Personal Experiences, Social Issues

Labels

“Do I have to tell her I’m purple?”

It was Sheila (not her real name), in one of our phone conversations, those lengthy ones we have on weekends where we talk about everything from Amorsolo’s paintings to workplace crushes. She had recently met a girl, who she had been crushing on.

“Why not?” I said.

“But won’t that scare her away? I mean, we’ve been friends for only a couple of weeks,” Sheila said.

“I’m not telling you to tell her right this minute. Tell her when you feel like it, when you have the confidence. It could be sooner or later; it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that she knows. Anyway, you’ll be hanging out with her; if she’s so dumb she misses the signs, then she doesn’t deserve your friendship. And please stop calling yourself purple. You’re a lesbian, is what you are.”

These days I find myself playing the role of a fairy godmother to those having difficulty coming to grips with their sexuality, especially the public side of it. Coming out as gay should have been a no-brainer by now, what with all these gay celebrities, soap operas on gay romance, and homoerotic billboards. The fact remains, though, that lots of gay people still feel trepidation about doing so. The hesitation is common among those who, like Shiela, can easily pass for straight, which kept them under the radar longer than their more obvious counterparts. They’ve worn this camouflage for so long they feel shedding it would mean giving up the safety of their old lives.

During the early days of our friendship, which began in college, Sheila would never call herself gay, but instead prefers the phrase “having lesbian tendencies,” and would disclose about these tendencies to a few close friends.  I would snort every time she would say that.

“I’m a girl who just happens to like other girls,” she said.

“True, but the problem is, to many people, you’re not just any other girl; you’re a lesbian,” I said.

“I just hate labels,” she said.

“I’m sorry, but until people have come up with another names to call us, to them, a boy who likes another boy is bakla, and a girl who likes another girl is tibo. ”

Sheila has long dropped the “tendencies” but has yet to soften to the usual labels for a gay female. Her favored term now is “purple”, which makes me think of her as someone who mistook for sun tan lotion the indelible ink used during elections.

I know where Sheila’s aversion to labels stems from. For any gay guy in the Philippines, his most painful childhood memories include being taunted by other boys chanting “Bakla! Bakla! Bakla!” But then, for all the derision these labels are dripping with, they somehow have helped in making us gay people more visible. For instance, take the label paminta. A gay guy who acts as if straight, supposedly as cover-up, a paminta is  often depicted in popular culture as one who frequents the gym to body-build as much as to cruise. Though based on gender stereotypes, the label at least widens the spectrum of images people have on the gay guy: We are not always beauconeras; we can be basketball players, too (Thank you, Jason Collins). No, we don’t always join the varsity team to play the field. Most of the time, it’s for the love of the sport.

If life throws you lemons, then make lemonade – my attitude towards being gay, in a nutshell. If people call you beki, then be the sexiest beki that ever walked Earth. This doesn’t mean, however, that you’d keep your face up at every insulting epithet spat your way. To be called bading is one thing; to be called a pedophile when you’re not is another.

All these labels function in the same way as the other – though not as derogatory – ones we’ve worn since birth. They bind us to communities, whose causes we take up by adapting these labels. It’s like those scarves with embroidered chrysanthemums the rebels wear in The Curse of the Golden Flower.  So in the grand scheme of sexual politics today, neither being anonymous nor ambiguous would advance the revolution. You must be either “straight “or “gay”. You must make up your mind and take sides.

When we come out, we do it not only for ourselves. We do it for the man who dressed in women’s clothes and the woman who dressed in men’s clothes who walked down the streets and were thrown stones at for doing so. We do it for every man and woman who confessed love for a same-sex crush and was rejected. We do it for every gay man and woman who gave a lot before us so we could enjoy lots of freedom and lots of love now.

We do it for the lonely boy or girl in the locker room who is thinking of killing his or herself.

