Lasang Pilipino: A look at Filipino food’s rise to fame

Filipino food’s rise in popularity has been claimed several times—but what sparked its popularity and where are its roots from? 2590 words.

            Ube. Adobo. Pancit. These words were nonsense to classmates and teachers alike when I spoke about them in grade school. But to more and more people, these words conjure up images of Instagram-worthy plates piled high with purple desserts, deep tureens filled with rich brown hunks of delectable meats, casseroles dishes of golden noodles surrounded by shocks of bright, blanched vegetables. Even though some dish names remain obscure: sisig, champurrado, longaniza—Filipino dishes and flavors have been entering the mainstream for the last decade or so.

            Myriad elements influence Filipino cuisine: seafood and coconuts common to Southeast Asia, noodles and dumplings from China, spices and dish names from Spain and Mexico, and even canned foods like Spam and corned beef from American army bases. Both colonizing influences and geography have played a historical part in shaping the Filipino palate. Define American founder Jose Antonio Vargas, who left the Philippines to join family in California as an adolescent, said, “Filipino food cannot be divorced from the history of a country and a culture that was colonized by the Spanish and imperialized by Americans. Like the Filipino people, Filipino food has had to adapt.” Take for instance the classic dish pancit, a noodle dish frequently prepared with shrimp and cabbages, drawing from Chinese and Southeast Asia—you can even find variants with chunks of Spam in them. Or take adobo, a food that shares a name with the Mexican spice, marinated meat that swims in sauces, with many regional variants in the Philippines. You’d be hard pressed to find a Filipino who doesn’t occasionally indulge in a can of corned beef cooked with onions, garlic, and tomatoes for breakfast.

           The popularity of Filipino food can be difficult to trace to a single point—and honestly, it’s truer to say that there are many reasons why it’s become more well known. It does a disservice to assume that any single source is the reason why Filipino food is “having its moment” now rather than before. More importantly than popularity is the visibility that comes along with it and a look into the culture that produces the cuisine.

           It’s often said that food is the steppingstone to culture—no matter where you come from, food plays a huge role in your life. Nicole Ponseca is the founder of Jeepney, a prolific Filipino restaurant in New York. Both she and the restaurant have been featured in publications like the New York Times, Vice, and Cherry Bombe. Ponseca researches food in the Philippines as part of developing dishes. Being a restaurateur is her way of educating others on her culture, which she defines as the priorities and values. “In the Philippines, people will take out loans to feed each other during the Christmas season because no one wants to be without… Values and priorities defined within culture translate into actions and decisions within food.” Sharing what you have with the community is just one way that Filipino culture views food. Many Filipino dishes are easy to prepare in large quantities with simple ingredients like vinegar, soy sauce, and bay leaves. Ponseca said, “Filipino food is a very relatable cuisine in its flavor matrix and its ingredients.”

           Any Filipino chef worth their salt is well versed with the four flavors described by Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, a Filipino cultural historian and food critic—alat, pait, asim, and tamis, which translate to saltiness, bitterness, sourness, and sweetness. You can taste all four flavors in sinigang, a sour soup that’s traditionally made by boiling all the ingredients in one pot. Chunks of salted fish float and flavor the tamarind-based broth, the tartness usually balanced by heaps of white rice and tempered by the lightly bitter tamarind leaves. Nowadays, to add the sweetness that Filipinos crave in other foods, chefs boil fruits like watermelon in the broth, undercutting the salty and savory elements with a touch of sugar.

           Filipinos haven’t been in the restaurant industry in America for quite as long as other Asian cuisines. Martin Manalansan, an American studies professor at the University of Minnesota, cites Filipino food’s late rise to patterns of immigration. When Chinese workers immigrated to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Chinese exclusion acts meant some of the only positions open to them were in the restaurant industry. Chinese people were feeding their own communities at first, but because their restaurants were often in working-class areas, non-Chinese people would eat at their restaurant and develop a taste for the food. On the other hand, Filipinos who immigrated during the 1900s were migrant farmers, also called the manong generation—they were able to immigrate unrestricted because the Philippines was a territory of the United States. The next wave of Philippine immigration would involve a quota established by the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which would only allow 100 Filipinos to immigrate to the United States per year. This act was eventually made obsolete by the Immigration and Nationality Act established in 1965, establishing the fourth wave of Filipino immigration. These immigrants were usually trying to fill shortages in white-collar professions such as nursing and engineering, which mean their focus usually wasn’t on food service.

           During the 1990s, Filipino Americans began to have more of a political identity as Asian Americans. They were beginning to realize that even after Filipinos had been allied with the United States and fought in their wars, they were still othered in America—assimilation with white America wasn’t possible and the solidarity between Asians was growing. The desire to connect with their cultures grew too and one of the avenues for that was food. “Food becomes a way of thinking about one’s identity and a way to discover,” Manalansan said. “It’s no longer just something that you eat to satisfy your hunger. It satisfies a different kind of hunger, I think: to search for one’s heritage.”

           Some of the younger, more politicized Filipinos felt the drive to connect their community through food and started entering the restaurant industry, like Nicole Ponseca and Tom Cunanan, three-time nominee of the James Beard Foundation Award and executive chef at Bad Saint. Around the same time, the Food Network launched in 1993, marking a shift in food culture. The celebrity chef was born, glamorizing food from screens in people’s homes. Ponseca fondly remembers Anthony Bourdain as a source of inspiration for her. In a time where shows like Fear Factor and Andrew Zimmern made Filipino food seem unpalatable, Bourdain was thoughtful about his displays of different cuisines. “He put a backstory for food so that it created humanity. Nothing beats human connection,” Ponseca said. Bourdain’s endorsement for Filipino food, especially the pork dishes lechon and sisig, was used by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri, the editor of The New Filipino Kitchen when pitching the book to publishers. She said in a Huffington Post opinion piece, “[It] was essential evidence that there is and will be interest in Filipino food beyond Filipino communities. In a homogeneous and white-authors-dominated cookbook industry, it made a difference.”

           In the 2000s, Filipinos, along with other Asians, were partially responsible for the spike in food truck popularity. No longer seen as the blue-collar eateries of worksites and commuters, food trucks became cool places for young diners to seek out delicious street food. Mark Manguera, a Filipino-American, founded Kogi Korean BBQ in 2008 as a fleet of food trucks, which would go on to be named America’s first viral eatery in 2009 by Newsweek. This blend of reasons: the history of immigration, the development of cultural identity and pride, and the jump into the food world’s consciousness through various paths all contributed to Filipino cuisine’s rise.

           In the last ten years, many Filipino restaurants have opened and flourished. In New York, Bon Appétit put Bad Saint, a small and highly demanded fine dining restaurant, at number two on their Best New Restaurants list in 2016. In Los Angeles, Lasa, an upscale establishment owned by brothers Chad and Chase Valencia, won the 2018 Food and Wine Restaurant of the year. Angela Dimaguya, a food critic for the New York Times and chef at Mission Chinese Food serves chicken relleno at $75 a plate, adapted from her mom’s collection of recipes. Nicole Ponseca and Michael Trinidad’s “I am A Filipino” a cookbook and cultural compendium that Ponseca’s friend and business partner Jose Antonio Vargas compares to Toni Morrison’s “Black Book” catalog of African American culture was a 2019 James Beard Award Finalist. Vargas, one of Ponseca’s friends, invested in Jeepney early on because of his “belief in Nicole and her idea that Filipino food brings people together.”

           Ponseca, who graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1998, has spoken at length, both publicly and in the book, about the reasons for Filipino food’s late, yet meteoric rise. She attributes part of it to hiya—shame—as a characteristic that Filipinos feel around their food. Racist stereotypes of “dog-eating Asians”, foods that are unusual to others like dinuguan (a pork blood dish) or balut (duck embryo) drive Filipinos to become insular in their dining habits. Hiya about beloved foods has tended to keep these dishes off restaurant menus, even though they are enjoyed in Filipino homes. Ponseca pushed back against this when she entered the restaurant sphere. “I was either going to win or fail by having a restaurant that served balut, that served dinuguan, that ate with its hands—all the little ways I was embarrassed to be Filipino, that others were embarrassed, that we were the butt of the joke. When you come in [my restaurant], it’s sexy, it’s fun, it’s drinks. I know how to put on a show, that’s part of my skillset as a restaurateur. But make no mistake, underlying everything is a political choice.”

           For Filipino Americans, separated from the Philippines, food becomes a cultural tether and a marker of identity. Anthony Ocampo, an associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly, said, “Filipinos have had to contend with growing up with knowing certain foods that outsiders don’t know […] and that creates a bond, that Filipinos know what it’s like to wink at each other about the ube trend or tapsilog.” In Ocampo’s book, “The Latinos of Asia”, a Filipino is quoted saying, “You’re not really Filipino unless you eat Filipino food.”

            Ube, a purple yam used in Filipino food, exploded in popularity on Instagram in 2016, thrusting Filipino food into the internet spotlight. According to GQ, much of ube’s popularity that year could be traced to the marketing of New York City’s Manila Social Club. Its exorbitantly priced donuts were all the rage: one with gold flake, Cristal champagne, and ube mousse for $100, or with just the ube mousse for $40.

