Filipina singer Charice has long been a source of pride for Filipinos: She had an international chart-topping single. She was featured on Oprah as one of the most talented young people in the world (alongside Justin Bieber). She was also cast as a member of the hit show Glee.
However, Charice admitted days ago in a sit-down interview on national television that she was a “tomboy,” and since then, the news has spread locally and internationally. If you read the comments section of local news articles, you’d think you were reading the Bible with all the verses copied-and-pasted by the same people who gushed about how proud they were of Charice back then. Then you realize how organized religion still has a major influence on Filipinos’s consciousness.
While most local and international celebrities have given her their support, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines issued a statement saying Charice was having an “identity crisis” and that she should be guided accordingly, while her homosexuality is not yet “terminal.” As if being a lesbian was equal to having cancer.
Welcome to the Philippines, the most “gay-friendly” nation in Asia — or so they say.
One of the country’s most famous celebrities is a loud, effeminate, cross-dressing gay man whose humor — mostly honed in comedy bars where insulting someone is considered hilarious — has successfully crossed over to mainstream television. He reinforces the stereotype that gay men have in the country’s entertainment industry: the joker who makes fun of everyone and himself, the leading lady’s best friend who always delivers the punch line, the token gay guy in a movie who was cast for comic relief. Their brand of comedy makes them tolerated in our country because they are entertaining — tolerated, but not accepted.
Gay women, on the other hand, aren’t afforded as much visibility in showbiz as gay men. In the Philippines, when you say the word “lesbian,” an image of a short-haired, cross-dressing butch who walks with an exaggerated swagger comes to mind. The vernacular word for it is “tomboy” — a masculine-acting homosexual woman — which is this country’s only idea of what lesbians are.
Similarly, homosexual relationships in the Philippines tend to adhere to traditional gender roles; one must act as the man, and the other, the woman. This explains why most homosexual relationships usually involve a masculine dude with a drag queen or a femme with a butch – a man, a woman. Thanks (or no thanks) to hundreds of years of Spanish colonization, the Philippines is a patriarchal society; one that perceives men as the dominant, authoritative figure, and it’s so tightly woven into everyday life it’s almost imperceptible. Our patriarchal culture dictates that every relationship has to have a male figure for it to work.
Since most middle- and upper-middle-class families send their children to exclusive all-girls or all-boys Catholic schools, homosexual relationships do happen within its walls.
However, people often argue that this is “only a phase,” and when these teens go to co-ed colleges, they would then become straight and restore balance to the world. It only becomes a serious issue when their children continue to date persons of the same sex even after they have been exposed to heteronormative society. It is only then that the issue of sexuality becomes real.
We Filipinos are not typically a confrontational people; we also have close family ties. When you add to that mix, one could easily imagine how closeted homosexuals feel inside their homes. One rarely hears a parent ask up front, “Are you gay?” The family just maneuvers around the big elephant in the room as they dust the image of The Last Supper hanging on the wall in the dining room or watch soap operas at night.
The issue of independence also comes into play. Due to the closeness to one’s family, most Filipinos do not move out of the house until they are married, and even that is not an assurance. The children run the risk of getting thrown out of the house if they admit to being gay so they would rather stay inside the closet — at least they’re not homeless. It’s no wonder successful “coming out” stories in this country are few and far between. One, because families would really rather not talk about it, and two, because if they do get around to talking about it, not all families are open to accepting that their child is gay. My god, what would the neighbors think? What would our church mates think? We’d go straight to hell just by breathing the same air.
Religious, conservative, patriarchal and traditional, these words are often used to describe Philippine society. These are words that have been the bane of homosexuals in the Philippines whose best hope is to be tolerated but not accepted. And yet, Filipinos currently find themselves in the midst of two forces pulling them in opposite directions — one of progress and liberal thinking, of being more open to same-sex relationships and the open use of contraceptives, and the other, of the Catholic Church that is now, more than ever, desperately asserting its influence on a nation that is beginning to think for itself.
With the passage of the controversial Reproductive Health Bill that empowers women through access to reproductive health care, and the recognition of Ang Ladlad (which means “those who have come out of the closet”), a political party for LGBT Filipinos, as a legitimate political party, these reflect a growing awareness of a society that is learning to think outside of religion and tradition.
Philippine society is also starting to recognize the lesser-known types of homosexuals, those that fly under the gaydar — gay guys who are into sports and cars and “manly” activities and gay girls who have long hair and wear make-up. While complete acceptance of LGBTs in the Philippines is still a long way ahead, their presence is becoming more and more visible in society. At least now they know we’re out there, that we dream of the same things, strive for the same ambitions, and feel the same feels. Who knows?
Given the progress we’ve made lately, maybe, in the near future, we’ll finally live up to the title of Asia’s Most Gay-friendly Nation.