Now, you don’t always have to come up with a melodramatic speech to come out. If you have a knack for words and theater, then by all means, make your coming out like the opening of the Tony Awards with Neil Patrick Harris as host. But if you’re on the shy side, sometimes, you could make use of the little, less flamboyant but not less effective, things. Put in your two-cents whenever gay issues are brought up in the family. Comment on the cute guy/girl you see in the park when you go jogging with a friend. Or you could joke about it.  From time to time, in the presence of her parents, Sheila would crack “purple” jokes. “Ewan ko ba kung bakit type kita. Hindi ka naman guwapo,” she would say. “Siguro dahil maganda ka.”  (I don’t know why I’m falling for you. You’re not in the least cute. I guess it’s because you’re pretty.) Soon they will pick up on your hints.

Since we left college, Sheila already has none of the previous apologetic tone when talking about being a lesbian, and would sometimes express exasperation over the disapproval of homosexuality by her religion, of which her family is a devout member. Though her sexual orientation remains something her family would not talk about over dinner, she has become less guarded about it, the walking-over-landmines feeling gone. Baby steps, but brisk ones at that. I’m looking forward to the day when she brings home a girlfriend.

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Film, Personal Experiences, Social Issues

Messiahs in our minds

Image source:  Interaksyon.com

Image source: Interaksyon.com

I like observing people and thinking about what their individual actions say about the entire culture. Recently, I’ve been noticing a particular attitude among Filipinos: most of us harbor what I have come to call as messianic mentality. In the face of problems, instead of tackling them ourselves, we tend to turn to a supposedly more powerful entity – the messiahs who would bring us salvation.

As a city hall employee, I get to see this attitude play right before my eyes. The offices of the mayor and the councilors are paid visits everyday by constituents who each have their own requests: a mother wanting to avail her son of Mayor’s scholarship grant, an elderly seeking financial assistance for her medication from Councilor So-and-so.

Every time I show these people the way to those offices, I feel frustration creep in. Can’t they really fend for themselves that they have to rely on dole-outs from politicians? Have they really ran out of opportunities that they are now simply expecting solutions to their problems fall whole on their laps like manna from heaven?

My own family has had our own share of hard times but we never relied on anyone from outside to get us through them. I remember my mother doing odd jobs to provide for us when we were young. When money was tight in college, I took on part-time work, and eventually left school to work full time. No one of us headed to the city hall looking for Councilor This-and-that.

While I sound as if it is the people who are solely to blame, I acknowledge that our leaders have a lot to do with this. Philippine politics has never been about policies but personalities. It has become the norm for our leaders to act as patrons who have to ensure their constituent’s loyalty through favors, practically buying it.  In this arrangement, we the citizens have turned into clients who have to be continually pacified – numbed – into obedience with scholarships and assistances of all kinds, like children fed with candy by their parents.

This, too, is the logic behind political dynasties: Having bought them with favors, politicians regard their positions as private properties, something they could pass on their kin like inheritance. Like repeat buyers, Satisfied Constituent-Customer votes for Mayor’s Son.

No wonder the appearance of politicians in community events like a wake or a flood drill often feels like a visitation from the gods.

Messiahs aren’t found in city halls alone. This messianic mentality also explains why games shows are big right now. Not a few times have I heard an ecstatic winner of these shows babble something like, “Bossing, hulog ka ng langit!” (Bossing, you’re a godsend!). Willie Revillame’s shows have always had a cult-like feel. Willie’s studio audience is often from far-flung provinces and had to borrow money from their neighbors for bus fare, which is not unlike what pilgrims do. All those dancing and chanting of boom-tarat-tarats resemble scenes you would see on an El Shaddai service.

Ishmael Bernal would probably turn in his grave to hear this, but Willie Revillame’s show often brings to mind his film Himala. Both Willie and Elsa have devotees who are mostly poor elderly. The Ultra Stampede incident also bears echoes of the conclusion of the classic film.

