Saturday, October 29, 2016

Volunteer Spotlight: MGWP 2016 Candidates from LoveYourself Khalil Vera Cruz, Jesse Regin Nacilla, and Jerome Lacsa

LoveYourself volunteers and Mr. Gay World Philippines 2016 finalists Khalil, Jesz, and Omie share their pageant experiences and discuss their advocacies, proving they have the brains and the brawn.

By Ruben Jay Alvarez, Gian Geronimo, and Jean Natividad

The UP theater was abuzz with excitement. It was the Mister Gay World Philippines 2016 finals night, and 33 dashing candidates from all over the country were vying for the number one spot. Among them were Christian Khalil Vera Cruz, 33, of Zamboanga del Sur; Jesse Regin "Jesz" Nacilla, 27, of Cebu; and Jerome "Omie" Lacsa, 30, of Rizal.

Khalil, a certified public accountant, finished 2nd runner-up. Jesz, a licensed physiotherapist, and Omie, a talent acquisition manager, made it to the top 10 and top 15, respectively. All three are also LoveYourself volunteers contributing in their own unique ways to the HIV education and prevention advocacy. All have made the LoveYourself community proud by showing substance and passion above all else.

Moreover, 2nd runner-up Khalil Vera Cruz joins Mr. Gay World Philippines 2016 winner Mr. John Raspado and 1st runner-up John Bench Ortiz as ambassadors of LoveYourself's upcoming mass screening event, Incognito 2.0.

Read on to find out their motivations for joining the pageant, the causes they support, their thoughts on love and relationships, and more.

What made you decide to join Mister Gay World Philippines 2016, and how did you prepare for it?

K: I have always been passionate in voicing out my concerns and strong opinions on LGBTI rights, fighting against LGBTI bullying and hate crimes, and raising awareness on HIV and AIDS. Knowing the vision and mission of the Mr. Gay World Philippines (MGWP) Organization, I realized it’s a good platform for me to champion my advocacy called #AcceptanceWithoutExceptions.
I went through a holistic preparation for MGWP. Physically, I had to go through a strict dietary and exercise routine. I tried to eat healthy (I love eating Toblerone and Reese’s, so it was a struggle) and hit the gym at least five times a week with my trainer. Emotionally, I had to continually boost my confidence--through the support and love of my family, especially my mom, my relatives, and friends--since this was my first pageant. These support systems allowed me to stick with my advocacy despite all the challenges like time constraints at work and my personal life. In terms of mental preparation, I worked closely with my friends who are deeply involved in LGBTI rights and had knowledge of LGBTI bullying and hate crimes in order to supplement what I already know, which is more on HIV and AIDS. The dialogues I had with these people allowed me to clearly understand the issues and drove my spirit in talking about my advocacy. Much of the learning, though, was also closely linked to my experiences as a young gay growing up in a very traditional society. This early exposure to these issues helped in shaping my advocacy.

J: I was fascinated by this pageant even way back in my college years, but I never really tried joining one. A co-volunteer from LoveYourself, Inyaki Yuson, who eventually became my handler, proposed that I become MGWP 2016's Mr. Cebu. That time, I thought he was just trying to flatter me. It was just three months before the pageant when he finally got to convince me, so I really didn’t have much time to put myself into the right form. In any case, I just decided to rise to the challenge, seeing it as personal fulfillment.

O: I joined MGWP 2016 to put my advocacy to the next level by influencing a bigger audience and to change how people see gay pageantry. More than the entertainment value, MGWP can be a platform to rally advocacies concerning the LGBT community.

To prepare for the pageant, I engaged in boxing and Muay Thai to enhance my physique along with a healthy diet. I also had the courage to go out as gay man through social media to promote my advocacy, which is SWAG or Self-Worth Among Gay men and women. Reading news and related information concerning the LGBT community became my morning routine to equip myself with information that I could use for the pageant.

Khalil Vera Cruz, Zamboanga del Sur, MGWP 2016 second runner-up

Describe your MGWP 2016 experience. What was the most challenging part and the most rewarding part?

K: The challenging part of my MGWP experience was managing my time. Days leading to the pageant, I had to travel to two countries for work. Because of these travels, I missed a few important pre-pageant events, including the press presentation where all of the candidates were announced to the media. Despite the time constraints, I always did my best to be visible online and to continue talking about my advocacy. I wanted people to understand that my participation in the pageant was not merely a battle of physical beauty but a fight for important issues for us in the LGBTI community.
The rewarding part of the MGWP experience was knowing and learning about the lives of the other candidates. While it was difficult for me to manage my time with the pre-pageant events, I still managed to learn a lot about the stories of my co-candidates. I actually learned a lot from their experiences, which inspired me because these amazing people have also been experiencing the very concerns I am fighting for. Additionally, I'm glad I was awarded 2nd runner-up because I am still able to talk about my advocacy during the interviews John, Bench (the two other winners) and I do with different media outlets.

