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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

entry arrow11:24 AM | J. Neil C. Garcia Talks About Gay Reality in the Philippines

From Team Magazine's third issue, themed on "Celebrations."

1. What would you say are the milestones of the LGBT community during your generation?

I’d have to say the primary milestone is the formation of the LGBT identity itself. Gay and lesbian cultures used to exist separately in the country, but since the 1990s, we’ve seen this strategic and coalitional identity take shape, conditioned as it has been both by local and global forces: feminism, HVI /AIDS discourse, the equal rights movement, and the “transgender moment” -- a historical period characterized not only by the globalization and increasing “crystallization” of this signifier, but also by the fact that cultures all around the world are remembering and recuperating their own transgender traditions. In Asia we see this happening in India and Nepal, which have recently instituted “third gender” categories in their legal documents. In our case, we also have our own “babaylanic” tradition of institutionalized gender-crossing to recover, legally honor, and contemporize (hopefully this will happen soon).

An offshoot of Filipino LGBT discourse would, of course, be all the political accomplishments of the last two decades: elected LGBT officials in local governments; the formation of the first LGBT political party (Ang Ladlad); the decades-long anti-discrimination lobby in several sessions of the national congress; and the municipal and provincial antidiscrimination ordinances that have already been passed (or are about to be passed), all across the country. Finally, let’s not forget the past two decades’ harvest of outstanding and memorable LGBT cultural productions—books, theatrical performances, marches, pageants, magazines, TV shows, and of course the slew of LGBT-themed digital films coming from a very dynamic stream of the Philippine new cinema movement.

2. How was the scene during your time? How is it different from now?

The pink economy was just picking up, and in the 1990s Malate was still pretty much the gay -- and the “cool” or bohemian -- place to be. It had all these fashionable and stylish bars and restaurants that were downright gay or at least identifiably gay-friendly. In Quezon City there was Cine Café, which doubled as a sexual and a social space, where gay films, plays, and pageants regularly took place—on the first floor, anyway (on the second floor was a blue room showing, well, blue films; and by the time you ascended to the third floor you found yourself immersed in delicious darkness—a reversal of the religious spatial order of things). There were also all those traditional gay bars -- with macho dancers and/or “floorshows,” the kind that you would see being cinematically (and miserablistically) recreated in the films of Brocka, Bernal, et al. I remember there was still a significant cruising scene to be found inside movie houses, public parks, department stores and/or malls—a carryover from the previous decade.

The Ladlad series came out during this time, and also the ground-breaking books by Tony Perez, Nicolas Pichay, Danton Remoto, etc. I had also just begun my academic work on Philippine gay culture, drawing from the studies of older scholars like Jose Javier Reyes, Michael L. Tan, and Martin Manalansan (who has since become the foremost researcher on the Filipino-American “queer diaspora”). Now and then, PETA and other theater companies would be staging gay plays. Every so often, on national television there would be an episode or two devoted to the story of a bakla (or tomboy) in any of the popular drama series -- a foil to the outrageous and uproariously funny gay character (exemplified most memorably by Roderick Paulate), who was a staple figure in comedy films and TV shows. The massage parlor scene started taking off during this time as well (although, as far as I know, there were only a handful of them). There were also two or three bathhouses. I suppose that some of these “trends” have persisted -- or even intensified -- over the past twenty years, but clearly the most significant shift has been the “mass migration” of the gay sexual scene away from actual toward virtual spaces—doubtless the result of information technology, and the employment opportunities it has made possible.

In other words, hookups are mostly negotiated online now. And with so many young LGBTs working in the BPO sector, the preferred meeting places -- and schedules -- have also understandably changed. The personal “diversification” that the LGBT signifier signalizes has also produced alternative concepts of fellowship and “belongingness” -- in clear evidence during any of the pride activities that are held in different parts of the country at different times of the year (June and December, the two months that the annual national LGBT pride march has taken place; and for a couple of years now, September, which is when the University of the Philippines Babaylan, the country’s first LGBT student organization, holds its weeklong “pride week”).

