Last year, in the City of Marikina, I saw rainbows not because of the rain but because of the people undaunted by it.
The first one who comes to mind is the man who stood close to me, a lanky, colorfully-dressed figure fiddling with his phone. We were at the open field of the Marikina Sports Center and, when the deluge came, his immediate response was to unfurl an umbrella bearing the tertiary colors. “It’s your time to shine,” he said to the device as the sky darkened.
To my right, I saw two women running towards each other. One had a rainbow flag hanging on the ends of her outstretched arms and when they finally met on the field, she turned it into a hood that covered both of them.
Then there was the crowd surrounding us. When the downpour worsened, causing the surfaces of the city to rattle, they met it with cheers louder than the clap water falling hard on thin metal. Some of them carried colorful signs and continued to wave them even as the sky drenched us.
These are my people, I thought, wet but undamped. And a lot of them were there that day.
I was at the 24th Metro Manila Pride. The parade, which has long become a staple of the event, had just begun and the roads surrounding the center were starting to tighten. People carrying various versions of the rainbow flag have started to slow down vehicular traffic and while watching them do this, my editor, standing next to me, commented: “I don’t think this event has ever been this big.”
Apparently, he’s right. As of last year, the 24th outing of this Pride—an initiative fueled by about 600 volunteers—was the largest Pride demonstration to ever happen in Southeast Asia. The headcount that year was “25,000 strong,” so the final estimate revealed—a more-than 300 percent increase compared to the figure of the previous year. And, according to its organizers, this upsurge was hardly surprising.
At their tent inside in the sports center, with their voices competing against the muffled raucous of the crowd outside, Metro Manila Pride’s Mikhail Quijano and Nikki Castillo said that social media played a part in increasing the number of marchers this year.
“The presence it has generated in the past few years has been snowballing,” Quijano said, but he was quick to add that it wasn’t the only reason for the increase. There’s also the issue of the Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill, a measure crafted to legally protect members queer community from discrimination based on gender identity or expression. When that year’s pride march happened, the bill, which passed the House of Representatives was still languishing in the Senate. And while it did, people continued to feel the effects of its absence.
According to a survey conducted by Rainbow Rights Philippines in 2018, six out of 10 members of the queer community have suffered discrimination due to gender identity or sexual orientation. This supports an earlier report made by Human Rights Watch which declared that Filipinos who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) have suffered bullying and other abuses in school.
This is the hard reality as far as Castillo was concerned and she believed that it lit “a fire under the asses” of the Pride march participants that year.
“Where is it?” Castillo said of the SOGIE Bill. “It hasn’t even been tabled for so long. What’s happening?”
With the theme “Rise Up Together,” 2018’s Metro Manila Pride became the platform to ask such questions. Unfortunately for the community, it also became a place for some of us to confront other issues upfront.
Later that evening, after the march and as performers took the stage situated inside the Marikina Sports Center, my editor asked me what I thought was the most memorable thing about my Pride experience this year.
“Like, when we got separated earlier,” he said. “What sticks out?” And the reflex of an answer that I gave was “I got into a fight.”
“OK,” I corrected myself. “Maybe you won’t call it a fight.” But it was a scene, I said. And, as I recounted to him the details of how what happened, I caught my face framed by the thick rims of his glasses, cringing.
It happened after the rain. I was on a sidewalk flanking the sports center with my face occasionally dropping behind a camera. Before me, there was a crowd large and dense enough to make the asphalt vanish in some of my wide-angled shots. At that time, the estimated headcount of the crowd was still below 20,000 but it was nonetheless an impressive turnout as far as local Pride marches were concerned. And, at that sidewalk, as I took shot after shot, my memory card soon got filled with the faces of people representing the components of that gathering.
Across the street, for example, I caught a man who was planting a kiss on another man’s shoulder right before they thickened the crowd. To my right, I saw a woman carrying a sign that read “straight without hate.” And all around us, amidst a sea of rainbow-colored paraphernalia, were texts bearing a variety of statements: from declarations of personal truths (“Shhh. My mom doesn’t know that I’m here,”) to affirmations of support (“Jesus doesn’t hate and neither do we,”) to business names written beside sentiments of inclusivity. It was an assemblage of natural allies. But they weren’t the only ones crowding that street.
“Kung hindi kayo magbabago [If you don’t change,]” I remember hearing, “sa impyerno ang punta niyo [you’re bound for hell.]”
This expression of dissent came from a man who stood beside me. From the looks of him, he seemed to be in his early 30s; medium-built, face scared with what appeared to be pockmarks and maybe an inch or so taller than my 5’6 frame. On his neck hung a starkly colored sign that read “ask me why you’re going to hell” and on his hand was a megaphone carrying his voice. On one side of it, I saw the words “stop sinning;” on another, “FEAR GOD!”
“Ang pride ay kasalanan [Pride is a sin,]” he yelled again. And though he said something else, I could no longer hear him. The crowd had swelled so much that the private conversations and chants it carried with it began to drown him out. The stage inside the center wasn’t cooperating with him either. Since I arrived, it has been loudly playing music: from classic queer anthems to songs featured on RuPaul’s Drag Race. And it continued to do so as the march progressed.
“So how did you end up getting on each other’s throats?” my editor asked.
