Intro: The Philippines is a widely diverse culture spread across hundreds of islands which include high tech cities and primitive jungle tribes. In central Cebu, a small but sufficient gay community thrives and also displays its diversity, from preppies to drag queens. Nearby is the small island of Leyte steeped in history marking Mac Arthur’s famous return.
By Richard Ammon
Updated October 2009
"Nooooway. I don’t want a queer boyfriend. I want a husband!" So declared my very gay male friend as we sat in a shaded cozy restaurant just off the traffic-fumed main plaza of Cebu City, Philippines. My face revealed my surprise, so Reul drove home the point: " I want a straight man, not half a man or another girl", laughing a bit to soften the strength of his position.To my gay-lib-egalitarian-guppie-Laguna ears his words sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. A soft-faced gay man about thirty, devoted Catholic, dressed in slacks and sport shirt, articulate in English and Tagalog, Reul works in a department store and is very serious and confident about his sexuality as well as his desire for love and the role he must play to get it.
My chat with him was a sudden and intriguing introduction to the variety of gay lifestyles in this country of islands. For Reul, this meant dressing like a woman (usually in the evening after work when the social hours begin), working hard to save money and then finding a straight man who is willing to be his hired boyfriend.This was new for me. In America it’s not unusual for a queer boy to fantasize seducing a straight boy and ‘giving him what he really wants’. But the effort is mostly imaginary . The idea of hiring a straight boyfriend, thrilling as it might be for some gay men, would greatly grind against the macho self-image of most straight men. Such an ill-placed offer could result in a fist instead of a friend.
A Visit with History
I had flown to Asia for six weeks on a Cathay Pacific Asia Pass. During that time I visited new gay friends in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. I dropped in on Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines, because that’s where the plane landed. I knew little about the city or the area or the gay scene or the history. It was a serendipitous visit–my favorite kind. But good planning ahead (via the internet) put me in touch with two native gay men, Reul and Bengi, who live near Cebu City (they do not know each other) and they agreed to meet me on separate days.
Intending to mix scenic and historic adventures with social contacts, I flew into Cebu City clutching a Lonely Planet bible in one hand and my laptop in the other. By coincidence I was plowing my way through a thousand-page biography of General Douglas Mac Arthur’s by historian William Manchester. As I approached Cebu from Hong Kong (the hub for our destinations), the book was approaching Mac Arthur’s’ return to the Philippines in October of 1944.
The timing was good and the invitation to history was strong, so I headed to Leyte, the island adjacent to Cebu, where the General and tens of thousands of troops triumphed in the sea Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was followed by his famous re-entry as he waded ashore to give his "I have returned…" speech that began the liberation of the Philippines.
The great bronze statues of the General and his staff are set in a shallow pond by the very beach where thousands were killed or injured in turning the tide of the war. The monument is a real showstopper of a memorial. The statues are dramatic, almost in motion and 1.5 times life size. Mac Arthur’s ego would have loved it. A few meters away is a ‘Peace Park’ where nations have donated placards supporting world peace. The Japanese plaque reads simply: "Peace on earth."
One of the haunting aspects of history is the silence that follows for generations after horrific events have disintegrated the lives of countless people. This was no exception. Looking out onto the quiet azure waters of that Leyte beach (Red Beach, Palo) and knowing what torment lay beneath the surface remians a heavy moment in time that no one should ignore.
Varieties of Gay Lifestyles
In the 65 years since that battle, life has of course picked up and moved on in ways unimaginable for the soldiers who secured the liberty. Life becomes more refined and more varied when not threatened by terror or tyranny. Liberty allows choice and authenticity and so today people like Reul and Bengi are generally free to define lifestyles that are true to their gay natures. And as may be expected, a variety of lifestyles have emerged over the past half-century.
Bengi met me for lunch the day after Leyte. A university graduate now working as a consultant in the computer industry, he has a quick mind and also clear sense of his sexuality–one very different from Reul and from several of his own friends. "My friends sometimes make fun of me; they say I must be a lesbian because I want a gay boyfriend. They don’t understand the kind of gay life I want. I am a man and I want a man boyfriend to live with. I’m not a flaming kind of guy."
His model of a relationship is one of several he described. Gays in the Philippines fall into three categories. (1) parlor or ‘pa-girls’, the ones associated with a beauty parlor. Technically, they are into the cosmetic and beauty business. They are decked out with ‘fabulous’ gowns and accessories(at night). Or sometimes they simply want to look and be just like women–"but prettier" they think. Bengi says these are "the complete Filipino gay stereotypes who only want straight men for love." Beauticians, parlor attendants, make-up artists, loud stage performers, comic or serious, drag or song-and-dance artists typify this lifestyle.
