Aleksa Manila (S/he/Siya pronouns) is Seattle’s sweetheart of social activism. From Miss Gay Filipino to Miss Gay Seattle and beyond, Mx. Manila has used the magic of drag to educate and entertain hundreds and thousands of folx about the power of diversity, equity and inclusion. She’s a favorite speaker, emcee and performance artist from lip syncing to full on productions. She founded Pride ASIA in 2012, whose mission is to celebrate, empower and nurture the multicultural diversity of the LGBTQ communities through the Asian and Pacific Islander lens. Follow her journey on social via @aleksamanila and her website at www.ALEKSAMANILA.com
When you came out the first time, what made you feel safe to do so?
When I came out the first time, it was to my mom over brunch infront of my first boyfriend (who at the time, she had only known to be my “roommate”). So as far as feeling safe, I felt “safe” because it was my mom. Of course, I still felt nervous and anxious, but I didn’t feel that my safety would be an issue. Yes, I was “scared” because I still didn’t know how open she would be. She’s a devout Catholic and fairly conservative culturally, but I must have known deep in my heart she loved me despite of and regardless of my sexual identity. And I was right. Her words still ring true and have been a perennial symbol of inspiration and encouragement. She said, “You will always be my son and nothing will ever change that. I love you for who you are.”
How do you ally yourself with others who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community?
Over the years, I’ve witnesse a progressive journey with the LGBTQ+ community. I wouldn’t say I had a conscious awareness of aligning myself with the community or identifying as an ally. However, I would credit my first gay social support network, a group of friends whom I’ve known since I came out and to this day they remain one of my closest friends. In fact, just the other day we did virtual happy hour to catch up and check up on each other’s well-being. And over time, I started getting involved in HIV education that led to research, intervention and prevention work. That focus on LGBTQ health introduced me to community-based and nonprofit organizations. And I think my extrovert social personality was a good match to interact and work hand-in-hand with groups and be part of their mission and goals. And more recently, having completed my graduate degree (MSW at UW), I’ve learned to match the theories behind the action and the work I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to, that drove me to be aware of my identities and to see individuas, groups and systems with a social justice lens. So when I’m given a platform to educate and entertain people be it at a drag show or a health conference, I’ve learned to advocate and lobby for social changes that positively impact the LGBTQ+ community because we recognize the disparity and the prejudice that we endure.
How do you educate people about the LGBTQ+ community?
Drag as a performance art form has allowed me to incorporate education through entertainment. It’s a powerful tool that is really fashioned after social marketing as a means of informing the audience. The ways I’ve been able to accomplish this has been in various ways from subtle language through lyrics or overt props to symbolize a deeper meaning to speaking directly about LGBTQ+ culture to a captive audience of students or professionals, be it for a class or a symposium.
How do you educate people about intersectionality in the LGBTQ+ community?
Not shying away from identifying intersectionality within the LGBTQ+ community is a good start. Often these intersectionalities involve race, culture, class, etc. As an educator myself, my strategy often starts with the most common basis of knowledge around diversity, and once I’ve got their focus, I then transition into the complexity of the intersectionalities within the LGBTQ+ community – often, I raise the prevalence of privilege that take the shape of racism, sexism, etc. I would also add that adding tasteful humor is a great tool to enhance the learning experience. Constructievly, using healthy and honest communication is really integral. And the phrase, “talking WITH” will be more effective than “talking AT or FOR” your audience. It’s about positive change that involves everyone.
What resources would you recommend for LGBTQ+ youth who have questions?
As a Seattleite, I am grateful that our city, county and for the most part, our state has an array of resources geared towards the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, there are numerous resources at the national level. Locally, we Lambert House, Youthcare, Gay City, Ingersoll Gender Center, Seattle Counseling Service, PFLAG, Pride ASIA and a list of social support groups that can cater to individual needs. But I also want the to acknowledge that many families and social groups can also cater to these needs.
What did you think your life was going to be like after high school?
For context, I wasn’t out in high school, including my first few years in college. In fact, I didn’t have the language to describe how “different” I felt from the rest of my circles, be it at school or socially. Having attended private Catholic school from pre-school to college, I was subcribed to the protocol of going to college immediately after college, which I did, and being able to declare my college choice by senior year. So, when I graduated high school, I immediately enrolled into college at age 16 into a Physical Therapy program. Looking back, I think it was just a simple aspiration of graduating college and that was that. Of course, now as an adult, I think about things differently, particularly, about the future and what that means for an Asian-American, immigrant, FilipinX, genderqueer and so on.
