B/PROUD: Karlo & Vani, a Father and His Gay Son

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Photography by Katrina Pajaro
Clothes by BENCH

It’s a fact: we don’t tell our parents everything. Sexual flings and the nitty-gritty of our rebellious teenage years are things you can take to your grave. But our true identities—shouldn’t the people who introduced us to the world be well acquainted with them?

Still, many gay men and women hide who they are and love from the people who loved them first. And if you do hear of a coming out story, it’ll often involve a mother more than a father. Moms are deemed gentler and more compassionate; and dads, the more demanding, less forgiving parents.

Following our interview with lesbian mom Cha Roque, B/PROUD meets a father who never thought a closet was a proper place to keep his gay son. As he writes in his blog, Baguio-based artist Karlo Altomonte treated the coming out of son Vani as a welcoming event rather than a process of acceptance. “There was nothing to accept,” he stresses. “Do I have to accept my other kids being straight?”

With Karlo making the trip down to Manila, father and son talk to B/BLOG about cross-dressing phases, Lizzie McGuire, and why honoring one’s parents should never be about dishonoring one’s true self.

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Baguio-based artist Karlo Altomonte

 To start: where do cool dads like you come from?

Karlo Altomonte: My mom is a theater artist, my dad is a photographer, so I grew up in that kind of environment. I grew up in the different backstages of Metro Manila—UP Diliman and CCP. I kid you not, when I was baptized, I had a dozen ninongs and one ninang. All the ninongs were gay and half of them actually came in drag. One of them even released butterflies in the church when I was baptized.

When [Vani] showed signs of being gay, I don’t know how to describe it—it was not a big deal for me, except that he was not coming out to me. So I gave him the chance and waited for it. When he was 10 or 12, he was supposedly in love with Lizzie McGuire. One time, he had a Christmas party in school, so I left him there and he probably thought I had left. But I was actually watching him and realized, no, he doesn’t have a crush on Lizzie McGuire, he is Lizzie McGuire. The way he smiled, the way he talked, the way he moved. So for the next couple of years, I was waiting. I never thought he would be scared to come out to me. Eh ang tagal. So one night, I sat him down and I had this long preamble about how not a big deal it was to be gay. And then, he was just looking at me and I just had to say it: “You’re gay and it’s okay.” And then he goes, “No, I’m not.”

Vani Altomonte: I was a sophomore then. I came out in third year high school. My definition of being gay then was that you had feelings for guys and during that time, I didn’t have any at all. So I said, “No, I’m not. Papa, what are you talking about?”

Karlo: I said, “Okay, I’ll take that answer for now but I’m quite convinced that you are. And if you are, I just want you to know there’s nothing to be shy about. You don’t have to hide it from me.” But basically, what I told him was that as open in society is, way more than when I was growing up or when my parents were growing up, it’s still not that cool. There’s still discrimination and I just wanted him to be prepared for that. I live in Baguio, by the way. I told him that if you turn out to be the kind of gay guy who cross-dresses, let’s walk down Session Road, I’ll hold your hand, and if someone says anything, I’ll punch him in the face. But if you can avoid provoking the uneducated ones, then try also. You just don’t need that kind of baggage around you all the time.

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T-shirt by BENCH

 That’s just you being protective as a dad, of course.

Karlo: Of course. It’s not, “Don’t cross-dress.” I just want him to know that if he does cross-dress, be prepared for something like that. Coming from a dad who used to walk around Malate in a sarong, I can’t really say “Don’t cross-dress,” right? I just want him to know that it’s not that cool a world yet.

I was told before, “Good naman that it’s easy for you to accept.” I was like, “What, accept? There was nothing to accept. It’s just a part of him, a part of his being a human being.” Do I have to accept my other kids’ being straight? That’s their sexuality. Why do I need to accept him being gay? That’s his nature.

I’m curious about your own dad and his beliefs.

Karlo: My dad grew up in a society where it’s not like the way it is now. He just doesn’t know how to deal with gay people—he never had to, he never did.

So what was his response to Vani being gay?

Karlo: Dedma, basically. It’s not like, “Sana he’s not gay,” nothing like that. It’s just that he doesn’t know how to deal with it. In a parenting talk about this topic, the audience asked about acceptance of your child’s choices. I don’t think it’s a choice. Frankly, when I was his age, I wanted to be gay. There came a point where I was wondering what is it like to be gay. I wasn’t attracted to men, I had gay people hitting on me at that time, and I just didn’t understand it.

