Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.
My father didn’t eat properly for a month after I came out in 2004. Or so I’m told. By then, I’d been in Australia for a year, and he was back in the Philippines with my mother, so this all could have been overdramatic embellishment on her part. I was 16 and did it via a 1700-word letter, precociously structured with a lead-in that makes reference to the famed Serenity Prayer (“accept the things I cannot change”, etc.) and a conclusion that deploys an appeal to open-mindedness.
A telling passage goes: “Your disdain for gay people prompted me to be afraid of being one, and I therefore had to tell myself that I shouldn’t be one—that I wasn’t one.” Central to my father’s view is Filipino society’s conflation of queerness with transness, inherited from pre-colonial ideas about gender. Prior to the Spaniards’ arrival in the 16th Century, it was well established that gender exists in a spectrum. Indeed, the high-ranking role of the babaylan (a shaman-like figure) was often filled by a man who—as University of the Philippines professor J. Neil C. Garcia describes it—has “gender-crossed.” Colonisation and Christianity changed all that. Conceiving of gender as a hierarchal binary, the Western powers literally demonised any challenge to male and heterosexual supremacy. To be anything else was aberrant, unnatural, a sin. Yet hegemony is most potent when it co-opts existing frameworks into tools for the oppressor, and so developed the notion of the bakla, the non-heterosexual cisgender male who is, in essence, a female soul “trapped” in a male body. The Church’s dogmatic dualism fed this idea—dirty body, pure soul; eradicate the sin, save the sinner.
When I visited the Philippines in 2007, relatives kept describing me as maganda, or “beautiful.” While I’m never one to turn down a compliment, I was fascinated by their use of this adjective, which is directed almost exclusively at women. By then, word had spread about my non-heterosexuality, and it seemed extended family were trying their darnedest to be agreeable. The compliment was laden with normative “support” for my gender identity.
Except I wasn’t trying to “pass” as a woman. Despite my penchant for androgyny and general repudiation of machismo, I am not trans. But these relatives were channelling conceptions of identity through a narrow lens—invoking visions of the stereotypical bakla at the beauty parlour or shopping mall, strutting around in racy clothes, gossiping and gawking at attractive straight men. The bakla, from this viewpoint, is a “failed” man whose effeminacy aspires to a womanhood that can never be attained. While more nuanced understandings of gender and sexuality have begun to gain traction in the country, the evolution in Filipinos’ thinking remains slow.
Homophobia burrows into the fabric of a culture, and in the Philippines, it has entwined itself—much like other forms of oppression—with capitalism. In my case, my father’s distress about my coming out lay partly in his (somewhat classist and transphobic) apprehensions about me turning into “one of those” bakla who do beauty pageants or style hair. Our position among the upper-middle class magnified my life decisions into manifestations of my parents’ success. Never mind that my achievements weren’t impacted whatsoever by my queerness; what mattered more than my happiness was doing the “right” thing by society. On a micro level, Dad also worried I’d fall into a papa relationship, in which a straight man milks a bakla for moolah in exchange for sex and companionship.
When I visited the country again in 2016, there was a distinct change in the way relatives treated me. At a big Christmas luncheon, I was mostly left alone to swig from my smuggled bottle of prosecco and secretly sext a cute boy from Australia—though I did overhear a distant cousin describe me as the “weird, nerdy foreign one with tattoos, the bakla.” Having “bakla” appear alongside a string of queered descriptors felt enlivening: so much verve emanated from knowing I was subverting tradition.
At the 2017 National Young Writers’ Festival, I performed drag for the first time. Despite my immense pride about the quality of my choreography and costumes, it was a whole month before I posted about it on Instagram. My hesitation stemmed from concerns about the implications of such an audacious challenge to masculinity—and, more harmfully, from trepidation about what my family would think upon seeing the footage.
Shame is an inextricable part of queer identity. But, whereas it’s construed as a largely individual struggle in the West, in the Philippines, it takes on an additional dimension via the cultural tenet of hiya. Also translating to “shame,” hiya encompasses a rejection of self-interest and a vigilance for keeping face, premised on a communal reputation.
It’s taken years to unshackle myself from the fear—however dormant—that my attraction to men, my effete mannerisms, my blatant denial of conventional gender and sexuality would lead to my undoing. As a child, apparently I used to muse that “everything would be better if I were a girl”—a premonition of how troubled my life would’ve been had I stayed in Manila, where a subduing of queerness would’ve consumed me.
These days, I’m queerer than ever. Beyond the work I’m doing for Midsumma Festival, Archer Magazine and ABC TV, among others, I’m generally more forthright about playing with gender and sexuality; I’m less concerned about appeasing outside forces. My parents, too, have weathered their initial unease; I won’t say they’ve embraced who I am and how I live, but a stalemate is infinitely preferable to censure.
Stigma and shame ingrain themselves deep within us, but, as I’ve written in Meanjin, time is central to queer existence; we wait, and sometimes the wait is all we get. But it’s the living through it that counts.
Melbourne documentary photographer Gregory Lorenzutti celebrates Filipino Queerness in his stunning exhibition, Balimbing. The photos featured throughout this article are from that collection. Visit gregorylorenzutti.com for more.