           In 2018 and 2019, Lindsey Cichonski organized SF UbeFest in San Francisco. “SF Ube Fest has sold out the past two years with around 1,200 guests who come through SoMa StrEat Food Park each day [of the festival],” Cichonski said. “With SoMa StrEat Food Park being located in San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District, it was the perfect festival to celebrate Filipino culture and ube.” Ube remains as one of the most popular dessert options in the Philippines, from ube halaya, an ube jam usually found on bread, to ice cream that tops a frozen crushed ice dessert called halo-halo. It’s one of the native plants of the Philippines and as a starch in the cuisine, rivals both rice and bread in how often it’s used.

           In San Francisco’s SoMa (once home to many Filipino immigrants before redevelopment displaced them), there’s a Lumpia Palooza every year. Pistahan, the Filipino festival celebrated in the Yerba Buena Gardens, draws all manner of food vendors who serve both traditional and fusion dishes. And Filipino restaurants from the backyard based barbecue of The Park’s Finest in L.A. to the classic servings at Elena’s Restaurant in Hawaii have been featured on Food Network.

           In Daly City, a restaurant called Fil-Am is famous for its barbecue. Even when driving by, you can smell its thick and savory scent. The owners immigrated in the late nineties and the management of Fil-Am was passed to them in 2003, according to Ariel Guevarra, their daughter. Fil-Am opened a second location in South City in 2014. Guevarra, a psychology major at the University of San Francisco, works there when she’s not studying. “When I went to college, I realized there are more than just the turo-turo (mom and pop) style restaurants… Fusion restaurants are more Instagram worthy… but we definitely have people coming in to try Filipino food.” Though the name seems to suggest that it’s Filipino-American cuisine, Guevarra says otherwise. “My dad says that the title is a way to reach out to Americans—like, Hispanic people, African-Americans, white people—everyone should try the food […] you don’t have to be Filipino to eat the food, or even make it.” Guevarra’s family tries to foster a sense of community between all sorts of people that want to eat Filipino food, a term called kapua, a term that encompasses identity, community, and solidarity between those who share something with you.

           Filipino food has been declared the next big thing in food over and over again in the last decade. And over those years, the cuisine and culture have continued to carve out a niche for themselves, regardless of the spike in media coverage. Lots of the popularity of Filipino food is tied up with social media marketing, done within the community of people preparing the food. In fact, the press about Filipino food often paints with too broad of a brush. Anthony Ocampo, a professor at Cal Poly, said, “In the process of declaring something as new, what you implicitly do is you erase everyone who’s been busting their ass and working in this industry forever.” And that process of seeking out new foods can be finicky as well. Ponseca said, “We could be any cuisine. It could be Somalian—it’s just that the timing was right… Is it because Filipino food is the next big thing, is it so amazing? It’s good. Yeah, it’s great! A lot of food is good and great.” More important than the “moment” that Filipino food is supposedly having is the future of the impact this has on the culture.

            Martin Manalansan, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is excited about what Filipino cuisine’s rising popularity will do for food culture. He said, “Philippine cuisine on a global stage invites the disruption of monolithic cuisine.” Essentially, if a cuisine that seems to have disparate elements becomes popular, it stops people from thinking food has to be one thing—mapped onto a particular cultural landscape.

           Jose Antonio Vargas, a prominent immigration rights activist and undocumented Filipino immigrant is hopeful about what restaurateurs like his friend Ponseca will do. “My hope is that Filipino food, like its people, will be ubiquitous, celebrated for its myriad flavors, inseparable from the very distinct culture that it comes from.”

           Guevarra is uncertain whether she will take over Fil-Am from her parents or pursue her plans to become a psychiatrist. She recounts her close connection with her culture’s cuisine, especially in high school when she brought lunches from home. “People would always ask me in high school, ‘What’s that?’” Guevarra chose to recognize their curiosity rather than get angry. She chose to build kapua and educate through her food, offering not just a taste of the dish but a taste of the culture and its rich history. “It’s a Filipino thing to share food. We just keep doing it.”

“Racelessness” and the color (or lack thereof) of stories from white creators

            It is no doubt that race has currently come to the forefront of politics: globally, the focus on Black lives is rightfully taking center stage. Race as a whole is a messy topic—for white people to think about. For people of color, who contend with it every day, it becomes a facet of reality that you have to deal with: from interactions with your peers to professional encounters. Even in the worlds that we escape to through art, literature, or other cultivation of spaces, race is an inevitable part of it.

            When I was thirteen back in 2011, Homestuck was quickly rising to internet fame (and notoriety if we’re being honest.) My friends persuaded me to read it and I quickly fell in love with its twisting meta, convoluted storyline, and of course, the gigantic cast of characters. Like many fans, I loved the alien trolls. But I also loved the human characters because they were “aracial.” And raceless meant that I could project onto them—see myself in the webcomic I loved and thus feel seen. The update on January 12th, 2013 ended up disillusioning me from that entirely. A short rundown: because the characters are portrayed as “aracial”, they are white—as in #FFFFF white. Due to a set of magical circumstances, Jane Crocker is transformed into a manic candy-themed version of herself called Trickster Mode. This version is also accompanied by change of her sprite style so that she has color: bright pink hair, piercing blue eyes, a new cream yellow outfit. She delights in it and wants to transform her other friends into Trickster Mode too, so she confronts her obviously terrified friend to persuade him. In a now retconned panel, Jane giddily declares that she feels “so Caucasian!”

            Did I mention that she also gets a race when she’s in Trickster Mode? Of course, it’s white and not the hex code kind.

            The creator, Andrew Hussie, would go on to declare that all characters in Trickster mode were canonically Caucasian, which went against his aracial standing of the characters. He changed the panel to say that she felt “so peachy!” instead, but the damage was already done. People left and right were using it to smack down other people’s headcanons. Given the recent usage of an “SJW” character was portrayed as overly sensitive and holier-than-thou, it was like Hussie had implicitly given permission for the fanbase to declare all human characters as white. Fanartists prided themselves on portraying the characters as canon (and indeed, the officially sanctioned Homestuck art from the Kickstarter portrays them as white), while white cosplayers sneered at cosplayers of color for being unable to fulfill that “gold standard.” That debacle all but put me off of interacting with the Homestuck fanbase again outside of a small group of creators of color.

            But another Tumblr darling briefly caught my interest—Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast about a radio host in a surreal town in the middle of the desert. More than that, the main character Cecil Baldwin was gay! And in love with a man named Carlos, who was explicitly described as Latino. For a young gay Pinoy like me, suffice to say, I was already hooked. Audio drama was not particularly popular on Tumblr prior to WTNV as far as I knew, so with it came everyone’s imagined designs for the character. Filipinos have a long history of fascination and participation in radio, and wanting to see myself again, I imagined Cecil Baldwin as a Filipino man. I’m sure there were many artists that did interesting designs of Cecil—but the ones that got the most traction and still are the most popular interpretations of him are of a young, skinny, white man with blond hair and purple eyes. I guess that’s a departure from the typical blue.

            This assumption that a character should be a white skinny man with blond hair was so prevalent it has developed a term called “blond twink podcast syndrome.” It’s not exclusive to podcasts of course, but Cecil Baldwin is one of the most popular ones. Here’s an experiment. search for human designs for the following characters that aren’t from podcasts: Bill Cipher from Gravity Falls and Wheatley from Portal 2. Now search for designs for the following characters that are in podcasts: Taako Taaco from The Adventure Zone and Elias Bouchard from The Magnus Archives. Generally, you will be treated to a long list of results that are like carbon copies of Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers pre-getting a shot of super serum. The essential idea is if the race isn’t specified, they’re white. Because white is the default. White is the norm.

            For Taako from The Adventure Zone, I think the McElroy’s whiteness got them into a corner. They had jokingly written a character who was named after a Mexican food but was played by a white man—largely fanonized as white. Griffin McElroy speaks about almost having canonized Lup’s full name as Chalupa but deigning against it. In the finale, the canonically Latino character, Joaquin Terrero, appears to Taako and teaches him to make the (sort of) eponymous taco, thereby clearing up the notion that a white man’s character was the inventor of the food, even in another world. But that still doesn’t canonize whether Taako himself is white or not. The eventual canonical design of Taako in the comics doesn’t commit either to being white or to being brown, instead opting for a blue skin tone—a move that was panned among many fans of color. They argued that by not committing to canonizing his skin tone, it would allow other fans to invalidate the influence that Mexican culture has on the character and his sister. Similar to Hussie’s move of keeping characters supposedly aracial, it has led to some artists flaunting their canon blue Taakos over the now non-canon brown and Black designs from artists of color. And even in fanon, the most popular Taakos are still white.

            This is different in the The Magnus Archives fandom. Commonly accepted fanon designs for the main cast (save for Daisy and Elias) by and large portray them as people of color. The most notable of these is the depiction of Jonathan Sims, the main character, as an Indian man. (Some posit that this is in response to blond twink podcast syndrome.) I won’t lie, it is refreshing to see that people of color are the most popular interpretations of the characters—but at the end of the day, they’re just interpretations.

            It’s been debated whether it actually matters if something is canon or not. After all, fanfiction, long derided, has gotten published and extremely popular. More and more, creators interact with their fanbases in a more personal way than they have before, blurring the line between fanon and canon. But as far as representation goes, it’s the same way that Rowling can post-publishing declare a character as gay when there isn’t actually any evidence. Seeing yourself represented as an afterthought is almost harder than not being represented at all, because it shows that the creator sees your identity as a token rather than thinking about the nuances of what it means to live with your identity.

