LGBTQ Filipino Immigrant on Life in the US, COVID-19, and Anti-Asian Hate

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Ira Briones, a non-binary LGBTQ immigrant, married their partner at the historic Stonewall Inn in 2015.
Nicki Fietzer

When marriage equality became the law of the land in 2015, Ira Briones, a non-binary Filipino immigrant, rushed with their partner to the historic Stonewall Inn to get married. Years later, it still pains them to know their marriage is not officially recognized in their home country.

“It just makes us feel sad about the discrepancy in the duality that we’re navigating,” Briones said. “Many of our friends — chosen family back home — still don’t get to have that same access of these benefits that we do.”

In 2014, Briones, a 36-year-old transformational coach and energy worker, moved to the United States for school — and their partner, who is also from the Philippines, followed along.

Queer rights continue to lag behind in the Philippines, where marriage equality is not legal and anti-LGBTQ policies persist. Briones, unfortunately, is unable to escape those realities when dealing with their home country abroad: They are forced to check off “single” instead of “married” when filling out forms at the Embassy of the Philippines.

Last year, as the pandemic was unfolding, Briones traveled back home to the Philippines with their partner — but their trip was hampered by the onset of the COVID-19 and a deadly volcano eruption. The couple noticed people there were taking the threat of the new pandemic far more seriously than in the states.

“Back in the Philippines, only one person per household was allowed to go out at a certain point,” Briones said. “There were so many more restrictions, and the officials could get quite violent when people broke the quarantine rules.”

The restrictions were not quite as strict in the US, but Briones would have to contend with different challenges upon their return to New York. They arrived back in the US equipped with masks — partly because of the pandemic but also because they were dealing with falling ash from the natural disaster — and it dawned on them that simply wearing the masks could spark backlash. Many Americans were not wearing masks early on, and the anti-Asian racism started brewing across the nation as the pandemic unfolded.

“As an Asian person, there was that layer of feeling unsafe and conflicted,” recalled Briones, who wondered whether wearing a mask would be worth the trouble. “We knew the gravity of the situation, but would that have made us targets?'”

Anti-Asian racism and violent attacks continue to flare up in the United States at a time when COVID-19 cases are continuing to drop with every passing day. President Joe Biden responded to the wave of attacks by signing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act — though there were some concerns from advocates warning about the potential drawbacks of bringing more police into communities of color.

The climate of intolerance has left a feeling of uneasiness for Briones. People would sometimes stare at them in the Philippines, Briones said, but that doesn’t compare to their experience in the United States.

“I feel more free and more open here,” Briones said. “But I feel less physically safe.”

The pandemic has taken a cumulative toll on the Philippines, which has had 1,230,301 confirmed COVID-19 cases, roughly 21,000 deaths, and 6,684 new cases, according to the World Health Organization. So far, two million vaccines doses have been administered in the country, but access remains a problem. Many of Briones’ family members back home have yet to have an opportunity to get vaccinated.

“It took [my partner] a while to be comfortable sharing that we’re both vaccinated because of the situation back home,” Briones said. “When you walk on the streets of New York, you see people inviting you for vaccinations just encouraging you on the streets. That’s how much we have.”

Briones added, “Even this little bit that we’re able to access here evokes some guilt around realizing how much friends and family back home don’t have.”

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