'We have to remind people we're Queer'
 

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posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 16

'We have to remind people we're Queer'
Dante Obcena, award-winning student, talks to the SGN

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

'It's not me meeting the governor, it's not me getting the medal - it's my work,' says Dante Obcena, winner of a prestigious All-Washington State Academic/Leadership Team award.

Award-winners represent 33 community and technical colleges in the state, and are chosen for their volunteer work in the community as well as their academic achievement.

'My school nominated me,' Obcena told SGN, 'and I'm thankful to represent work in the LGBTQ community.'

Born in the Philippines, Obcena moved to the U.S. to attend high school.

'I was a very good student back home,' he says. 'I gave up a scholarship to come to the States. I wanted to experience a U.S. high school.'

Obcena says he never regretted his decision to move to the U.S., although the initial adjustment was hard.

'I was the only Asian guy in Vancouver, Washington. My first week, I was sort of, like, shocked. It didn't deter me, though,' he says.

After graduating at the top of his high school class, Obcena spent two years traveling. He has been back in Washington for a year and is now a nursing student at South Seattle Community College.

Asked about his favorite travel experiences, Obcena tells SGN about the six months he spent on a kibbutz in Israel.

'I don't know why I went to Israel,' he smiles. 'At the kibbutz, I thought, 'This is the closest to a utopia I could ever be in.' Everything was about sharing.'

Obcena also traveled in Cambodia and Vietnam, where he worked with Vietnam Scholarship Foundation founder Tam Nguyen raising money to help educate Vietnamese street kids.

Once back in Seattle, Obcena decided to study nursing after running across a booklet about nursing careers at the downtown library. The idea resonated with him, he tells SGN, because of his family history.

'My mom's family were healers - traditional healers,' he says. 'My grandma was the village shaman. My cousin back home is hoping she will inherit that.'

'In the Philippines, only women would be healers,' Obcena continues. 'When I was back home, I asked my grandma, 'What if I want to be a nurse?' She said, 'Well, you have to prove yourself.'

Obcena hopes eventually to get a Master of Public Health degree, and work on issues relating to LGBT aging.

'Why just be a nurse?' he asks. 'Why not be a policy-maker if you can?'

He is interested in aging issues, he says, because he has had the benefit of older mentors and wants to repay the help he has received.

'Older people in our community - they have to go back in the closet if they go to a nursing home. How many Queer-friendly nursing homes are there? We need a long-term care system that is inclusive.'

If Obcena's career choice was motivated by family and personal history, his community activism comes from an encounter with Three Dollar Bill Cinema.

'I never really got involved in the LGBTQ community,' he says. 'Then I volunteered for Three Dollar Bill Cinema. That gave me a good grounding. I enjoyed it so much. I was like, 'Let me do this, let me do that.'

He has also volunteered at Bailey-Boushay House, and is the LGBTQ student commissioner at South Seattle Community College, filling a position that had been vacant for more than a year.

'No one wanted to do it,' Obcena says. 'It's a very diverse population. It's not Seattle Central. There's a big Muslim population, a big immigrant population from so many countries&.'

'It's a straight world. We have to remind people we're Queer,' he adds.

At his college, Obcena has organized a Queer-straight alliance and an anti-bullying campaign.

'A Queer-straight alliance is not an easy thing to maintain,' he says. 'You have to deal with so many layers - you deal with so many differences.

'Even in the Queer community, we've created these lines - fences. Lesbians don't want to talk to Gay men, Gay men don't want to talk to Trans folks, bears don't want to talk to this or that&.'

Obcena says his anti-bullying work built on his experience with Three Dollar Bill Cinema. One of his initial efforts was showing the documentary film Bullied, which tells the story of one student's experiences as the target of bullies in his school.

'I met the producers [of Bullied] because I'd worked with Three Dollar Bill.' Obcena explains. 'Then I brought in Lambert House and GLSEN.'

He also wrote the president of South Seattle Community College, inviting him to the film showing.

'I told him, 'If you want to set the right tone for the college, you have to be there,' Obcena recalls with a smile. 'My boss [at the college] said, 'How could you do that?' - but the president came.'

Since then, Obcena has taken the anti-bullying campaign to a West Seattle high school, North Seattle Community College, and Seattle Central Community College.

He also plans to show a film about Gay Muslims, so other students will see that 'you can be Queer and not renounce your religion and culture.'

Obcena's own experience with religion was not so happy, however. As a child in the Philippines, he went to Catholic schools.

'Every year we had a Bible quiz,' he recalls, 'and every year I was the Bible champ. I always knew I was Queer. I guess I thought maybe I could get healed by being close to the word of God. But for me, it was like a bandage - just temporary.

'At some point, I just diverged. I said, 'I don't want to be part of something that doesn't celebrate who I am.'

Obcena's latest project is a Queer student of color conference in Portland at the end of the month.

'It will be students talking to students,' he says enthusiastically. 'As Queer people of color, we have to bring out the positives. We have different stories. We have to connect all our stories.'

Surprisingly, Obcena refuses to acknowledge that he is anything special.

'We're all born leaders,' he tells SGN. 'We're leaders of our own lives. It's just a question of how much you want to show, how much you want to share.'



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