           I started trying to listen (and subsequently read many of the transcripts instead) to The Magnus Archives because I thought, based on the portrayal of the characters that I saw, there would be more explorations of what it meant to be a brown or Black person in the horror genre. But at the end of the day, what does it mean when it’s not your protagonists who are confirmed as people of color? Basira, played by a Black person, is a police officer—which is a bold choice to make considering that they don’t generally touch upon what it means for her to have a deep relationship with Daisy, a white female police officer who canonically brutalizes others in her line of work. Basira acts as the restraining force for Daisy’s violent inclination, furthering the idea that it is somehow the job of Black people to curb the destructive impulses of white people, even though in the real world, those impulses are often enacted on Black people. Of the main cast, she has the least focus on her backstory outside of being a cop. Annabelle Cane, a character revealed to have been maliciously manipulating the plot as an Avatar of one of the fears in The Magnus Archives, is also one of the few characters described with “dark brown skin.” She is shown as unfeeling and even delighting in the lies and mind games she plays with others. The Haan family, a family of Chinese immigrants, are described as having BBC accents, which surprises other characters in what feels like a tongue in cheek way of saying, “I expected them to sound ‘Chinese.’” This “gotcha!” feeling is perhaps less egregious than the fact that the family is portrayed as Avatars of another fear, killing and cannibalizing people in worship of the Slaughter. Sure, fanon and canon have been blurred together, but when you refuse to represent people of color canonically (except for when they’re villains or put into positions with real world implications) you can’t rely on the fanon interpretations as a reflection of the art as a whole. Especially when the creators of the show are two white men.

            I’m not necessarily saying that Rowling’s rhetoric is exactly the same as that of Hussie, Fink and Cranor, the McElroys, or Sims and Newall. I’m not even saying that the rhetoric that each of those people have is the same either—what I want to point at is that these are white creators who choose to refer to some or all of their characters as aracial to avoid talking about race. The thing is, white is a race too. I know that lots of people like when characters don’t have canon designs—they can cosplay or draw fanart or make fanfiction interpreting the characters however they like. But from creators on the canonical and fanonical side do that, I urge them to think about what part of your audience you shut out when you consider race a part of their “character design” and not an inherent part of their personality and existence.

Note: The originally published version of this unintentionally misgendered Frank Voss, the actor for Basira, and has been edited to amend this.

Goodbyes to San Francisco

            I’m writing this spontaneously and sentimentally, something I generally try not to do and then publish immediately. God knows I have papers, peer reviews, and projects to write for my last semester at college. But in a time of pandemic, it doesn’t really feel real—or at least it didn’t until my last class.

            I spent a lot of the last four years genuinely surprised that I had made it to college. Sure, I’d spent high school in a new district to take a program meant to prepare me for higher education and it was expected of me as a child of two college graduates who’d immigrated from the Philippines. But I couldn’t see myself there, except for a projected dream, cut and pasted together from movies and books and what people had told me about university life. Financially, it felt impossible (and honestly, it still does) and as far as my mental health and stability, I thought I’d be dead before I got there. Eventually, I chose my college based on two things—location and financial aid. I didn’t even go tour the campus, since my sisters were both freshmen in college when I got accepted and my parents were juggling money issues and imminent empty nest syndrome. But I knew I wanted San Francisco and for probably the only time it ever will be in my life, the finances worked out for me to go.

            There’s sparse journal entries from my college career. The most consistent of them is a small question book that one of my sisters got for me, asking questions every day to see how you would change from year to year in college. Otherwise, snippets of my life made their way onto social media platforms and secret blogs that I curated only for myself. Many of them detail inane comments and complaints on classes, in between reflections on friendships and social events I found compelling enough to mark onto the page. Mostly, I wondered about what I would do when I got to the last day. There was an effort, now abandoned, to take a picture of myself every day from my first day of college to my last day. Even though I have a baby face, comparing the visage in the mirror with the bright and smiling one on the screen never fails to remind me of the years that have passed.

            What’s in a year? For me, it was a lot of trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself. Realizing that I was alive, and yes, I intended to keep on living meant that I had to figure out my future beyond a vague handwave meant to discourage further discussion on the matter. I don’t know if I can say I ever really settled on anything, but I ended up as a Biology major with a Journalism minor who mostly hung out with theatre people and the LGBTQ+ community. I think I would owe the most to Prism and College Players if they weren’t organizations that gave to me without expecting things in return. This also meant I spent most of my time with English majors, at least socially, so just like with all other aspects of my life, I feel like I spent it with fingers in a lot of pies.

            Academically, all my work falls into little neat folders I have backed up on a drive, labeled by year and course. I kept a spreadsheet of classes and planned all eight semesters, which at the time felt like a very small number of semesters. Over the four years, that feeling dissipated and then returned—when I look back, I’m both astonished at the number of years and how little time it feels like it’s been. Emotionally, college has spanned many life changing events: friendships, relationships, my first ever apartment, my first job that wasn’t food service or retail. I have a harder time cataloging those into folders, but they live in special places. Scribbled notes trying to capture the moment. Long-winded and kind of embarrassing songs. Essays I wrote and then never published that sound a lot like this one.

            Last year, I was in a wholly different place in my life—San Francisco rent is particularly brutal even in the Tenderloin and it was holding me financially hostage in a soured roommate situation (which was holding me emotionally hostage.) The only things that were really pulling me through were a performance of She Kills Monsters that I was starring in and my friends from Prism. I was lucky enough to share a class with one of them, which was taught by one of my favorite professors. She gave us a piece to read that just about floored every single one of us, most of all the graduating seniors—Colson Whitehead’s “The Colossus of New York.” San Francisco has nowhere near the magical import that New York seems to impress upon everyone who encounters the city, but I have held true to the maxim of West Coast, Best Coast. Obviously, that’s trite, but San Francisco, though a place of both pain and happiness for me at the time, has always been the myth close at hand. Just a two-hour car ride away from my hometown, it already had cemented itself as wondrous in my childhood visits. When I chose my college, what I was really choosing was San Francisco, especially as a young queer person who had been closeted for their whole life. Whitehead knew these ideas—secret hopes and dreams—that play into building your version of the city, the one that lives in your heart more than it does in your head. Whitehead also knew we have to say goodbye to those things eventually.

            All that time, I wanted to leave the apartment I was living in. And I did—April 2019, I moved into a new place with new roommates, eager to leave the past behind. Two months ago, March 2020, I walked out of the door of that same apartment to spring break, eager to finish my final semester of college. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My partner, who had visited for spring break, left my house and I haven’t seen them since. They’re supposed to leave for Chicago to go to film school in July. My parents were overseas in the Philippines visiting my grandma—narrowly escaping the travel ban after two nights of frantic phone calling from me and my sister to various travel agencies. All of us were left unscathed. But San Francisco and my last two months of college disappeared.

            “We can never make proper good-byes,” Whitehead said, and he was right. When I dropped off my keys to that apartment I loved so thoroughly, I thought of how he said, “At some point, you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn’t even know it. You didn’t know that each time you passed the threshold, you were saying good-bye.”

            I keep turning over thoughts in my head about how my last two months were supposed to go, but I can’t even really come up with a picture of it. I guess even when I tried to plan out my future, I never got into the specifics. I think about the regrets I have about field classes I was taking, productions I was supposed to be a part of, last hurrahs at bars or what have you. I’ve always hated saying goodbyes because they’re final. The closing chapter. The empty space where your furniture once was. The end. But more than that, if you do a farewell wrong, that’s it. One of the last times I saw one of my best friends was their back as they left for their bus stop and it was just proof that the saddest ends are the ones you don’t even see coming. It feels wrong, in a way, to end my college career on one side of a screen.

            My professor, the one who gave me the Whitehead piece to read, taught the last class I ever had. She and I spent many classes together, from my sophomore year on. Last year we ate a pavlova she had made for our class as a celebration. This year, all I had was cheap liquor. The whole class toasted to our screens and to the three graduating students, me included.

           I thought about how you never know what things are ahead. How I spent the last two months back in my hometown, a place I’d left behind four years ago when I decided that I was going to keep living and that I was going to college. And how it was all pretty much over, a slow-moving dream that ended just before the story was finished.

           I drank after our toast. The alcohol was bittersweet and real, just like everything else. And I said, “I’ll definitely see you around,” which is as close to goodbye as I can get without crying.

Letter of Recommendation: Psychonauts

The video game Psychonauts encourages empathy and exploration through a story of psychic powers.

An image of the protagonist, Raz, of Psychonauts on top of a brain. At his feet, the title "Psychonauts" is displayed. The background is a green and blue swirl of various images and ideas from the game.
The box art for Psychonauts (2005) from the website

            I vividly remember the period of my life where I decided that I was special somehow. I was nine years old—I spent a whole childhood reading books about super powered kids and I knew with an unfaltering certainty that I was one of them. Never mind that the drawer of cutlery was completely unscathed. I was a psychic and I was certain that with enough practice, I would learn to bend a spoon using only the power of my mind. For that whole summer, my dad begrudgingly tolerated my adventures, watching me run around the backyard willing things to float. “Psychonauts”, a video game I played in 2019, took me back to that time.

