser and equipped with more knowledge, I am able to identify myself correctly and say I am a trans woman.
What was your second coming out like?
It was definitely lighter… a lot easier. My coming out as a trans woman happened in 2013, a few months after I started my hormone replacement therapy. I asked my whole family out to dinner. Prior to that though, I gave my siblings the heads up. I said: “I’ll ask you out to dinner ha pero actually, aamin lang ako na I’m not gay. I’m trans.” And I’m so grateful that they gave me their support through and through. When I told my parents that I realized I was not gay, but a trans woman, they were confused. I guess the only difficult part about my second coming out was explaining to them the difference between being gay and being trans. Trans is a relatively alien concept in traditional and conservative countries like the Philippines, which is why taking the time to explain is so important; more so, making sure you keep lines of communication open. There’s still a lot of light that needs to be shed on gender identity as a whole and that begins with having an open, honest conversation.
Well, what did they think being trans was?
They couldn’t understand the difference, actually. They thought being gay and being trans were one and the same. Explaining things through the lens of psychology—the difference between identity and preference—really helped my case. I told them that a trans woman identifies as a woman; a gay man identifies as a man. That part was very textbook. In terms of experience, I told them that whenever I would look in the mirror, I wouldn’t feel good about myself. I felt very uncomfortable. I shared with them that whenever someone referred to me as a “sir” or a “he,” it would upset me. Naiyak lang ako ng konti, but not as intense as the first time I came out. Dinramahan ko lang. [Laughs]
They slowly got to understand what being a trans person is. Their primary concern, however, was my health. They wanted to make sure I was safe since my transition involved taking hormones. I assured them I was being smart about everything and that I consulted with a physician.
When did it feel right for you to begin your transition?
Not all women who identify as trans women express as feminine. I may have learned about being transgender in fourth year college, but I only set my transition in motion three years after. I knew I had to be prepared—mentally, emotionally and financially. Of course, I knew this was going to cost me. I waited until I was already working and able to support myself; I also had to do a lot more research since the Philippines does not have hormone replacement therapy regimens in place. In the US, it’s regimented. It’s a standardized and established program. In addition, I consulted with other trans women who transitioned before me. Transitioning entails self-study, a lot of research and asking people for help and advice.
Do you have any words you’d like to share with the members of the LGBTQ community reading this?
This is what I always tell people of all ages: Education is key. Do your research, do your homework and consult with other people if you have questions. This is a community that will always be ready, willing and able to listen to you and enlighten you. Most of all, don’t be afraid of the fact that you are different. Don’t be afraid that you are special. Gender identity is a part of who you are and so whatever it is you identify with, embrace it. Because the earlier on you feel at home in your body, the happier you will be, and living your truth is how you live your best life.
Janlee Dunca is a 28-year-old PR director living in Manila. When she isn’t busy with work at her agency, she volunteers her time as a counselor at Love Yourself Philippines, a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness and provide counseling and education on HIV/AIDS. Keep up with Janlee and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
Art Alexandra Lara