In spring 2019, when the Rev. Tet Gallardo was elected president-executive minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines (UUCP), she made history. Rev. Tet, as she likes to be known, whose election occurred on April 26, Lesbian Visibility Day, is the first out lesbian and first trans president in the church’s history. She believes she may be the first out lesbian and first trans cleric in the non-Western world.
Breaking new ground is a way of life for Rev. Tet, who has always worked to end oppression. As a student leader in Manila in the post-Marcos years, she advocated for migrant workers, for labor and land reforms, and for laws to reduce violence against women and children. As president-executive minister, her priorities include a focus on climate change and decentralizing the UUCP so that the districts are more independent.
Rev. Tet—who also goes by her longer name, which is Maria Theresa G. Gallardo Jr., or, in the Filipino tradition, Ma. Theresa G. Gallardo Jr.—brings an antiracist, antioppressive lens to her work, including addressing the persistent legacy of colonialism in her country. As she takes the helm of the UUCP, “there is a lot of postcolonial work to do,” she says, “basically to earn the trust of people who think they are wiser than us, just to let them know, ‘Hey, we can run things, it’s not nuclear science, it’s just people skills.’”
Rev. Tet did not intend to run for president but felt it was time for change, as the former president was in the role for two decades. The election also adopted new bylaws, including dividing the presidency into two co-equal roles: president-executive minister and vice president-church administrator. As the former, she concentrates on the ministry of the church, while the Rev. Arman Pedro, elected to the latter role, focuses on administration of resources.
With her experience in urban settings and with mass protests, and her willingness to discuss the colonial legacy of her country, Rev. Tet is “part of a new generation,” says the Rev. Dr. Fredric J. Muir, who since 1994 has served as the Unitarian Universalist Association ambassador to the UU congregations of the Philippines. As a skilled speaker with exceptional creativity and energy, “she presents Unitarian Universalism well to the larger community,” which—in a largely conservative, Roman Catholic country—“may be unfamiliar with it.”
Rev. Tet is looking forward to the UUCP hosting UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray, who will visit the Philippines and UUCP congregations for five days in February. And she is excited to invite all UUs to travel to the Philippines in October for a new program, Fall Pilgrimage 2020, where they will attend local festivals, visit ten UU congregations, and see renowned tourist destinations focused on biodiversity. Organizers say its goal is to have UUs “experience the counterculture that is theFilipino Beloved Community, to assess how UUism is lived throughout the communities, and to learn to discover the counternarratives of the oppressed.”
She has also begun fundraising to develop a Center for Social Justice in Valencia to house social justice activists who can’t afford to live in the city. Her dream is to build a structure the traditional way, with mud, rather than with carbon-emission-contributing cement.
Rev. Tet first learned of Unitarian Universalism in 2003. In 2002, she accompanied her then-partner to New York City, where they lived for fifteen months. “That was life-changing for me,” she says, “because I never thought I would really love Americans. Being an activist, I was so anti-American and anticolonialist.” She especially loved New Yorkers: “I really like the spunk, the frankness, and the no BS.” The experience was transformative for another reason. Since high school she’d felt called to serve as a faith leader but thought her only option was to become a nun, which did not interest her. “I decided if there’s a faith welcoming to atheists, I’ll be there and be a minister,” she recalls.
Shortly before she and her partner returned to the Philippines in 2003, they met the Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons, the husband of a Filipina friend. Santos-Lyons was at Harvard Divinity School studying to become a UU minister. “When he described the faith, I thought, I think I’ve stumbled on the church I really want to be in,” she recalls. “But it was time to go back to the Philippines, where there was no UU Church—I thought!”
In fact, the UUCP emerged in the Philippines in the 1950s (see related story), and upon her return home, she learned of a small UU fellowship in Quezon City that immediately invited her to take a leadership role. She began writing liturgies and organizing worship services, and as she developed worship materials, she became nationally known in UU circles as a speaker. She is also the author of Spirit’s Breath: Words for Worship . In the UUCP, ordination does not require a divinity degree, and in 2013, Rev. Tet’s longtime dream was answered when she was called and ordained as minister by the UU Congregation in Bicutan, Manila.
In 2016–17, she was the Balázs Scholar at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, which supports a Transylvanian or other international Unitarian minister for an academic year of study to enhance their training and religious leadership. She then traveled the United States, speaking at UU congregations and twice answering the call to clergy to travel to Standing Rock in support of indigenous people before returning to the Bicutan congregation.
Though the presidential term is six years, Rev. Tet says she would gladly step aside if someone else wants to take over halfway through her tenure. In the meantime, she plans to move forward with the ambitious course she has set.
Earlier versions of this story misstated the location of the Center for Social Justice that the UU Church of the Philippines is establishing. It will be in Valencia, not in Manila.