           In “Psychonauts”, you follow the protagonist Raz in his mission to become a psychonaut—an elite psychic agent that fights crime. He’s the new kid at Whispering Rock Summer Camp, having run away from the circus to become a full-fledged psychonaut. An unknown force starts infiltrating people’s brains and stealing them away. Raz has to jump into different psyches to solve the mystery and stop it before it’s too late.

            Double Fine released “Psychonauts” with the tagline “A psychic odyssey from the mind of Tim Schafer” in 2005. Schafer is hailed as a legend, having worked on critically acclaimed games like “The Secret of Monkey Island” and “Full Throttle.” His work has a reputation for witty dialogue and clever puzzles, and “Psychonauts” was no different. It enjoyed some audience success but was widely regarded as a commercial failure.

           “Psychonauts” had a rich storyline and wasn’t focused exclusively on shooting and collecting things. This isn’t the kind of arcade game you can wrap up in 15 minutes or less.  Each level of the game reflects the various personalities of the minds you visit. Puzzles range from finding disguises to sneak past secret agents in a conspiracy theorist’s cluttered thoughts to chasing a phantom in an aging starlet’s head. Solving these puzzles requires nine different psychic abilities from levitation to pyrokinesis.

            One of these abilities, clairvoyance, stands testament to the heart of the game. While you explore another person’s mind, you need to literally see from their point of view, which you do with this ability. You can speed run the game and ignore other characters’ idiosyncrasies, fly past mental cobwebs, leave emotional baggage unsorted. But by rushing through the game, you miss the beauty of it. “Psychonauts” has a memorable art style, inspired by seemingly disparate elements like German expressionism, cheesy monster movies and black velvet painting.

           The emotional message is equally enduring. Raz is both precociously empathetic and sarcastic, showing kindness to people while verbally eviscerating their insecurities, a job he’s happy to do. “Psychonauts” encourages you to roam through someone’s mind to understand them, discovering and fixing issues that are tucked away: high school bullies, inferiority complexes, and strained relationships with parents to name a few.

            Despite helping with other people’s issues, Raz’s personal problems remain a mystery, but he certainly drops hints. His secret talent infuriates his dad, who forced him to practice acrobatics at the circus until he was exhausted, “Hoping to distract me…or maybe hoping to kill me,” he intones gravely.

           That part of the story struck me. My own relationship with my dad was severely strained when I was growing up. The fact that I was gay, trans, and deeply closeted were probably the biggest reasons for that. These enormous secrets made me seriously consider running away, just like Raz.

            I never thought of my dad as hateful, but he wasn’t supportive either. There’s a slang word in Tagalog for gay people—bakla, which literally translates to coward. I heard him call my brother that as a joking insult, just like I saw him laugh at pictures of butch lesbians. “Trying too hard to be a man,” he’d say, then laugh harder when I started dressing more masculine. With that kind of talk, there were days that I just wanted to be “normal.”

           I came out to my siblings before I came out to my parents. They were supportive but warned me against telling my dad. They figured he wouldn’t get it. My dad and I got in a huge argument right before I started college about LGBTQ+ policies. Then he left for the Philippines soon after and planned to stay there. I didn’t even get a proper goodbye. My legal name is a female version of my dad’s name, Eliseo. When I changed my name, I still kept part of his.

            In the last chapter of “Psychonauts,” Raz’s brain gets tangled with the villain’s. Their psyches are strangely similar. Both deal with overbearing father figures: a butcher who killed the villain’s childhood pet bunny and Raz’s dad who forces him to go through a twisted acrobatics course, berating him for his powers. Right before Raz is overwhelmed by the villain, his own actual father appears and explains that he was trying his best to protect Raz from the hardships he went through as a psychic himself. They embrace and Raz’s dad says, “I could never hate my own son.”

            When I returned from college, my dad had also returned from the Philippines. I was mentally prepared to have to flee my own home. The terror of his response looming over me had become more immense than the secret itself.

           In the game, Raz and his dad join forces and make a giant psychic projection that clobbers the daylights out of the monstrous fears inside of their brains. In real life, my dad told me he still loved me, and that huge wall of fear came tumbling down.

           “Psychonauts” reminds me of my childhood curiosity and belief in mystical forces, but also that compassion ultimately wins the day. My dad learned my name and pronouns—even met my partner. While I wish homophobia and transphobia was something I could physically beat, I’m still glad I got to take that journey of acceptance with my dad. No psychic powers needed.

Sexuality in the Contemporary Genetic World: The Ethics of Searching for the Gay Gene

I originally wrote this piece as an ethics paper for my Genetics class in the spring of 2018. In light of recent news tackling the search for “the gay gene”, I argue that it’s of very little import for scientists to search for genetic causes for sexuality. The third footnote in this paper, referring to a figure made for the class, has been removed, but the rest has been retained in its entirety.

The search for the origin of homosexuality has been a widespread debate for almost as long as gayness has existed in the public eye. Many investigations delved more into the psychology of gayness, as seen through the works of Magnus Hirschfeld or Sigmund Freud. Whether it normalized same-sex desire or otherized it, these researchers tended to focus on the “nurture” aspect of the nature vs. nurture debate; the parents of a person, the presence of older siblings, the incidences of sexual behavior and when it began in someone’s life. It was not until the 1980’s that the search for this origin turned to the world of genetics and the concept of an innate component of gayness. Hamer et al. released the results of their study in 1993, drawing attention to the Xq28 genetic marker and its association with gay men. LGBTQ+ rights activists and those opposing them all sprang to fervent debate about what the implications of this study meant. Even after Hamer’s study was brought into question by other scientists, the debate continued, well into the modern day with Sanders’ 2017 study. However, the results of these studies have failed to pinpoint an exact set of genes or markers associated with gayness. I argue there is no reason to further pursue genetic justification for gayness. First, knowing the genetic origin of gayness could lead to complications if that genetic marker is observed in vitro, raising the question of if that could be grounds for having an abortion. Next, with genetic sequencing becoming more common and accessible to people, if the information that an individual had the gay markers was leaked to the wrong people, it could lead to discrimination for the individual. Lastly, the search for the gay gene will not actually aid the fight for LGBTQ+ rights given the current political climate.

The hunt for the gay gene originated with the concept that there was an innate biological cause for homosexual behavior in humans. In 1991, Simon LeVay, a researcher from Salk Institute, published a paper that stated that the thickness of the interstitial nuclei in the anterior hypothalamus was a potential indicator for the homosexuality[1]. By investigating the brains of heterosexual men, homosexual men, and women presumed heterosexual, LeVay drew a comparison to the size of homosexual men’s interstitial nuclei in the anterior hypothalamus to those of the women presumed heterosexual. However, even LeVay acknowledged the shortcomings of his experiment, noting that “Since I looked at adult brains, we don’t know if the differences I found were there at birth or if they appeared later. Although most psychiatrists now agree that sexual orientation is a stable attribute of human personality, my work doesn’t address whether it’s established before birth.”[2] Thus, when Hamer’s study came out in 1993 detailing the presence of a genetic marker of homosexuality, it became the new study to reference when people discussed its genetic origins. Hamer et al. utilized pedigree analysis and sib pair linkage, a method of understanding the extent of genetic factors among relatives versus in the general population. DNA samples were taken from 40 pairs of brothers and a selection of their mothers. Then, Hamer used the polymerase chain reaction to create multiple copies of the gene. The amplified copies of the DNA were analyzed using gel electrophoresis. Gel electrophoresis is a kind of analysis technique that measures how far fragments of DNA travel in a gel when the gel has an electric current passed through it and uses those measurements in order to draw comparisons to how far fragments from other subjects travel. The samples were subsequently typed according to the 22 known markers spanning the X-chromosome and Hamer concluded that the Xq28 gene marker was linked with homosexuality in males. Criticisms arose with regards to Hamer’s scientific method and if there was misconduct or not when it came to skewing data by selection of a specific group of homosexual men. The Office of Research Integrity deemed that Hamer’s results were not a result of misconduct, but that the results of his experiment were unable to be replicated with a degree of accuracy in subsequent studies. More recently, in 2017, Alan Sanders indicated that there was a potential linkage to male homosexuality in other genes—the SLITRK6 gene on chromosome 13 and variants of the TSHR gene on chromosome 14. Due to advancements in the genetic field, rather than using PCR and gel electrophoresis, Sanders et al. conducted a Genome-Wide Association Study in order to track associated regions. Due to the bottleneck effect during the course of human history, the genetics of humanity are relatively similar and so when targeting the genes responsible for certain phenotypes, GWAS rely on the parts of the genome that vary from person to person known as Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms or haplotypes when in an inherited cluster. The SLITRK6 gene belongs to a gene family that is “important for neurodevelopment […] of potential relevance to behavioral phenotypes such as sexual orientation.”[4] The TSHR gene was noted as important with regards to hyperthyroidism, which was observed in a previous study that linked higher incidences of Graves’ disease with homosexual men. While Sanders’ study notes that inheritance of gayness is most likely polygenic, there has yet to be conclusive evidence mapping the full suite of genes that mark for gayness, nor how that genetic assay may change throughout an individual’s life based on their environment.

