photography by claudine balthazar

We Came to Canada to Be a Family

As a gay couple in the Philippines, we’d forever have been glorified roommates. Here we have the future we want.

May 22, 2024

In 2011, I was studying economics at a university in the Philippines. That year, I joined a musical theatre group on campus, and a friend of mine joked that I was replacing another member in the group: a guy a little older than me who’d graduated with a communications degree and was leaving the country to work abroad. I only met him once before he left—and in that brief meeting, neither of us had any inkling the other was gay, though I definitely felt attracted to him.

In 2016, we saw one another on Tinder. We reconnected, and though it sounds clichéd, we entered a kind of whirlwind romance. He’d just ended a five-year relationship weeks before, and I’d recently come out of a relationship myself. We were cautious about how fast we were falling for each other (I knew he was a catch, but I was scared I’d be a rebound for him). It took a couple of years, but we moved in together in 2018, setting up a life as a couple. And as we began to plan our future, we realized our lives as gay Filipinos would always be difficult. Since colonization by the Spanish in the 1500s, the Philippines has had a strongly traditional Catholic culture—today it’s one of only two countries in the world where divorce is illegal (the other is Vatican City). Being gay isn’t illegal, but the gay community has long struggled to get anti-discriminatory laws passed, and gay rights aren’t really part of the national conversation. Early in our relationship, we received a lot of stares when we held hands in public, especially from curious children who would be hurriedly taken away by uncomfortable parents, or disgusted aunties who would shake their heads disapprovingly. Our parents constantly told us not to have children; they were afraid the child would be subject to bigoted behaviour from peers. It’s a shame, especially because prior to colonization, our culture was very accepting of people who don’t fit gender or sexual binaries.

A lot of our friends were in heterosexual relationships, and they knew the Philippines doesn’t have legislations that protect the LGBT+ community, but even they didn’t understand all the challenges we’d face. Without the ability to marry or even to be recognized as common-law, my husband and I would never have the same rights straight couples did to own property together. We wouldn’t be able to adopt children as a couple, and if one of us adopted singly and then died, the other would have no relationship with the child in the eyes of the law. We heard about a case where this happened to a friend of a friend—we don’t know why, but their partner’s family took the child away. There are no inheritance laws for gay people in the Philippines. Even at the hospital, if my husband ended up in the ICU, I wouldn’t be allowed in to see him. In other words, we could live together as a couple, but we couldn’t be a family as far as the state was concerned. Instead, we’d forever be roommates.

We knew we’d have to emigrate to live the life we wanted—it wasn’t a matter of if but where and when. In addition to the lack of official acceptance for our sexuality, we had other quality of life issues. Corruption and pollution are prevalent in the Philippines. The government doesn’t plan for the future very well, and heat waves and flooding are becoming increasingly common. Part of that is simply due to the natural environment, which is more susceptible to disasters than in many other places, but part of it is the lack of preparedness of the society. When I was in university, I experienced Typhoon Ketsana, which caused massive flooding in Manila due to a dam breaking. A lot of close friends had their homes destroyed. Officials later discovered that the dam was compromised during construction due to corruption. Then, on a sales assignment straight out of university, I experienced Super Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged the eastern Philippine islands. These are core memories for me. I resented the Philippine government for how poorly it planned for disasters, and how it handled recoveries in the aftermath. Climate change is recognized, but most politicians sit on their hands. It’s like being gay: everyone knows it’s there, but it isn’t officially acknowledged. 

When we brought all our reasons to the table, our friends were in full support of us moving. We got married in New York City in 2021, even though we knew it wouldn’t be recognized in our home country. We wanted to celebrate ourselves in a space that allowed us to. It was in the middle of the pandemic, during Omicron, so we had a small ceremony outdoors in Central Park with friends who already lived in the U.S. Our families celebrated with us via livestream from the other side of the world. 

Our marriage certificate definitely accelerated our immigration plans. We wanted a country with a clear-cut immigration policy, so the U.S. was out of the picture—its lottery system, which selects applicants at random, was just too uncertain. I know friends who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend university in the U.S., only to be rejected when applying for permanent residency. It goes without saying that Canada’s LGBT-friendly official policies, like recognizing gay marriage, put it high on the list for potential destinations, but so did its points system for assessing potential immigrants, which awards points based on work experience and education and other factors. It doesn’t guarantee permanent residency, but the criteria are clear-cut, making it something you can work toward. And we felt we were good candidates. I worked as a key account manager at Procter & Gamble in the Philippines, and I had founded a successful consulting business with partners. My husband worked in marketing roles at a major international tech company, travelling back and forth to visit me in the Philippines. We wanted to move somewhere we could excel with our skill sets, and where business was conducted primarily in English, which we’ve spoken alongside Tagalog since we were kids. (Language ability is another notch in the points system.)


I arrived in Toronto last summer, a couple of days before him. There were moments when I was in awe of the comparative efficiency of Canada’s systems. I planned out a bunch of administrative tasks on the second day I was here, thinking they would take me a week to complete. I joked to my husband that I did it all in four hours. Setting up a SIN, getting a phone line; these kinds of things take forever in the Philippines. I was even impressed with the public transportation—at home the routes don’t go where most people need them, and commuters are packed like sardines. I know some Torontonians gripe about the TTC, but it’s relatively efficient compared to the transport system back home. 

Our first weeks in Toronto were mostly spent walking around, and what we experienced reaffirmed that we’d made the right choice. Even something as simple as the abundance of public parks was a new experience. Manila hardly has any, and the pollution is often too toxic to enjoy them. There’s a layer of persistent grey smog there that I didn’t realize was unusual until I started travelling abroad. The weather is also a lot more conducive to walking here—yes, even when it’s cold. One of the first things I noticed when getting off the plane in Canada is how easy it was to simply breathe. There are times at home when people are advised not to step outside because of the heat. My family sends me the heat indices that show 50 and 55° C. People die from heat exhaustion in the Philippines, and heat waves and storms are only getting more common and more extreme as the climate warms.  

Today I’m studying for an MBA at the University of Toronto, and it’s been an amazing journey, challenging myself and being exposed to some of the top minds in Canada. I felt like a big fish in a small pond in the Philippines, but now I feel I can take my career to the next level. And my husband was able to transition from his role in his company’s Singapore office to Canada.

I know I’m lucky. My mom supported me coming out from the beginning, and my dad eventually accepted me, despite his religious convictions. I’m grateful to have a husband who is such a forward thinker and so talented. I know our story isn’t necessarily a common one for gay people in the Philippines, and a lot of gay people struggle more to be accepted by their families there. And of course there are still challenges ahead in Canada as we look toward applying for permanent residency. Though there’s greater earning potential in the job market here, breaking in is tougher. And as everyone knows, the housing market here is very difficult. But we’re happy to make our lives in a place that—as painful as it is to say—deserves us.

As told to Angus MacCaull