Features | Society | Southeast Asia

On Screen, Normalizing Queer Love in the Philippines

A new Filipino LGBT series will push boundaries with an ordinary love story.

By Michael Beltran for
On Screen, Normalizing Queer Love in the Philippines

A couple is silhouetted by a rainbow-colored symbol while waiting to march around the University of the Philippines campus in an annual event to draw the attention to issues like gay rights and anti-discrimination Friday, Sept. 11, 2015 at suburban Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Known primarily for his poetry and acting, Juan Miguel Severo announced his latest show this month, produced by Globe Studios, about same-sex love between two adolescent boys. “Gaya sa Pelikula” or “Just Like the Movies” is set to air in the last quarter of 2020. The plot revolves around a university romance and borrows motifs and scene styles from well-known romantic movies. Severo explains that the show will take those aspects and “situate a gay couple in that, that’s it! To tell the public it happens to us, and we should be allowed to have these experiences too.” 

The artist spoke with The Diplomat about how he intends to make something that creates a space for the narratives of the LGBT people while pushing for greater equality and justice in society as a whole. He claims “there is nothing special” about what he is doing. 

“Nothing new with a freshman falling for an upperclassman. The idea is to normalize, not sensationalize queer love,” Severo says.

With the current repressive political climate in the Philippines, coupled with its deep-rooted Catholicism, successfully producing something “normal” for the LGBT community is in itself breaking conventions. 

Genre-Bending

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Although preferring not to label it as such, Severo admittedly evokes elements from the popular yaoi or boys’ love (BL) genre in his most recent work. A hit mainly among Asian audiences, the BL genre has been produced largely (but not exclusively) by female writers, for female audiences. It began in Japan through manga and eventually expanded to other forms of media. BL works are distinct from homoerotic content created for gay male audiences. Such stories commonly feature two “regular” young men, who end up entangled in a romance while increasingly shedding their own normative gender attitudes. They become softer and more emotional as the relationship progresses. These plot designs have had a certain empowering effect on both creators and consumers. 

“The genre itself does some good. The writer is able to subvert the predominant gender narrative. Female writers present the formula of an archetypal male who is now a recipient of the male gaze and toxic masculinity as opposed to the woman,” Severo says. 

Despite being a fan himself, Severo feels the BL design has some key flaws evident in its tropes. Because its plots are written by women for women, the charming and good-looking couple typically mark their romance with a disclaimer. They aren’t queer or gay, and drive this home by saying something along the lines of “I don’t like men, I just like him.” It enforces the notion that a man freed from his own misogyny can fall into the arms of the (female) reader. 

However, such a trope, repeated over and over again, can also have problematic results.

Severo comments that “it can result in an erasure of the queer identity, … [suggesting that] being gay is just a phase and thereby construed as negative. Yes, I believe there are straight people who have found partners of the same sex, but if this is the norm in the genre, it can be harmful. It reinforces a false notion and by extension the status quo.” 

What was initially an exception has now become a convention wherein a same-sex relationship across all designs of the narrative structure has no actual gay characters. 

“And it’s for this reason the genre will have to update itself,” Severo says. “Revisionism in whatever art form is inevitable and necessary, especially when the old ways are reinforcing outdated ideas.”

For Bernadette Neri, a professor at the University of the Philippines and chairperson of the LGBT rights group Bahaghari (“Rainbow”), representation should also extend to various social classes, especially the often voiceless. 

“At some point, we need to break away from the literary and media confines of middle class Manila residents. Nevertheless, it’s still a good thing that projects like this are getting lifted up into the mainstream.”

The output of the series is sourced from Severo’s own experiences from a relatively privileged background. While much can be asked of his work in terms of representation, he feels that no single body of work can encapsulate the entire LGBT experience. If anything, like Neri, he hopes his work breeds more of its kind. 

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“If we claim to be as multifaceted as we are, we should also accept that no individual can cover everything. If ‘Gaya sa Pelikula’ becomes successful, what can I do as a queer artist who benefitted from that? We should ‘pass the mic’ to the next one.”

Pride Is a Protest

In the Philippines, the notion of “pride” has taken on an undoubtedly political thrust. Since the first Pride March in the country back in 1994, the open expression of gender has been inexplicably linked to the plight and struggles of working class folk. Campaigns against oil price hikes, support for workers’ strikes, and fighting for human rights, in general, have all been hallmarks of the LGBT movement in the Philippines. 

“We’ve come a long way from just coming out with our sexual identity. The essence of pride is directly linked to our solidarity with ordinary Filipinos as oppressed people,” says Neri. 

The development of LGBT political consciousness has encountered opposition from the establishment. President Rodrigo Duterte has made countless statements disparaging women and gay Filipinos, even going so far to say that the latter is a disease that can be cured. In addition, his treatment of the LGBT community was called into more serious question when the arrest of 20 protesters during a Pride March in late June led by Bahaghari drew sharp criticism. The group was protesting the recently signed Anti-Terror Law, which has much of civil society outraged as it criminalizes and labels any critic or dissenter of the administration a “terrorist” and therefore justifies severe penalties. 

Severo is quick to invoke the old adage that art does not exist in a vacuum. He has been an outspoken critic of Duterte’s “macho-fascism.” He says that the worsening state of civil liberties in the Philippines cannot be ignored. 

“This is one of the reasons why my writing has been delayed, I’m behind on my deadlines. I thought to myself, it would be smug to tell people ‘this project is super important.’ It’s hard to do this and I question what weight this work brings while so much repression is happening around us. I feel paralyzed by the situation. But in the end, I think I have to do it because if I stop, the oppressors will have succeeded in silencing me.”

While the show is not overtly political, some themes dealing with societal injustices will definitely be incorporated. The question for the writer is how this can be done “without losing the essence of the genre, without losing track of what I initially intended to do. To be honest, I think artists should get their heads out of their assess and stop lionizing their own works.”

“My series won’t start a revolution,” Severo says. “If a queer kid watches it and is no longer ashamed of who they love, then we’d have done our job. We’ll do this for your entertainment and to mirror experiences of queer people, but it doesn’t stop there. The real fight is outside.”

SOGIE Equality on the Horizon

For 20 years, the SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression) Equality Bill has stagnated in the Philippine Congress. The principal proponent of the legislation’s most recent iteration, which punishes gender-based discrimination, is Congresswoman Arlene Brosas of the Gabriela Women’s Party. She observed that “these days there is so much opposition from the Church and legislators aligned with Duterte. That’s why it is difficult to get the bill moving.”

For its part, “Gaya sa Pelikula” wants to put a face on the LGBT community, one so common it becomes inseparable from the population in general and hence unquestionably warrants equality. 

I want people to root for the characters because I want the audience to root for people like them outside the screen. Because if you feel empathy and compassion for fictional characters, that should extend the people those characters are representing,” says Severo. 

Severo’s new project looks to be culturally ground-breaking. From a mainstream platform, it seeks to break storytelling traditions, shine a light on systematic injustice, and chart a path for an audience to seek more meaningful answers within society. 

That’s a tall order. But when pride and protest are the norms, even the “ordinary” story speaks truth to power. 

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Michael Beltran is a journalist in the Philippines.