There lies a number of problems with the search for the gay gene, the lack of conclusiveness being one of several glaring ones. None of these studies address populations outside of homosexual men—what of lesbians or bisexual men and women? What of those who are transgender and express same-gender attraction? These existences are yet to be explored in any meaningful way in genetic studies. Next, when we have sequence and determine a genetic marker, what are the general uses of that information? With genetic testing companies such as 23andMe and the FDA approval to sell kits that test for particular diseases, it is not unlikely that the discovery of a gay gene marker could also be monetized. That information could be released to a number of parties with unethical results.

If one has enough money and is curious enough, prenatal genetic counselling is accessible and available in several places throughout the United States. There are two different kinds—screening and diagnostic tests. The genetic material that is sampled is either cells from the fetus or the placenta, which is sampled from the amniotic fluid or chorionic villus sampling.[5] These tests can be and are often performed between the first 15 to 20 weeks of pregnancy. If the genetic marker for gayness is sequenced, that information would be privy to genetic counsellors and parents. While it is certainly reasonable to let people who are pregnant be privy to information regarding that, it is also possible that the knowledge imparted to them by genetic counsellors may influence their decisions regarding a termination of the pregnancy. With the increasing rise of genetic counselling, it is a hotly debated topic whether genetic markers for diagnoses are grounds for abortion. Both Pennsylvania and Michigan have pointed to the idea of “wrongful birth” or “wrongful life” as justification. It is a simple truth that gayness is not a disease, nor a psychological problem: the American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-II.[6] Nevertheless, this has not stopped people from attempting conversion “therapy” and other ways of “curing” gayness. Considering that within the political climate that this is still an ongoing form of discrimination, it would be unwise to release that genetic information to people as a whole. One could argue that it is the release of the gay gene information rather than the information itself that would be the point of contention. However, considering that it would be unethical to not release that information if it was already known, therein lies the counterargument.

The prior argument concerns discrimination before birth. Now concerning people who have the gay gene and are already members of the general population, we must consider the history of discrimination against gay partnership. In the past, there has been legal precedent against not only gay marriage, but gay sexual activity. Until 2003 and the Lawrence v. Texas case, same-sex sexual activity was not legal in several parts of the United States. Based on the legal system, it is completely possible to overturn that and make sexual privacy unprotected in the cases of people carrying the gay gene. That argument could be further pressed because of genetic background with the precedent of distinguishing sexual privacy due to “genetic mutations”, decided in Muth v. Frank. Obviously, I do not intend to compare gayness with cases of incest—this is merely to illustrate that geneticists have been called to comment on cases regarding sexual privacy. This could be considered an implausible argument, but considering that it was not until 1967 that all anti-miscegenation laws were overturned, it is clear that prejudice has often played a large part in determining legality.

Since the popularization of the genetic test, there have been multiple ethical questions raised about the ancestry test. First, is the information always private? Next, what entities are privy to that information? In their privacy policies, terms of service, and research policies, genetic testing companies can claim ownership of DNA or sell it to third-party companies for use in studies.[7] Additionally, these companies are not bound by HIPAA, so information obtained by an authorized recipient could be passed on to anyone else. These companies are also susceptible to hacker attacks, so information that is obtained with them is not necessarily safe nor anonymous with these factors. If a malicious party wanted to, they could leak information genetic information, including the gay gene. In the same way that it might be concerning for genetic companies to release information to health insurance companies, who will then change their prices because of your supposed genetic health, the same goes for gayness. Less than half of the United States has protections against discrimination for gay people in employment and housing. Only 14 states protect against discrimination when it comes to credit. In fact, Arizona, Tennessee, and North Carolina have state-level law preventing the passage or enforcement of local non-discrimination laws.[8] That is a perilously low amount of protection for LGBTQ+ people. If any information regarding sexuality was released to any of those entities, it could be grounds for discrimination and abuse. There already exists a large population of unemployed and homeless LGBTQ+ people and releasing information about their sexuality behind their backs would only increase the problem with that.

Many believe that the search for a gay gene could be beneficial to the LGBTQ+ community. LeVay spoke about that issue as a gay man. His intent in researching the origins of gayness were meant to bolster the community and confirm something he already felt about himself—that gayness was an innate part of himself.  Some propose that if there is a genetic link, conservatives will no longer be able to claim that sexuality is something that can be controlled. A study conducted in 2012 by Josyln and Markel investigated the question “Does genetic causality lead people to in fact view homosexuality as an inescapable, predestined outcome?” Compared to the results from 2003 where 39.9% of people believed that gayness had a genetic component, 43.6% in 2012 and did. And compared to 2003 where 40.9% believed that gayness could change, 33.3% believed that in 2012. Joslyn and Markel cite Dar-Nimrod and Heine, 2010, as a way of speaking to public opinion of genetic arguments and deterministic thinking. However, it also led to increasing stereotypes regarding the LGBTQ+ community.

I’d like to approach these two trains of thought separately. First, the idea that genetic links will change public perception of LGBTQ+ people. As outlined in the previous arguments, despite the move to depathologize gayness and other actions taken to increase acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, people who are homophobic have paid little attention to this. In fact, the people who are often discriminating against people because they are in the LGBTQ+ community also discriminate against others on other genetically based axes, such as race. Certainly, the argument could be made that the genetic link proves immutability of gayness. However, presenting the argument that way may well backfire and cause unaccepting groups to further shun people who are “beyond saving.”

Next, regarding the Joslyn and Markel study, the impetus for the study was the past studies that surveyed the links between public opinion on genetics surrounding the gay gene. It compares opinion in 2003 and that in 2012. However, it is just that—opinion. There is not much in the way of strongly linking the belief that there is a genetic link and positive opinion. Rather, the study relies on deterministic thinking and the relation to stereotypes. Even if they are more positive stereotypes than negative, they still do little in the way of actually humanizing gay people or changing political opinion—visibility does not particularly guarantee fulfillment of human rights. Furthermore, the link between the belief that gayness can change and that gayness has a genetic link is not quantifiable in a meaningful way beyond fulfilling the model of deterministic thinking.

Lastly, as has been a point throughout the other arguments, the hunt for the gay gene does not provide anything for the LGBTQ+ community in a meaningful way. Even substantiated evidence for a gay gene would only prove that there is a genetic connection to gayness—that alone cannot change public or political opinion. The strongest argument for the LGBTQ+ community based on genetics would only be to convince people that it’s “okay to be gay.” This being something that already happens outside of a genetic supposition, there is not much it can provide to that either. Genetic arguments have rarely, if ever, helped provide and guarantee housing or material goods for any oppressed community. They fail to humanize or recognize other forms of sexuality that may exist because of varying gender expressions. Genetics does not assure jobs or warrant taking people out of homophobic environments and providing care for them, or stop wrongful imprisonment, or police brutality, or any of the problems that the LGBTQ+ community faces. If science is to become involved in the fight for rights, it must become involved in a way that concerns the realities of the political climate rather than an outdated grab for justification to those opposed to the LGBTQ+ community.

Searching for the gay gene does not provide anything of value to LGBTQ+ people. It could lead to discriminatory policies regarding abortion and parentage. Not only that, it could result in discrimination in housing or jobs if the genetic information of someone was released without their consent. Finally, searching for the gay gene has proven inconclusive and arguments made that it will create positive sentiment towards the LGBTQ+ community have been tenuous at best. The science of genetic sequencing using PCR technology and gel electrophoresis proves itself useful for a variety of purposes, but it does not provide anything of use for the political climate of this time, nor for the purposes of solidifying the rights of any other groups. Therefore, it is unethical to continue to pursuit of the search for the gay gene.


Brown, K. V. (2017, October 18). What DNA Testing Companies’ Terrifying Privacy Policies Actually Mean. Retrieved April 03, 2018, from

Coghlan, A. (2017, December 7). What do the new ‘gay genes’ tell us about sexual orientation? Retrieved April 03, 2018, from

Conrad, R. (2016). The lure of the gay gene. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, (1), 25.

Drescher, J. (2015). Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality. Behavioral Sciences, 5(4), 565–575. Retrieved from

Hamer, D.H. (1999, August 6). Genetics and Male Sexual Orientation. Science, 285. Retrieved from

Joslyn, M. R., & Haider-Markel, D. P. (2016). Genetic Attributions, Immutability, and Stereotypical Judgments: An Analysis of Homosexuality. Social Science Quarterly (Wiley-Blackwell), 97(2), 376-390. doi:10.1111/ssqu.12263

Nimmons, D. (1994, March). Sex and the Brain. Retrieved April 03, 2018, from

NIN, A. (2011). The Gay Gene. Agni, (73), 35.

Non-Discrimination Laws. (n.d.). Retrieved April 02, 2018, from

O’Riordan, K. (2012). The Life of the Gay Gene: From Hypothetical Genetic Marker to Social Reality. Journal Of Sex Research, 49(4), 362-368. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.663420

Pillard, R. (1997). The “Gay Gene” and Evolution. Retrieved April 04, 2018, from

Rice, G. (1999, April 23). Male Homosexuality: Absence of Linkage to Microsatellite Markers at Xq28. Science, 284. 665-667. Retrieved from

Rose, K.C. (1999). The Gay Gene: The Key to Dismantling Laws Which Criminalize Consensual Sexuality Activity or the Precursor to a New Wave of Good O’l All-American Eugenics? 3 J. L. & Soc. Challenges 57.