What tips would you have for people questioning their gender identity? / What tips would you have for people questioning their sexual orientation?
These are great questions and would love to combine them because they intersect often, and it would be equally great to remind folx that they are not the same. When I have opportunities such as this to expound on this topic, I take advantage of it. I use the phrase “Who you sleep with is different from who you sleep as.” This basically means that “who you sleep with” (or intimate with or have an attraction to) is one’s sexual orientation and “who you sleep as” (one’s sense of self related to gender expression/identity) represents one’s gender identity. This is often very helpful using this metaphor. As far as tips, I feel that stage of questioning is a great start of recognizing this, and not many people go thru this stage and can be so challenging if you miss this step. But this is not to say that this is essential, however, I will say that it is critical and can help so much in helping to figure things out. Paying attention to one’s emotions and/or how our bodies react when we go thru this stage is also valuable. I would recommend paying attention to our breathing and finding a grounding moment to move from this place to a space of readiness. And readiness can be so different, unique and beautiful individually. If you have friends who are LGBTQ-identified, it can be so helpful to know that you have allies in the journey, and can play as role models by simply sharing their personal journeys. It doesn’t hurt to research and maximize online tools, but one must be cautious of sources. Sometimes conservative and anti-LGBTQ groups mask themselves online and pretend to be LGBTQ resources. Seattle is pretty lucky to have a list of LGBTQ organizations and programs from Seattle Counseling Service, Gay City, Ingersoll Gender Center, API Chaya, UTOPIA, Pride ASIA, and so much more. And another special tip is if you can invite your family to be part of that journey. Of course, one must think about safety of coming out even if it’s just a question. And if not, play it by ear and seek guidance from a trusted person or group, whether they’re friends or professionals, or even online support. These days, there are phone lines for young LGBTQ people and adult LGBTQs alike.
And to illustrate the difference – I came out twice to my mom and a third time to myself. I came out “gay” to my mom when I was 22, and at 26 I came out as a “drag queen.” And it wasn’t until a few years ago that I came out to myself as “genderqueer,” which to me encompasses my sexual orientation and gender identity equally. And for objective reasons, I fall under the umbrella term “transgender.”
So as far as tips: Be brave about venturing forth in your identity journey, and make sure you have the tools to keep you safe and healthy in mind, body and spirit.
9. How do you stay resilient in the face of negativity and stereotyping?
This is a tough question. I am thankful my mom taught me how to be resilient. As a survivor herself, I saw how she endured and recovered from her past – from her abusive husband, wartorn Manila during World War II, including Martial Law in the Philippines. When faced with adversities, I often think about how my mom and how she would survive it.
But in the moment, it really varies. Sometimes standing up for myself helps with my self-confidence most times I let it go, knowing that it’s not my personal war to win. I’m generally a peaceful person, and so the phrase “kill ’em with kindness” resonates with me. It’s also been helpful to remember that it’s not a personal attack; and that sometimes other people’s anger or violence is a representation of the hurt they feel inside.
10. What is your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ representation?
My favorite piece of LGBTQ+ representation is the RAINBOW FLAG, most specifically the modified version with the Black and Brown stripes; and all the different variations to symbolize the diverse subsets of communities within the LGBTQ+ community. I love how universal it is. It’s not limited to the LGBTQ+ community. It’s metaphor associated to “rainbow after a storm”, references to the narrative in “The Wizard of Oz,” the song “Over The Rainbow” by Judy Garland. I appreciate how as a community, we have embraced the growth and journey of the rainbow from the simple 7 colors, adding the lavender stripe to the Black & Brown stripes. It’s representative of our growth as a community. It’s also become a symbol for “safe space” which is so beautiful when, for example, we’re traveling to a new environment, and we see this on a building, etc. we know it’s safe to go in.
What are your hopes for the future of the LGBTQ+ community?
I hope that when we’ve achieved equality that we strive for equity; that we truly celebrate diversity by lifting and honoring womxn, trans* womxn, and trans* womxn of color; and that we challenge and abolish sexism, classism, racism and all the things that maintain the status quo.
Is there any advice you would give to the LGBTQ+ teens of today?
Be yourselves, be all that you want to be.Genuinely and wholeheartedly love yourself.Love the people who care about you.Choose your friends wisely.Find a healthy hobby that makes you feel good.Talk to your elders and listen to our histories from their eyes. Take care of the earth and it will take care of you.