I believe this messianic mentality is also  the reason many Filipinos have fallen for countless scams, and many young Filipino men continue joining fraternities.

And the root cause of it all is our deeply religious culture. Religion never encourages critical thinking and demands unquestioning obedience to its dogmas. Believers are made to transfer their agency to a god.  This god says, Cast your burdens upon me. This god says, Blessed are the poor for they will inherit the kingdom of God. We heed his words, inherit his kingdom, and we remain poor. Worse, we remain infants, constantly needing a parent to go about life.

If we are to mature as a people, we need to banish the messiahs in our minds. That includes every Mayor, Son of Mayor, Councilor, Willie and Elsa we have now. If salvation would have to be brought by anyone, it would have to be ourselves. rcc

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Social Issues

(Not) Proud to be Pinoy

“Proud to be Pinoy”.

We hear this slogan all the time. The media brandishes it whenever Manny Pacquiao wins yet another boxing match, often against a Black or Latin American opponent. Or when anyone with the smallest fraction of Filipino blood in him or her makes it in Hollywood. Or when a Filipino domestic worker, seaman, or nurse overseas does Something Good.

I’ve never really bought this. It sounds like a wartime propaganda, similar to The Third Reich or Asia for Asians. It reeks of naïve nationalism. Because, really, is being Pinoy something to be proud of? Can anyone be proud of something that he was simply born into?

I find this rhetoric inconsistent. On one hand, it celebrates Filipino talent. On the other, it implies that Filipino talent is worth celebrating only when put side by side foreign ones, as if the foreign standard is the ultimate standard of excellence. So, this idea of national pride is nothing more than colonial mentality, just made more palatable for the times.

If this pervasive Proud to be Pinoy rhetoric reveals anything, it’s our collective insecurity. We feel that we are not good enough by ourselves, so we need to always compare ourselves with other countries. It’s as if we are in a contest in which we always lose. So whenever Manny Pacquiao wins a fight or a Filipino becomes famous in Hollywood or wins a beauty pageant, we scramble to our feet and crow at the whole world, We did it! We did it! We are quick to claim the glory of the individual as the glory of the nation as well, as if the country of origin is the sine qua non of the victory, when the truth is, it has not the smallest grain of relevance at all.

The concept of national pride, in itself, should not go unchecked. There is a vein of national pride that pervades mass media now which bears undercurrents of ethnocentrism. Notice how features on Philippine arts and tradition, such as those in newsmagazines the likes of Balitang K and Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho, never end without the reporter pontificating on how the subject reflects a particular Filipino characteristic. A story on parols, or traditional Filipino Christmas lanterns, for example, would say that the craft speaks of Filipinos’ “likas na pagkamalikhain”, or inherent creativity.

This argument sounds faulty to me. “Likas” implies the trait as naturally occurring; something a person is born with. Psychologists today are still caught in nature-or-nurture debate over creativity in a person. But creativity as a characteristic of a culture can never be said likas or natural, because in the first place, culture is not natural. It is a collective behavior of a group of people, borne out of their interaction with their physical- both natural and human-made – environment.

The problem is not improper use of words alone. These stories are often framed as to convey that Filipinos have certain qualities which are uniquely our own, hospitality and strong family ties being the frequent examples used. This is another flawed argument because hospitality and strong family ties are qualities that are present in many cultures around the world. They are not, contrary to what circulates in mass media and schools, the monopoly of Filipinos.

I understand these are well-meaning contribution of the mass media in the building of national consciousness, a project in which images and symbols are potent vectors. But then again, we should not lose sight of bigger values like diversity and equality. Naïve nationalism gives way to racism and ethnocentrism. And that is already the case now: Filipinos never run out of epithets and stereotypes for Muslims and foreigners, especially those with dark skin. For a nation that takes pride in itself as a melting pot of cultures, such cultural myopia is hardly a desirable attitude.