Sanders, A.R. (2017, December 7). Genome-Wide Association Study of Male Sexual Orientation. Nature Research, 2-6. Retrieved from

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2017). Retrieved April 04, 2018, from

Timothy F., M. (2005). The Search For The Gay Gene. BMJ: British Medical Journal, (7498), 1033.

[1] LeVay, 1991

[2] Nimmons, 1994

[4] Sanders et al., 2017

[5] The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 2017

[6] Drescher, 2015

[7] Brown, 2017

[8] Movement Advancement Project, 2018

Gay-mers and Representation

            The allure of video games and the virtual world has pulled in audiences from the stereotypical preteen boy to the demographically accurate 44-year-old woman to the growing subculture of LGBTQ+ “gaymers” that could overlap with those other groups mentioned. While there is diversity in the people who play video games, people who aren’t cisgender white men are usually not represented in games released by large studios.

            That has started to shift recently, with the help of different movements, like the push for LGBTQ+ representation. Gaymers have been responsible for pushing for representation in video games since the beginning—the term “gaymer”, meaning gamers who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, has been in circulation since 1997 and more game developers and LGBTQ+ activists have spoken up about the need for more LGBTQ+ representation.

            LGBTQ+ people have long been interested in video games and programming. In 1988, Bulletin Board Systems or BBS were the precursor to online forums of today—the small network of LGBT people was a tight-knit one, despite spanning the entire globe. One of those BBS users was C.M. Ralph, a media and digital artist. Ralph was identifying as a gay woman at that point and had just moved with their partner to San Francisco. Both of them were excited to be embraced by the gay community in the Castro, since they had both come from homophobic towns in Southern California.

            Ralph wanted to find a way to express their gratitude to the Castro community that was supporting them and found it in the Macintosh Hypercard. Hypercard was an application that was typically used to design business applications. But Ralph saw the potential for making a game. Over the course of a year, Ralph developed the game Caper in the Castro, the first documented LGBTQ+ game where you play as a lesbian detective, Tracker McDyke, who is investigating the disappearance of drag queen Tessy LaFemme. Caper in the Castro was published as charityware, which meant that Ralph asked that if the game was downloaded that a donation would be made to an AIDS charity organization. It was distributed and enjoyed enough among BBS users that Ralph decided to distribute it for money through Heizer software. Ralph reasoned that Caper in the Castro would be easier to market as a straight game and replaced all references of LGBTQ+ themes from it and offered it for sale as Murder on Main Street. “I still find it funny in the fact that none of the straight people who bought Murder on Main Street knew they were actually buying a LGBT game,” Ralph says.

            It wasn’t unusual for developers to shy away from gayness, afraid of losing the core demographic of men who might fear themes that weren’t ultra-masculine and straight. The Sims developers avoided gayness as well—until a mistake made it clear that the LGBTQ+ community was interested in games.

            In the late 1980s, the game style called “the God game” emerged: game settings gave the player control over characters and scenarios as an omniscient third party rather than as a character. Will Wright, who had worked on action and war games and discovered he liked creative games better, pitched the Sims as a God game to the executive board of Maxis, a game company that he and Jeff Braun founded together. The Maxis board rejected it, calling it “an interactive dollhouse” declaring that only women and minorities—not their target audiences—would be interested in such a game.

            The dismissive attitude that the board had towards The Sims would lead the programmers and developers working on it to have more freedom than other games under the Maxis and Electronic Arts studios. In fact, the company didn’t do much to promote the game during publicity tours and game conventions. Its debut at E3 was the team’s last-ditch effort to save it. In the E3 presentation, which had both pre-programmed and real-time simulated events, a wedding scene was disrupted by two female Sims who, in real-time, began to kiss onscreen. The Sims quickly became the talk of the convention. The kiss was both unprecedented and unexpected.

            Several of the programmers working on the Sims were gay, which led to key decisions for the romance aspect of the game. Patrick J. Barrett III, a gay man and programmer, recounted how gayness was possible in the Sims partially due to a mix-up in documents—the older version that Barrett received while programming the relationships did not specify exclusion of same-sex relationships. Barrett, who was gay, became the innovator for a system that determined a Sim’s sexuality through user-driven aspects. “The system worked so well that the same-sex support was invisible and seamless,” Barrett recounted to the New Yorker. “It was the first time we could play a game and be free to see ourselves represented within.”

            As the best-selling PC game of all time, The Sims increased the number of women playing video games and acted as the first widespread exposure to gayness for people who sought it out. The impact of The Sims on LGBTQ+ representation can still be seen today: at GaymerX in 2013, several programmers from The Sims, such as lead engineer Jamie Doornbos, talked about how games that reflect reality should include LGBTQ+ people. While not all games are simulations or God games, he expressed that it is important to acknowledge the existence of the LGBTQ+ community.

            Other game companies are increasing LGBTQ+ representation in the games that they release. John James, usually called JJ by his colleagues and coworkers, is the creative director of Midboss, a small gaming company that created the game 2064: Read Only Memories. Originally released in 2015, Midboss focused on creating “casual” LGBTQ+ representation. The player character is faceless and genderless, while the main character Turing is a robot whose pronouns can be chosen by the character, including neopronouns (suitable for the setting of Neo San Francisco). Non-player characters are genderfluid, have a variety of sexualities, or present their genders in non-traditional ways. There are gay teenagers, genderfluid hackers, and trans women who don’t adhere to looking feminine—and they all play large roles in the story. JJ said, “A lot of the time, representation is the butt of the joke. But in Read Only Memories, it’s more realistic.”

            But Read Only Memories isn’t just meant for an LGBTQ+ audience—that would be preaching to the choir. Instead, JJ says, “Casual representation, where characters just so happen to be LGBT, just like your friends or family is subversive. It shows people representation of us as part of their lives, existing outside of fetishization or novelty.”  Unlike The Sims, it’s impossible to avoid the LGBTQ+ themes in Read Only Memories. But it also means that it’s easier, now more than ever, to find games with LGBTQ+ developers and content. On Steam, the main avenue for buying PC games, you can easily search for LGBTQ+ games. Independent creators can create and upload their games to sites like designed to share and filter games by tag—the LGBTQ+ tag has over 1000 results. One of the more popular selections is Brianna Lei’s Butterfly Soup, a game that made it onto many popular game lists and landed Lei a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for Games in 2019. In an interview with Games Radar, Lei talked about representation, saying, “I made this game hoping it would resonate with people. While showcasing the game at GDC this year, someone cried when telling me how much they liked the game and I won’t ever forget that. I want all my games to have this kind of impact on people.”

            With the rise of reactionaries like GamerGate, it has been harder to expand the conversation about representation beyond simply allowing women to enter the video game fray. Larger studios have been criticized for poor representation of gay characters, tending to kill them off instead of giving them a permanent place in the narrative. Transgender characters are often fetishized or made into jokes about crossdressing and sexual perversion. But in spite of all that, LGBTQ+ representation still makes its way into video games.

            In triple A studios, there have been small victories. Electronic Arts, the studio that made The Sims, also created Dragon Age: Inquisition, the next installment in the Dragon Age series that allows you to romance characters that are the same gender as your player and features a transgender character. The Last of Us, a game by Sony, revealed in extra downloadable content that one of the main characters was a gay woman. While independent creators and smaller studios tend to lead the charge, major game companies are finally making it more explicit that their narratives have gay and trans people in them.

            And that’s good news for young LGBTQ+ people. JJ believes that the more representation there is in all aspects of media, the more acceptable it will become to question and form your own identity. Not only that, but it is important to see yourself in the media you consume because it proves that the people who created it recognized the existence of your community. He says, “When I was a kid, I didn’t know what I was—I just knew that the games and comics were cool. When I got to questioning myself, I was still kind of numb to it. But representation made me enjoy [media] more.”

            Outside of the game’s actual content, the rise in LGBTQ+ people involved in gaming have made it a platform to push for rights. Harry Brewis, a Twitch streamer and YouTuber known by the username Hbomberguy, hosted a charity stream of Donkey Kong 64 to raise money for Mermaids, a charity in the UK that supports transgender youth. Over the 57 hours that the stream lasted, Brewis hosted various celebrities from Chelsea Manning to the voice of Donkey Kong in order to generate hype—the stream raised $340,000 and was a trending topic on Twitter and Tumblr for the duration it lasted. Dominique McLean, a professional competitive gamer, is an openly queer man in a field made primarily of straight men. Known by the name SonicFox, he’s used his platform as esports 2018 Player of the Year to advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion in gaming.

            Admittedly, video games have a long way to go before they’re completely inclusive. But the work of LGBTQ+ people in creating and consuming video games is a big part of why more games have had the representation that the LGBTQ+ community wants and deserves.

San Francisco Shrooms

MUSHROOMS – Ramos. Fungi in the Bay Area have become more popular with scientists, food-lovers, and everyday people alike. 1402 words.

Common mushrooms you might stumble upon in Golden Gate Park.

            Say the words “mushrooms” and “San Francisco” in the same sentence, and people will usually assume you’re talking about psilocybin, the hallucinatory component found in shrooms. It’s no surprise given the city’s reputation surrounding drugs use, hippies, and the Summer of Love. Yet if you ask culinary, farming, or mycological enthusiasts, the insights they have about mushrooms in the Bay Area are as varied and colorful as the mushrooms themselves.

