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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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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