As an artist, you grow your hair, you express yourself. I think gay people are the epitome of that: “I don’t care, this is who I am.” That freedom, I envied that. So I imagined myself being with another guy and the truth is that the thought was just so disgusting to me the way that it’s disgusting for Vani to be with a woman. I thought it would be a cool lifestyle, but no. It’s not a lifestyle, it’s nature. That’s why I keep telling parents: don’t get it wrong, it’s not a choice.

When you hang out with your guy friends, do they joke around about your son’s homosexuality? 

Karlo: A little. But I don’t pontificate or try to impose my point of view. It’s not entirely their fault—they grew up in a society that’s like that. When the Spaniards came, we became patriarchal, we became close-minded, so this will take a while. Even with my own circle of friends, meron pa ring mga “Are you okay your son is gay?” Sapakin kaya kita diyan, what are you talking about?

Do other parents seek your advice when their children come out to them? I’m curious about what’s said in these conversations

Karlo: One guy’s daughter came out and his first reaction was, “Are you sure?” He asked his daughter, “Have you ever been with a man?” The daughter said no. Then he asked, “How do you know that you’re really gay if you don’t have a point of comparison?” When he told me about that conversation, I was like, “Are you crazy? Did you actually have to sleep with a man for you to know that you’re straight?”

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On Vani: Shirt and khaki pants by BENCH | On Karlo: Pants by BENCH

Vani, when did you start to feel you weren’t like other guys?

Vani: As early as five, I knew I was different but I would keep telling myself, “Oh, maybe I just acted feminine.” Because I didn’t have feelings for guys until I was in third year, when I came out. Basically everyone knew before me. So when I came out, it was easy for me. When I told my mom, she was like, “Aww, baby, I know. It’s okay.”

What I’m really thankful for is that my family was really supportive all throughout the stages of me discovering my sexuality. There was a time I wanted to cross-dress, I would wear my wigs and post pictures. But when my body started changing and testosterone kicked in, I thought maybe it’s not for me.

Karlo: Did it ever cross your mind to be trans?

Vani: It did! I was looking at hormone treatments and everything but I realized it’s not for me. I could do it but I don’t think it’s for me.

Karlo: Just pay for it yourself and it’s okay (laughs).

Did you ever feel awkward about how you would bond with your son when he officially came out?

Karlo: Not at all. I’ve always been comfortable around gay people. Although when you dream of becoming a father, you dream of the convention of them having kids and some day, your kids are gonna have kids that will call you “Nono.” That was one of the plans that changed when it became official. Now, I’m just waiting to be introduced to somebody.

Vani: Wala pa kasi.

Karlo: To me, as open as I am, that’s still gonna have a certain degree of awkwardness when he comes to me and says, “Dad, this is Joel” or whoever. It’s gonna be awkward but I’m still waiting for that.

Vani: Kasi I always think that when there’s a guy in my life, baka pang-short time lang ‘to. So I never bring them…

Karlo: Do I have to hear that?

Vani: (Laughs) But with regards to bonding, it’s been more open, more fun. I love to joke about my gay life with papa.

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(To Karlo) So there’s a degree of having to mentally prepare yourself when the time comes he introduces someone?

Karlo: Yeah. And that’s never cool whether your child is straight or gay—knowing that your child is a sexual creature.

(To Vani) When you meet a guy, at the back of your mind, do you think about the possibility of one day introducing them to your dad?

Vani: Always. When I meet a guy, I always think long term, but it’s just a part of me that always finds flaws or thinks that it isn’t gonna work.

Karlo: Naks, you’re afraid of commitment (laughs).

Vani: Yeah, something like that (laugh). I don’t want my family to get used to, okay, palaging bago. If I introduce a guy to my family, I want him to be the last one.

(To Karlo) Have you ever thought about the possibility that he’ll one day get married?

Karlo: I started working at the CCP when I was 14 and that’s where I met this guy, Ige. He was dating an Irish guy at the time. As we all know, Ireland recently voted to legalize gay marriage. It took them that long. I’m 42 now and they’re still together.

(To Vani) I want something like that for you. At that time, when I would see Ige with this Irish guy, I was thinking it was one of those things where you pick up a foreigner at a bar or something like that. But year after year, they were still together, and last month, they finally posted a photo together. They got married. So I’m looking forward to it. The introduction would have some sort of awkwardness but hey, who wouldn’t want it to lead to that? For you or any of my children.

The image of walking him down the aisle?

Karlo: Are you going to wear a veil or something?

Vani: I want a big wedding. Think sheer.

Karlo: Can you butch up a little? Kasi diba the father of the bride pays for the wedding? (Laughs)

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