            Over two hundred and fifty mushroom species make their home in the Bay Area: high up in trees, low to the ground, pushing their way out from between cracks in brick walls. The combination of cool, damp weather, spring and winter rains, and an otherwise Mediterranean climate make for an environment replete with mushrooms if you know where to look. On field trips through various parks in San Francisco, my fellow naturalists passed on the old fungophile’s adage, “get your eyes on,, meaning to scan areas carefully to accustom your eyes to well-hidden mushrooms. After a few weeks of walking through Glen Canyon and McLaren Park, I began to see fungi everywhere: death caps, witch’s butter, hen-of-the-woods, sulfur shelf.Even in the off season, the variety of mushrooms was astounding.

An illustration by Amanda Moore (@rootnoir on Instagram).

            Supermarket mushrooms tend towards the ordinary and mild-flavored. The humble portobello mushroom, packed into blue Styrofoam cartons and covered in plastic, is a common sight, tucked away in a refrigerated section of the grocery store. One might be lucky enough to find shitakes with stems curving like a question mark, or oyster mushrooms with large, soft gills adorning their sides.

            At higher end markets, the varieties abound. At San Francisco’s Ferry Building, the open storefront of Far West Fungi boasts an earth-toned medley. Tourists snap photos of mushrooms growing in a glass bell, like a mutated version of the Beast’s enchanted rose. Amanda Moore, an employee at Far West Fungi who uses they/them pronouns, commented on how they view mushrooms. “It’s really beautiful stuff that we get to see, it’s very temporal,” they said. “There’s some things you have to wait for all year and then you only see it once.”

            Mushrooms grow and change with the seasons. While some are acclimated to damp and rainy seasons year-round, other mushrooms have adapted to the Northern California’s long dry spells. Some species fruit only when certain weather shifts occur, while other species that haven’t been seen in the Bay Area for forty years have been spotted due to new temperature and soil variations. Once those factors fade, whether bit by bit or all at once, then the mushrooms disappear until the conditions are right once again.

            Moore, captured by the beauty of mushrooms, illustrates them on their Instagram, @rootnoir. Some Far West Fungi coworkers make mushroom tinctures to drink or dye their clothes with mushrooms at Counterculture Labs in Oakland. All Far West staff visit restaurants that buy their products to see what they’ve done with them. A couple steps to the right of the Far West store is Stonehouse California Olive Oil, a store with locally sourced cooking oils and sauces. Between the mushroom mongers and the oil merchants is a counter with a small jar of salt speckled with black bits. An employee noticed me eyeing it.

            “That’s truffle salt. It’s sea salt with little bits of dried truffle in them—that’s a kind of expensive mushroom we import from Europe that’s found by dogs or pigs.”

            I asked about what kinds of dishes people were putting mushrooms into.

            “Oh, all sorts of things. Mushrooms are really popular now because of their umami flavor.” The employee smiled. “I put this truffle salt on filets, on top of risotto, and on popcorn. And I really like it on top of mac and cheese. It’s really good.”

The mushrooms on display at Far West Fungi in San Francisco.

            Others seem to agree about that umami flavor—a savory flavor characteristic of broths or meats. Some tasterseven report hints of spiciness and smokiness in different varieties of mushroom. The mushroom stall at the Heart of the City Farmers Market in the Civic Center was bustling: people rushing past with full bags overlooked the apple samples but stopped to sample shitake jerky. Sean Garrone, one of the founders of Far West Fungi, was working the stand. “Mushrooms have grown in popularity because of the beneficial aspects of them,” Garrone said. “You start to see them more in recipes, in cooking shows, and the health benefits—Dr. Oz had his hands on that one.” He filled another basket with mushrooms. “I mean, I have some customers where all they eat is mushrooms.” Garrone paused to think. “Not all they eat, but a good ninety percent of their diet is mushrooms because of meat-like quality of it. And I see more customers willing to be adventurous.” Indeed, he had put out another basket of soft pink oyster mushrooms to replace the three that someone bought. A person walking by the stall shouted, “Those nameko mushrooms look delicious!” Garrone grins over the small amber mushroom bulbs.

            Unusual edible mushrooms are many people’s introduction to fungi. Theresa Haula, vice president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco, recounted her first time finding a mushroom she couldn’t identify. “Was it some kind of parasite on the tree or was it a plant? It certainly didn’t look like a mushroom,” she said. “After talking to about fifty people, trying to find people interested in the natural world, I finally found someone who sort of just knew it, like ‘Oh, that’s Sparassis radicata and that’s edible, it’s very tasty. Somehow, I got really obsessed by finding out, what is this thing?” Haula, a mushroom cultivation professor at Merritt College in Oakland, still marvels at the diversity of fungi. “They have endless forms of shape and color and smell, you know. It’s as diverse as plants.”

Small, delicate mushrooms that one might find in the crevices of tree bark.

            Mushroom diversity is part of why they are so important to the ecology of an area. For example, a reason that the redwoods on the West Coast get so big is because of the mushroom species existing underground. Mushroom spores called mycelium help gather and supply extra water and nutrients to the roots of plants, which in turn, provide the mushrooms with sugar and a base to grow on. Around ninety percent of plants have co-evolved with mushrooms in this way. The chemical signals that they send through the mycelium to other trees—essentially a conversation between forests—is a topic of interest for ecologists everywhere. As mushrooms provide additional resources to the trees, they grow larger than they would be able to on their own, especially when they are linked to other trees.

            Lichens, like the beautiful state lichen of California, Ramalina menziesii), are formed by the combination of a fungus and algae. Lichens help absorb pollutants in the air. And mushrooms, when they grow on dead or dying things, are making sure that they don’t stick around. By breaking down compounds like lignin and cellulose, mushrooms help things to decompose. The presence of fungi helps invite bacteria to hasten decomposition and turn something rotting back into nutrients that plants and animals can use. Throughout decomposition, mushrooms can also emit pheromones that entice insects like flies and beetles to clean up whatever they can’t. Haula says, “If we didn’t have the fungi, we would be wading around in tree trunks. It’s that literal.”

            Scientists have been looking to mushrooms to combat problems in novel ways. The myriad forms of fungi can do things that seem beyond the imagination. For example, Pestalotiopsis microspora is a fungus that can digest polyurethane, the main component of plastic. Scientists are investigating using this fungal feature as a way of biodegrading plastics in the environment more quickly.

            The growth of mushrooms can help to promote growth of new plants and may be able to renew deforested areas. Mycoremediation, using fungi to decontaminate environments, has been used in industrial processes and, one day, may help to purify the water we drink.

An amber mushroom pokes its way through the bark.

            As far as eating mushrooms goes, researchers are trying to determine whether mushrooms might help with memory retention and improved vitamin D levels. And while some of these benefits may seem distant or from the realm of science fiction, they’re being explored right now in places like Counterculture Labs in Oakland, a community science laboratory outfitted for microbiologists to DNA sequence and cultivate different species of mushrooms. As interest in mushrooms grows in the Bay Area, the future of fungi holds promise from culinary delights to scientific advancement.

From Metallica to Miles Davis: Michael Graphix

GRAPHIX – Ramos. The Director of Production, Michael J. “Geese” Graphix at SFJAZZ discusses his love of the arts, San Francisco, and how he got from being a roadie to a place like SFJAZZ. 1875 words.

Michael Graphix, Director of Production at SFJAZZ, sitting at his desk.

            The catwalk of SFJAZZ leaves me feeling slightly dizzy as I peer down between the lights, wires, and railing to an apparently miniature stage below. While I peer hesitantly over the railing, Michael Graphix leans over it to point out the harnesses for a light, completely at ease. But it doesn’t take long for him to set me at ease too. He cracks a joke about the “evil gondola” they use to fix issues above the stage. As we’re on the catwalk, he tells me that he overcame his fear of heights by skydiving. He is so utterly lighthearted, so eager to teach me about everything in the building that I forget my acrophobia and let myself be carried away by his effusiveness.

            Michael Graphix is a casual dresser. He wears a cornflower blue polo shirt and smells vaguely of black licorice; his favorite cough drop flavor. There is no severe expression on his face after spending hours reviewing budgets and spreadsheets, though that does summarize part of what he does as the director of production at SFJAZZ. His job consists of figuring out how to put on a production: whether that means poring over contract riders like what an artist wants in their dressing room, to keeping track of schedules of when practically anyone arrives. It is a far cry from what he’s done in the past, where he spent 25 years as a sound engineer and roadie for bands like Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, and Hiroshima. One of the many things that’s stuck with him through his shifting career was his nickname, “Geese”, given to him on the road when two Michaels were working the same show. Geese listens to music from Miles Davis to Metallica and decorates his cubicle with jokes about OSHA violations—no matter where he’s gone, he’s carried parts of his past with him.

            As we leave the forty-foot-drop to tour SFJAZZ, he navigates the building with an ease that doesn’t even seem practiced—is as natural as if he was born knowing how to tread the auditorium and walkways in pitch dark. Throughout the tour, it is obvious that he loves working at SFJAZZ. “I think I was destined to be at a place like this. It’s a real joy to work here.”

