The following reflection comes from field notes recorded during a 2015 research trip to the National Pinoy Archives at the Filipino American National Historical Society (referred to henceforth as FANHS) in Seattle, Washington.
I can’t pinpoint the reason I was shaking on December 18, 2015. Maybe it was because I wasn’t wearing enough layers to keep warm during my research trip to Seattle; or maybe it was because I was nervous to meet Dorothy Cordova — the executive director of FANHS and widow of Fred Cordova, whose Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans (1983) was one of the first scholarly works to address religion in the Filipino American community. In retrospect, I’m not surprised Fred’s monograph touched on religion, as the archive itself is located in a former Catholic school adjacent to Immaculate Conception Church. Maybe that’s why I was nervous: what were the chances I’d find any trace of Filipino queers in an archive preserved in a former Catholic school?
Created by FANHS in 1987, the National Pinoy Archives collects, preserves, and makes accessible to the public textual, graphic and electronic historical records of Filipino Americans. These primary materials are organized into boxes according to individuals, organizations, and themes, stuffed into filing cabinets that span two rooms and a basement. It is in the main room where I am greeted by the smiling faces of Dorothy and Father Maurice, the lead parish priest at Immaculate Conception. Father Maurice welcomes me on his way out — good timing, I think, as Dorothy asks to remind her my reasons for being at FANHS.
“Queer Filipino American Catholics,” I say, unaware of her views on what some find to be a difficult topic of conversation.
“You know, we’ve had workshops at past FANHS conferences that address the LGBTQ Filipino experience dating back to 1994. I can pull you those booklets — why don’t you start there? I’ll take a look to see what we have, but I’m almost positive there are no materials documenting LGBT with Filipino and Catholic.”
“Why is that the case?” I ask.
“Well, what do you think?”
My silence in answering speaks volumes.
“But you know it’s funny,” Dorothy says, “that so many of my gay and lesbian Filipino friends are also parishioners at Immaculate Conception. Why talk about their sexuality out loud if it’s something we already know?”
As Dorothy walks to the basement, her words linger through my mind as a comb through conference pamphlets, left alone in a room saturated in ephemera with little known traces of queer life. I am left with her words that remind me of Carlos Deceńa’s exploration of implicit same-sex desire among Dominican immigrant men in New York City: of tacit subjects who feel and sense queerness as an essence that is held back from being uttered or written into existence, but an essence that is always felt or known.
Returning half an hour later, Dorothy beams with excitement at finding a folder that is hastily labeled with ‘LGBTQ’ in red Sharpie pen. Enclosed is a short conference paper presented during the 2011 FANHS Midwest Chapter Regional Conference in St. Louis, the city where “living exhibits” of Igorots were notoriously displayed as spectacle at the 1904 World’s Fair. Titled “Crossing Over” and written under the pseudonym “Vanessa,” the paper tracks an itinerary of a life I was surprised to see documented in the archive.
Finding her way to the United States because of the political threat the Marcos regime presented to her wealthy family following the 1972 declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines, the 3-page paper first routes her life as a gay man before transitioning to a story of working for her San Diego-based employer — a man who eventually paid for her transition to become female, given the love she first provided as his live-in caregiver and later, his wife. Re-reading her narrative on this Friday afternoon, I couldn’t help but take note of the four times God was referenced in her story — not God as sin, but God as love. Her narrative also ends with four words: “I am home free.” Particularly for the diasporic subject, the history of migration and forced movement deeply impacts how one feels, or fails to feel, at home. For this reason, I am glad her story found a “home” in the archive.
In the afternoon, I am greeted by three volunteer archivists. They learn of my project, and once I utter three words (“Queer Filipino Catholics”) one replies, “So you’re looking for gay Catholics, diba? You won’t find them here. Tell Auntie Dorothy to give you a ride to my drag performance tonight at Inay’s Kitchen. That’s like my church: the higher the heels I wear, the closer to Jesus we all are.”
In the evening, I find myself in a state of wonder and disorientation, watching Atasha Manila perform a beautiful rendition of Adele’s “Hello,” feeling as if I am experiencing something akin to queer world-making that Jose Muńoz so intimately animates in Cruising Utopia. I later discover that the performance I witnessed would be the second to last drag show ever performed at Inay’s Kitchen, as the Filipino restaurant would soon close due to the rising cost of rent in Seattle’s pricey Beacon Hill District. When I ask Atasha Manila the importance of Inay’s Kitchen, especially in regards to its owner Ernie Rios, she replies: “Those of us who came out as gay, queer, bakla, whatever… Uncle Ernie gave us a home.”
What, then, did the archive become for me in that moment? Like Vanessa’s conference paper, what type of crossing over did I experience in the archive itself and in the performative space of Inay’s Kitchen? And what does it mean when digital preservation of the National Pinoy Archives is sustained through the very real and physical labor of a gay-volunteer-archivist-turned-drag-queen, despite the fact that his existence is virtually non-existent in the history he willingly preserves?
As the late scholar and graduate of my department Horacio Roque Ramirez reminds us: “To excavate queer lives and queer desires requires careful considerations, beginning with the fact that they are not the priority of mainstream historicizing and archiving practices.”
Recipient of the 2013 Philip Brett LGBT Studies Fellowship. Originally from Sugar Land, Texas, Darren Arquero is currently a Butler Koshland Fellow at the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, with previous positions held with the Arcus Foundation, the GLBT Historical Society, and Race Forward. He earned his MA degree from the University of California, Berkeley and his BA degree from Rice University.His academic work is informed by his activist background in queer religious organizing, stemming from his participation with the 2010 Soulfource Equality Ride.