Ladlad: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing
I was only five years old when the book first came out. I only got a hold of it eight years ago when I was a college Sophomore. I still remember my knees trembling slightly and my forehead breaking out in discrete beads of cool sweat as I brought it to the librarian.
The first volume of Ladlad: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing (1994), edited by J. Neil C. Garcia and Danton Remoto, was published twenty years ago. The societal landscape concerning the Filipino LGBT Community has slowly changed since then. However, even after such a long time, most of the struggles tackled in this collection for and by members of the Filipino LGBT Community still ring clear and true.
The word Ladlad means “unfurling of the cape” which is the Filipino equivalent of the Western “coming out of the closet.” In this anthology, there are thirteen short stories, thirty poems, three essays, and three plays; an even combination of compositions written in Filipino and English.
We are more than a “ridiculously funny joke”
The common Filipino term for gay is bakla, which is a contraction of the words babae (female) and lalaki (male). Because of this definition, most everyone (gays and straights alike) associates homosexuality with the flamboyant and effeminate. And the mass media are not helping to correct this twisted notion because the only gays the public sees are the beauticians and comedians, screaming on TV and movie screens, causing thunderous laughter from the audience.
A story in this book Ang Lalaking Ipinaglihi kay Marilyn Monroe (The man who was conceived after Marilyn Monroe) shows this very sad fact by relating how the very essence, the very presence, of the homosexuals is light and beautiful even amid tragedy, as in the life and death of Marilyn Monroe.
However, there are also some compositions that directly address the secret, dark depths of “the flamboyant and effeminate.” There is Par, which is a short story about the awakening of a transvestite whose straight live-in partner beats her up every day. Lucy, on the other hand, is a short narrative about Lucio’s struggle in denying his softer side.
Some poems are also inspired by the plight of the more fabulous members of the community. Among others, The Ballad of the Three Queens: Asia, Oriental & Exotica shares how behind each randy queen going out in the wee hours, there is a mother praying “to bring back the jewels / lost in the night / in heat.” Real Men: A Cycle shows how a hardworking hairdresser’s life is connected to different types of men — the rich customer who beats his wife, the young man who wants free haircuts all year ‘round, and the guy with the eggplant cock — and the irony of how these “real men / are real / because beside them / I am nothing.”
We cover a wide spectrum beyond
“the flamboyant and effeminate”
Indeed, Ladlad is a book of coming out, and it wants to tell everyone that the homsexuals are not just cross-dressing queens; we also exist and are hidden within the very core of machismo society.
The play Esprit de Corps exhibits this most. In one act, it shows how Cadet Major Favila, an Operations and Training Officer and senior high school student, deals with his hidden desire for a junior trainee, Cadet Private Sarmiento. At first, he tries to show how strong and masculine he is by bullying and initiating a push-up contest against the younger cadet. The story takes its turn, however, when he is unable to contain his passion any longer.
Murphy Red’s Simpleng Taytel, Kumplikadong Kuwento (meaning “simple title, complicated story”) is an erotic narration of how a manly homosexual has been moving and finding release between drinking and pot sessions with his masculine straight friends. As he finally comes out to one of his buddies, who says that he does not look gay at all, he defends, “‘Dre, iba-iba ang itsura namin, e… Di synchronized ang pilantik ng daliri at di choreographed ang mga mannerisms, mga kembot, mga kendeng. (Dude, we [homsexuals] look different from each other… The way our pinkies rise is not synchronized and our mannerisms, the way our hips shake, the way we strut are not choreographed.)” This reflects how the society is clearly ignorant of the more “clandestine” members of the community.
Karnehan (Meat place), on the other hand, is a narrative poem about hooking up with other gym habitues. In a rather stimulating approach, it relates how the seduction starts where “Dito ako tutugisin / ng isang patak ng pawis. / Bubulong itong parang bubuyog habang / Namumuo, nanginginig mula sa kanyang / kilikili (Here, I begin to be pursued / by a drop of sweat / Whispering like a bee while / Forming, shivering from his / armpits.)”
