I’m Justin Senense, and I’m from Abilene, Texas.
I was raised under three pillars. I would say for a Filipino family, it was always food, then it was family, and then it was the church. Those three pillars, I feel like were summed up for me in three sentences, which were, be good, do what’s right, and pray. There was this one word in Tagalog, Filipino dialect, and it was anak, and I would do anything to hear that word out of my mom’s mouth, out of my dad’s mouth, and it means my child, my son. But for me, it was just, it’s honestly that sensation of just being loved.
So, when I was 24, I had moved to New York City to pursue my Broadway dream. Along that journey, I had also fallen in love. I had always promised myself that when I fell in love, that this would be the time I would have to tell my parents. And along with that time happening, I had auditioned also for a dream job of mine, which was to work and sing at Disney, and I actually booked it. So, I had to fly back home. I had 24 hours to get all my things. And in that short time period, I also had to live up to my promise to myself. I was in love.And although we had broken up immediately right before I had to leave, I knew that I had fallen in love with another man.
I flew back home from New York and got home. My parents were getting ready for work, and my mom was in the garage, walked into the car, and I held the passenger side door so tight, she couldn’t, she was trying to close the door, and she just looked up at me and I was just like, “Mom, I have something to tell you.” And they’re just rushing. It’s a regular day. I just came out with, and I just said, “I’m gay.” Someone who’s like bubbly, shiny, sunlight of spirit just sinks down into the ground and she just looks at me and just says, “No, you’re not.” And then my dad turns around, looks at me and says, “We’ll deal with that tomorrow.” And the door shuts.
I woke up the next day and my mom comes in and all I hear is just crying. Crying. And I walk down the stairs and her hands are reaching out to me like, “Are you okay? What’s wrong? How did this happen?” We proceed to have an argument, a very heated argument that goes from each room of the house like, “How did this happen? Why? How did we not know? What did we do wrong?” The argument, I think, lasted for two to three hours and just yelling. And my mom looks me dead in the face and goes, “I want the son I raised back.” That’s when the shame kind of settled in my body.
I got into the car and I still had to drive all the way down to Orlando to work, I guess, in the happiest place in the world, and I felt like I was back in the closet again. I felt like, because I was instilled with those three sentences of be good, do what’s right and pray, and not even hearing that, “anak, I love you.” Fast forward, after the contract ended, I ended up moving back home to prove to my parents that I was okay, which is crazy because I was also putting myself back in the closet, not really being able to live my life freely. And so, the one thing in my life that always taught me about myself was the arts.
So, I find myself back in New York City in an acting class, the middle of Times Square on 43rd Street, and I’m asked to write a personal monologue about something that I wouldn’t necessarily share to a stranger. And I knew, I was like, “Oh, this is totally going to be my coming out story.” When you say your personal monologue, you get to pick someone, and that someone’s actually very special because that’s the person you’re getting to connect to in this one moment of time, actually sharing your story, your personal monologue, and I chose Elizabeth.
There was something about her energy and her spirit that reminded me of my mom. And I think there was still a part in me that really, truly wanted to say these words to my mom, and maybe honestly subconsciously heal. She stands up against the door. I’m standing on stage and I basically blanked. I don’t remember a thing that I wrote.
And so, I pulled the chair to the center of the stage to stall. And all of a sudden, I sit in the chair and then I look in her eyes and I start to cry. And all of a sudden I start to remember the story. I start to tell what happened, the garage, my mom, be good, do what’s right, pray. All these things. My acting teacher, when I finished asked me, he was like, “Well, how did that feel?” I was like, “Oh, geez.” I’m still crying here. I think I had an out of body experience. And then he asked Elizabeth, “Well, what did this do to you? What did Justin’s monologue mean to you?” And I look in her eyes and she’s tearing, and she reaches out, and she just runs up to me to hug me. And she whispers in my ear, “I understand. Anak. Anak. Anak.” Before she pulls away, she whispers in my ear, “My ex-husband was a Filipino. I know.”
My parents still struggle with things sometimes, but the difference is I'm not asking their approval anymore. I'm leading with the love that I know is in me.
I think in that moment with Elizabeth, the word anak shifted for me. I recognize I was always that son. And that being gay, loving a man, being something that my parents still had to come to understand, that was against everything, did not change the fact that I was always that son. Ever since then, my parents still struggle with things sometimes, but the reason, the difference is I’m not asking their approval anymore. I’m leading with the love that I know is in me. And because they see that, they follow along.
Now these days, everything is just amazing. My parents call me anak again. I’m able to receive the love they’ve always given me, and they’ve met my partner, and we’re about to see each other for Thanksgiving, and our family is about to mix so that’s going to be another thing. I always wanted to hear anak because it was this sense of love. Love that I needed to attain. Love that I needed to have. And now, when my parents say it, I kind of chuckle inside because it’s like, “Oh, I know. I know I am that son you’ve always loved.”