(2) Subdued gay types, closeted pa-‘mhin’ (corruption of the word man) or ‘man-wannabees’. Said Bengi, "The parlor gays just trash them. These are the obvious types (butch softy’s) whom the pa-gays just abhor because of their duplicity. They dress like ordinary or men and deny their sexuality for fear of ostracism. Many get married to hide their truth and sneak out for gay sex."Rarely is a pa-mhin available as a steady boyfriend, which makes the pa-girls frustrated and scornful.
Bengi’s own model is a third kind: "urban gays–regular looking guys with preference for lovers like themselves. Usually educated and not ashamed to be gay, they prefer to be ‘straight-looking’ for the simple reason that "we would probably look ridiculous as women" laughed Bengi But more seriously, he explained, "I’m just a regular guy who happens to be gay I don’t dress up or show it." This lifestyle is closer to the typical western ‘guppie’ model: has a nine-to-five career, in a monogamous, live-in, equal-role man-to-man (woman-to-woman) emotional bond.
Gays, Straights and the Church
As we talked, we were sitting in a small park by one of Cebu’s most historic monuments, Magellan’s Cross, immediately across from City Hall in the old town. Here in 1521 the first Christian conversions occurred followed by the first Catholic Mass. Magellan had a large cross erected to celebrate the event and the original cross is believed to be inside the present day hollow cross.
In the city and surrounding areas are magnificent ancient buildings and churches dating back to the 16th century. Many of the churches are still used in a pragmatic blending of long-ago history and present day needs:grammar schools are usually connected to the churches. It is difficult to escape being a Catholic in this country, as Bengi and Reul both testified. And equally hard is throwing off the mantle of guilt for being gay that comes with the catechism.
It’s difficult to feel proud of being gay against such a strong religious disapproval toward homosexuality. I had wondered aloud to Reul that given the fear and shame many–not all–gays feel about their sexuality, how could a straight man willingly give himself to a gay person even if only for a while. He laughed in response, I think from seeing the same contradiction I saw. "Yes, these boys go to church and pretend to have girls friends but they like money and sex even more, I think!" was his gleeful yet nervous reply.
Such pa-girl-straight-boy arrangements are commonly a matter of sex and money and these may be the only bonds that keep them together. The ‘pa-girl’ is sometimes the sole support for the boyfriend who may or may not stay long and may or may not temporarily give up girls.
These arrangements vary according to each couple but loyalty is always a risky challenge for them. Bengi reminded me: "a relationship, whether long term or short term, with a straight man will not guarantee equality since it will always be rooted in something material or financial as a return token."Social, sexual, religious and orientation issues constantly push against the success of these often one-sided love affairs. Still, some do fare well: "I have friends who are together for five years now", Reul had declared. "Very happy. They like each other a lot. She makes a happy life for him and he is nice to her. He brings her flowers and they go dancing at the disco!"
During his college years in Manila, Bengi came out and was exposed to the wide variety of gay love styles that exist there; "I went to the bars and discos and saw the drag queens but didn’t want to do that. I had other friends who stayed home with their boyfriends or went out to dinner–like ‘normal’ people. I guess I’m more normal than gay. I definitely prefer another gay person who is similar to me."
In Cebu, a city of 675,000 mostly known for its commercial and shipping enterprises. It is not too difficult to set up house with a lover even though it is smaller than Manila (now over 10 million). But lesbian and gays lovers cohabitate in Manila more easily. "They are more militant and out there. They have pride parades and organizations, but not so much here," said Bengi. It is more difficult to maintain anonymity here.
Nevertheless there are gay places in this city and, like most urban centers, the style of each venue varies a great deal according to the gay-style of its customers. Pa-girls hang out at the local gay beauty pageant venues where they strut their stuff and sometimes win awards in singing, dancing or beauty culture.
The Bird Cage is a popular bar in Cebu where the drag queens can lip-sync sing their favorite divas. Club Circus is a hangout for a mixed crowd while CC is a "rather seedy pub where the creatures of the night like to crawl" –predominantly prostitutes, male and female.
Urban gays are into the ‘uppity’ venues of city since they can afford some luxuries. They go to disco’s like DTM, a warehouse type dance club that plays house and rave music currently popular in Manila bars. They also go to Bai Disco which is mostly a straight dance club with a mix of gays. There is also Rounds, which is a karaoke bar.
