The Kindness of Strangers: Filipino Lesbian Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

fourandahalfcats
Posted March 3, 2017 from China

On May 11th 2006, Mia decided to leave for Macau in a desperate attempt to getherself another visa to Hong Kong. Peggy Lee, a human right activist who works withFilipino migrant workers like Mia, advised her not to take such a risk. She might becaught and turned away by the Hong Kong Immigration when she returned, Lee toldher.

But for Mia, who had worked as a household employee in Hong Kong since 1998,there was no choice besides trying her luck in Macau on the day her Hong Kongemployment visa expired. She said that if Immigration in Macau gave her an entrypermit, there would be a chance of returning to Hong Kong on a visitor’s visa.

A few days earlier, Mia’s employers terminated her work contract after she had servedthe family for a year and a half. The reason, she said, was that they had discoveredshewas a lesbian. Mia was found to be in a two-year “husband-and-wife” relationshipwith Jen, a young-looking lesbian with flowing straight black hair. Neither of themknew how they had been “spotted out”. It was bad luck, said Mia. The termination ofher contract plunged her into a crisis.

Hong Kong law requires household employees like Mia to have a contract with anemployer, and gives migrant workers whose employment has been terminated in mid contract14 days to find a new employer. If they fail to secure a job within the twoweeks, they have to go back home and wait, without knowledge of when anotheropportunity for a contract might come through.

Shortly after Mia was laid off, she was on a job-hunting spree, but there was not muchluck for her in finding a friendly employer who would accept the way she is.

Mia and Jen – their names are changed here, because they are afraid to reveal theirreal identities – used to talk for an hour or two on their mobile phones after a hardday’s work before collapsing onto their beds, fatigued but satisfied. Sunday, their dayoff, was their happiest time of the week. The couple would sit, nudging against eachother in Charter Garden, their hands folded. An expression of heartfelt delight andsatisfaction would diffuse over Jen’s face, her dark hair glowing in the heat of thesummer sunshine. Mia would gaze at her, and look away, smiling. The teeminggarden is a reminder of their borrowed hours of happiness.

But after Mia was fired it was difficult for Jen to reach her. She stayed at the BethuneHouse, a shelter in Jordan for migrant women in difficulty, until the day her visaexpired.

On May 13th, Mia embarked on a ferryboat to Macau. She was lucky enough to getpast Immigration in Macau, and to have free home-stay at a friend of Jen’s there. Butafter 14 days, she was visited by another crisis—her plan to return to Hong Kongfailed. With hope gone, she got on a plane to the Philippines instead.

Jen didn’t pick up her phone when he friends tried to reach her after Mia flew back tothe Philippines.

The Filipinas

Mia and Jen are among an estimated 130,000 Filipino women (as in 2006)who work as live-inhelpers in Hong Kong on government-approved two-year contracts. They are on callfor 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. A description of domestic duties andaccommodation for helpers is made clear in the government-written employmentcontract, but many employers require different terms.

According to theCommission on Filipinos Overseas(CFO),approximately 10.2 million people of Filipino descent lived or worked abroad by 2013. Tens of thousands of men leave each year for the MiddleEast to work in construction and oilfields; an almost equal number of women seekjobs as domestic helpers, most often in well-developed neighboring regions such asMalaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.Official statistics also reveal that, remittances fromPhilippine migrant workers abroadhave become a pillar of the country's economy.

Nicole Constable, an American sociocultural anthropologist at the University ofPittsburgh whose current research involves Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong,said it is impossible to know how many of the women are lesbians. Constable stated in her researchthat until 1996, Filipino lesbians had gone relatively unnoticed, the “butches” – alsoknown as “T-birds” or “tomboys” – being gender-neutral in their style of dress and“sexually unthreatening” in behavior to their female employers. But then a televisionnews documentary in 1996 quoted a member of a domestic workers union whoestimated that a quarter of all Filipina domestic helpers were lesbians. Thisdocumentary was said tosparkthe concern of employers about lesbianism.

A few hostile letters were sent to the local newspapers by employers in a moral panicthat erupted over the discovery of lesbian Filipinas in their households.Constable, in her 1997 study, quoted one of the letters, from Linda Ching, a HongKong Chinese woman. Ching wrote to Eastern Express, an English-languagenewspaper that has since closed down:

It is time for Hong Kong employers to be alerted to the threat posed to ourchildren by Filipino T-birds or tomboys (as they are called). There are analarming number of T-birds…How can we tell our children about buggery? Howcan we explain the different women the maid brings home? And how can wereason about the trousers, rolled up sleeves, the hair cropped like a man, themen’s clothes?…T-birds will bring to our homes and our children the danger ofvenereal and killer diseases…We must monitor those who defend T-birds…If wedon’t, I’m afraid, soon Filipino maids’ groups will be demonstrating on thestreets for the right to be lesbian and the right to work in our homes forever. ”

Another letter to the editor was also published in Eastern Express on the same dayentitled “Don’t just cry for the T-birds” from a reader in the condemnation of lesbiansexuality.