Naive nationalism gives way to racism and ethnocentrism. And that is already the case now: Filipinos never run out of epithets and stereotypes for Muslims and foreigners, especially those with dark skin. For a nation that takes pride in itself as a melting pot of cultures, such cultural myopia is hardly a desirable attitude.

The concept of the national pride might have been a strong social binder during the early days of the republic but globalization has proven it narrow. What we should adapt is a perspective that is wider than nationalism. We should start thinking of ourselves not only as Filipinos but as humans as well.

To think of ourselves as humans is to assert in our selves the values which we share with the rest of humanity. Freedom, happiness, creativity, love, equal opportunity are just some of the aspirations of every human being today regardless of country.

This sounds a no-brainer, but why are there people who treat others less than human? Some months ago, the news reported about a house helper whose employers – a middle-aged couple – pressed a flat iron on her face, leaving it deformed. It has also been reported that the employers forced her to eat cockroaches. The helper and her employers are all Filipinos.

Meanwhile, we continue to hear stories about cases of human trafficking, extrajudicial killings, and other forms of human rights violations happening all over the world. Should we stop caring about the victims simply because they are of different nationality?

The truth is, national pride has very little relevance in the day-to-day life of Filipinos. When you come right down to it, the struggles and aspirations of every Filipino is not at all different from anyone anywhere in the world.

Jose Rizal was among the first intellectuals to uphold common human values. In his writings, Rizal would always emphasize that no race is better or lesser than the other, that no one holds monopoly over excellent qualities. The imperfections of both Filipino and Spanish characters Rizal laid bare in his novels, never reserving criticism for a single ethnicity in favor of the other. He was criticizing a culture, a mindset, a power structure, not a race.

Rizal never called for the separation of the Philippines from Spain, a stand which Andres Bonifacio and other revolutionaries held. He instead advocated for equal rights – political, economic, and cultural – between Filipinos and Spaniards. After all, there were Spaniards who were born and raised in the colony. Jose Rizal was perhaps envisioning a multicultural society in the Philippines.

Centuries of conditioning with the idea that we are an inferior people would probably also take time to purge ourselves of. And we tend to think that puffing ourselves with such rhetorics would do the job. I don’t think it would. It would only confound our identity crisis. It is like a woman who cakes her face with heavy makeup like a Beijing opera actor when she is already beautiful with just her clean face.

Why should we be proud to be Filipino? It’s not enough to say we produced a Jose Rizal or a Manny Pacquiao or a Leah Salonga. Or say that we accommodate our guests very well, our family ties are strong, or we bounce back from defeat easily. Because these are universals and are not at all unique to us Filipinos. Instead of pride, what we should strive for is human dignity.

Being a Filipino is neither something to be proud of nor to be ashamed of. It simply is.

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Personal Experiences, Social Issues

My Christmas Wishlist

1. November has started and before we knew it, it is Christmas already. Christmas, in a Christian and capitalist society like the Philippines, is one of the most anticipated holidays – if not the most anticipated – of the year.  So TV newscasts, for the whole year the monger of stories about politicians bickering over issues of National Interest and the networks’ contract stars falling in and out of Love, have also appointed themselves as purveyor of Christmas gift ideas, providing Really Useful Information on where to buy the cheapest China-made toys to give our children – Christmas, after all, is for children, right? –  and trinkets to decorate our homes with.

2. Many people in my Facebook network – also known as “friends” – have also started doing some purveying of gift ideas themselves in the form of Christmas wish lists. These so-called wishlists are lists of items which the list writer would really love to receive on Christmas. Each item often comes with a picture and a concise definition similar to those in an Avon catalog,  the items ranging from a Maybelline lipstick to a Nikon digital camera. So if someone is thinking of giving you a gift this Christmas, he or she need not go to so much trouble asking your friends for information in secret. He or she only has to see that list on your Facebook account. Come to think of it, a wishlist saves peoples’ time, so you are even doing your possible gift-givers a favor.