As for the closeted ‘pa-mhin’ guys, they are into their straight pretense that includes straight bars and mixed clubs, which are numerous throughout the city. But, Bengi added, "they also go for sleazy encounters in movie houses where one is concealed by the lack of apt light inside."
Part 2: A Second View–From Hong Kong
Serendipity, again, is an important part of venture travel and I am frequently amazed and pleased by the coincidence of events. Two weeks after my meetings with Reul and Bengi, I happened to be in Hong Kong when the "Queer Film Fest" was screening.
One night there were four short films being shown, one of which was the documentary entitled ‘Sunflowers’. It focused on Philippino gays in the town of Pasuquin, Luzon (Philippines’ largest island) who stage the Sunflower Festival every year in honor of Saint Helen.
The documentary flushed out in full color and dialogues what Reul and Bengi told us earlier in Cebu. In addition to the regular religious Sunflower festival, there is an alternative Sunflower festival produced by cross-dressing ‘pa-girls’ who spice it up with fashion drag shows, lip-sync performances, music, dancing and food –all leading up to the climactic entry of St. Helen, borne on a litter, into the town center.
Helen is of course a guy decked out in a fabulous costume. The town loves it and everyone, adults and children, show up.
The film’s director, Shawn Hainsworth, captures all the busy preparations and includes interviews with a number of these guy-girls (who are not transsexuals) as they talk candidly about their lives and loves, some in the presence of their parents. "Why not. They bring happiness to the town" said one timid but proud mother.
One by one, guys like Ferni, Bacala, Abe, Oca, Marshall and others expose their feelings and experiences regarding romantic relationships lending insight into this gay-guy-girl model of love first revealed to me by Reul.
Girl-guys on Screen
The first pa-girl we meet on screen is Marshal who worked for a while as an exotic dancer in Japan where he was able to save money and return home to build a house for himself and his sister and her children. Obviously pleased with providing for his family, he now explains: "You need money to be happy–and to have a boyfriend. It was difficult to be away and pretending to be someone else. Now I can be myself, in my own home. "Ely is younger and does not yet have the means to attract a boyfriend, but he is hopeful. "When I go to love hotels I like to serve my man. I think one will like me soon" (read: when he has enough money to attract a straight mate).
Seffi has been in a seven-year relationship with his straight boyfriend: "because I give myself totally to making my boyfriend happy, he stays with me. I am a woman for him. Before, he had a girlfriend but I was better to him and he chose me. Now I feel equal to a woman." But he also admitted, this kind of loyalty from a straight man to a gay man is unusual; many pa-girls are very aware how tenuous the linkage may be.
Despite the caution, there are often tears and broken hearts when the guy wants to get married and have a family. If the break is not too bad the men may continue to be friends with the gay partner becoming an ‘uncle’ to the children.
The film captures the depth of feeling which these gay men invest in their daily lives. Passion, fear, exuberance, hope and disappointment are all part of the show of life here.
Badong, a local dance teacher, also works in a hair salon. He is decidedly gay and says he thinks like a straight woman: "just because you have a man’s body doesn’t mean you feel like a man in here", he said tapping his chest and leaning forward. "To be gay is a girl and to be straight is a guy. I want a man–and I can be picky too. Things have changed now. There is more money we can earn. Now we are more equal."
His friend Yolley is also a hair stylist who insists he was born gay: "I always liked women’s clothes more than men’s." He has also had a couple of straight boyfriends but they are married now. "If you are not smart, you get hurt. I don’t forget. Of course they will get married–but I can teach them some good fun before that!" he chuckles.
Listening to this, his accepting mother says she can’t change him. She tried but it was no use.
School Teachers and Fabulous Dresses
As the excitement builds toward the festival night in Pasuquin, the preparations and work increase. In the same group of local friends is Abe, a schoolteacher. Hanging decorations on the stage, he tells the camera how his parents were upset with his gayness at first but that was years ago and now they accept him and let him be who is he–a good teacher who loves children.
He says, "most of the Catholic priests are also friendly; one of them calls us children of God. But another one says we are sinners. But I think God understands."
Another teacher, Ferni, goes to work everyday in regular men’s clothing: "You see we do not always dress like that (in drag). We are not afraid to be more out now because we are professionals. There are doctors, nurses, lawyers, journalists, and teachers. We are more educated now and we can assert our equality."