These are only some of the many selections in the collection that prove how the bakla goes beyond the common notion that homosexuals in the Philippines are known. And it is this covert other half of the dichotomy that the anthology wants to expose most.
We are just the same as everyone else
Another message the collection wants to tell is that the LGBT Community shares the same aspirations and desires as everybody else. Forgive me for quoting the 1998 UK Film Get Real, “It’s only love. What’s everyone so scared of?”
As a matter of fact, some of the compositions included in Ladlad are very universal. Even straight people can relate to the raw emotions each of them convey. The fantastical and tragic poem The Archaeology of Youth shows how each of us are affected by our childhood experiences. It tells a story of how one’s grandfather lived a life without caring for what other people had to say. He tells the poet that, in each birthday, he should “Swallow the candles / so no one can take away the years.”
The narrative poem Rain tells of a lover far away (“But you are here, / in the country / of my mind”), while the electrically charged rhythms of May Isang Pangalan (There is one name) explore the poet’s desire for a member of the male species, with lines such as “Napag-aalab ako sa ginaw ng Nobyembre, / bumabagang pugon ang nasimulang rikit / ngunit tilaok ng manok ang tanging kaniig. (I am warmed by the coolness of November / burning furnace is the dawning beauty / only to commune with the rooster’s crow).” The same goes for To You Who Wear Jeans So Well, as the poet, ecstatic, shares that “as my fingers swim / the length of your spine, / i slowly begin to drown.”
Had these writings been put on another collection, no one would have necessarily thought they were for and by gays.
We continue to be repressed
by the wrong public notion
It is disheartening to think that not too much has changed from when Ladlad was first published. The wrong images of the LGBT community still persists in society twenty years later. Talented gay actors still choose to hide inside their closets, knowing that their personalities would take a higher interest over their acting ability.
Homosexuals working in industries other than entertainment, beauty, and fashion keep their voices low (literally) and pinkies down, with the fear of being persecuted and judged, as depicted in the poem Tatlong sitsit ng tikbalang (Three calls from the horse-man). Three painful lines from the poem can sum up the current state of gays in white collars: “Hindi papantay ang talino at sipag / sa binhi ng hinala / na dala ng kurbatang bulaklakin. (Brains and diligence will never match / the seed of suspicion / springing from the floral necktie.)”
Michael L. Tan’s essay Sickness and Sin: Medical and Religious Stigmatization of Homosexuality in the Philippines clearly explains how the bakla is faced with the “double dilemma” brought about by the Church (that we are sinners) and medical practitioners (that we are diseased). Today, while the powers from the medical side seem to have ceased, the afflictions inflicted on the bakla by the Church (in predominantly Catholic Philippines) continue. And these are the reasons why homosexuals in the country feel unable or unwilling to further explore their sexuality and horizons.
We find and make love in the shadows
Today, there are countless gay bars and party places in Metro Manila alone, proudly announcing themselves in colorful lighted tarpaulins or screaming neon signages. Despite this, the cinemas and dark corners continue to cater to the more covert members of the community.
I can speak for myself when I say that places, such as the one from the poem Species “Where boy faces can’t be told from wrinkles / of old men in boys’ clothes hurrying slowly / towards the dark pulsating wounds between / skeleton buildings under the red moon…” still exist in this generation of homosexuals. Also, it is unfortunate to think that, in public, we cannot talk of “the first eye contact / conversations glowing / in the night, / lips and fingers touching, / groping for each other’s loneliness,” as expressed in The Way We Live.
Since its publication in 1994, Ladlad has evolved into two more volumes which I will explore in later articles, Ladlad 2 published two years later in 1996, and Ladlad 3 eleven years after that in 2007.
While this book does not necessarily ask all homosexuals to come out into the open, it asks us to come out to ourselves and accept who we are. Because, as I would now tell my nervous college Sophomore self, checking this book out at the library, now enlightened, having read it, by each of the talented writers in it…there is nothing wrong with us.
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