However, homophobia, as it turns out, is not confined to employers. Filipinas in HongKong express similar sentiments.Many Filipino migrant women interviewed in Wan Chai and Central said thatwhen they first heard about lesbian domestic workers in Hong Kong, they found thisphenomenon to be “unbelievable,” and felt that this transformation had to be due tobad influence from the Westerners.

No lesbians here! We never hang out with lesbians… if there were any, they mighthave been changed (back to normal),” said one of the women, who was in Wan Chaiwith friends on their Sunday off. The rest of her group responded with a chuckle.

Mel Bacagam, a 56-year-old Filipina who has been working in Hong Kong since shewas 23, said she wasn’t comfortable with what her former neighbor in Hong Konghad been doing. Mel used share an apartment a Filipina who has a husband in thePhilippines. The woman’s girlfriend often stayed over at their place.

…So I asked her why? She said, because there are no men around!” Mel saidbreathlessly. What struck Mel most was that her roommate was attracted to the T-bird,or tomboy, in the same way she might be attracted to a man.

God only created one man and a wife, not men to men, women to women!” Mel said,raising her voice in emphasis. “But I’m okay as long as I don’t see them doing nastythings.”

Nicole Constable, in her study, also pointed out the possibility for heterosexualFilipinowomen to be transformed into a T-bird. A domestic helper named Lorna wasfound, after a heart-wrenching separation from her husband and children, to have “cutoff all her hair, and had changed her name. She was wearing a white T-shirt withcigarettes rolled up her sleeve, blue jeans, and black leather boots and carried aleather jacket,” recorded Constable.

Mia’s recent termination by her Chinese employers is an indication that homophobiastill exists, 10 years after the “outing” of lesbians in the 1996 letter-writing campaign.

Mia and Jen

In her late thirties, Mia no longer resembled a “T-bird” or “butch”, a style of dressingand acting adopted by many lesbians worldwide in the 1970s and still followed today.They wear men’s clothing, cut their hair short, and adopt mannerisms, habits, andpursuits more typical of males.

Now the wrinkles have conquered her face like an army. Her shoulders are rounded.Mia would go out with a carefully chosen T-shirt, jeans, and a linen shopping bag.She looks more feminine nowadays. It’s hard to picture her as lean, “butchy” lesbian.

But Mia never wore the feminine clothing her “ma’am” gave her—that’s how she wassuspected, she said. She never lied about who she was, even though it might cost herdearly. When her employers suspected that she was a lesbian and had been dating Jen,a “femme”, she didn’t deny it.

Jen had waited and cried for a year before she could be with Mia, who was then goingthrough a break-up with a married woman. During the two years Jen and Mia weretogether, Jen had been dreaming of “a home in the Philippines, after we earn enoughmoney, live like husband and wife, and adopt a baby,” she said. A future plan like thisis a source of strength to some lesbian couples like Mia and Jen, who get distressedfrom time to time in a state of need and insecurity.

On May 1st, while most other Filipinos were celebrating the international Labor Dayholiday in Central, Mia waited in the Charter Garden to meet Jen, her heart saddenedby the impending parting that came sooner than she had expected.

Mia had almost uprooted herself from the Philippines a decade earlier. In herhometown in Bataan Province she was forced by her parents to marry a man whomshe had vaguely known and never loved.

I’m a lesbian by birth. I was born this way,” said Mia, “They (her parents) knew ofcourse. I told them…I have two lesbian sisters and a gay eldest brother in my family.”

It’s the culture thing, the dutiful daughter,” said Jen, whose parents also insisted thatshe marry a man and have children.

On her wedding night, Mia recalled, she was overwhelmed with fear and pain. Shecovered her eyes with both hands. “Why are you doing this?” the husband asked.

I’m scared. I’m scared,” she cried, “I don’t like it.”

Throughout their marriage, she said, she never had pleasure in it. She did, however,get pregnant three times. The three children she gave birth to are a reward to thehardships endured. “I’m blessed to have them in my life,” she said. “They love meunconditionally.” In the past eight years, she has sent home two-thirds of her monthlysalary—HK$3,400thelegislated minimum in 2006—for the support of her family,struggling with less than HK$1,300 a month to make ends meet.

Jean

Jean Leano has chosen a different approach towards empowerment. She found thatbeing an active participant in social politics and having concerns about other people ismore fulfilling than just finding a life partner.