J: I’d like to think of this experience as one of those rare opportunities I’d really like to cherish. Just to be able to bask in the limelight, so much preparations behind the scenes were required. I’m from Cebu, so the traffic in Metro Manila also required some getting used to. It was really challenging. On top of the traffic, we had media guestings, sponsor visits, and other activities. I had less than six hours of sleep every night for the last three weeks.  

O: The most challenging part would be multi-tasking. I am a corporate guy during weekdays and the MGWP activities were usually held weekdays, thus I missed out on a lot of the activities. Also, I wasn't out as a gay person to my family, but because of the pageant, I was able to send that message across and became out and proud.

The most rewarding part was the support from friends and loved ones, most especially from my family. Seeing their Facebook likes and comments meant that they accept me for who I am. It feels good to be who I am, even to those from whom I used to hide my true sexuality.

Jesz Regin Necilla, Cebu

If you could change any part of your performance in the pageant, which one would it be and why?

K: I guess none. I think any flaws or uncertainties I experienced during my pageant performance define who I really am. This was my first ever pageant experience. I believe there were certain situations where it might have shown, but I believe these little details defined me in that pageant. I believe I did my best, which was all worth it especially after bagging 2nd runner-up.  

J: Since I've never joined a pageant prior to MGWP 2016, I could definitely use a lot of improvements, like the way I walk on stage or properly projecting confidence. One of my motivations in joining the pageant was being forced to speak in public, and I have to gain confidence in doing that.

O: I guess if I had the opportunity to attend all the activities that were plotted during weekdays, maybe I had a higher chance of winning. I needed to prioritize work since I am an employee.

How could pageants like MGWP advance HIV awareness and other important LGBT causes?

K: Pageants like MGWP catch a lot of media attention. I believe the media is a very strong and influential agent in changing perceptions and behaviors. The media is also an effective tool in getting advocacies heard in different agencies, especially the decision makers in the government like the Congress. Hence, I always made use of MGWP as a platform and avenue for me to talk about my #AcceptanceWithoutExceptions campaign and what we, the LGBTI community, can do and what we need from the rest of the community and the government.

J: One of the goals of MGWP is to enable Filipino gay men to show the world how capable and talented they are. All of my other colleagues who also competed in the pageant - such as Khalil and Omie - pushed HIV awareness to the mainstream arena. I think we were able to show the public that we have a beautiful advocacy, that HIV awareness can be part of the daily narrative in our society, and that we can end the stigma of HIV.

O: Pageants like MGWP can reach more people and engage them more to participate and support LGBT causes. Filipinos, by nature, are avid supporters of pageants, and through this, we can amplify our message to reach those who don't have access to information.

Jerome Lacsa, Rizal

How would you use your experience in MGWP 2016 to further LoveYourself’s advocacy?

K: [Same as above]

J: By proudly wearing our LoveYourself badge in this pageant, I believe Khalil, Omie, and I generated buzz. We promoted good branding and renewed the interest of MSMs to get involved with HIV awareness and become a LoveYourself volunteer. We demonstrated that more than just an organization, we are also a compassionate community of committed individuals driven to helping oneself and our fellow MSM LGBT brothers and sisters.

O: For me, consistency is something I learned from MGWP. You don't need to join a pageant to do something for the community. You just need to start small and be consistent. These small actions can create ripples of positive change. Counseling, supporting LoveYourself events, being credible advocates, etc. are just some of the things we can do that are simple yet impactful.

When did you join LoveYourself? What inspired you to do so?

K: I joined LoveYourself around  2012, a few years after I returned to the Philippines. It was my close friend, Anthony Decoste, who introduced me to LoveYourself. I remember our first meeting with Chris Lagman; it was in El Chupacabra. (I can remember clearly because I’m a foodie, and I remember places with good food.)
In addition, what inspired me to join LoveYourself was my desire to learn more about HIV and AIDS. When I was young, I made unhealthy and risky decisions that could have exposed me to the virus. That is why I believe that knowledge and awareness is key to solving this problem. I joined because I wanted to be a change agent and an awareness agent, especially to the youth who are vulnerable to unhealthy and risky sexual behaviors. My enthusiasm in helping out the organization grew even bigger when I dated a guy who contracted HIV. During this challenging life event, I was there to offer him love and support. Even though it did not turn into a relationship, this experience inspired me to make more people aware of HIV and AIDS and supporting Persons Living with HIV (PLHIV), as I have seen firsthand the extent of pain my ex-date experienced.

J: I joined LoveYourself in 2012, just a year after it was founded. My partner and I have been friends with Chris Lagman, one of the original and founding members of the organization. I have high respect for Chris as a positive role model in the MSM/LGBT community. Also, my hometown, Cebu, is an urban hotspot with a high concentration of HIV cases.It was very timely to be part of an advocacy that addressed HIV in the MSM/LGBT community.

O: I joined LoveYourself in June 2015. I had a difficult time going through an HIV scare during my past relationship. After knowing I'm non-reactive, I told myself I don't want others to go through the same experience. That's why I'm now part of this organization.

What are your current duties and responsibilities in the organization? What more would you like to achieve in LoveYourself?