3. I know you as one of the editors of Ladlad, which I secretly read as a not-yet-out kid and became my entry point to understanding more about what it means to be gay. Do you think the book was revolutionary for its time? Why?

It obviously was (look at what has happened to you and others who surreptitiously—and voraciously—read and relished these books in their youth!). Kidding aside, allow me to quote myself (in my introduction to its fourth volume, The Best of Ladlad):

Two decades after the publication of the first Ladlad: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing, we offer this “Best of” edition, comprised of a selection of what my co-editor Danton Remoto and I consider the most accomplished and enduring pieces -- poems, stories, essays, and plays -- from the spanking three-volume literary harvest of the last 20 years… It’s interesting and immensely elating to revisit these works, and to read them from the privileged optic of the present that they doubtless made possible, at least in part: a present in which the “brand” Ladlad has recently become an accredited political party, gay independent cinema has seen an unprecedented efflorescence, alternative “homosexual” representations have proliferated on television and the new media, and a viable Lesbian-Gay- Bisexual-Transgender movement has veritably taken root in the Philippines… The Best of Ladlad… is both document and witness, and possibly also a source of rare and eloquent courage: bruised and disabused, delirious and enthused, Filipino LGBTs have made it this far. The rest of the luminous journey beckons.

And so, to be brief, yes: modesty aside, Ladlad has (I believe) been entirely instrumental in inaugurating a legitimate cultural space within which LGBT creativity -- in the literary as well as in all the other arts—could (and did) happen in our country. Ladlad definitely opened so many doors.

4. You mentioned during the Philippine Literary Festival about the need for this generation to involve itself in political issues. Care to expound? By that, do you say that your generation was more political than today's generation?

First of all, allow me to clarify that I said that in response to your panel’s own very political-sounding subtitle -- “finding a post-acceptance voice in a pre-acceptance Philippines” -- and to what I perceived was the “lack of fit” between this strongly worded agenda and the desire the panelists were all variously expressing, as they explained their painstaking efforts to produce Team magazine: to “normalize” the discussion of gay life in the country, by shifting it away from stereotypical images and ideas to more “relatable” things. At once, I thought: to reach this stage (of acceptance or “normality”), shouldn’t certain steps need to be taken -- the first of which being conceptual and/or critical: Just what exactly are these stereotypes anyway, and how might they be countered? If you may recall, in my ensuing comment I pleaded for a distinction to be made between stereotypes and the real individuals they superficially resemble but cannot remotely embody (precisely because stereotypes are simplistic and “flattened” images, that no real person actually ever coincides with). And I also suggested -- if I remember it right -- that the thing to do would be not to pick a fight or demonize members in our own precarious and embattled community, but simply to allow more and more LGBT self-representations—more and more LGBT stories—to circulate and disperse not only among our ranks but also in the larger culture. (I remember also making a plea for recognizing “contact zones” between or across our lives -- especially in regard to what were possibly our common experiences of “sissy childhoods”). It was at this point that I cheered the panel on, for while it may not be the first Filipino gay magazine (L magazine or even rice just now comes to mind), Team is certainly an entirely laudable project, carried out by a bunch of cute butchy and pamhinta (sometimes, borta) gay Pinoys, that deserves the full support of the Filipino LGBT community.

5. A friend told me that Grindr has somewhat fueled the demise of cruising and the gay club scene. What's your take on that? (And if you have experiences relevant to this, please share.)

