“You’ll always be my son, and nothing will ever change that. I love you for who you are.”
Not every out, gay man hears this from their mother, let alone a drag queen from Southeast Asia.
But Aleksa Manila learned a lot from her mother, her heritage and her community.
Since her first win in 2001 during the Miss Gay Filipino competition she has become a powerful voice in the LGBTQ community in Seattle and beyond. She has acted as a panelist and emcee at events large and small. In the summer of 2014, she acted as the Grand Marshal at the 40th annual Seattle Pride, alongside famous Star Trek actor, George Takei, who was Celebrity Grand Marshal for that event.
My first reaction when I saw Aleksa Manila for the first time on stage was nothing short of awe, with her fierce stage presence and incredible style. But she didn’t come out of the womb that way.
Manila hails from Manila in the Philippines, which — you guessed it— is where she got her inspiration for her stage name.
“I mean there’s different ways [of coming up with a drag name],” Manila said. “I wanted mine to be sort of distinct and unique; sort of an homage to my cultural heritage.”
Manila grew up in the Philippines, where she says there was an acceptance of queer culture. But it focused mostly around stereotypes, especially the belief that a gay man could not be masculine or a lesbian be feminine.
Her mother is a devout Catholic, but Manila describes her as “pretty liberal.” She accepted Manila’s coming out, first as a gay man, then years later as a drag queen.
Manila’s siblings, on the other hand, did not take the news of their brother being a drag queen very well.
“My siblings were okay with me being gay,” Manila said. “But the drag part was too much.”
Although Manila has not spoken with her siblings in more than ten years, she still described drag culture as something that empowers her.
Manila also has inspired young aspiring drag performers. Randy Salgado is a student at the University of Washington who has been involved in the drag community for a little over a year, and just recently made his debut performance as Mercedes. Salgado, a Latino student, and sees Manila as a role model when it comes to increasing diversity in drag.
“She inspires [me] to bring more of my heritage into my drag,” Salgado said. “She embraces that she’s Filipino and I really like that.”
On stage, as a host and entertainer, Manila talks about herself and her family and a common theme for her is the importance of accepting others, no matter their skin color, gender, or sexuality.
But even when she’s not dressed in drag, Manila works within the community in a different way, employed as a drug counselor. At work, Aleksa Manila is Aleks Martin and, for the most part, he keeps his drag identity separate from his work life.
After moving to the United States and getting a nursing degree, Manila changed career paths and has been at the Seattle Counseling Service for 12 years.
“I did counseling as an HIV counselor and tester, then I became a health educator for Project NEON, which is a crystal meth harm reduction program in the gay community,” Manila said.
Manila says domestic violence issues, in particular, give her more motivation more motivation to do social work. Domestic abuse is a common issue for clients in counseling, and it’s no surprise considering in 2012, there were over 3,800 reported offenses of domestic violence in Seattle alone, according to the Seattle Police Department’s website.
It also hits close to home.
“I ended up in an abusive relationship for six years … I had no idea I was in an abusive relationship until the very end,” Manila said. “But I think it gives me the empathy and sympathy for the people in my life — whether personal or professional — who go through abuse.”
Not only has Manila experienced abuse firsthand, but her mother was also a victim. But that’s one of the reasons Manila draws such inspiration from her.
Manila’s mother, a survivor of domestic violence within her marriage, is also a World War II survivor of the Japanese occupation. But despite the hardships in her life, Manila’s mother was able to raise four children who all went to college.
“If my mom can survive that, I can survive the little things,” Manila said. “My mother raised me to be a resilient person.”
When asked about her personal goals, Manila rattles off things any other person would: a long happy life for her and her family, traveling around the world, and to keep her job. But there’s more than just that, she wants to start a scholarship for smart and talented gender nonconforming kids that can’t afford to go to college, and create a foundation for aspiring drag kings, queens and anything-in-betweens.
Her motivation? To inspire someone else.
“Even just one.”