To put it simply, I yelled. I yelled when people could hear me clearly. It happened when a momentary lull came upon us. The stage went quiet in between songs, the crowd, while still chatty, toned down a bit and the vitriol spewing from the man’s megaphone became a lot more perceptible. That’s when I heard it; the one statement that forced me to open my mouth.
“Parang ikaw, sir [Like you, sir,]” he said to one of the marchers with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. “Gwapo ka pero bakla ka. Sayang ka lang. [You’re handsome but gay. You’re only a waste.]”
When you’re queer in the Philippines—a country where blind adherence to religion is often used to put the heteronormative on a pedestal —there is a chance that you’ll hear a variant of this statement: “You’re (anything positive under the sun) but you’re queer; what a waste.” And as someone who has been out for nearly two decades now, I’ve had my fill of that. I imagined that some people in that march did too. And, like me, they were hurt by it. Basically, it more or less implies that no matter how well we live our lives, no matter how much we accomplish with our time in this world, some people still believe that we are beneath them just because of who we prefer to have sex with. And that’s when it started.
After hearing that, after inferring that the man said such things to turn this march of pride to a march of shame, I took a deep breath, yelled “happy pride” as loud as I could and caused the crowd right in front of us to erupt joyfully in response. The price, however, is that this made me the new focus of his megaphone-powered tirade.
I don’t recall much of what I said when we started addressing each other directly. I was too heated. I do remember berating him; taking shots at his logic, and questioning his intelligence. But what I remembered more were the things I initially spotted on the periphery of my vision.
I recall seeing a child tugging on the man’s sleeve. Perhaps this was his son; perhaps he was worried when I walked closer to them with the veins in my neck sticking out. And I thought that when he is eventually raised to believe that all queer people are deserving of divine punishment, he would remember this incident and be more susceptible to such a rearing. I also saw bits of the crowd distancing themselves from us; I saw faces flinching and heads shaking. And this is when I realized that I was wrong; I failed my community.
“I just wish I reacted better,” I told my editor as we began walking around the center still filled with people.
“You always do,” he replied. “You’re always way too hard on yourself.”
When he said this, I couldn’t help but think that sometimes, that’s the price that the queer are forced to pay for being themselves. It’s one of the basics of equality; because there is such an obvious lack of it, those who suffer due to that reality are pressured to excel just to be viewed as an equal by others. I know way too many people who have been through this.
During my teen years, for example, I was friends with a boy who would be brought to tears by the results of his exams in school. One time, I found him crying because he got 95 out of a hundred in a math test. And in one of the instances when I tried to console him, something he said stuck to me: “if I wasn’t like this”–gay and effeminate much to his father’s displeasure–“I can afford those 5 mistakes.”
In my twenties meanwhile, I had a friend who worked two jobs. And even though one of those jobs afforded him a car, he would opt to face the long waits and lines suffered by the Metro’s commuters daily to prevent himself from spending on gas.
“I’m saving up,” he told me. “I don’t have a choice.”
He then shared the story of his family, how he’s practically dead to them now. He told me about how his aunt caught him kissing another man outside a mall in Ortigas, a scene that caused his family to disown him.
“I fend for myself now,” he said. “I don’t have parents to run to.”
And then there’s me in my 30s. I make mistakes made available for public scrutiny and they haunt me for days. I’ll let my temper get the better of me, get into an argument in front of other people and worry nonstop over its implications. Some days, my mishaps, no matter how small, make me think of the people who thought less of me just because I’m gay; how they must feel that their thoughts are justified. I think of my friends, even though I don’t have too many; how much secondhand embarrassment I might be giving them. Then, I think about the bigger picture: my community. I think about the best of us; public and private figures working to better our situation in a country that, in general, seems to only tolerate our existence. I think about the good work they’ve done and how that can get tarnished by people like me who just can’t keep it together.
This is what I am after all: whether I like it or not, people in this country can and will see me as a representative of my people. “And I’m a damn awful one,” I concluded.
“You’re also someone who’s still alive” my editor suddenly said. And as we started to leave the venue, he continued to talk. “Let’s pretend that we agree. You did poorly. It doesn’t change the fact that you still have a chance to get things right or do things better.” And I remembered catching myself, again, within the rims of his glasses, smiling.
“You still have work to do,” he said. “Good news; you have time to do it.”
W hen I was writing most of this, I was staring through the window of some apartment in Ortigas, watching the district’s sky go dark midday.
It was the end of June again. The rainy season has returned. On the 29th should the weather be, at the very least, manageable, Metro Manila Pride will crowd the streets of Marikina and the people behind it will once again have a good reason to gather and voice their thoughts.
Earlier this year, after all, efforts to pass the SOGIE Bill have failed. The measure was put in limbo. While a handful of supposedly religious senators and groups aired their dissent for it, the bill went into a long period of interpellation that eventually led to it being archived by the end of the 17th Congress. Because of this, the measure—which took 19 years to pass through the House of Representatives and end up in the hands of senators—will have to start from scratch and be filed again. This means that members of our community will, for the time being, remain unprotected from discrimination based on gender identity or expression.
Meanwhile, I believe that local realities will continue to be a problem for us. When I go to this year’s Pride march, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if I see yet another man with a megaphone, there to tell us that we’ll all be going to hell. And given the weather conditions these days, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it suddenly rains.
Still, I hope for the sun to shine once the deluge ends. But even if it doesn’t and we get no rainbows–no symbols of hope–after the rain, it should be fine, I think. We’ll be bringing our own anyway.