‘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.’
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.