K: With my increasing responsibilities at work, my role in LoveYourself has been more of an HIV and AIDS awareness advocate. Currently, I would like to be able to support more the LoveYourself campaigns, especially those in line with my #AcceptanceWithoutExceptions campaign, which are (1) LGBTI rights, (2) LGBTI hate crimes and bullying, (3) HIV and AIDS awareness.

J: LoveYourself operations in Cebu are currently inactive due to logistical limitations and operational challenges. But on a personal level, I make sure to put my CAT (change agent training) into practice by  counseling MSM peers, friends, and acquaintances.

O: I am an HIV counselor, and I also help the events team in terms of marketing and communications. I am also supporting LoveU as an admin.

I just want to be instrumental in reaching more people and educating them about HIV/AIDS. In addition, I envision helping out in creating a stronger LGBT community through self-worth. If every gay man and woman has self-worth, then all issues concerning the community can be managed and resolved.

Khalil Vera Cruz with other MGWP 2016 candidates

Are you seeing anyone now? What are your thoughts on love and relationship? Describe your ideal partner.

K: Love and relationships come in different forms. Love requires commitment. Commitment makes relationships last.
I don’t exactly have an ideal partner. As long as that person makes me happy and we enjoy and explore life together, then he is the right guy for me.

J: I’ve been together with my partner for six years now, even if we couldn't be more different when it comes to personality.
I believe people seek relationships because we long for someone with whom we can share our lives. Sometimes things become too stable that we find it boring, but we feel complete and secure by having an uncompromising witness standing right beside us. I could say that our relationship slowly changed the both of us.
Growing old together slowly exposes our imperfections, and our relationship becomes a journey of transformation, of transcending our original demands. We realize it’s more than just sex; it’s also allowing ourselves to love and be loved. All unions become perfect over time if we slowly transcend towards our intrinsic need as a human being - to love and be loved in return.

O: Love and relationship among gay people is not different from heterosexuals. I would like to meet someone whom I can be with for the rest of my life and someday get married to and have a family with. My ideal partner is someone who is honest, loyal, and respectful. These three qualities will make a relationship last.

What lessons did you learn from being part of the pageant? How did it change you?

K: Maturity is more about listening and looking than talking. It's common for candidates to use the pageant as a platform to impress people. But I've realized that during the times when I was just observing and listening to my mentors and the organizers, among other people, I learned a lot. Because of this, I have become a person who tends to listen more.

Also, photos don't capture everything. I'm still overwhelmed by all the experiences during the pageant. Most of which have never been captured in photos.

Also, pageant preparations are not only about time, money, and things, but also more about people. I learned to invest in people. I've seen who were there behind me supporting me all the way for the pageant. Despite my busy schedules and unavailability, these people continued to support me in my pageant preparations and needs. For that, I'm very thankful. And I've begun to value more relationships around me.

J: Volunteering for LoveYourself taught me to become magnanimous. But this pageant further magnified the importance of this virtue. I heard a lot of nasty stuff being said about me and the other contestants. When dealing with others becomes difficult, I remind myself of the importance of staying calm and being magnanimous. I could say that the pageant made me a better person.

O: You just have to be yourself and stay true to what you believe in. You don't need to pretend to be someone  you're not because being real is your greatest asset. Also, being consistent in what you say and do will make you a credible person and will lead you to success.

Please give a message to your supporters from LoveYourself.

K: Thank you to to my LoveYourself family! The passion of LoveYourself volunteers was my inspiration during the pageant. My journey in MGWP would not have been easy without the solid support of my friends, especially Kent  who led my social media campaign, Cliff who was always there assisting me in almost everything (most especially on those days I’m not in Manila), Harry who helped me with social media, and Patrick B. who helped me reached more audiences with his influence. To my Synergy brothers and batch Magayon – thank you! Antzy, Hern, Princess (Vinn),  Oriel, Blue, Iosif, Claude, Rolin – thank you guys. You might not know it, but our conversations (or your posts on Facebook) helped me in so many ways to understand different LGBTI issues/topics. And of course to Jerome and Jesz, two of the my closest friends/co-candidates in MGWP – thank you guys! I believe we have shown what it takes to be a passionate volunteer. Let us continue our passion to raise HIV and AIDS awareness. The more people we inspire and reach out to, the more we are able to fight and end HIV and AIDS.

J: Let us continue to promote positive change for ourselves, the MSM/LGBT community, and our country.  Embody how we can show love to others by loving ourselves first. More power to all of us and to our organization! I pray and wish for the success and growth of our LoveYourself family in the service of our community. Padayon ug daghang salamat!

O: Thank you to all who supported me in my MGWP journey. I hope I made all of you proud by representing our organization and talking about what we do, as well as educating people on how they can also take part in the same advocacy. We all have our ways to rally our advocacy, be it small or big. Just remember each of us already made a difference by being a volunteer of LoveYourself. I hope we can find more ways to be out there, so people can notice us and create a difference in the LGBT community.

Photos: Khalil Vera Cruz, Jesse Regin Nacilla, and Jerome Lacsa

LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.

Have you been inspired by the courage and commitment of our volunteers? Like us on Facebook and help share our message of positivity and self-worth in your own communities to help fight the spread of HIV.