Thursday, May 16, 2013

Keeping Pride Alive in the Philippines

Over half a decade ago, I was on my usual public utility vehicle (PUV) route to work in the province of Cebu in the Philippines, when an innocent conversation with a fellow passenger led to the unavoidable question on everybody’s lips.

The teenage girl next to me said aloud, “Black-Holes and Baby Universes and other Essays,” — reading the title of the book in my lap. “By Stephen Hawking.”

Eskwela diay ka?” she asked. (Are you studying?)

O, ngano diay?” I replied. (Yes, why?)

Ganahan sab ko mo eskwela, pero dili mi ka-afford,” she said. (I, too, wanted to study in the universitybut we don’t have money.) “Unsa imo course?” (What are you taking up?)

“Engineering…” I answered. “Unsa diay trabaho imo ginikanan?” (What do your parents do?)

“Clean and Green,” she said. (Clean and Green was the pet-project of former president Arroyo, employing mostly women to clean the streets and highways with a meager salary).

A long silence passed, and to bridge the gap, I asked her, “Asa ka padulong?” (Where are you going?)
“Sotto,” she answered. (Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center)

Mag-unsa ka didto?” I asked. (What are you going to do there?)

Regular check-up man nako sa psychiatrist,” she answered. (Visit my psychiatrist for regular check-up.)

Without much delay, perhaps so as to keep me at ease before asking her final and much more sensitive 
question, she asked, “Bayot ka noh?” (You are gay?)

After a millisecond of silence, I blurted, “NO…”

Sweating, my heart pumping alarmingly fast, and my surroundings going dark — but nonetheless fully conscious in a fully packed PUV, I lied and disowned myself, which is perhaps the greatest catastrophe of all.

With a sigh of relief, she said, “Abi nako og bayot ka.” (I assumed then that you were really gay.)

I was surprised because I am not a “typical” Filipino gay. Perhaps the effect of a deeply masculine culture, I present myself as more masculine than feminine. I am more “straight” acting — for lack of a more politically correct term. In the Philippines, gays are usually the parlorista or those working in beauty parlors who dress elaborately and often speak the uniquely Filipino gay lingo.

However, assumptions, and its twin, suspicions, are very common in the Philippines, and perhaps in other parts of the world where homophobia manifests itself in more wicked ways.

As an activist fighting and advocating for the rights of the marginalized (students and youth, workers and peasants, for example) since my early days in college, I was taught to be honest in all matters of public life. 

But when she pressed me on such a sensitive matter, I felt like I had been hit by lightning. Crippled for a few seconds, I lied.

Crimeless suspects

I’ve been asked by almost all the heterosexual females I know who know my sexuality, whether a male friend or acquaintance is gay or not. Interestingly, I haven’t had any heterosexual males ask me about another male’s sexual orientation, though I’ve observed many eagerly chiming in when conversation tackles issues on male gayness like our practices, perspectives, sexuality, love lives, and family affairs.

I use the word male instead of men because the demography of gayness in areas I’ve been to in the Philippines is getting younger, reflecting greater freedom of expression in regards to sexuality — through dress, language, and use of make up, for instance — things I did not see during my early childhood years.

While activism culture offers a more unbiased understanding of people, class, and society because of its intellectual nature and commitment to empathizing with and helping those who are marginalized, understanding gender and male sexuality issues lags far behind — a hindrance to fully appreciating the value of every human being. Heterosexual men in the Philippines tolerate gays but are rarely fully accepting.

Heterosexual women, on the other hand, are more open and sympathetic to the gay cause — perhaps because the common denominator between the two is their direct and indirect opposition to male supremacy and patriarchy.

Curiously, it’s mostly women who ask for my opinion on gay suspects they have “identified.” Women, like gays, often have this so-called “gay-dar.” I always answer their queries using my own way of subjectively assessing someone’s sexual orientation: observing their gestures, expressions, mannerisms, even styles, and of course by looking at their eyes, which express desires and feelings.

In fact, during family gatherings like birthdays, anniversaries, and clan reunions, the talk always unfortunately gravitates toward who is gay or not. The family, as the prime social unit where understanding, openness, and acceptance should prevail is held hostage by machismo and patriarchy. It is supposedly the place where one can freely open up about one’s sexuality, but unfortunately family gatherings often turn into convenient gay bashing forums looking for crimeless suspects.

In the workplace and in the community, half serious jokes coupled with sarcasm, are levied at various targets — comments such as “Kanus-a man ka maglad-lad yadz?” (Hey gay, when are you going to come-out?) or “Ikaw nalang wala kabalo nga bayot ka” (It seems you’re the only gay who doesn’t know your sexuality). Such commentary is especially common among the lower and middle classes perhaps due to living conditions in tight and densely populated communities where neighbors are aware of each other’s business or due to their lack of understanding in regards to sexuality and gender issues. Don’t get me wrong — it also happens among the upper classes, though they tend to be more indirect or discreet.

But all of this is just suspicion and when one’s sexuality is in the open, it deepens stigma, discrimination, and encourages oppression. It is all too common; I have experienced emotional and verbal abuse, but a social activist like me sees it in perspective — understanding the social and historical context of gender bias and discrimination. In the course of my heterosexual female friends’ queries, my only regret is offering them a positive answer to their assumptions.

While it is good to discuss equality and respect within the context of gender and sexuality, we must make greater strides toward ending male supremacy or even heteronormativity. Discussions and debates on LGBT issues should progress toward ending gender-based discrimination.

