I’m 3. My parents are bathing my little brother and me, teaching us about our body parts. They only use the Tagalog words: pepe (vulva), totoy (penis), dodo (breasts). If I ever scratch or touch between my legs, they look at me with wide eyes and order me to stop. I don’t really understand why, but I don’t touch myself anymore.
I’m 5. At a Catholic school pool party in my sparkly bathing suit, I get into trouble with my nun teacher because I keep trying to talk to the 8th grade girls wearing T-shirts over their bathing suits. I ask the nun why they have to wear T-shirts and I learn it’s because they have dodo now. I can’t stop looking at them.
Andrea Barrica, the Filipina Founder of O.school, pictured in a traditional Catholic school uniform at age 5
I’m 10. Getting ready for school, I tuck my socks down so the socks don’t show when I wear tennis shoes. My father notices and tells me not to do this. I demand to know why not, which causes him to yell at me and force me to untuck them. I cry in frustration, tucking my socks back in immediately as I get dropped off to school. I silently vow never to let him control me again. We fight almost every day after this.
I’m 11. My dodo have arrived. I no longer feel at home in my body. At family parties, when my relatives see me, they exclaim “Dalaga na!” to my parents, which means “She’s coming of age already!” This is how they will always greet me from now on, warning my father that he will have to beat the men away with a bat. His reply is always the same: no dating until I’m 30. My relatives comment endlessly about my body and weight until I wish I didn’t have a body at all. For Christmas, I receive a stretchy pink shirt with small gems all over it and must change into it to show everyone. “It’s too sexy for her,” my aunts and uncles worry. They agree I shouldn’t be allowed to wear shirts like this yet. I feel tears coming and the only person who stands up for me is the only non-Filipino man in my family, my Uncle B, who tells them to stop talking about me like I’m not there.
I’m 13. My best friend, Betty, and I call each other everyday and talk for hours. Betty wears a yellow T-shirt with a photo of corn that says “Get Shucked” and I believe she is the funniest person on earth. On orchestra bus trips, she lends me her red sweatshirt and makes me mixtapes of Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional. We get along as long as I don’t try to hug or touch her. Every Friday, all of the middle schoolers go to a diner after school. But, of course, I am not allowed. Betty launches a petition to ask my father to let me go to lunch with everyone. She gets over 50 signatures on a single sheet of college-ruled lined paper. I show it to my dad, and after a long argument, he allows me to go to lunch with my friends one time.
I’m 14. Over the summer, an older female relative visits from the Philippines, and we become very close. We listen to Blink-182, write notes back and forth, and stay up late talking. My parents find out we have talked about liking girls. They call a family meeting with my aunts and uncles. My aunts are crying. Everyone is angry. I tell them nothing bad is happening, but they are convinced I am being abused. I feel humiliated, terrified, but most of all, confused. Their interrogation hurts more than anything that has ever happened to me before. And then it gets worse. My dad tells me that if I admit that I like girls, my 10-year-old sister–my favorite human being in the whole world–won’t be allowed to sleep in my bed anymore. All of my Blink-182 CDs are confiscated. This is the day I decide: Not. Gay.
I’m 15. Betty stops talking to me completely, and I have no idea why. I try not to think about how much it hurts. After a few months alone, I befriend two popular girls at my school who happen to be the consecutive Miss Teen California pageant winners. I help them study, listen to them talk about homework and church, and watch them sit on their floor and curl their long, blonde hair for hours. Sometimes, they touch my hair, too. They hang out at church every Tuesday night, so I join them. One night after church, I ask a beautiful, half-Filipino boy to go to the Sadie Hawkins dance with me. He says yes. My parents seem relieved about this.
I’m 16. My mother and I walk into my father’s office and inform him that I have been accepted to college early and that I want to move across the country from California to Massachusetts, skipping my last two years of high school. My mom admits that she helped me apply to college without telling him. After a long silence, to our surprise, he gives me permission. I also inform him that I am dating someone named Tayler from Academic Decathlon, but that it is nothing serious.
