I was 18 when I had my first taste of Philippine queer cinema with the film Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005). As the credits rolled, I was a mess; emotions battered me like hail. Later that week, our philosophy professor asked us a question that will stay with me forever: “Was Maxie truly himself or was he only presenting an image acceptable to the world around him?” As queer people, we are bombarded with questions like these almost every day.
Growing up, our household’s only luxury was cable TV. Sometimes, we fawned over the T-Rex from Jurassic Park (1993) on Star Movies. Other times, we’d laugh at Super-b (2002) as she backflipped across Metro Manila on Cinema One. We didn’t travel much, so we spent most of our time flipping through channels choosing which experiences we would vicariously live through.
Nathan Lopez and JR Valentin in Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005). (Image via International Film Festival Rotterdam)
While films played an active role in how I grew up, I only began diving into queer cinema in my sophomore year of college — the year I first ‘came out’. After years of consuming Western representations of queerness, I only realized recently that lives that mirrored mine weren’t often reflected on Philippine TV, or even in cinema. Most especially if you grew up young and gay in the province. Were these characters just not there or was I just not looking hard enough? I felt like I was reliant on Western cinema, but was that only because it was difficult to access Philippine queer cinema?
As I was looking into the evolution of Philippine queer cinema, I came across Dr. Mikee Inton-Campbells’ work “Bakla and the silver screen: queer cinema in the Philippines”. She writes about four common narratives for the bakla alone — the effeminate comedic relief, the melodramatic and tragic gay, the hypermasculine paminta, and the campy queen. While these narratives aren’t necessarily a direct line of a Pokemon-style evolution of the bakla, they did help me understand how these archetypes were born and why they still persist today.
The laughable, flamboyant cross-dressing bakla was birthed thanks to Sampaguita Productions’ Jack and Jill (1954) starring Dolphy, a.k.a. the King of Comedy in Philippine cinema. We see this character in the rest of his filmography, but it’s one that is also alive and well throughout filmic history, especially as side characters (often parloristas). These characters battle the attempts of our patriarchal society to ‘convert’ the bakla into an acceptable masculine identity, only to ultimately fail because of their unchangeable identity. Such stereotypes are continued in his successor Roderick Paulate’s filmography such as Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (2014) and are still on full display in recent films like The Panti Sisters (2019).
Dolphy as Gorio/Glory in Jack and Jill (1954). (Image via MUBI)
The second, the melodramatic bakla was born from an attempt to humanize the comedic relief character and this is seen in Dolphy’s later-in-life filmography such as Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (1978). The tragic character endures much suffering throughout his lifetime, seemingly as punishment for his kabaklaan. As exemplified in Markova: Comfort Gay (2000), the violence manifests as physical beatings or through sexual assault.
Suffering is used to romanticize and legitimize the struggles of the community, even when there are better and more humanizing ways of depicting these multidimensional narratives. These paralleled the social movements and fight for LGBT+ rights and human rights, especially during the Martial Law era. While the narrative of ‘burying the gays’ and ‘homophobic hate crimes’ still exists in Western media, as summarized in this piece by Benjamin Lee, this has been mostly abandoned by the 1990s in Philippine queer cinema, if not subverted in films like Die Beautiful (2016).
Oliver Aquino and Arnold Reyes as lovers in Kasal (2014). (Image via GagaOOLala)
However, many of these incarnations failed to discuss sexuality and gender identity and the more sexual and masculine bakla (paminta) was somewhat a response to this gap. We see this in characters still grounded in poverty, such as in Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), and in the middle to upper-class like in Lino Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto (1971) and Jay Altajeros’ Kasal (2014). These iterations were birthed from a globalized but also Westernized understanding of the ‘masculine gay’. It unearthed discussions about the objectification and the fluidity of sexuality, but also of the inherent effeminophobia within the queer community.
On the other hand, the ‘campy queen’ as depicted in Vice Ganda’s filmography and persona is an attempt at making the packaging of the bakla palatable to the middle and upper class while pandering to bakya culture in the hopes of marrying disparate LGBT+ representations and increasing accessibility. In the unapologetic kabaklaan of Vice Ganda in films such as Praybeyt Benjamin (2011), there is space for the average Filipino to laugh at their own self-contradictions, and for the queer child to see a rags-to-riches story come true.
I sometimes hesitate to cast any moral judgment on the characters within these films because they must be seen through the lens and context of their creation. Though I recognize that many of these films are damaging to the queer community because they are homophobic and transphobic, it’s worth mentioning that they were radical in those times and may have resonated with similar queer lives. Back then, there weren’t many representations of queer culture onscreen, the ones that did exist were either unidimensional or side characters. It’s important to be aware of these contradictions given cinema’s role as an active participant in the discourse and development of human identities, beliefs, and behaviors towards LGBT+ individuals.
Funding and access to these films remain not just a problem for queer stories, but in filmmaking as a whole. In a 2017 roundtable with CNN Life, writer/director Jade Castro states that barriers to distribution for independent films still exist and studio systems that can surpass them also limit the creative freedom of filmmakers to prioritize profit and maintain partnerships. It is through this that I’ve come to realize that bigger studios often bank on grander narratives to please the bigger population, rather than the smaller narratives that tell more unique stories (or, the stories I sought as a child).
Regardless of the limits of these opportunities, there is still space for different representations of not just the bakla, but also the different lives in the LGBT+ community. Stigmatized topics are now approached differently such as in the Cinemalaya short Gulis (2019), where the discussion of HIV status mends a relationship between a dysfunctional father and son. We are also seeing more regional representations and unseen queer narratives. Other stories such as Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin (2012) gives light to lesbian relationships in the context of Islam while Si Astri Maka Si Tambulah (2017) tracks the life of a Badjau transwoman who is caught between choosing her lover or adhering to tradition.
Zar Donato and Gabby Padilla in Billie and Emma (2018). (Image via Outfest LA LGBTQ Film Festival)
What we often forget is that these stories onscreen are a message of the consequences of queerness, especially to younger generations. Thankfully queer coming-of-age narratives like Billie and Emma (2018) and Metamorphosis (2019) are now available to these generations, narratives that certainly would’ve helped me growing up. More Filipino films are also becoming more mainstream and accessible thanks to streaming services like iWant, iFlix, and Netflix, as well as the Lockdown Cinema Club initiative. Hopefully, the recent boom of interest for Boys’ Love (BL) content and the proof of an active market for LGBT+ stories improves the quantity, quality, and diversity of queer stories available in the Philippines.
I willingly admit that I haven’t seen all of Filipino queer cinema, nor am I able to discuss the nuances of LGBT+ identity, politics, and representation in this limited time and space. When I go back to the question my professor asked me, I am still unable to answer it. I do know that even though the world tells who we should be, we have the agency to decide who we want to be.
Films are often seen as a reflection of reality, but I believe that there is much more to it. They also seek to reimagine in an effort to challenge and change reality. I hope that in diversifying and humanizing the LGBT+ characters on film, we also extend the rights that the community has fought for into the lives of those we see reflected on the silver screen.
Header art by Jomer Haban
Jase is a molecular biologist finishing his Master’s degree at the University of the Philippines Diliman… and he’s an actor too. When he’s not in the lab or onstage, he’s writing film essays and scripts for future films. If you want to hire him as a writer/actor or bully him into writing his thesis, follow him @jaseybel.
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