Some of the new boldness is encouraged by the lack of violence toward gays in the Philippine culture. Bengi said it was almost unheard of that someone would physically attack a person for being gay.
Meanwhile, the big night of the Sunflower Festival arrives as the excitement builds, costumes are fitted, lanterns and lights hung, make-up applied, music sweetens the air and the ‘royal’ procession starts. Famous queens enter the arena regaled in elegant kitsch: Nerfertiti, Sheba, Empress of Rome and finally Saint Helen in glorious ersatz majesty. Cheers, laughter, applause greet the climax and the town is once again made happy by real queens who love a party and know a thing or two about dressing up. And then the fashion show starts, gloriously outrageous and over the top, smothered in silks and sequins, hairstyles for days and eyelashes that could lift weights. The crowds love it and the models get what they most desire–status and admiration. The festival works for all.
A New Understanding
After the film, I went out to dinner with some Hong Kong gay friends who were also intrigued by the gay-straight twist of sexuality portrayed in the Philippine culture. Our Cebu friends had told it like it is and tonight we had been shown like it is. I was grateful once again for friendship–and serendipity.
I shared with our dinner group what Reul had said at our first meeting: "I don’t want a queer boyfriend. I want a husband…not another girl!" And, with a new understanding, we also laughed.
Our visit to the palm-filled, history-saturated Philippines, a land of friendly people and alternative traditions, had been made more valuable by the kindred spirits in far-off Hong Kong who arranged the Queer Film Fest. Talk about one world!
A New Life for Older Gays–and Hope for Younger Gays
Needless to say, it’s not wholly accurate to categorize gay men into three simple types– pa-girls, pa-mhin, and urban guys–since many people blend into more than one type or go beyond them. In a message to GlobalGayz, a reader, Mike, reminded us of another style that easily blends into the complex Philppine culture: young Filipino guys involved with older Caucasian guys.
In various SE Asian countries age is experienced differently than in the west. A 60-year-old caucasian is often seen as 45 in the eyes of locals. As a result, countless gay men (I don’t know about women, sorry to say) over 55 from western countries, where they are seen as ‘tired old queens’, have relocated to this area and found revitalized life and love. This older-younger dyad of course has other motivating factors such as money and opportunity in addition to sexual desire. Some critics condemn these arrangements as exploitation, perhaps with some truth, but they are mostly ignored in real life where emotion, sexuality and culture coalesce to form passionate bonds between two people.
This type of affiliation also has traditional precedents in Asian cultures in the form of mentor-apprentice relationship where families are pleased to see an alter-father figure take an interest in a youth for training or education. It’s not unusual for a physical bond to form in the process, which is mostly understood and unspoken.
Mike’s impassioned testimony is posted here in order to share the inside of such a distinct mentor-apprentice couple:
"I moved to the Philippines from the States in October, 2008, and have never felt a more warm and welcoming environment. In my personal experience gays are much more accepted here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived (over much of the western world).
One fact that bears on the Philippine situation: statistically, almost 3 million ‘bois’ between ages 15 and 24 are gay (assuming 20% of that age group). Some have little choice, actually, since girls are expected to retain their virginity until marriage (quite attractive 30-yr-old unmarried Filipino virgins are by no means unheard of) and with the tight rein the family places on the younger generation, a "fling" at homosexuality–for pleasure or practice–among the guys is perfectly acceptable.
I happen to be 75 years old, prefer companions 18-25, and am literally swamped with potential partners. Web sites such as planetromeo.com (nee’ guys4men) and adam4adam.com, plus the sites designed for older gentlemen hopeful of meeting the younger set, apollo.com and findgaydads.com for example, make meeting these young men very easy.
Interestingly (to me, at any rate) is the flag that comes up on some of the oldster sites warning of scammers in the Phils: a valid point. But one also has to be realistic–my eyes are quite open. Many of these kids are expected to support their families, many of which barely scratch by on 100PhP ($2.00) per day.
So the "exchange of gifts" seems only fair to me. I’m putting two of my companions through college ($125.00 per semester) plus room and board (a 3 BR Condo, 30th floor with pool, rents furnished for only 20,000PhP, $420USD, a month) plus all the rice they can eat, a prodigious amount, I’ve discovered; I have personally eaten more rice in the past six months than in the past six years! And I am a very welcome guest in the boys’ homes where I exchange cultural differences with the entire family.
I hope this gives you small glimpse of my life and delight in living in this accepting Society."