I’m 20. After graduation, I tell my parents that I am moving in with Tayler. They ask me if we are sexually active. Yes, we’ve been together for four years. Furious that I would live with someone before marriage, my mother does not speak to me for a month. We are miserable. My father begs us to reconcile, and we do. My mother says Lola would be heartbroken if she knew.
I’m 21. Tayler proposes to me after asking for my parents’ blessing. I say yes.
I’m 22. Tayler and I marry in a traditional Filipino veil-and-cord ceremony officiated by a Catholic monk, followed by a New England Patriots-themed reception on a golf course overlooking the ocean. Our family and friends sign a football instead of a guestbook and sit at tables named after Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady. At the reception, my tall, sturdy father stands to speak, and the banquet hall quiets instantly. His speech is a tribute to our well-known power struggle and his overly-protective instincts over me, his beloved firstborn. He lets me go. I am Tayler’s wife now. Every Sunday, Tayler watches football and I make pigs in a blanket. We thrive in our careers, travel the world, binge-watch Law and Order SVU, and support and love each other in every way two people can. But sometimes I feel like I am living someone else’s dream life.
I’m 24. I’m in my hometown at my parents’ favorite lunch spot, sharing their regular order: Chinese chicken salad and tomato soup. I tell them my therapist has taught me to pay attention to my “wounds” and narratives developed in childhood that hold me back, and they begin to open up to me. In the middle of the busy restaurant, I watch my father’s eyes well with tears, as he talks about his favorite stamp collection that his elementary school teacher stole from him and his abusive father’s abandonment. Like a flood breaking through a dam, he shares that–alone to fend for himself without a father in Manila–he was also brutally sexually assaulted. My father comes into focus as a human in front of me and forgiveness springs in my heart.
I’m 26. I know my marriage is over. I’m lying on my sister’s twin bed that we have been sharing for three days. Devastated, I call my mother, who has been married for 27 years and goes to church every Sunday. As soon as I hear her voice, I start to sob uncontrollably and tell her everything: that I am queer and always have been, that I am leaving Tayler, and all the things I’ve kept from her over the years. Baby, she teases, you are so wild, and finally, I feel completely seen by her. After a decade together, Tayler and I start therapy to discuss divorce.
I’m 27. A year passes until Tayler invites me to dinner and comes out to me as a trans woman, happier than I’ve ever seen her. She tells me that she’s never seen me happier, either. We cry tears of clarity together, as it now seems obvious that we were queers all along, hiding in plain sight, even from each other. We promise to love each other forever and I feel a chapter of my life close.
A few nights later, unable to sleep, I start reading old emails from my past and my heart stops with a single thought. The next morning, I pick up the phone and call Betty for the first time in years.
I ask her, Did you know we were in love in middle school?
She answers, Duh? Took you long enough.
I ask her why she stopped talking to me when we were young. She tells me that our math teacher pulled her aside one day and made a comment about “how brave we were” and how this had freaked her out and made her pull away from me. I feel a heartbroken fifteen-year-old girl’s stomach flutter inside me.
Boldly, I declare: Betty, we have unfinished business.
The next month, she flies from Seattle to Oakland to visit me. We both have girlfriends, but they don’t mind. They want us to have this. I wait for Betty at the airport and spot her on the escalator. As she walks toward me, she cracks a joke without stopping to hug me and we fall in stride toward the Lyft I’ve ordered. That night, we fall asleep listening to Dashboard Confessional, vindicated at last.
I’m 28. I’m the founder of a sexual wellness company. I am teaching my parents about vulva anatomy, specifically the structure of the clitoris. Curious, I ask my mom how to say clitoris in Tagalog. She replies, mani, and we burst out laughing–it means peanut. Dad decides to use his woodworking skills to build me a giant wooden clitoris to help me educate people about their bodies. I am queer, I am Pinay, and I am home.
Andrea Barrica is CEO/co-founder of O.school, the non-judgmental resource for everything sexuality and dating online.