“I am gay, but I don’t want my gender to be the basis of my workmanship, for I believe that, if others can do, why can’t I?”
This is what Filipino First Engineer Aljon B. Asusano, 29, always says whenever colleagues in the male-dominated maritime industry question her ability to handle serious responsibilities in a floating mass of steel because of her gender.
And after eight years at sea, Aljon—who prefers to be called “Dyosa Makinista,” (Goddess Machinist)—has indeed proven that members of the LGBT+ community do have a place in the maritime industry and they have reason to be proud.
“The LGBTQIA+ community is part of society. We must be given a chance. We are competent and also have the right to be part of the maritime industry,” Dyosa told Maritime Fairtrade.
LGBT+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and others, but members of the community have sought to be more inclusive by adding QIA (queer, intersex, and asexual) to the acronym.
In recent years, the maritime industry has been trying to close the gap and integrate more roles for women in seafaring, but the experience of LGBT+ seafarers has barely received attention.
Growing up in an inclusive society
The youngest of five boys, Dyosa was born in the northern Philippine province of Nueva Vizcaya in 1993 and was raised by a single mother. But the family moved more than 211 kilometers south to Famy, Laguna where Dyosa’s mother Nancy found a better job.
Dyosa recalled a happy childhood in a community that accepted LGBT+ people, so she never had to hide her sexuality and always had the freedom to express herself since she was a child.
“I grew up in a small, simple, but amazing town where girls could play soldiers, and boys could be princesses,” Dyosa said.
But she also witnessed how difficult life can be, especially when raised by just one parent.
“I saw my mother’s sacrifices and hardships in burning the midnight oil and having the longest night and shortest day because she had to work hard to meet our daily needs.”
The young Dyosa understood that she had to achieve much to repay the love and sacrifice of her mother. And she made her mom proud with the medals and academic honors she received from grade school to high school.
With the financial help of her older brother Ronald, Dyosa took a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering at the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific (MAAP) in Mariveles, Bataan, and was on the dean’s list all through college, graduating with flying colors.
“My childhood dream was to travel around the world with a high salary, and seafaring was one of the professions that matched my dream,” she recalled.
In the 1990s, the Philippines had already evolved much from the intolerance of the 1970s and 1980s, but vestiges of homophobia remained.
In her first year at maritime school, “one of the professors told us that the academy doesn’t produce gay seafarers. I was so scared at that time because MAAP was my last hope for greener pastures so I decided to hide my sexuality.”
However, her fears disappeared in her second year when the president of the academy said at one event that MAAP doesn’t discriminate against anyone and had no rules against gay men.
“I also saw and felt that my classmates were open-minded and matured, so this gave me the courage to reveal my true sexuality,” Dyosa said.
“That academy changed my life,” she said. “At that very point, it turned my career into something beyond expectation. After years of twists and turns, I am now slaying in the maritime industry as a first engineer.”
Bullying and discrimination at sea
On her first ship voyage as an engine cadet in 2014, Dyosa experienced her first taste of harsh sexual discrimination. Sadly, she did not get it from ship officers of another nationality, but from her fellow Filipinos.
“For nine months, a deck officer and an engineer gave me a very hard time. They would teach me wrong information about the machinery,” Dyosa recounted.
Moreover, she would also often see sexist graffiti on the walls of the engine room. She remembered one saying: “demonyong bakla” (demonic homosexual).
“They would spill water on my face, demand that I drink too much alcohol. They wouldn’t let me finish my meals. They would curse me and my family and seem intent on throwing me overboard,” she narrated.
The two Filipino officers would not let a single day pass without bullying her and reiterating the message that she did not belong in a ship’s engine room and she should just quit.
Dyosa almost did, except that she always remembered her mother’s advice that whenever she would think of giving up, she should always remember the reasons why she started in the first place.
“Her advice strengthened me. I continued to fight and move forward. They tried to crush my hope and steal my dreams, but I didn’t let them,” the young engineer said.
Dyosa resolved to use that episode as an inspiration and motivation to move forward, work harder and prove that gender is not a hindrance to becoming a good seafarer.
Queen of the seven seas
Since her first voyage in 2014, her crewmates have been calling her “Dyosa Makinista”.
“My captain told me that in his seafaring career, it was the very first time he had a gay crewmate. He said since I was the only “Dyosa” in the engine department, why not call me Dyosa Makinista?”
In 2019, Dyosa was featured in a popular Philippine news portal. The story headline read: “How seafarer Dyosa Makinista proved she’s the queen of the seas.”
But the “queen” would more likely be wearing a hard hat instead of a crown and holding a wrench rather than a scepter with her face and body smeared with engine grease and always on call because of her critical duties.
As first engineer, she is the fourth top officer onboard, next only to the captain, the chief mate or first mate, and her immediate superior, the chief engineer.
“I am the one responsible for maintaining the good working condition of the ship’s main engine, and other essential machinery, also for the ship’s maneuvering,” Dyosa shared.
She also assists the chief engineer to manage the engine crew, planning daily job orders, scheduling machinery maintenance, and troubleshooting when needed.
“In short, I am a key player in the ship’s engine department,” Dyosa said.
“Currently, my co-workers treat me as their gem. Their acceptance and respect are overflowing. That’s why I want to give them my highest appreciation for making me feel that I am special,” she added.
She still encounters homophobic discrimination now and again, but “fortunately, we members of LGBTQIA+ community are born ready. We take those profanities as a challenge for us to improve ourselves, to be more confident, and to be stronger than they think,” she said.
Celebrating Pride month
This June, which was declared Pride month, Dyosa continues to hope for gender parity in the maritime industry.
She encouraged her fellow members in the LGBT+ community to have faith and believe in their abilities to achieve their goals, no matter how difficult the challenges can be, regardless of their gender.
“If you’re a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender working in the maritime industry, it’s very easy for others to sell you short because they think you don’t belong there. Remember that just because a person is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, it does not mean he or she cannot lead the fleet,” she said.
“They’ll laugh at you because you’re different and hit you with hurtful words because of your sexuality, but be proud of who you are and ignore how others see you.
“It’s not about gender preference,” she said, “It’s about doing our best, making more effort, and showing everyone that even we, can be first-rate leaders of the seven vast seas.”
With all the challenges of life whether on land or at sea, Dyosa continues to apply her favorite quote, “When all seems against the current, find your prowess to heave up and set sail towards the horizon of your dreams.”
Top photo credit: iStock/ Thinnapob