Lesbian activist Ging Cristobal puts it plainly: ‘Tolerance is high in the Philippines as long as you conform to the stereotypes. As long as you are funny, as long as you don't rock the boat and ask for your rights, it’s okay to be gay and lesbian here.’ What that means in practice is not doing anything to shame your family, says Cristobal. ‘To avoid family shame, you regulate your own sexuality. You don’t come out.’
More than 85 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, with most of the rest following hard-line Christian sects or Islam. The political power of the Catholic Church has kept divorce, abortion, and legal rights for gays at bay. The faith shows little sign of flagging here. Shrines to the Virgin Mary dot cities, with crucifixes having been rubbed bare by the touch of thousands of petitioners. The nuclear family remains largely intact.
Church family and life spokesman Monsignor Pepe says the church accepts gays, but calls on them not to sin. ‘We accept them as our fellow Filipinos, we accept and cherish them,’ he says. But Pepe is adamant that gay marriage must not be allowed. ‘Gay men should marry a woman,’ he says. ‘We have a lot of gay people here with the opposite sex. Marriage must be between the opposites. Otherwise it isn’t marriage at all.’ Many gay men have followed his advice in part—acting straight, marrying, having children, and going to Catholic mass. But in their own time, they don’t hide their attraction to men.
One of the major issues for closeted gays is maintaining their faith at a time when the Catholic Church is mounting a campaign against all modern ills, under the acronym of DEATH: divorce, euthanasia, abortion, total population control, and homosexual lifestyles. Across the country, priests deliver sermon after sermon against such threats as Benigno Aquino’s plan to pass a controversial reproductive health bill permitting the state to distribute contraceptive devices. Orthodox Catholics and clergy are outraged over a series of mass gay weddings organized in July by the Quezon City branch of the Metropolitan Community Church, a gay splinter church from the United States.
The weddings have no legal weight, but have created a furore amongst Catholics—and gays and lesbians who believe any move toward gay marriage is premature. Reyes, the founder of the eponymous chain of high-end hair salons, largely staffed by bakla (effeminate gay) men, says gays should leave marriage to heterosexuals. ‘I get mad at gays pursuing things that are impossible. My god, give it to the men and women. If you love somebody, live with them. Living with and understanding someone is better than marriage.’
Those struggling are people like Delos, involved in Living Waters, a Catholic-based group aimed at turning gays into heterosexuals. For Delos, a lean, intense man with an almost imperceptible cleft lip, the process is agonising. ‘I myself suffered from homosexual addiction,’ he says. ‘The pain of being rejected by all the men in my life—my father, my friends—made me seek out the relief of orgasm. But it would only work for a little while.’ From sleeping with a new man every week, Delos says he’s cut down to one encounter a year. ‘Recently, the Lord showed me a vision of me having sex with a woman,’ he says, laughing. ‘The funny thing is that I would normally be repulsed. But I was enjoying it.’
Popular Manila blogger Migs doesn’t want his full name used, as his family still believe he is heterosexual. For five years, Migs lived in the strict monastery-like conditions of an Opus Dei compound in Manila, battling to stave off his attraction to men. ‘I met a woman who was almost perfect for me,’ he says earnestly. ‘But I was not attracted sexually to her. I told myself—either I'll marry her or make a decision to explore the other side of me. Soon afterwards, I found myself a boyfriend and I never looked back.’
Doug Hendrie is an Australian freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald, among other publications.