The current social set-up in an economically backward (agricultural based and pre-industrial) and third world country like the Philippines — deepened feudal relations, patriarchy, and macho-culture — cultivates more pronounced discrimination and intolerance on the basis of one’s gender and sexuality. But homophobia is more muted than in the West where bullying and homophobia has driven many to suicide, or resulted in incidents like the death of university student Matthew Shephard.

Perhaps it’s because tolerance, rather than hatred, is deeply ingrained in our social practices in the Philippines. I haven’t met anyone with eternal hatred toward another. We Filipinos easily forget and forgive, which is often tragic, because justice can often go unserved.

However, gay tolerance is truer in the communities I’ve been to where every fiesta celebration is not complete without the participation of the gay community, or in the schools where major roles in the classrooms are assigned to openly gay students and in workplaces where gay workers organize events for the company.

Western influences

In 1998, I learned to use the Internet and through chatting on the popular mIRC or Internet Relay Chat, I came to know and met some like-minded men.

In fact, the Internet was the source of my first sexual contact with someone of the same sex at age 18, and it completely changed my views on sexual roles between males who have sex with males. The Internet provided new possibilities for roles, concepts, and relations — often derived from the West.

When a chat-mate called me up, we discussed and shared our stories. He then asked, “Top ka or bottom?” (Are you top or bottom?). “Unsa mana?” I asked. (What is that?)

After explaining this differentiation, he said, “Ingon ana man sa West.” (It is like that in the West).

At first, I felt such sexual roles between gay men was too much and a bit too radical, because it isn’t typical within my local gay community. I grew up believing that gay men should partner with straight men — a common practice today and among the generations before mine.

The longing to be with straight men is perhaps due to the fact that we inherited from the Filipino gays ahead of us this notion that we are a sub-population within the female community.

However, with the new partner I met on the net, he introduced to me sexual roles between two gay men, which I had never tried or heard of from my close gay friends at that time.

We tend to seek straight men for short-term sexual escapades often in exchange for money or even emotional attachment and long-term relationships, in which the gay partner assumes the responsibility of caring for his straight partner. However, many gay men in the cities, mostly netizens, now practice this gay-to-gay sexual and/or emotional set-up. However, it is rare in far-flung rural areas.

Even now, discussions on sexual roles like top, bottom, and versatile often starts and ends in the cities and are often commonly practiced by active young gay netizens.

When my gay friends from the city and I, who are, let’s say — top — look for same sex partners who are straight in far-flung or rural areas, we always assume the traditional bottom role designated for Filipino gay men who are with straight men.

But the so-called liberalism of western gays in all aspects of social life is due mainly to their economic status. They tend to control their destiny and influence others by virtue of their economic power. When you have money and more of it, you are not only liberating yourself from poverty and want but also joining the club of influential individuals whose voices can greatly influence political policies and institutions and create new norms.

Hence, the word “pink market” was coined precisely to take advantage of western gays’ consumerist culture. 

Bisdak Pride

After years of activism doing community organizing and espousing the rights of youth and students, workers, peasants and women, I realized the importance of establishing an organization devoted to advancing the rights of the LGBT community. Bisdak Pride was born in 2005, focusing on the gay community whose vernacular is Bisaya (Cebuano), the native tongue of people in southern Philippines, the second most commonly used language behind Tagalog.

We comprise a significant portion of the Philippine population but are often neglected because the majority of LGBT support groups are based in Manila (the capitol region) — catering to Tagalog speaking populations. That is why we call our organization “Bisdak (Great Bisayan) Pride.”

We devote most of our time to organizing LGBT organizations in various communities and assisting existing LGBT groups in strengthening their advocacy abilities and commitment to furthering gender equality in all matters of public life. As we celebrate our eighth year, we rejoice in having reached 20 not yet fully rights-based LGBT groups — re-invigorated some and aided the formation of new groups.

Currently, on-going organizing efforts are in place to reach more than a thousand LGBT and non-LGBT individuals before the end of the year (through orientations and discussions) to ensure a wide and deeply rooted LGBT community capable of asserting its rightful place in the Philippines.

In ensuring solidarity and establishing our agenda, Bisdak Pride conducts a monthly Pride Night in partnership with Handuraw Pizza, the most gay friendly pizza restaurant in Cebu, where we address what we deem fit and necessary to advancing the LGBT cause — tackling issues such as health, wellness and environmental concerns and promotion of LGBT arts and culture.

We aim to ensure a healthier lifestyle for our fellow LGBTs through our queer health program focusing on HIV and AIDS prevention.

To fully realize our queer culture program, we facilitated in the implementation of a local independent film festival called “Binisaya” — so as to propagate stories on LGBT issues as well as those affecting other communities of people. Promotion of culture and arts is an integral aspect of our advocacy, as the local LGBT community is known to excel in dancing, singing, and acting.

We discuss the complex relationship between religion and sexuality as well as queer theology with our partner LGBT organizations so as to counter the attacks of so-called “moralists” who use religion to justify homophobia.

We also penetrate university students through our “We S.O.A.R.” project or “We Strengthen our Oneness, Advocating our Rights” in order for college students to appreciate and understand gender and sexuality from the context of a human rights LGBT group.

As we celebrate our eight year of continuous service to the gay community, we unabashedly promised to color the Bisdak communities pink by understanding and evaluating the issues and concerns of the local LGBT community and organize them into a potent force that will soon deliver a powerful blow to liberate every LGBT individual from the bondage of stigma, discrimination, and intolerance — so that, in the end, no one will dare say “NO” to a question that shouldn't be asked.

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