Embracing LGBTQ identity at sea 

There was a time when gay seafarers would rather hide their gender identities while onboard ships for fear of causing unease, reprisals and loss of their jobs. But these days, there is more understanding and tolerance as the global debate on gender identity spreads and deepens around the world. More members of the LGBTQ communities are coming out of their closets.

One of them is 28-year-old Filipino gay seafarer Jhapet Yap, who, despite discrimination and bullying he experienced in the past, proved that his gender is not an obstacle to his professionalism—and may even be an enhancement.

Like many similar cases in generally-conservative Philippines, Jhapet thought he had to conceal his gender identity not only to protect himself from discrimination but also to improve chances when it was time to get a job on board a ship.

He was almost out of his teens when he decided to come out a year after entering maritime school.

“I was scared to show my true self at that time, because I knew my environment was, and still is, male-dominated,” Jhapet said stoically.

But then he realized in order to find true happiness, it is very crucial to show who he really is. 

“When I was in my second year, I finally came out of the closet and revealed who I really am, that I’m gay.”  

Being the only openly gay student at his school at the time, Jhapet expected to be the target of bullying and so he did. Almost immediately, and even from one of his instructors. But that did not scare him and so he sailed on.

Special social function

Jhapet also had the same experience when he boarded a ship for the first time in 2018. He said he no longer concealed his gender identity, but he still had to stow it away because of the ship’s multinational crew setting. 

It disappointed him that the bullying he experienced on board did not come from shipmates of other nationalities, but from fellow Filipinos whose culture is believed to be more open and accepting of gay people.

In pre-Christian, 16th-century Philippines, Spanish priests reported in their written chronicles that “effeminate men” often served as shamans, or babaylans, in the absence of the usual elderly women.

Having been tooled by his maritime school experience, Jhapet said: “I just didn’t take it seriously. Instead, I just worked hard and ignored their bullying.” 

And just like the shamans of old, Jhapet served a social function and tried to help his mates in the engine room ease the loneliness of the Seven Seas.

“I became a comedian, a drag queen,” he laughed, adding he was later accepted, and even loved, by his colleagues after they realized they should not make life difficult for the mate who spread happiness on board.

Jhapet in drag queen act.

Functioning as a babaylan

Jhapet, who is popularly known as Varrakuda Ilumina, stages drag queen acts for his crew-mates on special occasions or lonely days, but he also entertains his family and friends back home by posting his onboard show on his Facebook page VarakudaVlog52.

“I chose the name Varrakuda because as a seafarer, I compare myself to the barracuda and associate my characteristics with it. The barracuda is one of the fastest fish, and I am like that,” Jhapet told Maritime Fairtrade in an interview.

Barracudas are large predators that hunt near the surface of tropical waters, but can also quickly dive, some say as fast as 27 miles per hour, to capture their prey.

Jhapet is currently working in the engine room of the cruise ship Seabourn which sails mostly between Europe and Asia.

Jhapet in drag queen act.

A dream comes true 

It is not a breeze to do housekeeping tasks in the engine room day after day after day. But, for Jhapet, it is a dream come true.

“To be a seafarer was not only my dream but also my family’s dream for me. And I am grateful to the people who supported me to get to where I am today,” said Jhapet, who is born to a poor family in the southern Philippines.

Being the eldest of five siblings, he dreamed of working on a ship to help his family financially and lift them out of poverty. He is now the family’s biggest breadwinner.

Today, he is happy and satisfied with his life. “My family and friends are very proud of me now and they love and accept me for who I am.”

He is also content with the appreciation and respects his crew-mates now show, especially after their joint experience at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“For me, the respect, acceptance and boundaries they give me are very important for work without worry,” he said. 

Stuck at port

So far, Jhapet said the COVID-19 pandemic was the worst part of the careers of many seamen. Some of them had expired contracts and did not know how or when to go home. Others were worried they would have to go home penniless because they already used up their savings while they were locked down in one port or another. 

Jhapet was lucky he had a live contract when the lockdowns happened, but he still worried about the future. 

“My anxiety was very high at that time. I worried about getting sick at sea and dying there. Would I be able to ever see my family? Those were the challenges I had to overcome and I did.”

To help himself and his crew-mates overcome anxiety, Jhapet showcased his talent and performed drag queen acts that brought joy and entertainment. Hard as it might have been, Jhapet said he also enjoyed that time because of the bonds that only seafaring could form.

The key to sustaining mental health and overcoming boredom while at sea, he said, is to make amazing connections with crew members all over the world and enjoy the social life on board.

“If you’re considering a life at sea, don’t overwork yourself. Take the opportunity to get off the ship whenever you get the chance and explore the world,” Jhapet advised. 

Jhapet (front) with his crew-mates in the engine room.

Explode your colors

And if you are part of the LGBTQ community, explode your colors, he said during the interview at the end of Pride Month which takes place every June. 

“Pride month means exploding your true colors. Express yourself, respect, and inspire others because life is full of colors. Being gay is a blessing so you have to accept who you are,” Jhapet said. 

In hindsight, he added, he should not have gone into the closet. “It’s very difficult to hide your true personality. You don’t just lie to other people but especially to yourself. So, at the end of the day, you regret it.”

With all the adversities and challenges he conquered, he advises LGBTQ folks who desire a career at sea “to keep dreaming and never give up.”

“Stand up for what you believe in, and do your job right. Respect yourself first and you’ll get there.”

Top photo: Jhapet Yap

All photos credit: Jhapet Yap

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