All-American bakla

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Photo of Nicholas Clark

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During elementary school in the 2000s, my grandmother used to babysit me after school. After whipping me up a small snack of pan de sal and peanut butter, we’d sit down to watch some TV. Her choice was usually teleseryes, the Pilipinx version of a soap opera. 

At a young age, I developed an addiction to these shows. Teleseryes offered a glimpse into the Pilipinx culture my family grew up with, something that couldn’t be replicated in my small American town. Trust and believe, I gobbled up the mediocre acting, cliche plotlines and over-the-top characters as if they were french fries. 

Although I learned a lot about the Philippines and even picked up some of the language, what I really took away from these teleseryes was the deep-rooted homophobia within the country.

Unlike some other Asian countries, the Philippines is a majority Christian nation, with much of the population belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. The traditions and beliefs of Catholicism are so important to Pilipinx culture that divorce, abortion and gay marriage are illegal. This religious conservatism permeates all aspects of Pilipinx culture. None of these topics would even be discussed in my family because they were so taboo. My beloved teleseryes weren’t safe either. 

In the teleseryes, there were always a dearth of queer characters. The very few LGBTQ+ characters that appeared were relegated to the secondary cast and usually acted as comedic relief. Not only that, main characters would call the gay one “bakla,” which is the Pilipinx term for gay. The disgusted tone that usually accompanied the word made it seem derogatory. This taught me to equate queerness with inferiority — an identity that could never be fully accepted in Pilipinx culture. 

As I was slowly coming to terms with my sexuality as a child, the lack of good representation in the teleseryes made everything more complicated. Did being gay make me less Filipino? Was being gay and American the antithesis to being Filipino?

This identity crisis only worsened with the U.S. programming I watched. Many American shows in 2009 had visible LGBTQ+ characters because of the relative secularism and open-mindedness in the country.

“Glee” was the show that captured all my preteen attention, and the character that stood out to me the most on “Glee” was Kurt Hummel, one of the gay main characters of the show. He wasn’t there to be anyone’s gay best friend, as he actually had a storyline and was a complex character. But he was best known for being unapologetically gay: He wore all of the designer brands, listened to female pop stars and kept a well-groomed appearance. Although there were many students bullying him, Hummel never changed how he expressed himself, showing his perseverance in the face of homophobia.

Hummel was one of the earliest positive portrayals of a queer character I encountered. His character proved that LGBTQ+ people were not just accessories, but they were worthy of having the spotlight. If Hummel can be unabashedly gay, then so can I. It wasn’t something to feel ashamed of, unlike what I saw in Pilipinx media.

Over time, the teleseryes and American shows created two warring factions within me. It was like “Game of Thrones” without the incest and dragons. Should I be the straight Filipino that my culture demanded or the star-spangled, gay American? Through this internal mayhem, the answer was right in front of me: watching more television. 

Several years later, after all my teleseryes were finished, I kept the television on, expecting to see the Pilipinx evening news. But something fruitier came. It was Vice Ganda, one of the country’s biggest gay stars, hosting his own show on one of the biggest Pilipinx television networks. This was like finding the Easter Bunny at a bar with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.

The thing about Ganda is that he is super gay. Just like Hummel, Ganda is unashamed of his queerness, frequently expressing it through his appearance. Lace front wigs, dresses, colorful makeup — you name it, Ganda has probably worn it. He had a relatively huge platform in a religiously conservative nation, showing some progress for queer representation in the country.

Although I didn’t fully appreciate seeing Ganda’s talk show in my youth, I do now. Without his contributions to Pilipinx media, there wouldn’t be the abundance of Pilipinx LGBTQ+ movies and television shows there are today. 

I didn’t fully come to terms with being gay until 2015, but Ganda and Hummel’s presences normalized queerness for me. From Hummel, I saw how important it was to stay true to yourself, despite pressures to change, and from Ganda, I learned it was possible to be both gay and Filipino.

While the Philippines is still not fully accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, my Filipino-ness is something that could never be taken away. I am a Filipino-American, with a sprinkling of bakla.

Nicholas Clark writes the Monday column on LGBTQ+ issues in media and politics. Contact him at [email protected]