Jean has a university degree in criminology. She came to Hong Kong seven years agoafter working in the Philippines as a security guard, and later as a commercialdetective in hotels and shopping malls.

She wasintroducedto the Mission for FilipinoMigrant Workers (MFMW) by a close friend. There, Jean was taught to pursue and defend throughlegal channels her rights as a migrant worker. Now, as a long-term volunteer at theMission, she teaches and provides counseling and legal assistance to other women.

On May 21st, a stormy Sunday when human rights activist from all parts of the worldmarched around Causeway Bay as part of an international campaign againsthomophobia, Jean was wearing a rainbow badge representing gay and lesbian migrantworkers in Hong Kong. “This is my second International Anti-homophobia march inHong Kong.” said Jean, her face streaked with rain. “The first one was so sunny…”

Mia’s story definitely touched off some mixed feelings in her. “She should havecome to us! Even if I can’t help her, we can still find her a lawyer,” said Jean.

But on the other hand, she is scared. She said, in an almost awkward tone, “My maleemployer doesn’t know…his wife hasn’t come yet. I’m not sure if she ishomophobic.” As a butch lesbian, she is still cautious, to ward off any possibility ofbeing “discovered”.

Jean said she was lucky to work for an American family. “Non-local employers don’tseem to care about that (sexual orientation)…” she said.

Jean said it is common practice among household workers to transform themselves toemployers’ expectations: womanly, plain, unadorned, and unfamiliar with urbanstyles, erasing any suggestion of sexual deviance, in order to enhance their chances ofsecuring and keeping a job.

Employers’ ignorance did offer some protection to lesbian domestic workers. Butthen, it was replaced by suspicion and hostility when the subject came to light in1996. With this involuntary “outing”of lesbianism, Jean said, there is increasingpressure on workers to “act straight” or face dismissal. “I have to change to shortswhen I work…just to be safe.”

Discrimination

Jen, with her feminine look, can pass easily for a heterosexual woman. But butches,women like Mia, prefer less visibility. Some fear that without legal protection foralternative sexual orientations, they might be rendered vulnerable to discriminationand be exploited in their workplace. Others, such as Ret, a 39-year-old butch lesbianin men’s summer shirt and shorts, said that as long as they are content with who theyare, there is no need to make the lesbian label a big issue in public.

The churches in the Philippines are strongly opposed to homosexuality, said JeanLeano. “I was baptized at five, but I don’t go to the church,” Jean said with a shrug,“God doesn’t say homosexuality is wrong; it is those priests who don’t seem to likeit.

There is not much difference between (being) in the Philippines and here…butsometimes you have to hide yourself back home,” said Ret, who is also afraid to giveher real name. She and her girlfriend, whom she described as “a beautiful womanwith long dark hair,” came together to Hong Kong after their graduation from college.

They have saved a considerable sum of money from their 15 years’ hard work to“renovate the first and second floor of an apartment building and live a life ashusband and wife at home (the Philippines).” said Ret during a break from thevolleyball court. Ret said she is a Christian. But since she moved to Hong Kong in1991, she has replaced her Sunday church-going with volleyball games at the BlakeGarden court in Mid-levels with women from Filipino organizations across HongKong.

As long as you yourself are okay with it (being a lesbian), ” said Ret, “and I’m beingpaid for the work, so I’m doing the best, and I’ll only be questioned if I don’t do mybest.

Domestic workers and Contract Law

Contract terminations have always been a difficult issue for the Filipino helpers,although perhaps less difficult in the 1970s than in recent times, when a great influxof Indonesian women have flocked to Hong Kong, willing to take the same job forless pay. The population of Filipina domestic workers has started falling for the firsttime in 30 years.

After Mia was fired, she worked from one household to another, desperate to any kindof “trial” the employers agreed to give her. Even though the law prohibits migranthelpers from part-time employment, to Mia, the urge for money was greater than theprestige of the law. She had to sustain the family left behind in the Philippines, andkeep herself afloat until a new contract was secured. Before leaving for Macau, Miasupported herself working part-time for a local family of three children, including anewborn.

In the meantime, she was running the risk of being caught, a foreseeable consequenceof illegal employment, if she went to file a case against her former employers.Peggy Lee, who has been working as a voluntary legal advisor for the Mission forFilipino Migrant Workers (MFMW), encouraged Mia todefend her rights at the Equal Opportunities Committee (EOC). The Mission helpsover 700 women migrants per month, most of whom are facing prolonged workhours, underpayment, and inadequate housing.

If she is gutsy and if her evidence is good enough…we think perhaps the ‘genderstereotyping,’ forcing her to wear feminine clothing, could be something to be raisedas a human rights matter, aside from the overt lesbian discrimination. If possible,Mia’s case would be a new legal challenge,” said Lee.

