Calgary·Filipino Bureau

Calgary youth unpack sexuality and taboo culture in the Filipino community

The free Saturday workshop is a place to ask questions, share experiences and find acceptance in sexual and gender identities.

‘What we want to do is to open up this can of worms, but in a very healthy way,’ says co-facilitator

Simon Bondoc, left, and Kathleen Bragas will co-facilitate a workshop Saturday to give Filipino youth an opportunity to ask questions, share experiences and find acceptance on all things that have to do with sex and sexuality. (Submitted by Kathleen Bragas)

A workshop this weekend in Calgary is intended to give Filipino youth a safe space to talk about a subject some in the community say is seen as taboo — sex.

The Youth Empowerment Program is hosting a virtual event Saturday to discuss sexuality and mental health in Filipino-Canadian culture from 2 to 4 p.m.

"This is a workshop especially for our Filipino youth to really talk about sexuality within our community, all of the biases that our parents may have and a lot of the things that are not talked about, especially around the stigma and the shame around it," said Simon Bondoc, one of the workshop leaders.

Bondoc and his co-facilitator, Kathleen Bragas, say this talakayan, or exchange of ideas, is something Filipino youth have been asking for. 

Growing up as a 1.5 generation Filipino-Canadian, Bondoc says he wished he had people who understood and affirmed his intersecting identities. Now, he wants to be that person for the community. (Submitted by Simon Bondoc)

Participants will be able to ask questions, share experiences and find support as they discuss gender myths, taboo culture and cultural expectations in a Filipino context, Bragas said.

Both Bragas and Bondoc know from personal experience how important these conversations can be — even if not everyone in the community thinks they're worth having, they said.

"We do often hear from people in our community that this is something you shouldn't touch," said Bragas.

"There's a lot of fear for parents around what this topic will bring up if we start talking about it. And just hearing that, for me as a therapist, that means this is the type of conversation we should be having," said Bragas, who also works as a provisional psychologist.

Dispelling harmful gender myths

One of the aims of the workshop is to call out gender myths, like machismo, and "the perfect Filipino girl," said Bondoc. 

For young women, the latter can be a crushing ideal to try to live up to, he said. 

"That's the trope of the eldest daughter in a Filipino family, and the pressure that is on them to be the dalagang Pilipina … the perfect Filipino girl, and to always look good, and to always be there for your husband or your partner," Bondoc explained.

Bragas said this "governing of how women should be" can stifle gender expression. 

And for men, the idea of machismo, or male toughness, can lead to other damaging ideas about sex and identity, and can sometimes reinforce rape culture, Bondoc said.

"What we want to do is to open up this can of worms, but in a very healthy way," Bondoc said.

Bondoc says he hopes to pursue a master of divinity to become a 'hot, queer Filipinx United Church minister.' (Submitted by Simon Bondoc)

That means in a manner that ensures youth don't feel isolated or ashamed because of who they are, he said.

"You don't have to beat yourself up for acknowledging and affirming yourself of things that are already natural in you."

That's something Bondoc wishes he had been told as a teenager.

Having someone to confide in

"I really needed this when I was 16," said Bondoc, who identifies as queer. He attended a private Christian high school and says he didn't have anyone to talk to about what he was going through. 

"I learned all of what I knew at first about sex through pornography, because it was accessible," he said. "And that was really, really, really damaging for me," Bondoc said.

"I entered into a really harsh identity crisis throughout my high school years. It came with a lot of anxiety, thinking, 'OK, what if my parents find out? What if my community finds out? What if everyone around me finds out, and they turn their back on me?'"

Bondoc said he considers himself lucky that he was able to find affirmation in his own identity, and that he no longer feels the pressure to pretend to be someone he isn't. 

"But I cannot deny the fact that it took a lot of nights crying in my room trying to figure things out."

Affirming queer identities through history

Bragas said the workshop will highlight examples in Filipino history that show how queer people existed and were honoured in the Philippines long ago.

"There were trans people on our lands, and they had respected roles before colonization … [often as] knowledge keepers and healers in our community," she said.

"I think if I knew that as a child, I'd be like, 'Oh my God. I'm queer, and I'm cool. I could be a healer," she said.

Kathleen Bragas is a provisional psychologist with the Centre for Refugee Resilience at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. (CBC)

She wants to empower today's youth with that sense of pride.

She understands that it's a controversial and sensitive topic, but her goal is to "create a safe enough space where someone can say, 'I don't really agree with this, and both of us don't really agree with this, and we can still engage in this conversation,'" she said.

Because the alternative — silence — is dangerous, she says.

"Taboo culture has really prevented so many people from knowing safer information," she said.

"We're looking at mental health of racialized youth, and mental health of racialized queer youth, and there is no denying that the rates of suicide and the rates of mental health are at levels that we would say [are] quite scary," Bragas said.

"That idea that we shouldn't talk about it, or that these people don't exist in our culture, that we shouldn't do this for these reasons, is less important than the fact that we exist. It is happening," she added.

"We're here to say that we've made it this far, even in our tight-knit, Calgary conservative community.

"And that representation could be a saving grace for another youth who is struggling."

The Youth Empowerment Program is an organization that hosts events for Filipino youth. Its ongoing Awakening Voices series provides an opportunity to discuss personal experiences regarding mental health and wellness. (Supplied by Kathleen Bragas)