3. Moreover, it saves you, the list writer and eventual gift-receiver, the disappointment of unwrapping yet another Good Morning face towel, the 127th since the office Christmas party.

4. There is something unsettling with this. I find wish lists a little too functional. It strips the practice of gift-giving of its emotional context, reducing it into nothing more than an act of exchange of objects among people.  And much of what we do gains value because of the emotional context within which this act is carried out.

5. I have always believed that the charm of a gift lies on the knowledge that it was given to you despite you not asking for it. If you ask for it or pester people for it, it becomes something else. Perhaps a reward, a payment, or  a bribe. But not a gift.

6.  When I was younger, on school Christmas parties, our teachers would require everyone in the class to bring in gifts, to be raffled off later. Not a few children went home disheartened, having received a Good Morning face towel, a comb, a water bottle, or anything as functional and that is not a toy.  Even then, I would stress myself out lamenting silently the forcedness and fakeness of this classroom gift exchange.

7. This, along with telling children to put on their best selves the whole year so they could expect a gift from Santa Claus on Christmas, though well-meaning, has unintended ethically unsavory effects. It reinforces the materialistic value system of a hyper-consumerist society. It means that you become happy by possessing things, rather than nurturing relationships.

8.  Because Christmas is originally a Christian ritual, let me get an example from Christian mythology. Christians believe that before Jesus, humanity was so fucked up that they are better off as kindling for the fires of hell, whatever that is. Yet God, taking a cue from Willie Revillame, was so generous that he gave them a savior still – who was no less than his son, his only begotten son at that.  And that act of godly generosity is what is supposedly celebrated when people give gifts at Christmas.

9. Perhaps gift-giving is simply that, an exchange of objects among people, nothing more. You give gifts to your parents, the people who fed and clothed you, the first people to tell the lie about you being handsome and talented. You give gifts to your lover for the sex and the respite from the butt-of-jokes status of being single. But let’s pretend. Let’s pretend we don’t have an inkling on what the persons we sit next to or sleep beside with want this Christmas, but we don’t ask them upfront, so we instead turn to their other friends for that precious information, cautioning them all the while not to tell anything about it to our beloved. Let’s pretend that we, as the beloved now, never got wind of our lover’s info-fishing expedition, and at Christmas, when they finally hand us the Gift, we remove the pretty glossy paper with poinsettia prints ever so slowly, savoring each delicious second of anticipation. Let’s pretend that we give and receive gifts out of that beautiful feeling that wells from some mysterious place within us, otherwise called love.

10. Having said all these, I am now bracing myself for the sight of an empty stocking on Christmas morning.

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Social Issues

Social Media and the Filipinos’ Changing Attitude on Sexuality

Illustration by Rafael Canete

A sea change on Filipinos’ attitude toward sexuality is happening today. Issues like reproductive health, same-sex marriage and transgender identity are now part of the public discourse. This wasn’t so, say, 10 years ago. Growing up in the 90’s, I remember hearing about sexuality covered in the mass media only when there were news about cases of incest and police raids of night clubs staging lewd shows. Often, these news are framed less as human rights issues but more as peep shows, more titillating than educational.

Much of the change is due to the rise of the social media. Suddenly, everyone who has basic knowledge of computers and Internet access – that’s about everyone from a six-year-old preschooler to an octogenarian brain surgeon – can have his or her own newspaper or TV show. That has made the Internet a massive, complex net of interconnected ideas of every cultural, political, sexual and religious color imaginable – a literal marketplace of ideas.

For the longest time, civil society groups representing the marginalized were heard only when they would stage a street rally or when their letters make it to the letters to the editor section of a newspaper; that is, until blogging and YouTube became available. Then came Facebook, and these groups are now also able to pursue and cultivate an audience, a task which, in the past, cost the traditional media millions of pesos.

Then, of course, there are the individual people, who may not belong to any group flaunting a particular ideology but whose desire to be heard is equally pressing.

