‘I sometimes wish I was gay,’ says Mark, my taxi driver, risking a quick glance as he navigates one of Manila’s extraordinary traffic tangles. ‘Gays are very hard workers. They do well in business, in school. They are more successful. Often, they are the breadwinners for an entire family.’ He shrugs a little. ‘I admire them, actually. They—what is the word for doing very well? Excel?’ Yes, I say. He smiles. ‘Yes, they excel.’
My taxi driver—a recent graduate who can’t find work in his field—is right. Gays and lesbians in Asia’s largest Christian country are reaching new heights. The openly gay Boy Abunda is the nation’s top talk show host, with four programmes to his name. Vice Ganda is a flamboyant drag queen by day, interviewing celebrities with snappy flourishes for pop culture shows. Business tycoon Ricky Reyes—Mother Ricky, as he’s known—started as a cleaner in a hairdressing salon. Decades later, he owns dozens of his own name-brand salons. With transgender woman and English professor Bemz Benedito at its helm, the world’s only dedicated gay political party, Ladlad—‘coming out’ in Tagalog—has set its sights on three seats in Congress at the next election. Even the near-universal challenge for gays—coming out publically—can be less difficult than in Western countries. As Andrew De Real, owner of prominent Manila gay club The Library says, gays are more accepted because many end up supporting their families financially. ‘Because most gays don’t have children, they become responsible for their family, their siblings, their nieces and nephews,’ he says.
In the absence of a strong welfare state, the Filipino family is the bulwark against poverty in a developing nation with a population heading towards 100 million. As a result, Filipinos have developed a flexible response to sexuality. Cultural critic Lilia Quindoza Santiago argues that Filipino culture has a more fluid concept of gender because the Tagalog word for ‘gender’ means ‘genus’ or ‘kind,’ rather than the binary implied in English. It’s increasingly common for gay men and women to marry heterosexually, preserving the all-important Roman Catholic nuclear family, and seek love outside of marriage.
The problem for many gays comes later, as they approach retirement childless. One novel solution is the Home for Golden Gays, a gay and lesbian retirement home in Pasay City, part of greater Manila, set up by JJ, a former celebrity columnist, prominent gay, and father of two children. Like many other gay men, JJ married young and had children, to keep up with societal pressures. But in the 1970s, he began speaking out, using the hitherto secret gay dialect of swardspeak in his columns and TV shows. ‘In those days, there was a lot of secrecy amongst gays, so they made use of the gay language, like a secret code,’ JJ says. ‘But the culture has changed and the gay world is open to everyone. Now everyone knows the gay language.’
But as JJ aged, he saw many gays struggling to survive in their twilight years. The solution? A retirement home where 30 elderly gays and lesbians live out their remaining years in friendship. One elegant resident, Mother Leonie, is 80 years-old, but her cheekbones are still high. Biologically male, she worked for most of her life as a female prostitute, specialising in fooling US sailors from the former navy base in Subic Bay, to the north of Manila. ‘I used to look like Sophia Lauren,’ she says proudly. ‘That's why I was the number one prostitute.’ After a lifetime of sex work, she now lives amongst friends she has known for decades.
Meanwhile, gays and lesbians have found a new level of visibility in Filipino culture through an unusual outlet: comedy. Many comedians started out performing at The Library and then found themselves on TV. Filipino name brands like Vice Ganda and Anton Diva all tested out their brand of humour on De Real’s stage before taking their openly gay comedy to the small screen. De Real estimates around 80 percent of all successful comedians are gay. ‘There used to be many gay bashings in the 1980s, and everyone was in the closet,’ he says. ‘But now there are way less, because people have seen how beautiful the hearts of the Filipino gays are. We are everywhere now. We are in television, fashion, business—everywhere.’
Prominent movie director Joey Javier Reyes says coming out can produce two reactions: ‘Your parents will feel it’s either a curse or a blessing. It can be a blessing because there will be a child to look after the parents. So in this country, we are not accepted, but we are tolerated.’
Ladlad chairperson Benedito acknowledges that a greater degree of passive tolerance exists in the Philippines than elsewhere in Asia. ‘The problem is that tolerance and leniency doesn’t always equate to opportunity and equal protection before the law,’ she says. ‘That’s why we are pushing for acceptance. We are not asking our members to come out before they are ready. They can stay in the closet. But we want them to help.’ Making inroads into the political process takes time, but the first hurdle was overcome when the fledgling gay party defeated a court challenge from Christians and southern Muslim groups over their ‘immorality.’