Thursday, November 02, 2006
Some time ago, Lyde Villanueva
-- a former student -- informed me that I was to give a kind of introduction to a little poetry reading one evening. That this was a poetry reading with a "queer" twist proved to be the main point of interest, and it got me thinking.
I took the opportunity to do a quick overview of literature by gay and lesbian writers in the country, a tradition of local literature that may have been relegated to the margins but which nevertheless continues to draw powerful interest. Gayness in the Philippines has a long "tradition," and queer theorist and poet J. Neil C. Garcia has in fact cited that the powerful, cross-dressing babaylanes of long ago could prove to be our native counterpart of what Oscar Wilde has wittily described as someone "who's love dare not speak its name."
That being gay and lesbian in our country has since then been dragged through the mud of prejudice in the ensuing years -- through the Spanish colonial period and the American colonial period -- is unforgivable, and poetry readings such as what we had and the like are instruments one can use to fight a tyranny of prejudice that do not belong to any person who thinks himself educated and enlightened.
Our early gay writers proved themselves equal to the task of overcoming the silence that they were banished to: Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero -- the father of Philippine drama -- wrote his highly autobiographical novel A Clash of Cymbals
, Severino Montano wrote The Lion and the Faun
, Orlando Nadres wrote the infamous play "Hanggang Dito Na Lamang...At Maraming Salamat," and Tony Perez wrote the novel Cubao 1980
. They paved the way for our contemporary gay writers who now write without fear that they would be disowned by a disproving society. Today you have the powerful writings of Jaime An Lim, J. Neil C. Garcia, Danton Remoto, Ernesto Superal Yee, Bobby Flores-Villasis, and the gay and lesbian writers of Ladlad
and Ladlad 2
and Tibok: Heartbeat of Filipino Lesbians
-- anthologies that have surprised everyone in the Philippine literary world for their ability to sell more copies than anyone even imagined. And this in a country that is supposedly staid and conservative.
But what exactly is "gay literature"? How do we know when a poem or a short story is gay or lesbian? Is it just any text full of same-sex shenanigans? In his famous essay "Gay Lit 101", Garcia tries to grapple with the concept of queer reading when he was asked to present a class on "Queer Literature" as a literature elective in the University of the Philippines in 1994. He details the presumptions and tribulations he had to go through to teach the very controversial course, and in it, he dissects further two main issues: first, that there is a lack of universal agreement of what constitutes homosexuality; and second, that there is definitely a way to read and view gay literature.
Garcia asks, "Is homosexuality a mere question of roles? But think of the Latin American gay stories that tell of male characters who regularly engage in homosexual sex, and yet remain 'macho' simply because they look the part, as well as enact the role of the activo (penetrator) in the sexual act itself."
Is it a question then of dress and behavior? (No. Have you even seen Boys Don't Cry
?) Is it a question of gender preference? (No. Have you seen Jeffrey
? In that movie, one hears of the true-to-life case of a man who had gender reassignmemt surgery -- a red flag for gayness for many, many people -- but only
because he wants to sleep with women, this time as a lesbian
.) For the most part, drawing the line at specifics can be very difficult to ascertain. Accordingly, gayness is not so much a matter of how one looks anymore, as what one feels and does.
What then are the qualities that would distinguish gay literature from straight literature? Garcia comes up with two definitions of gay literature. There is self-conscious
gay literature, which are writings by gays who know
they are gay, and who write gay stories for gay audiences. Then there is unconscious
gay literature, which are writings that can
be read in a "gay way."
The last one is a more problematic category -- and more fun -- because it involves questioning the grounds upon which we are able to distinguish forms of desire. Because these are stories of menage a trios
, where Lover A desires Woman C less because of her own intrinsic attributes than because he imagines Lover B to be desiring her as well (good examples in films would be The Talented Mr. Ripley
or Enemy at the Gates
). Because these are stories where one male character's hatred for another male character is both unmotivated and underexplained (for example, James Purdy's short story, "You May Safely Gaze," or the Biblical epic Ben-Hur
, where two best friends suddenly turn against the other). Because these are stories that can include Sesame Street
's Bert and Ernie (they always sleep in the same bedroom!), The Lion King
's Timon and Pumba (they were both banished and shamed -- hakuna matata!
-- for being different
!), even Batman and Robin. (My favorite example has always been Mulan
, about a girl who sings a song called "Reflection," where she asks questions about when her reflection will show who she really is inside
-- and the next thing we know, she's in male drag.)
The final question should be: Taking all these into consideration, who isn't gay then? Garcia says: "Sexual desires are rather complex realities that all at once straddle both choice and accident, nature and nurture; they are also extremely malleable human attributes that have the potential to vary from culture to culture, and from history to history. Moreover, despite the fact that these stories may be gay (because they discuss conscious and/or unconscious gay experience, they nonetheless talk about things that are never so different from the experiences of non-gay readers that they cannot be understood from just anyone's own unique perspective."
I am going to finish by invoking a poem by a good friend of mine, the poet Ronald Baytan. It is entitled "Crossroads," and for me it encapsulates the very essence of queer consciousness in local literature.
With their steps
two men magnify
of the dark
The wind coaxes
them to speak
but they remain
silent and separate,
hesitant to touch
each other's hand.
According to Garcia, one should give these men a reprieve from the silence. Thus we celebrate "difference" now by holding poetry readings such as the one my students had in Silliman.
Labels: literature, queer
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