In February this year, Mark Guevarra lost his job at the church after creating a prayer group for LGBTQ+ Catholics. But he never lost his faith in God, or himself.

By Carlo Javier

Something was brewing in Edmonton, Alberta. It was August 2017 and Mark Guevarra had invited some people over to his home. He knew the guests from the local church community, but some of them were strangers to one another. Guevarra had been a pastoral associate for a little over seven years, starting at St. Matthew’s in north Edmonton, before relocating to St. Albert’s, a church closer to home. He has met hundreds – if not thousands – of people through his years of service at the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, prepared a multitude of children and families for their sacraments, and visited his fair share of Catholic schools. If there was something he knew well, it was his local community.

Guevarra had a plan and he brought the group together to see if they can make it work. For that to happen, they needed a couple things. First, they needed a base. Guevarra’s home offered a much-needed space for the genesis of the group, but they respected the privacy of his walls. Plus, they were open to the possibilities of expansion. Thankfully, Guevarra worked a second job as a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta’s St. Joseph’s College. There’s a chapel there, and its basement hall would work just fine. Their schedule needed to be frequent, at least once a month would be ideal, so they settled on meeting every fourth Sunday of the month. In the case that anyone might be interested in their gatherings, the group decided to place advertisements both online and on-site.

There were 12 of them to begin with, and although none of them foresaw it at the time, their formation would be deemed by some as an act of rebellion. 

After their first meeting Guevarra was notified about an anonymous complaint. The notice, which was also sent to the Archdiocese, was concerned with the group’s existence without permission and its operations on church property. 

The Archdiocese did not reach out to the group to address the nature of the complaints, instead, they started a full-scale investigation on Guevarra – the group’s de facto leader. On Tuesday, February 6, 2018, just six months after the group’s formation, Guevarra was fired.

The group was called “CORE” and its members all identified as LGBTQ+. Their meetings were meant to provide a safe space for Edmonton-based LGBTQ+ Catholics who have long been marginalized and discriminated against by the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Left to right: Gary Simpson, Rev. Mark Chiang, Mark Guevarra and Beth Enman pose at Haven, an LGBTQ+ Christian group at McDougal United Church in Edmonton

Mark Guevarra does not sound like someone who was fired from their job. He’s mild-mannered and speaks with a quiet type of determination – the kind that doesn’t need to be raised to command a crowd’s attention. He was born in Canada and learned English as his first language. You wouldn’t even spot a hint of an accent even if you tried. He sounds even-keeled and if you look and listen closely, you’ll get a feeling that he carries himself with a strong sense of optimism. He smiles often, too. 

Guevarra needed to reschedule our Oct. 12 Skype call. It was mid-afternoon, but the one-hour time zone difference was enough to constrain what would have been our first conversation. He had received a last-minute invitation to participate in an evening prayer that would conclude the Uncovering Grief Conference held in Edmonton’s Holy Spirit Lutheran Church. Pastors Lindsey Jorgensen-Skakum and Heather Liddell needed a skilled musician to help lead the litanies and prayers of the event, and the piano has been one other constant in Guevarra’s life. He’s been playing the instrument since he was seven and formally studied it until he was 18. He believes in the place of music within the Church. It’s an antidote of sorts, especially when a homily projects a negative message or is built on poor interpretation of theology.

It was 1986 and Guevarra was at a funeral. His grandfather had passed away and he remembers vividly how his grandmother wished she did, too. Guevarra was visiting the Philippines for the first time – an experience he defines as an “awakening.” For the first time, he saw in full force how his faith, culture, and family intersected. “It was all very jarring for a young person to experience and I think that kind of awakened me to faith in many ways,” he recalls. He was six years old. 

Guevarra was born on December 9, 1980. Sixteen days later, on Christmas Day, he was baptized. His father was a Canadian National Railway employee and a former seminarian, his mother was a nurse. The two left the Philippines for Melville, Saskatchewan in 1975. They would relocate to Vancouver sometime within their first two years and have their first son in 1977. 

The brothers attended St. Andrew’s Elementary School in Vancouver, and from Grades 2 to 7, they served in daily morning Mass before class. Attending a Catholic school ensured that Guevarra’s academic education was supported with theology and religious teachings. The same dedication to faith was upheld at home, where the Guevarra family regularly prayed. 

