United Kingdom

Meet the Filipino nurse gunning to be Mr. Gay Great Britain

Michelle Abad

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Meet the Filipino nurse gunning to be Mr. Gay Great Britain

GRAND FINALIST. Filipino nurse Keannu Arnoco pictured in the United Kingdom.

Keannu Arnoco

(1st UPDATE) In competing in his first pageant, OFW Keannu Arnoco hopes to inspire Filipinos to break away from their comfort zones and excel in things they are passionate about

MANILA, Philippines – Three years ago, Filipino nurse Keannu Arnoco left the Philippines in search of better working conditions as a healthcare professional. From migrating and working through the COVID-19 pandemic, he has survived and thrived.

Today, he is a grand finalist for the Mr. Gay Great Britain (GB) pageant, and is hoping to be the first Filipino to claim the title.

Keannu is among the 200,000 Filipinos in the United Kingdom – and one of the tens of thousands whom one may find working in its National Health Service (NHS). For this nurse, advancing the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+ (LGBTQ+) is an advocacy he has brought from the Philippines to the world.

“I really think representation is important. There are so many Filipinos in the UK, but you don’t really see a lot of Filipinos being represented out there… To be seen, to be heard, to show that Filipinos are talented. There’s so much that we can offer,” the 29-year-old said.

A larger platform

Back in his home province Cebu, Keannu was an active LGBTQ+ advocate. In his community, he spent some years volunteering and working for a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-related advocacy, for mental health awareness, for sexual and reproductive health services, and for COVID-19 awareness campaigns.

No matter how small, Keannu worked hard to effect even the smallest of changes in his communities. But he also dreamed bigger.

“When I was in the Philippines doing all these things, there was definitely a moment in my life where I said I wanted to reach out to more people,” he said. 

Before Mr. Gay GB, his very first pageant, Keannu continued his activism in the UK, like through becoming a member of the LGBT+ Staff Network of Guy’s and St. Thomas NHS Foundation Trust, as well as a volunteer ambassador of the Terrence Higgins Trust.

An even bigger opportunity came knocking when previous Mr. Gay England title-holder David Allwood, who also happened to be part of the leadership of a dance collective Keannu regularly joined, told him that he should join the pageant.

The Mr. Gay pageant goes beyond a mere beauty contest for gay men – it is a platform that fosters champions and spokespersons for the LGBTQ+ community. “Get political on the runway,” the pageant’s website reads.

Keannu said that Allwood told him that he would be a great competitor because of all the charity and advocacy work he has been doing for the community.

And it’s serious business – there are various rounds in the competition that contestants must work through for the pageant to determine who is worthy of becoming Mr. Gay, including a written exam, and a fundraising portion as its heaviest criterion. 

Together with the other grand finalists, Keannu is fundraising for two charities with causes close to his heart as a gay healthcare professional: the Charlie and Carter Foundation, which aims to provide support to seriously ill children, and Pride Action North, which provides support services to LGBTQ+ individuals who have experienced violence, discrimination, and deteriorating mental health.

“I’ve experienced being discriminated against. So the fact that this organization is also supporting or providing services in relation to these is close to my heart, too. So… I wanted to fundraise for them,” he said.

After filling out an application form, Keannu was chosen as one of the more-or-less nine grand finalists of the competition. 

Share the Spotlight Project

In living out the fundraising aspect of the competition, Keannu came up with the Share the Spotlight Project, which aims to enable queer people and allies to share their experiences and creative skills “in the hopes of inspiring people to raise awareness, take action on LGBTQIA+ issues, and create positive change for themselves and their communities.”

In other words, Keannu does not want to be the only face of his campaign. He wants it to highlight human stories, so the public can better understand how LGBTQ+ issues affect real people.

“A lot of people are not spotlighted. There are people with unheard stories, or people who don’t get seen. For me, bringing these people into the table or into the platform then allows them to be heard, to be listened to,” he said.

Apart from dance classes and videos, Keannu also raises funds in Share the Spotlight through bake sales.

As of posting, Keannu has so far raised over the equivalent of over P145,000.

Hoping to inspire

From working as an intensive care unit nurse and a clinical skills facilitator at the Isle of Wight, Keannu currently works as a practice educator as part of the clinical education team in Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London.

As an overseas Filipino worker, Keannu still has his down days, sometimes made difficult by the distance from his family. Still, he feels their support, as his mother, a former school principal, is helping him source his national costume for the grand finale on August 26.

Keannu would have wanted to participate in a pageant like Mr. Gay in the Philippines. But apart from not having an opportunity back home, the other reason was because of the “stigma” of being a feminine gay man.

“[Some] people I’m competing with in this pageant – quite a few of them are muscular or a bit ‘straight acting.’ That’s not me. I’m happy about my femininity… I am the kind of gay that I am,” he said.

“I think generally in the Philippines, there’s stigma in gay pageants that either you must be a muscular gay man, or if not, you can’t really join these things because people are just going to laugh at you because you’re feminine,” he said.

For Keannu, visibility is important. This is why he believes having the platform of Mr. Gay GB, even if he does not end up winning, is worth having to show the world Filipino culture and talent while being unapologetically himself.

He hopes that by representing Filipinos on the platform, that other overseas Filipinos may be inspired to excel in whatever field or advocacy they are in.

“Hopefully with me joining in this pageant, it then gets to inspire others to not only participate in pageants, but basically just try things for the first time,” he said.

Filipinos anywhere in the world can help Keannu win the pageant by voting for him on Facebook and Instagram, and donating to his fundraisers. – Rappler.com

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.