Photo credit: Rydel Cerezo’s photo essay, Am I a Sea.
by Janica Favis
In the 2019 survey “The Global Divide on Homosexuality”, conducted by Pew Research Centre, the Philippines ranked one of the most gay-friendly nations in the whole world. Findings suggest that 73% of adult Filipinos agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society, which is a staggering result considering the Philippines is also the the largest Catholic population in Asia.
After 333 years of the Spanish occupation, the Philippines gained independence in 1898. Though the Spaniards might have left our land, Catholicism never really went away. To this day, Philippine legislation, education, and culture are shaped by the teachings of the Catholic Church.
How are we, then, to make sense of these two identities? How can Filipinos be “gay-friendly” and devout Catholics at the same time? To answer this, it’s worth looking at both the past and present of queer Philippine literature.
Pre-colonisation, before the name “Philippines” was even born, the archipelago was a polytheistic nation made up of tribes that worshipped different deities. One of the famous figures of indigenous mythology is Lakapati, the hermaphrodite god of harvest and cultivation. As a major fertility deity, Lakapati’s transgender nature gives a glimpse of how traditional tribes valued, respected, and even worshipped queerness.
Is this “gay-friendly” mindset an attempt to revert back to a way of thinking before Spain? Perhaps, this isn’t just a mainstream, run-of-the-mill trend after all. Maybe there is a sense in which we, as a nation, are trying to grapple with the Catholic tradition that was so forcefully inflicted on us.
There’s no hiding the fact that writers who identify as gay (bakla) are still writing against the grain of Filipino culture. In an interview with Gay Star News, author of the influential work Philippine Gay Culture, J. Neil. C. Garcia shared that by “coming out”, he risked being disowned by his family.
But fear does not characterise these writers and their work. It is the boldness to reclaim a platform in which silenced voices can finally come out of the shadows. In bold strokes, they write, “Hindi niyo na kami mabubura.” (You won’t be able to erase us again.)
In the Preface of Ladlad, Danton Remoto confesses, “Yes, I’m gay, and no matter how many rosaries I pray or girls I sleep with, I cannot change who I really am.” Who’s to say that the same words were not uttered 455 years ago by indegenous tribes? Queer voices, couched by Catholic morals and culture, seem to be reclaiming the landscape of Philippine writing where both identities are treasured and showcased.
To be Filipino is not to choose between being Catholic and being queer. To be Filipino in the 21st century is to rest, knowing that we cannot return to a time before Spain. But, also, to find comfort in breaking free from the chains they have left us with.
Coming out in the Philippines is not about making new identities, but perhaps embracing the ones that were always there.
Busilak: New LGBTQ Poetry from the Philippines (2020), edited by J. Neil C. Garcia
Ladlad: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing (1994), edited by J. Neil C. Garcia and Danton Remoto