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Growing up with the on-screen bakla

By Michael Roy Brosas Published Aug 12, 2022 5:00 am

As a queer kid, I used to avoid television shows and movies with gay characters. Whenever actors who were typecast, like Roderick Paulate or Eric Quizon, would appear on our family television, I would make myself as small as possible, afraid that I would be identified with the characters they were playing. Even as a child, I knew that the queerness I saw on screen did not represent who I am.

Philippine cinema is not short on queer characters. However, most of the time, gay roles in the media are reduced to caricatures. They are often stereotypically portrayed as flamboyant, feminine and hypersexual. Although there is nothing wrong with these traits, the problem lies in how these are only played for laughs rather than to humanize queerness. In most films and TV series, gay men are one-dimensional characters whose happiness is sacrificed for the fulfillment of the other characters.

This theme continues in the second movie The Amazing Praybeyt Benjamin, where possible love interests are introduced, but Benjamin’s romantic happiness is never fulfilled.

In The Unkabogable Praybeyt Benjamin, Vice Ganda’s character Benjamin doesn’t end up with the male lead of the film. Instead, it queerbaits the audience into perceiving the possibility of a romance between them and Brandon (Derek Ramsay), only to be let down in the end. This theme continues in the second movie The Amazing Praybeyt Benjamin, where possible love interests are introduced, but Benjamin’s romantic happiness is never fulfilled. In This Guy’s in Love with U, Mare!, another film with Vice Ganda as the protagonist, the movie dooms the queer character to an unrequited attraction to a priest.

Aside from this archetypal singledom, movies have also signaled that being straight is normal and better. In films like Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington and Echorsis: Sabunutan between Good and Evil, homosexuality is depicted respectively as a curse and a punishment, something male protagonists needed to get rid of. On multiple occasions, we also see in films how effeminate characters are “converted” to become more masculine, mostly through violent methods like beating or dunking them in drums of water.

It reinforced the idea often drilled into my skull by society that there was something inherently wrong with me simply because I wasn’t straight-identifying.

Seeing these movies during my formative years affected how I viewed myself and how I related to others. It reinforced the idea often drilled into my skull by society that there was something inherently wrong with me simply because I wasn’t straight-identifying. Seeing characters with whom I resonated being punished for who they are left an impression that I was undeserving of love. After all, if the characters who were meant to represent me never get to live their happily ever afters, what are the chances that I will?

Without healthy examples of what a functioning queer relationship looked like, I searched for affection in the wrong places. I sought out emotionally unavailable people and pushed away those with genuine intentions. It was difficult for me to accept intimacy when the people I modeled myself on were shown as unlovable.

This reductive portrayal of the on-screen bakla could be because stereotypically queer characters are more commercially viable. For queerness to be profitable, it must not have any subversive qualities that could threaten the status quo. Queer characters must be funny and entertaining for movies to sell. In Bading na Bading: Evolving Identities in Philippine Cinema, Ronald Baytan argues that the bakla in film is tolerated “as long as his characterization does not question society’s construction of the abject.”

For queerness to be profitable, it must not have any subversive qualities that could threaten the status quo.

Fortunately, in recent years, there have been notable changes in how the media depicts male queerness. The advent of Boys’ Love (BL), a genre centered around the romance between two male characters, provided necessary changes in the portrayal of queer men. In one of the scenes of Gaya Sa Pelikula, I remember swelling with pride when Karl (Paolo Pangilinan) finally danced with unrestrained zeal after years of holding back. By the time Vlad (Ian Pangilinan) joined him, I was crying tears of utmost joy. It was liberating to see someone bravely embrace themselves and be loved for it.

I am hopeful that one day, our stories will no longer be trivialized and reduced to dehumanizing stereotypes. I long to see the day when queer kids won’t have to make themselves small while watching on-screen characters they identify with.

There has also been a shift in how effeminate men and transfeminine people are being portrayed. In The Boy Foretold by the Stars, instead of using Dominic’s (Adrian Lindayag) effeminate nature as something to laugh at, the film treats his gender expression as something to love and celebrate.

In Mamu and a Mother Too, we get to see transfeminine people outside the traditional slapstick comedy. Instead of the usual punchlines, the film illustrates the different ways transgender people are being oppressed by the current system, yet it doesn’t further victimize its main characters Mamu (Iya Mina) and Bona (EJ Jallorina) with a tragic ending. At the conclusion of their stories, both characters are fulfilled and with flourishing romantic connections.

I am grateful to witness this evolution of the on-screen bakla, since it allows us to see queer people happily live their authentic lives, a notion that I once thought was impossible. After years of being conditioned to reject my own queerness and hide from it, I am now learning to love myself for who I am.

However, Philippine cinema still has a long way to go in terms of representation. In an interview with My Day: The Series casts, Iñaki Torres said that the boy’s love genre “doesn’t mean gay.” According to him, it is “two straight guys na nagka-in-love-an.” This remark is not only an erasure of homosexuality in its own genre, but it also dissociates the actor from queer identities while simultaneously profiting off of queerness.

He has apologized for his comment, but moving forward, it is necessary to understand how queer characters aren’t just roles to fill. Queer identities aren’t challenges for straight actors to accept. These are depictions of very real material conditions that both reflect and affect the lives of queer folks.

I am hopeful that one day, our stories will no longer be trivialized and reduced to dehumanizing stereotypes. I long to see the day when queer kids won’t have to make themselves small while watching on-screen characters they identify with.