I think I answered this already (see question no. 2). Social media and hookup apps have I believe globally redefined the idea of gay or even LGBT spaces. Jonathan Ong’s very interesting piece about Tacloban’s “afam invasion” in the wake of super-typhoon Yolanda makes a very clear point about the power of new media to create provisional gay “linkages,” even under the most adverse of conditions. Basically, this study looked at how local gay men, enabled by the popular app Grindr, took advantage of the wave of “gay humanitarian globality” that washed over post-disaster Tacloban in 2013 (as one respondent so pithily put it: “overnight… my Grindr became the United Nations!”). Nonetheless, as suggested by this study, we might need to qualify that the sexual “democratization” that information technology has effected in our society is still and all class-specific, in the main. As far as the Tacloban case is concerned, for instance, we need to realize that whatever libidinally “welcome” effects Grindr may have generated in the lives of certain gay locals, this certainly can’t remotely compare to and/or outweigh the tremendous psychological trauma and material difficulty this disaster has wrought on the lives of Tacloban’s citizens in toto -- including (if not especially) the lower-class and feminine-identified bakla… About your other “stealthy” (because parenthetical) request to reveal any personal “kiss-and-tell” moments in this regard: sorry, I’m not in the least exhibitionistic (at least, not in that way). Besides, I think oversharing is tacky.

6. How different is it to be gay then and to be gay now? What has changed? What hasn't changed (apart from the obvious "liking the same sex" thing!) What do you think has the previous generation given this current generation?

Information technology has basically transformed human societies all across the globe, especially in regard to identities and relationships, which are functions, to a certain extent, of connectivity. Young Filipino LGBTs now have access to LGBT-friendly audiovisual and textual materials that the teens of my generation didn’t. Thus, there should be more reasons for young LGBTs now to feel a sense of kinship or belonging to local, national, or even global communities of fellow LGBTs (on the other hand, we need to recognize the fact that this abundance of imagery and information can and does create a sense of confusion and alienation as well, ushering in it its own set of cultural “problems”). The libidinal economy has also of course become more accessible to them as well—a fact that has most certainly transformed sexual desires as well as behaviors (pornography, especially gay or lesbian, during my youth was generally rare and inaccessible). Perhaps it’s at this point that I can bring up the most urgent issue of the HIV epidemic that is currently facing us, especially the younger members of urban-based MSM communities.

Allow me to quote a germane passage from my The Best of Ladlad introduction, once more:

[O]urs is also a present that is imperiled by all sorts of challenges and threats, including the ever-rearing head of intolerance and fundamentalist abomination, and the deepening AIDS crisis that many of us were fearfully anticipating back in the 1990s, but which finally came to roost only in the last five years. Needless to say, in recent days, the rates of reported seroconversions among Filipino “men who have sex with men” have been inexorably climbing, especially among the 20s and 30s urban male sectors, which are arguably the most economically productive but also the least “aware” (and therefore most vulnerable) demographic groups in the country today. Understandably enough, from its first to third volumes, Ladlad didn’t quite directly register HIV/AIDS awareness in any of its texts, either: looking back, there was simply no urgent reason to, given the relatively small number of reported cases and an even smaller number of Filipino gay men coming down with the infection, from the 1990s to the early 2000s (as compared to, for example, male heterosexual Overseas Filipino Workers, who got tagged by local epidemiologists as a “high risk group” early on). It would take individual efforts by Filipino gay writers (some of whom are HIV positive, or “Pozzie Pinoys,” themselves) over the next few years to produce the Philippines’s own version of “AIDS literature,” which can only be formally and epistemologically different from what existed in the West when the then-lethal epidemic was in full swing. As we know, AIDS is now a chronically manageable illness, and being diagnosed with it no longer amounts to receiving a death sentence; thus, writing about it no longer carries the same kind of ontological weight that it did, back in the 80s and 90s. While AIDS was not specifically treated by the pieces in the Ladlad volumes (except for one or two poems, perhaps), the afflictions of the homosexual and bakla signifier extensively were, as well as the various ways their authors have sought to assuage or even “heal” them.