By the third grade, Guevarra was already aware of two important truths about his life. He knew he wanted to become a priest and he knew that he was gay. 

In October 1997, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers. Though polarizing and mired with controversy, the document – at the least – offered a semblance of a guide for homosexual Catholics looking to come out to their devout parents. In 2006, nearly two decades later, Guevarra stood in front of his parents, document in hand. 

“I was 26 years old. I felt like it was time, that this was part of what it means to be an adult, this is what it means to be an authentic gay person, this is what it means like to be an authentic Christian.”

As a child, Guevarra feared how his father would react to his sexuality. He recalled his father’s threat of disowning either of his sons if they ever came out as homosexual. In his adolescent years, Guevarra routinely sought for his father’s permission to attend a seminary in Mission, BC for high school and every single time he asked, his father refused. 

Though their relationship seemed antagonistic, Guevarra says that as he grew up, he started to understand what his father was trying to do: “One of the things that I came to recognize was my dad – who had gone to seminary himself, he was in formation to become a Benedictine monk – he himself had negative experiences in the seminary, he saw some of the darkness and evil and sin of the Church. As I got older, he basically told me this reality, this is what he saw, this is what he experienced, and he was trying to protect me from what I might encounter or experience in the seminary.”

Guevarra was four-years deep in a relationship when he came out to his parents. He met his partner in a summer class in a Presbyterian college in Ontario. At the time, he was studying theology at St. Michael’s College – a branch of the Toronto School of Theology. In 2013, Guevarra and his partner entered an agreement with a lesbian couple. His partner became the donor, and they named their daughter Emily. Four years later, members of the Archdiocese would Guevarra about posting photos of his daughter on his Facebook.

Guevarra with partner Rev. Mark Chiang (left), a minister at Edmonton’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. (Provided)

These days, Guevarra’s relationship with his parents stand on complex terms. Despite his initial fears, he finds that its his father who has been more open and accepting of him since coming out. It was his father who also became among his biggest supporters after the Archdiocese fired him back in February. His mother, on the other hand, has stood on the other side of the spectrum. 

There’s an elephant in the room every time Guevarra’s parents visit. His mother avoids his partner, and the topic entirely. He reciprocates this, knowing that the rabbit hole is far too deep and too potentially damaging to get sunk into. He knows that discussion will only cause further harm to their relationship and accepts the difficulty in that. “We just have to live with that,” he says. He doesn’t sound defeated, yet he doesn’t seem satisfied either. The adage says to choose your battles wisely, but sometimes choosing not to fight at all is the wisest decision. And the wisest decisions are not always easy to stomach.

“I understand the limitations of my mother’s lack of acceptance and how she is, the way she is,” he says. “I struggle with that still, but I’m learning to manage that expectation and to come to peace with that.”

The complexity of Guevarra’s relationship with his mother is deeply personal. Yet it is also wholly representative of a cultural divide that pervades in the Philippines. 

Of the 10 highest grossing films in Philippine cinema, five are vehicles for comedian Jose Marie Borja Viceral – more famously known as Vice Ganda. Noted for his sarcastic and off-kilter brand of comedy, Ganda’s rise to fame has led to him becoming somewhat of an avatar for the Philippines’ polarizing relationship with its own LGBTQ+ communities.

Ganda’s characters often fit the stereotype of a loud and overtly effeminate gay individual. His hair is chameleonic in its frequency for change. His fashion is vibrant, exuberant, and sometimes, calling it overt would be an understatement. In Gandarrapiddo: The Revenger Squad – the third highest grossing Philippine film – Ganda plays the role of Emerson “Emy” Mariposque, an amnesiac superhero who masquerades as a cheap makeup merchant and rag maker. He draws his superpowers from a mystical artifact that takes the form of a lipstick, which when applied, transforms Emy into “Gandarra”, a powerful superhero armed with a spear that is, yes, in the shape of a lipstick. 

The characterization reflects that of Zsazsa Zaturnnah, a comic book superheroine written by Carlo Vergara in 2002. Zaturnnah’s design pays homage to the voluptuous look of Wonder Woman and the Darna, an iconic Filipino comic book character. But the comparisons end when considering Ada – Zaturnnah’s powerless alter ego. Ada is a homosexual man with an overtly feminine persona. As a day job, he runs a beauty salon. 

