On her new single "Don't Like You Like That", trans pop songstress Stef Aranas switches between languages as she decides whether to keep a boy she likes, hoping to empower her queer sisters during Pride Month that they can be decisive in their careers and in love.
The 24-year-old Aranas just released her first solo music in five years, breaking from her comfort zone, the pop-R&B duo Stef & Euge, during a time of uncertainty for musicians who are still reeling from the pandemic.
"It's a song about a boy I didn’t wanna give my time to anymore. It's not like he did anything wrong, but me, being protective of my heart as a form of self defense, I knew it wasn't going anywhere. So before anything happens, 'I think i’m good'," Aranas told reportr.
Aranas, who is not managed by any record label, said the new music that took two months to produce became "even more special" when she released it in the middle of Pride.
"With this song, I hope trans girls like me know better than limit their horizons when it comes to romance and love. Society teaches us na hanggang side chick, kabet, sekreto, hanggang fetish lang ang trans girls. But don’t settle for anything less than you actually deserve." she said.
"You're a woman and you deserve love like anybody else. We don’t ever get to see trans girls in positions of power anywhere, so this is my way of showing a narrative in music na I get to choose who i’m gonna be with. 'I choose who I wanna date and it’s not you'. I think it’s important na alam din ng mga tao na we make our own f*cking choices," she added.
Growing up queer
Aranas said she first found her voice in theater throughout grade school and high school, during which she attended an all-boys school. Art became the doorway to her self-exploration.
"I already knew trans people existed but I was still caught in this very religious, transphobic, queerphobic institution that I was somehow safe in because of this 'privilege' I had of being close to the straight boys," she said.
Taking up film at the University of the Philippines, Aranas found herself joining UP Babaylan, an experience that helped her come to terms with her identity.
"For most of my college journey, I was figuring out my identity. I only learned the terms, concepts, and how gender is a social construct in UP Babaylan. And so a lot of my confidence, and honestly, everything I know, I owe to that org, to my friends in that org, and the advocacy work we continue to do," she said.
As the oldest LGBTQI+ student organization in the country, UP Babaylan is among the most staunch advocates of the SOGIE Equality Bill.
"When I talk to my high school friends now as a trans woman, they would say na it makes so much sense or they would say na pareho lang na hindi kasi they’ve always seen me as a girl. When I do recall how they acted around me, it really was as though I was their sister that they would come to with their girl problems," Aranas added.
This kind accepting environment from one's peers prepares one for the tougher battles they tend to face at home, Aranas said.
As for her family, she considers herself lucky, as they were "generally" supportive of her transition.
"I know na hindi niya fully gets or nagra-grasp 'yung concepts but at some point, tatanggapin niya lang and nire-respect niya 'yung boundaries ko such as how I want to be referred to," she said of her mom, whom she said was respectful of her decision to not use her legal name anymore.
It took sometime for her brother but recently, apart from helping her get her distribution deal, he introduced her to his friends as his "baby sister". "Maliit na bagay pero it meant a lot to me. It’s definitely leaps and bounds from where we were a few years ago," Aranas said.
"This is something na I stress whenever I talk about my journey. Na just as much as may transition for the trans person, there’s also a transition for the people around them," she added.
Pressures, hopes about the future
For Aranas, it's a twin struggle to be a musician and a trans woman in a man's world.
"There were certain crowds I wasn’t comfortable performing in front of," she said, recalling how back when she was still exploring a more "androgynous" gender expression, she was misgendered by an organizer and some people laughed at her during a performance.
"I wasn't as femme presenting as I am now, and from my experience, it didn’t work in my favor with how I wanted to be treated. I guess that says more about society than me," she said.
In her thesis film, “Resolving 'Your Biggest Fan'”, which premiered at the Toronto Queer Film Festival, Aranas ruminated on a particular conflict with her identity: assimilation is powerful and affirming, but it can also feel like a trap.
"When I perform, give interviews, present myself to anyone who doesn’t know me as closely, I feel this pressure to appear as 'passing' as possible in all forms of my expression. I have this certain hyper-awareness of how I present myself," she said.
"I think that discomfort and inclination to conformity made me kind of more timid when I go onstage to perform. I feel like recently ko lang 'to nababalik, 'yung complete comfort in my own skin and in how I am as a person, which is a freedom that every artist needs," she added.
As with her earliest singles, With You (2017), Trust (2017), and her EP with long-time collaborator Euge, Palate Cleanser (2019), which are songs that tell relatable stories for all genders like talking stages, long-distance relationships, and hookup culture, Aranas said it's an "active choice" to make herself accessible to the wider public, while remaining specific to her experiences as a trans woman.
"I always write to illustrate na, 'girl we go through the same things. Mine just happen to have added filters, or these layers of discrimination that I experience. But at the end of the day, we experience the same emotions," she said.
"I write pop music and at the end of the day, I want people to relate to it," she said.