Fatherhood is not for every man – but once it comes, it becomes a lifetime mission worth experiencing. Such was the case of 42-year old businessman and LGBTQ advocate Wilbert Tolentino who embraced his role not just once, but twice!
The youngest of four siblings in a traditional Filipino-Chinese family, Tolentino left home at 14 to lead an independent life. When his father abandoned them to take care of a second family, his mother took charge in raising them, including one studying in medical school. It was at this point when Wilbert decided to chart his own destiny. He started working, first at a printing press, then at a grocery store.
“I was motivated to survive and reach the goals I’ve set for myself back then,” he said. “I told myself that if others can do it, I can do it too! I was afraid since I was doing something unconventional (for a teenager) especially among conservative families, but I will not let challenges discourage me.”
His first jobs, though menial, paved the way for him to establish connections with some influential people in the industry.
“Five years after leaving home, I was already supplying electrical, industrial, and electronic components to some of the top companies in the country,” he continued. “After a few years, I discovered more business opportunities. I ventured into janitorial servicing for multinational companies. It was around that time when my daughter was born.”
The birth of his daughter Claire Abigail when he was only 19 years of age pushed him to work harder. With a new family to raise, he went into the bazaar business and set up store kiosks in various malls. “Three years after, I gave that up to start a beauty salon in Binondo.”
In 1999, with enough capital, Tolentino became a taxi operator. After he closed his taxi business, he ventured into non-voice BPO service that’s into specialized online Web marketing. Today, it has 140 centers nationwide. He also owns various spas, entertainment centers, and fitness clubs. He estimates that he has more than 6,000 employees spread across various businesses and offices.
Fatherhood and family
Tolentino’s bright outlook hides all the pain and heartaches he experienced in life. At a young age, he was thrust into the role of being a father. It was also at this time when he felt that he was not comfortable with his sexuality. Coming “out” was not something that was easily accepted by his conservative family at that time and there were tears and arguments.
Matrimony, too, was not an option for him and the mother of his child. Both of them were still young and their families did not agree with the setup. It was a complicated affair after, with battles over child custody and visitation rights. But Tolentino was determined to raise her daughter properly by supporting her education and endeavors.
“Despite my differences with Abigail’s mom, I’ve tried my best to give my daughter a normal family life. She knows about my sexuality and she has learned to accept it,” Tolentino revealed.
At the age of 35, Tolentino became a grandfather when Abigail bore a son. Today, he already has three grandchildren and is proud to say that he still plays the role of a supportive dad.
But life brings more pleasant surprises to Tolentino. Just a few months ago, he became a father once more to a newborn son, which he named Willard.
“Willard’s mom is an elementary school teacher. I won a legal battle for the custody of my son, who was very sick at that time. She willingly gave him to me when Willard’s body was filled with amniotic fluid, causing a severe case of neo-natal pneumonia that almost took his life,” said Tolentino. “I then named my son Willard because he is brave as his name suggests. Like me, he is a survivor. He fought his sickness for 10 long days!”
Friends and colleagues tell him that fatherhood has changed his personality. Tolentino agrees, saying that he now feels calmer and more composed knowing that there is this bundle of joy waiting for him at home.
Though fatherhood is a 24/7 job, Tolentino also pursues advocacies close to his heart. In fact, Tolentino is the Philippines’ first gay ambassador as he represented the country in the Mr. Gay World search in 2009. He is also the first national director to bring home the Mr. Gay World title, courtesy of John Raspado who won the contest in Spain last month.
Tolentino reveals that the gay pageant search is not all about looks and body physique. It has a deeper advocacy, one that is noteworthy.
“It is very alarming that there is a sharp rise of HIV infection and transmission among the young, especially members of the LGBTQ community. I don’t want to sow panic but the message of the gay pageant is safe sex, which is more relevant than ever to our community,” he said.
He is not only about image building as his actions reveal a heart for public service. He is supporting clinics such as Love Yourself in Mandaluyong, Bernardo’s in Quezon City, and the privately-operated Ship Clinic. Unknown to many, he is providing for the care and medication of around a hundred HIV-positive individuals.
“My heart is open and I’m one hundred percent willing to help the LGBTQ community. I actively participate in the info dissemination on the threat of HIV. I talk in forums, show up in events, reach out to members of our community and tell them about the importance of safe sex,” he said. “I am excited to do more!”
Looking back, Tolentino has picked up so many life lessons that he wants to share these to others, who may be in the same predicament as him.
“My advice to budding millennials is for them to establish their respective careers first. Being a young dad is not an easy task. Strive hard and motivate yourself to attain your goals. Follow your dreams and never let go,” he said.
He observes that attitude towards people like him is a totally different now and with the advent of technology, things are moving faster especially information. But even if this is the case, he still reminds people, especially the members of the LGBTQ community, that there is still a lot of “work” to do in terms of acceptance.
“Remember, not all gay persons can become parents. You have to be ready financially, emotionally and mentally. But for those who are, being a parent is not defined with gender or sexuality. I’m essentially a loving father to my daughter and son. Just as I am a loving son to my parents,” he said.
Though there were differences and misunderstanding with his parents in the past, he had patched up things with them. He is now taking good care of them in their old age.
“I’ve reconciled a long time ago with my family. Life is too short to harbor resentments,” Tolentino said with a smile. After all, with all the blessings he has received, life for him has indeed become more fabulous.