Representation is not lacking for LGBTQ+ characters in Philippine mass media, but as important as these representations have been, they also reflect a deeply-rooted caricature that has invalidated other ways that an LGBTQ+ person might carry themselves.

“One clue is my mom,” says Guevarra. “My mom has deep difficulties with me being gay, because in her mind, I don’t fit within the category of being gay, which is overly feminine, very campy, cuts hair.” Guevarra believes that while members of the LGBTQ+ community in the Philippines have been well represented in terms of volume and are generally accepted into society, once the lines are blurred on the accepted norms of sexuality, things get difficult. 

“I think we’re okay with that, but once gay or lesbian folks are not as clearly gay or lesbian, it becomes stressful because we don’t fit in that category.” 

The science of inclusion also manifests itself with Guevarra’s extended family. He says that all 14 of his cousins on his mother’s side accept him “completely, totally, and lovingly.” He is also aware that his aunts and uncles are more mixed.

“It’s not necessarily that the younger generation is more accepting than the older, in fact I have an aunt who is amazingly supportive of me and is one of the older siblings of the family. It’s deeply complicated and I think it all depends on the individual’s experience of LGBTQ+ people in their own life growing up.”

The formal complaint against CORE noted that the group existed and operated on church grounds without proper permission and legislation from the Archdiocese. If you ask Guevarra if the official proceedings would have changed everything, he diplomatically refutes the notion.

Guevarra speculates that had he asked for permission to form a support and prayer group for LGBTQ+ Catholics in Edmonton, he would have likely been directed by the Archdiocese to Courage Groups. The programs, as Guevarra describes, “starts with a 12-step process for people to end their relationships, to subvert their sexual orientations.”

He knows that the church stands firmly on its teachings and suggesting a group for LGBTQ+ Catholics would have almost certainly led to nowhere. He cites New Ways Ministry, a progressive ministry in the United States that empowers LGBTQ+ Catholics and advocates for reconciliation and how despite its efforts, progress against the long-standing principles of the church is akin to hitting a brick wall. “The church’s official teachings make it difficult to allow for groups where they’re not going to check your relationship status at the door,” Guevarra says. 

Guevarra meets Filipino Cardinal  Luis Antonio Tagle in California. (Facebook)

It is a wonder to see how he persevered for so long, amidst seemingly constant and unbeatable pushback from members of the church. He made a light chuckle when I asked him what kept him going, then he paused for a couple seconds that seemed like eternity. “It’s the heart of the matter,” he says. “I think I was blessed to recognize that being Catholic was not about belief in doctrine or being part of a tribe.” He never saw any issues with how he felt called to work in the Church, or that he is a Catholic – who happens to be gay. 

The mountainous and rugged terrain of the Kalinga province rests in the Cordillera Administration Region of Luzon – the Philippines’ largest island. As with most areas in northern Philippines, Kalinga has maintained a strong relationship with its indigenous roots. Its part of a stretch of land that is famed for its cultivation of rice farms and is frequented by tourists because of Whang-od Oggay – the 101-year-old artist who is recognized as the last living practitioner of the traditional Kalingan tattoo. The province also draws its name from two indigenous dialects: Ibanag and Gaddang. When translated, Kalinga can mean “headtaker”, “enemy”, or “fighter”.

The province is also the ancestral home of Guevarra’s father.

Of the over 800 supportive emails and messages Guevarra has received since his story caught the attention of the masses, one stands apart from the rest. A distant relative from the Kalinga province had reached out to Guevarra after catching wind of his story. The woman, who he estimates is in her late 50’s, said that she has followed Guevarra’s story very closely and that his experience has resonated deeply with her.

These days Guevarra still finds himself getting stopped on the streets by people who either recognize him from his work in the church or from his viral story. After all, 2,500 shares on Facebook is no easy fit. He continues to get emails from around the world and occasionally, he’ll get a notification that student referenced his story for an academic paper. He still goes to Mass and still sings his praises in hymns. He still showcases his talents on the keys and still regularly prays at home. His passion was taken away from him and he admits that it has been a difficult time, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Guevarra is still a devout Catholic and he is still gay. He still believes in God and says that his faith is even stronger. He still believes in himself, too. He was never going to change and he knew it from the start.

Guevarra (right) with best selling author Fr. James Martin, SJ who wrote ‘Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can Enter into a Relationship of Respect , Compassion, and Sensitivity’ (Facebook)