And so, yes, this medical “emergency” is probably one clear and compelling difference between the realities of “then” and “now.” And as I wrote in my introduction to this book (published by Anvil last year), the hope is that LGBT literature -- and creativity, in general -- can once again be summoned to help our community (especially its more vulnerable members) understand the complexity of this problem, and imagine the solutions to it.

7. and 8. What do you think is worth emulating from the previous generation? What do you think is worth celebrating about this generation?

The younger generations of Filipino LGBTs have of course their own problems and issues to confront, and I know they have their own copious reserves of talents and aspirations from which to draw the necessary vision and strength to grapple and resolve these. They are more comfortably “interconnected” with one another; they are literate in the new media, and can wield their languages and instruments with comfort and ease. They are newly brave, courageous, and oh-so-beautiful… We, the more “senior” members of the community, are of course standing side-by-side the young, and are happily cheering them on (in other words, to my mind we have no special virtues that are worth emulating; during our time we responded in earnest to the call for activism, given our own difficult circumstances; I know the young will, as well).

9. Same-sex marriage is gaining ground all over the world. Do you think it's going to happen in the Philippines in the next 5, 10 years? Why?

Probably not, and not only because getting the Church to reverse its position in this regard is going to be a herculean task. In the logic of things, marriage equality can only be operationalized after marriage has been rationalized as an institution. This is a step that our government has refused to take by keeping divorce illegal. Of course the simple truth is that without divorce, marriage is plainly an irrational -- and possibly inhumane -- concept. In this country, we’ve all seen the terrible mess of failed (but insoluble) heterosexual marriages; and the question is, do we really want LGBTs to suffer this, as well? On the other hand, getting a national antidiscrimination law passed appears to be a more logical first step, as well (as certain American LGBTs, newly and happily married—and also newly and unhappily unhired—are discovering, to their dismay). I think focusing our energies on this legislative agenda makes easier political sense. Around a dozen city and provincial ordinances that penalize discrimination against LGBTs are already in place, and this is obviously a great milestone that we should celebrate. But we really do need to push to make antidiscrimination a national policy, in the next session of congress.

10. What steps can we do to make the Philippines a better place for LGBTs like us? What are we doing right, and what are we doing wrong?

I think I’ve already answered this -- implicitly and explicitly -- in the foregoing. But just to paraphrase: We need cultural, social, and political activism, obviously. We need more Filipino LGBTs to care enough about their rights so that they will be willing to come out in the open to secure them. We need activism and “coalition-building” not only within our communities, but also across the divides of Philippine society. We need to cultivate a sense of identity and community that is keenly aware of the challenges confronting us on the local, national, and global fronts. Within our country alone, we need to identify and relate across classes, regions, religions, languages, cultures, generations, educational backgrounds, gender self-presentations, erotic preferences, etc. We need to complicate our understanding of gender and sexuality—seeing how historically specific and cultural constructed they are, on one hand; and appreciating the beauty of the human complexity that they betoken, on the other. And finally, central to all of these, we need more LGBT self-representations and stories, as well as more venues (like Team magazine) for these vital texts to appear in.

J. Neil C. Garcia finished his BA Journalism (magna cum laude) in the University of Santo Tomas in 1990. He is currently teaching creative writing and comparative literature at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, where he also serves as an associate for poetry in the Institute of Creative Writing. He is the author of numerous poetry collections and works in literary and cultural criticism, including Our Lady of the Carnival (1996), The Sorrows of Water (2000), Kaluluwa (2001), Philippine Gay Culture: The Last Thirty Years (1996), Slip/pages: Essays in Philippine Gay Criticism (1998), Performing the Self: Occasional Prose (2003), The Garden of Wordlessness (2005), and Misterios and Other Poems ( 2005) His latest critical work, Postcolonialism and Filipino Poetics: Essays and Critiques, is a revised version of his Ph.D. dissertation in English Studies: Creative Writing, which he completed in 2003. He is currently working on a full-length book, a postcolonial survey and analysis of Philippine poetry in English. [Panitikan]


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