            Destiny might not have seemed like the right word to the young Graphix. Born in upstate New York, he was raised in a family of construction workers that built warehouses and schools. He was always interested in the technical work, leading him to pursue degrees in architecture and broadcast engineering at State University of New York College, Buffalo. It wasn’t until he met his roommate that he considered doing anything in the world of music. His roommate offered him a job handling the sound system for local bands. “He said, ‘I’ll give you twenty-five bucks a night and all the beer I could drink, and I was like, ‘Sold!’” His interest was piqued through the electrical work involved in speakers and microphones and he discovered he had an ear for mixing sound for performers. He started out doing local shows at bars with simple systems, then graduated to mini-tours through upstate New York, eastern Ohio, and northern Pennsylvania. His first big gig in audio engineering was touring with U2 for six dates.

            But before touring with rock bands, Graphix had travelled around the United States for a completely different kind of rock. In 1979, he had a summer job collecting geology samples from all over the United States, leading him to his first trip to the West Coast. When he got to San Francisco, he said, “It just felt like home.” In 1984, Graphix picked up and moved to San Francisco. Through his connections at a local sound company, he became a system engineer for three Metallica tours. Graphix worked with Guns ‘N Roses on the ‘Use Your Illusion’ tour in 1992, did three tours with Nine Inch Nails, and worked with Barry Manilow for fifteen years, who was his longest running connection. “As far as sound mixing went, I was his guy,” Graphix says.

An image of Michael Graphix. He is wearing a black jacket and cornflower blue polo. He is looking straight at the viewer and is surrounded by wires and lighting equipment.
Michael Graphix on the catwalk of SFJAZZ.

            He says that he feels there is a certain power in being a mixer for artists. “I could make an audience’s evening great or not so great and I always wanted to do my best because of that. Someone’s making me responsible for interpreting these people’s music. For a band to give me that kind of trust…I’m interpreting hopefully, in the best way possible.” While he doesn’t miss the lack of sleep on the road, he still looks fondly back on his time touring. “I was lucky. The eighties and nineties was a fun time to be on the road. We had a lot more flexibility—and a lot more vices.” He laughs, low, gruff, and cheerful.

            As we walk through SFJAZZ, he points out the kinds of things he pays attention to: snack and drink preferences of artists who come through, how to fix a broken light on the catwalk, the administrative codes for the sound and light boards. His job includes a mind-boggling amount of multitasking and items to pay attention to—even with a team as large as SFJAZZ’s, it’s still impressive to see the duties he juggles.

            Amy Heiden, the technical manager at SFJAZZ, has worked with Graphix for three years. “Geese is always quizzing our team with random trivia and he is a walking joke book,” she says. “Like, I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday and he’s here telling stories from thirty years ago.” Other people on Graphix’s team smile and wave at him as we pass, if he hasn’t already stopped to say hello and check in on them. He keeps up with everyone he works with—he even enlisted the help of the crew that moves instruments in SFJAZZ to help him move to San Rafael. He smiles at security guards and pats the back of people carrying pallets of water bottles.

              In the lobby, a coworker comments on the mangoes that someone brought in the other day. “Was that you?” It was, in fact, Graphix who shared them—apparently such good mangoes that they ran out. His rapport with his team is like their banter: quick, witty, and effortless.

            The next stop on our building tour is Miner Hall, where just a month earlier I saw Kid Koala at a listening party, an occasional event where members of SFJAZZ can listen to an artist talk about their influences and their work. The stage has been completely transformed since I last saw it, a process that SFJAZZ has down to a T after doing around 400 shows a year. It’s shrunk in size, the “plugs” that they attach to widen the stage have been removed, and the bulky equipment that dominated it has now been reduced to a few instruments illuminated by the pale blue lights blinking on the stage. At the center of the stage is a single bright light. “Do you know the history of the ghost light?” He asks me, pointing to the lamp. I do know, but I want him to explain anyways. “There are two explanations. In most traditional theatres, they have an orchestra pit. If you put a light center stage, you can see where the edge of the stage is and the pit. So, the ‘ghost light’ was for safety. The other reason you have a ghost light is that for the ghosts of the theatre—if you give them a light, they’re won’t sabotage your show.” He grins. “I like the second one better.”

            With the lights in the theatre on, we sit in the third row of the orchestra and talk about his propensity for trivia. In a conspiratorial voice, he says, “You’ll love this one. Do you know what the big arm that comes up on a sundial is called?” He looks at me expectantly—I have no answer. For a moment, I am a little worried that I don’t know. But he breaks through my nervousness yet again with a smile that says he is delighted to be the one to share this fact with me. “It’s called a gnomon. G-N-O-M-O-N.” Some, myself included, might bemoan the fact that some of their brain capacity is dedicated to arcane bits and pieces of information like that, Graphix celebrates it.

A view of the ghost light from the top of the catwalk.
The ghost light from the top of the catwalk.

            His eyes sparkle when he recounts how when SFJAZZ hosted Google. Their technicians helped with setting backup generators in place and taught him things he didn’t already know about the building. “I have a twelve-year-old boy, and I keep trying to instill in him, ‘Luka, every day your dad tries to learn something new. Even if it’s tiny, that’s what makes life interesting.’”

            Sharing knowledge is something that Graphix holds very near and dear to his heart, especially knowledge about the arts—not just music, but visual and performing arts, too. When we migrate to a discussion about SFJAZZ’s education programs, he leans forward intently. “What do you do at the end of day when you have a normal job? Do you start looking at accounting spreadsheets? No. The arts are what fulfill us. And why schools think that’s something they can chuck when the budget gets tight, it’s really disappointing.”

            Veronica Limcaco, the assistant to the admin for the educational department, works with the production team to make sure that they can put on programs. After receiving a grant to make sure that jazz education is provided to students in public schools in San Francisco and Oakland, the educational program has relied on the production team to get anything from transportation, lighting, and catering. “Production is a crucial part of getting us across the finish line. They have to sign off on everything.”

            While running the educational programs makes SFJAZZ’s tight schedule even tighter, Graphix says that the impact on both the team and the schools is a positive one. He puts a hand over his heart when he recounts a letter they received from a girl who thanked them for introducing her to saxophone and how she had started lessons thanks to a neighbor’s help. He is especially elated showing me what was originally going to be a studio for recording, but now serves as an educational room for kids coming through SFJAZZ.

            He’s constantly looking for ways to improve the programs already in place when he starts somewhere. “Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always tried to bring the good side of a rock and roll mentality.” To him, that means he’s avoided burning bridges, made connections, and built quite the reputation by following that mentality.

            Graphix said he was destined to work at a place like SFJAZZ, but to me, it doesn’t quite seem like fate or coincidence that got him where he is. Honestly, it seems more like an inevitability—after all, he apparently never wanted for a job before coming to SFJAZZ. No matter what point in his career he’s talking about, he is always adamant about bringing the best of what he’s learned with him. And the people he’s worked with cite his cheerful personality, his skills, and his work ethic in saying that he’s made the place they work a joy to be at too.

Pending Dopeness: Kid Koala at SFJAZZ (February 6th, 2019)

The needle dropped on the vinyl and the warm crackle of a well-worn record played over the speakers. The audience of SFJAZZ’s Miner Hall, many of who had grown up with their own collection of records, nodded appreciatively. Before any music played, Kid Koala lifted the needle. “I love that sound,” he said. “There’s nothing like it on like, mp3s or CDs. It’s the sound of pending dopeness.” Then he dropped the needle and released a melody of clucks and moos to the stage.

Kid Koala is the stage name of Eric San, known for his esoteric approach to “scratching.” The collection of sounds he samples range from Mandarin language tapes to the aforementioned chicken clucks from a group called “Henhouse Five Plus Two.” The twelfth track on his album Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, “Like Irregular Chickens” uses the strident bawks to keep the beat in the song. San’s music, even today, continues to draw on his past.

Kid Koala’s interest in music was fostered by his parents, who encouraged him to play classical music on the piano. Inspired by the sounds of Sweet Emma Barrett and De La Soul, San would spend his paper route money on records. Eventually, he saved up enough to buy his own turntable and mixer and began performing in high school. When asked about his stage name, San responded, “My parents used to buy this drink called Koala Springs. And my room just used to look like this,” he gestured to the stage, strewn with wires and musical instruments, “except with less cameras and more Koala Springs cans around. So my friends used to call me Kid Koala and the name stuck.”

Now, the name Kid Koala appears on a wide array of projects, from touring with the Beastie Boys to writing music for the soundtrack of Baby Driver. He’s organized his own unconventional concerts like “Vinyl Vaudeville” and “Satellite Turntable” which use puppets (a nod to his desire to work on Sesame Street), dancers, and audience participation to make the music.While he’s a frenetic presence as a performer, he doesn’t always come off that way. Haley Kaplan, an attendee to Kid Koala’s listening party, said, “He was so quiet at first, but he’s really funny, actually. It sneaks up on you. He’s very genuine.”

Success, in a way, seems to have snuck up on Kid Koala. He recounted how he was signed to Ninja Tune, which has been a topic of hot debate over his career. Stuck in the third row of a van with his idols while his rough-cut mixes played–an embarrassing moment at the time–would lead to him being the first North American artist that they signed. His gratefulness for that moment doesn’t seem to have diminished at all over the years.

San is currently performing Nufonia Must Fall, a puppet and live music concert produced by K.K. Barrett. When asked about his upcoming works, he referenced another production with the Nufonia Must Fall team about a mosquito trying to make it in a band. Whatever dopeness Kid Koala has pending, it’s sure to be rife with the same energy he injects in everything.