Walking down the halls of his high school, Kevin Nadal heard all sorts of homophobic slurs.
At first, every word would sting. But with time, he learned to walk by without showing any reaction, afraid that his schoolmates would learn his secret.
As a man, emotion would be seen as a weakness and validation of his sexual identity.
“That’s so gay.” “Be a man.” “Faggot.”
The words that echoed through his mind, Nadal would later learn, are known as microaggressions, which are daily encounters that may be unintentional or intentional and communicate hostile or negative insults toward members of marginalized groups.
Nadal has been aware of his gay identity since the age of 3. His earliest memories included a natural desire to play with Barbie dolls and toys society deemed only for girls.
“In the same way heterosexual people probably don’t know the exact time they recognize they were heterosexual, that was just for me too – that was just something that was natural,” said Nadal.
When Nadal was in his 20s, he came out to his friend, then his brothers. Lastly he told his parents, who didn’t take the news well and gave him the silent treatment for a few months, he said.
“A lot of people think, ‘Wow, that’s really late.’ Usually people come out in their teens but I think for me, especially being really invested and a part of the Filipino community, it was really hard to come out. I didn’t really have a lot of role models,” Nadal said.
Filipino-Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) may come out later in life to their family or not at all in some cases, Nadal said.
Finding opportunity in struggle
Nadal, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology, is now one of the leading researchers on Filipino-American identity, LGBTQ issues and microaggressions. He credits his past struggles with discrimination in guiding his profession and the fact that there was a lack of research and scholarship on Filipino-Americans.
“I think if I grew up with privilege and not having some of these experiences, I don’t think I would be as passionate about some of these issues,” Nadal said.
In 2010, he partnered with his colleagues, psychologists Dr. David Rivera and Dr. Melissa Corpus, to learn the effects of microaggressions on the LGBTQ community. learned that LGBTQ participants said that when they experienced microaggressions, they felt depressed, anxious, and even traumatized.
“There are so many negative messages about being LGBTQ,” Nadal said. “I think that [it] definitely affects people and their ability to build healthy identities.”
Nadal has written three books on these issues — “Filipino American Psychology: A Handbook of Theory, Research and Clinical Practice,” “Filipino American Psychology: A Collection of Personal Narratives,” and “That’s So Gay! Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community — and has authored numerous journal articles.
“I never had any Filipino-American professors when I was in college. So I decided to become one. I think it’s important to have people who can teach about certain perspectives using their own experiences to shape their framework and teaching style” said Nadal, who is currently an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College for Criminal Justice – City University of New York (CUNY),” he said.
Fil-Am community advocate
As an advocate for the Filipino-American community, Nadal has taken multiple steps to battle social prejudice.
In 2007, he led a nationwide campaign against ABC studios after the TV show “Desperate Housewives” used Philippine medical schools as a punchline in their season four premiere episode.
“Okay, before we go any further, can I check these diplomas? Just to make sure they aren’t, like, from some med school in the Philippines,” said Teri Hatcher’s character, Susan.
Nadal created an online petition, which generated more than 100,000 signatures. ABC studios later apologized for the remark.
In another effort to help his community, Nadal has also partnered up with the New York Police Department (NYPD) Leadership program at John Jay College for Criminal Justice to provide mental health training for the varying ranks and levels of the police department for eight years.
The program tries to make the scenarios as realistic as possible, hiring improvisational actors to act our certain mental health disorders.
“It is a really rewarding experience because you can see the police officers are learning about basic things like respect and learning how to communicate with people in particularly people who have mental illness so that is something that has been very rewarding,” he said.
However, he has recently decided to take a break from the NYPD.
“It is more of my personal break from them because it is hard to be in that environment knowing that police culture, particularly the NYPD, hasn’t been as responsive to the black lives matter movement and people’s perception of them,” Nadal said. “Once that gets addressed then I will feel more comfortable returning to this capacity.”
Nadal has served as the executive director of The Center for LGBTQ Studies (CLAGS) at the CUNY since 2014, and works with the New York Chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS).
He is also in the process of writing two books. The first one is the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Gender and the other is about microaggressions and trauma.
“I hope that my work has been helpful in starting the conversation about mental health issues and LGBTQ perspectives in the Filipino-American community. There is so much stigma with both topics,” Nadal said.
Fifteen years after his early struggles with identity, Nadal is living in New York City with his husband, R.J. The couple has been married for a year and Nadal is proud to say that his parents are supportive and treat his husband just like any other son-in-law.
Although Nadal says society and the country as a whole have taken progressive steps toward the right direction, he knows there is more to be done.
“I just want to continue to advocate for social justice,” he said. “While I was very happy and proud about the marriage equality ruling, part of me was also very intentional on reminding people there are still a lot of issues affecting the LGBTQ community, particularly the transgender community. I also think it is important for us to continue to advocate for others, particularly those who continue to be marginalized or perhaps who might not have as much of a voice.”