Take for instance, Manny Pacquiao’s recent clash with the LGBT community. The boxing champion made the news again not for another ring victory but for an insensitive statement against gay people which he allegedly said in an interview with a local broadsheet. The article in question quotes him as quoting the infamous verse in the Leviticus about killing homosexuals. He later denied saying such statement. He said that he has no inkling as to what Leviticus is – despite his well-publicized Bible studies. He loves gays, he said, but disapproves of gay marriage.

But the damage has been done. Gay people and not-gay-but-gay-friendly ones – Filipinos and other nationalities alike – swarmed social networking sites with expressions of anger. Facebook walls burned and tweets turned into roars of rage against this high-profile bigotry.

None of this would have been possible a decade ago. Gay issues were never taken seriously in the Philippines, even in the media. Media content created for gay people are ghettoed either in small sleazy magazines or arthouse “indie” movies. Celebrities and even government officials could ridicule gay people all they wanted and no one would say a word. Today, it is no less than the leader of the world’s economic superpower who has spoken in favor of same-sex marriage. Barak Obama, by the way, used social media as a significant part of his presidential campaign in 2008.

If social media has opened doors to an open discussion of sexuality, it has also served as an anvil to forge conservatism and bigotry.

If social media has opened doors to an open discussion of sexuality, it has also served as an anvil to forge conservatism and bigotry. The power of the social media to connect people despite geographical boundaries has allowed anyone to find other like-minded individuals, and nothing entrenches ideas – including evil ones – more deeply than the agreement of a community.

As like-minded people becomes more and more interconnected through the Internet, disagreement diminishes, Matthew Nisbett and Dietram Scheufele say in an essay published over at Big Think.  And this demise of disagreement may be detrimental to a “truly deliberative (civil) society” which owes its existence to a free exchange of varied ideas, however contrary to each other.

Illustration by Rafael Canete

Perhaps the concept of like-mindedness and demise of disagreement could be well illustrated by my own network in Facebook. I spent my elementary school and high school years at a conservative born-again evangelical school, so half of my network is composed of people who have the penchant to post Bible verses as their statuses. On the other hand, the remaining half of my network are people I met in college at the University of the Philippines, most of them literary, intellectual and activist types. Their photo albums often contain pictures taken at street rallies, and on December 26, they posted celebratory statuses about Mao Zedong’s birthday. Each half fly extreme beliefs, and I am standing in the middle of these extremes.

When the Pambansang Kamao chose to publicize his bigotry as much as his so-called renewed interest in the Bible, you can imagine how my network looked like. The intellectual radicals half was red with wrath, while the born-again conservative half was a baby blue with mild-mannered sympathy, if not a victorious royal blue.

I consider it an advantage to be an audience to sharply contrasting views, especially when a sensitive issue such as same-sex marriage comes up. Obviously, my political leanings put me in the red half most of the time, but the baby blue half allows me to include in the process of my decision-making ideas which do not necessarily agree with my own. Divergent ideas are important in decision-making because they provide me a more accurate view of the situation. But then again, not everybody gets to build a social network of people with strongly opposing ideas. Most of the time, a person’s social network is homogenous – homogenously conservative, homogenously radical, or homogenously apathetic – where space for disagreement on political issues is virtually non-existent.

So, as much as the Internet is a valuable tool for those marginalized, small or radical groups, whose voices were stifled in the traditional media in the past, it is a godsend for dominant, conservative groups. The only difference is that the playing field has evened. Would the dominant, conservative groups’ maintain their erstwhile strong grip on people’s minds? Or are we going to see the crumbling of archaic dogmas, to be replaced by a more egalitarian, humane mindset?

I can feel that a new leaf of history is now being turned. I can’t wait to see it happen.

So, how about you? Do you think there really is a transformation going on among us Filipinos in terms of our attitude towards sexuality?
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