How studying in Australia helped shape LGBT advocate and ANZCHAM’s Oceania Magazine Top Ten Australian-New Zealand alumnus Michael David C. Tan
When Michael David dela Cruz Tan left the Philippines in 1996 to take up Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, he honestly did not know what to expect. While he was then just about to embark on a three-year undergraduate degree, he was actually already a practicing journalist (and about to finish an undergraduate degree in BS Psychology from Notre Dame University in Cotabato City). “I just wanted a ‘different’ experience, truth be told.”
The openness to having a different experience was what helped Michael David adjust faster to a life in Australia. There were little things he experienced that made a world of difference for him. As a student in an Australian education institution, he recalled that ‘what the students know is as important as what the teachers know.’ To him, this meant no room for the “educational spoonfeeding” deeply ingrained as a practice in numerous, if not most universities in the Philippines, including the supposed topnotch institutions. “Yes, you may argue (even vehemently, if you have to) with the perspective of your teachers and not have to worry you’d be failed in that subject for doing so,” Michael David said. “Your perspective is as valid as everybody’s, so long as you can back what it is you believe in (just as others back theirs).”
His learning was taken out of the supposed four walls of the classroom, too. “We were (already) somewhat beat reporters even as first year university journalism students,” he recalled, having been exposed to covering court cases to experience early on what it’s like in the real world of reporting. “The emphasis had always been on the development of a get-go attitude; you also do, not just think. Just as it is in the real world,” he added.
It was this — i.e. the applying of what is learned in real situations — that led Michael David to, among others, volunteer as an HIV awareness advocate, as well as an LGBT rights fighter. “If you can make use of what you know for a greater good, why not do so?” he said.
In 1999, Michael David completed his degree, and he opted to return to the Philippines even after being offered to pursue an Honours Programme. Upon his return, he first put into practice what he learned from the University of Newcastle as a media liaison officer of the late Sen. Raul S. Roco. It was then, he said, that he realized how “multi-tasking becomes a norm for those properly taught how to do so.” Since then, he had stints working for private and public companies though what he found most satisfying was in the merging of everything he learned in advocacy works. Still a practicing journalist, Michael David has also been involved in projects for UNDP, UNAIDS, Ford Foundation, among others.
In 2007, Michael David — then already a winner of the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) for Best in Investigative Journalism – established Outrage Magazine, the only publication in the Philippines devoted to the issues of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. “Often, the mainstream media chooses to ignore LGBT-specific issues, which is problematic for us because sans their coverage, we are not heard and/or seen, and so we basically do not exist,” he said. With Outrage Magazine, “we now have a media by us, not just for us but for the world to know us.”
Outrage Magazine has gone beyond simply reporting on LGBT issues as it has started “being more pro-active in the tackling of the very issues that we used to just report on.” For instance, after his pioneering research on the state of deaf men who have sex with men in the Philippines (entitled Talk to the Hand), he pushed for the publication to provide gender awareness/sensitivity and HIV 101 training for deaf LGBTs. Also, the publication has formed partnerships with like-minded groups to further LGBT issues (e.g. partnered with R-Rights for the Outgames in the Philippines, and partnered with Ladlad partylist for a photo exhibit highlighting supporters of equal rights for all).
“You can effect changes, you know,” Michael David said, and looking back, he recalled numerous learnings from Australia that undeniably helped shape him.
To start, he learned the relevance of highlighting what one is good at. “In my experience in the Philippines, when somebody says he/she can do something, there’s the tendency to consider him/her as ‘mayabang‘ (braggart or boastful), which is a trait Filipinos are very, very critical of. Yes, as the cliche goes, if you have it, flaunt it; but more than boasting for its own sake, though, I learned the importance of developing a specialization so that when you say you’re good at it, you REALLY are good at it. And from the very beginning of learning in Australia, the making of experts is what’s emphasized. This way, there’s no bragging happening (when highlighting abilities), just the statement of a fact.” This may seem like a small thing, Michael David notes, but this could decide how we are seen, and allow us to be competitive on a global scale.
Having stated this, Michael David said that his experiences in Australia also made him see how learning doesn’t stop. “There is no shame in not knowing (something). The shame is in pretending to do, when you’re better off learning about what you don’t know,” he said. “I have had Australian teachers who were learning from me as much as I was learning from them. In a more traditional educational setting where the teacher is treated like a higher god and is the sole source of knowledge, this may not be seen as ‘good’; but in an educational institution that recognizes that learning (including by the teachers) does not stop, encouraging the surfacing of other perspectives is important.” This, Michael David said, “touches on a lot of things, e.g. teaching of egalitarianism, empowerment of students, surfacing of healthy discussions, acknowledgment of the existing of different (even opposing) views, et cetera.”
Then there was what Michael David calls as “hands-on learning”. Even as a freshman, “we were more often outside the classrooms, putting into practice everything taught to us”. This approach — largely aided by the availability of more modern technologies – meant actually knowing how things are run, and done”. Even as a student, Michael David was able to produce a video (Sex is My Middle Name), come up with a photographic portfolio, and developed marketing strategies for organizations, among others. “And these were not products borne out of OJT; instead, these were what were regularly expected of us,” he said. “Again, it helped create expertise, so that when a person for example says he/she knows how to shoot films, he/she is not pretending, but actually has the proper training to actually do so. Without support from the educational institution — as most schools are wont to do in the Philippines due to budgetary limitations — this would not have been possible.”
Yet another lesson Michael David learned was “how we are as good as the rest of them”. “We just need to be properly developed — and in my case, my getting educated in Australia helped.” For him, it actually seemed somewhat ironic that Australia was the one to actually teach him to be proud to be Filipino. “It was really while there that I saw our potential, and more importantly, how we can actually tap this potential to facilitate not just our personal growth, but the society’s as well,” Michael David said, adding “isn’t this what humanity’s all about?”.