He’s an industrial designer, a social justice campaigner, a former national softball player, and an activist member of the Filipino rainbow community. Now based in Wellington, Julian Tanaka talks to Tessa Guest.
Five years ago, Julian Tanaka stood on a TEDx stage in Manila, the Philippines, and shared an excruciatingly personal part of his life to an audience of over 1000.
“Today, I’m going to expose myself to you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get naked or anything. I’m not going to show you what a trans man’s body looks like.”
Throughout the 13 minute speech, he shuffled through his handwritten cue cards, and nervously chuckled between sentences. His voice flickered with a faulty microphone, and a stage assistant had to pass him a hand-held halfway through. But even with the distractions, you could have heard a pin drop. The audience was gripped.
Tanaka, then 21, had only begun medically transitioning a year prior; a year before that, he hadn’t even known transgender people existed. Having left the conservative bubble of an all-girls Catholic school, his world changed after he heard a transgender guest speaker at university and immediately saw himself in their story.
The following year he became the first transgender man to be elected as head of the gender council at his campus of 22,000 students. Despite being new to the rainbow community he hit the ground running, using his year in charge to champion a safe space for rainbow-identifying students and leading a pride march that broke attendance records.
The Philippines is predominantly Catholic, and Tanaka knew that being an active member of this community was dangerous for many of his peers. In an article for CNN Philippines, he wrote, “for me, the real pain begins when you start speaking up with a sound mind and a brave heart and be rejected by the only people you’ve known to love so far in life. I have trans brothers who, because of this rejection, had to grow up on their own too early in life.”
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre found that although 73% of Filipinos agreed LGBTQ+ people should be accepted in society, those individuals were disproportionately subject to bullying and violence, and were disadvantaged in employment. Same sex marriage and legal gender changes are also illegal in the Philippines.
While he actively encouraged his peers to explore their identities, Tanaka was cautious about revealing his own identity to others. He announced his transition to his parents on his 21st birthday, asking them to transition with him by calling him ‘Julian’, and addressing him with male pronouns.
His honesty was a risk, but he knew he had the upper hand. Both parents left to work abroad when he was 16, leaving him to manage the house and raise his younger sister. “They owed me for having to grow up too early.” When he was first left in charge at age 12, he remembers his parents having to return after he misplaced their bank card. He says he was given a stern talking-to, and warned that he needed to be ready for independence, because they would leave again in the future. That day, he learned to put on a brave face, and hasn’t taken it off since.
If there’s something to be taken from this turbulent upbringing, it’s self-assurance and unbelievable drive. Tanaka started playing softball when he was nine, and within a year made it into a varsity team. He excelled throughout high school and university, stacking up awards and eventually being recruited to the national women’s team. There was even a moment when he thought he would go professional. But as he continued playing through his university years, the discomfort of being categorised as a woman every day became overwhelming. He was forced to trade one part of his identity for another, and lost a treasured dream.
Not one to dwell on the past, Tanaka moved his focus to the student council and to his studies in industrial design. He quickly began to notice the limitations of his future career, however. “I felt like I was doomed to be a slave of luxury design, just designing for the one percent.”
Alongside a few innovative friends, he launched Humanitarian Engineering Entrepreneurship and Design (HEED) with the aim of creating sustainable designs to generate income for under-served communities. A memorable project was collaborating with women in grassroots communities to make and sell their own products using recycled plastic. The first products were coasters, which were sold to local restaurants. HEED quickly grew, and was soon hosting international students who wanted to contribute to its work.
Now living in Wellington, Tanaka is still exploring his fascination with design, pursuing a Masters at Massey University. Inspired by his work with low-income families, his research project is designing a new kind of biodegradable sachet, a commonly used form of packaging in the Philippines.
He says he’s finding meaning and excitement in his work, and is happier than he’s ever been. “To live in New Zealand is to live the good life,” he says. He arrived in August last year, after tossing up a move to France or New Zealand. Ultimately, a slower pace of life and the country’s clean green image trumped the “dirty streets of Paris”.
Being here is a bittersweet, though. “For Filipinos like me, getting an education from a Western country, whether it’s easier or harder, it doesn’t matter. As long as you get a stamp of Western education, it changes your life.”
There’s a difficult decision looming. Tanaka lives with his partner of two years, Noelle, whom he met at school in the Philippines. In their time together, they’ve been through long distance, the remnants of Tanaka’s gender transition, and some major health scares – and they’re still only in their 20s. Resilient doesn’t even begin to describe this couple.
While Noelle is at home in New Zealand, Tanaka feels the pull to go back to the Philippines. There, the economic gap is stark and the political corruption undeniable, but Tanaka seems to be itching to go back, to keep advocating for his vulnerable and marginalised friends, and the rainbow community in particular.
As he describes injustices in his home country, Tanaka sometimes pauses, takes off his glasses, and rubs his forehead. He’s angry and tired from a lifetime of witnessing and experiencing discrimination, seeing poor people being trodden on day after day, inequalities being ignored by the government. It would be easy to give up, to take the comfortable route. But to Tanaka, hopelessness isn’t an option. He has an entire life to show for it.