But Mia felt that she was not within the government’s sphere of mercy and justice. Ifshe were to file a discrimination case at the EOC, she feared that it would drag alongfor too long. And she was running out of time and money. She decided not to collectthe letter of statement Lee wrote for her to the EOC.

The Mission for the Filipino Migrant Workers (MFMW) is one of the few “queer friendly”support networks in Hong Kong dealing with migrants. Although theyconsider gender-sensitive programs a high priority, these have generally laggedbehind due, they say, to insufficient resources for its operations and services.

The Reverend Dwight Delatorre, who has been working with Chaplin FilipinoCongregation at St John’s Cathedral for many years,also adds a voice for his fellow Filipinas to the campaign. Priests who are againsthomosexuality, he says, “misuse the Bible…the Bible is about how God loves theworld and how God loves humanity. If they only quote one part of it as the singlebasis for their stance, then it’s the misuse.” Homosexuals, he said, “are all children ofGod…we should all respect who they are…I’m concerned with the humanity, so Idon’t see how you can deny the fact that…they are children of God, and thereforethey should be loved equally and with dignity.”

The End of the Story

Mia flew back to the Philippines from Macau on May 27th. On her last Labor Day inHong Kong, shortly before she left, she said she wanted to set up a gay and lesbianorganization for migrants. The gay and lesbian migrants would follow the example ofthe local “tongzhi” support groups to fight for their own rights, and would no longerbe afraid of “coming out”, she said.

Once, she sat down and wrote her feelings: “…we should not pity them(homosexuals), but we should give them the full understanding and respect about theirfeelings, because it’s not easy to live life which is against (the majority) feelings…Let’s give them a break and let them go on with their lives. We should accept themwhatever and whoever they are…”

She couldn’t make her way back to Hong Kong this time, she told Jen. She didn’tknow when she might be back.

This is life, you have to deal with it,” said Jen.

A few days after their last talk on the phone, Jen went to a candlelight vigil in Centralto commemorate the human right activists killed by the Philippine militaries. Thecandle she was holding brightened up her feminine features.

She smiled sadly. “I’ve got to stay,” she said. “My employer will renew the contractwith me in October.”

* photo credit to Hong Kong Pinoy TV

How to Get Involved

petition, rally, pubic education, and anti-discrimination-towards-sexual-orientation ordinance 

This story was submitted in response to Share On Any Topic.

Comments 3

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Sarah Murali
Mar 06, 2017
Mar 06, 2017

Thanks fourandahalfcats, for sharing with us the incredible strength of these women in spite of the adversity they are facing. I'm really glad to hear there are some community organizations who are supporting women facing discrimination because of their sexual orientation. The fact that this discrimination is also tied with employment and immigration issues makes it so much more complicated! Having only 14 days to find another job is incredible pressure. I wonder if there are families who would be willing to hire, on a temporary basis, women who lose their jobs due to discrimination? This could prevent them from losing their immigration status and allow them more time to look for jobs.

By the way, you mentioned petitions as a way to get involved. If there are any active petitions open now, I hope you'll share them here. I'd be happy to sign!

Warm regards and much thanks for sharing this important story.

Sarah

Heather Ley
Mar 08, 2017
Mar 08, 2017

Hi Fourandhalfcats,

Thank you for providing continued expertise and insight into this most important issue. Your history, facts, and overview while at the same time sharing individual stories makes this a fascinating read and elicits the reader to a call of action! I want to support these women, their efforts, and their dreams! I also want to compliment you on your ability to provide a "voice" to women that may not otherwise be heard, like Mia, Jen, and Jean. I love World Pulse's ability to allow each of us to have a voice (especially on International Women's Day) and it is even more beautiful that you can help others to share their voice, through their story and quotes. Thank you!

Immaculate Amoit
Mar 22, 2017
Mar 22, 2017

Dear Jue

I believe in equal rights for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, religion etc. Gays and lesbians harm no one but love each other just like the rest of us.I think I have been lucky to interact with people with different Sexual Orientations in Sexual Reproductive Health Workshops, I have come to understand and love them just like my other friends, I respect their choices and support them whichever way I can. One is a close friend and she opens up about the challenges she has been through when we go shopping with her. But I admire your courage to write about this one needs to have both strong social and political convictions to successfully discuss these, My friend has put it out their that she is a lesbian and no one fights her anymore, her courage to speak out about  it out in the public that she is married to a woman just like her. Has made her critics quiet. Silence means suffering the bravest thing to do is step up just like you have done. Mia too made the right choice to stand up to something. Thank you for highlighting Mia and Jens story as you walk with them you have not only let us into the challenging work they do but also how their rights and freedom are restricted.

Much love

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