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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