Wednesday, August 23, 2006

[Essay] My Best Friend’s Gay!

Perception on homosexuality has changed over the years. This isn’t about praising homosexuality, nor is it condemning them. This is merely an observation of my high school, and how that tiny microcosm is applicable on a macro level.

I used to be a student in an all-boys, Filipino-Chinese school run by Jesuits. The dominant attitude there, at least back when I was still a student, was quite conservative, as you’d expect from a school that would segregate its students based on gender. Running the statistics (much like calculating the chances that one member of a boy band is gay), there’s bound to be a homosexual in each batch, especially when you factor in our cramped learning environment (i.e. overpopulation doesn’t only apply to the country). Some schools in Metro Manila will develop a reputation for the tendency to have homosexuals in their student population (i.e. “this school has lots of lesbians, this school has lots of gays.”) but the school I went to didn’t have that kind of reputation. If anything, one of my schoolmates took pride in the fact that no one was openly homosexual during their tenure as a student. At least back then.

Not that hints of homosexuality was totally absent in our environment. It was always there, sometimes in the way you talk, or a certain effeminate quality you had. Whatever pegged you as gay, you got teased for it. “Bakla” (gay) was a very common insult back in my day. Of course while there were students we suspected were gay, no one expected them to act out their sexual orientation, nor did we expect them to admit that they were homosexuals. Denials were the norm.

That was the case for the longest time. My seatmate was clearly gay, although he never admitted it during all four years I was with him. It wasn’t until college that I heard rumors that he had come out of the closet, and that he even had a boyfriend. I don’t think anyone was really surprised (except perhaps my mom, who only heard him through the phone, and thought he had a manly voice and suggested I should be like him).

Whether you were effeminate or truly gay didn’t matter in school. You got bullied nonetheless. Me not wanting to be judgmental, I assumed that everyone was the former rather than the latter. I had a best friend (there I go contradicting myself f several years worth of blog entries) in what seemed like the interval between grade school and high school (yes, I know it’s called “summer break”) and while he displayed the symptoms of the stereotype gay guy (he listened to Mariah Carey songs, adored Sailormoon, and had a fashion sense), I always assumed he was effeminate. I even remember him talking about liking (but not physically attracted to) a certain girl when I was sleeping over at his house. And to top it all off, we did what most geeks, I mean guys, our age did: we played video games, video games, and more video games. Oh, and we slept over at each other’s houses, called each other up on the phone when a new book or anime had just come out, and played cards with each other.

It’s only lately that I found out he was gay (uh, reading it from a blog entry doesn’t exactly prepare you for it). It caught me completely off guard, although it’s not I didn’t see all the hints. But as Gerry wisely put it, it all doesn’t matter. He’s still my best friend from grade school/high school, and we can be our genuine selves around each other.

However, I’m sure there will be schoolmates with whom it won’t sit well with, and to them, the word gay will always be an insult.

Of course the stories I hear about my school nowadays have changed. More and more students are coming out of the closest just as they enter high school, not waiting to graduate before revealing to the whole world a part of who they truly are.

Personally though, I can’t help but ask, who else among my schoolmates were gay? Not that it’ll changed how I act around them, but I wonder how that one fact is so integral to their personality that they had to keep hidden, and how it would have changed them, whether for better or for worse.

[Essay] The Silent Conflict

It seems that with each generation, people rally to a certain cause or belief. In America, an example would be the discrimination against African-Americans. In more modern times, it’s a lot of things, from gender equality to tolerance for homosexuality to animal rights. There’s an issue though that’s closer to home, but isn’t in the limelight. It’s a battle waged by certain members of the Filipino-Chinese community, but ends up becoming the struggle of an individual, rather than that of a group. The lessons learned are seldom shared, and the fight is renewed once more with each generation. Granted, there are no legal laws prohibiting the cause these Filipino-Chinese fight for, but it’s a stigma pervasive in their community. What I am talking about is the taboo of Chinese marrying someone not of Chinese descent.

Its history goes way back when certain citizens of China decided to migrate to the Philippines. While it’s easy to claim that the Chinese were xenophobic, xenophobia is also a trait among Filipinos. Echoes of such fears and prejudice can be seen in today’s modern Filipino and Filipino-Chinese: the resentment of the poverty-stricken Filipinos against the seemingly better-off Filipino-Chinese, even if this land isn’t their native country, and the superiority complex the Filipino-Chinese have for their brethren and kin, with preference for their fellow Chinese associates. Suffice to say, the Chinese have tried to carve a place for themselves in the Philippines, and ended up isolating themselves (whether by choice or by circumstance) from the natives, hence the existence of a “China Town”.

Growing up in a Filipino-Chinese school where most of my classmates were of Chinese blood, I was always asked by the parents of my friends whether I was Chinese or not whenever I entered their home (or met them elsewhere as the case may be). The same thing would apply to my parents as well, as whenever I would mention a name, the first question they’d ask was whether he or she was Chinese or Filipino.

It’s not as if the Chinese community have been here only recently, or that their culture hasn’t intermingled with Filipinos. You’d think after more than a century of occupancy and generation upon generation of Filipino-Chinese, we’d be more open to accepting local paradigms. Yet in a certain way, one cannot blame the Chinese either. One could argue that the very same traditions and beliefs they hold dear is the very same reason why they continue to prosper. In a land of foreigners, the Chinese aid fellow Chinese. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the present Filipino-Chinese still see themselves living in a land of foreigners, and that everyone else is a hostile enemy.

While foot-binding and arranged marriages have already been forsaken for more modern customs, some practices are obviously harder to shed. As I mentioned before, it is taboo for a Chinese individual to marry someone who isn’t Chinese. There will be exceptions of course, such as if the suitor is extremely rich, or has great influence (whether political, economical, or social). There is even more consideration for a Chinese person to marry a foreigner, so long as the person they are marrying is not Filipino. Nonetheless, for the most part, me and my classmates were discouraged from dating, much less marrying, someone not Chinese. One of the most severe threats I’ve heard was disownment, while some fathers settle for leaving their sons and daughters out of the inheritance. Again, there will be exceptions, but like most things, double standards as well. There have been Chinese, for example, who have successfully rebelled and married Filipinos without cutting off their ties to family. But the Chinese being descendants of a patriarchal society, it is easier for men to get away with it than women. Even more lenient Chinese families allow their sons to marry someone not Chinese, but forbid their daughters to do so. One of the most hypocritical situations but prevalent nonetheless is when a parent is Filipino-Chinese, but the other isn’t. You’d think they’d bestow upon their child the freedom to choose their significant other but no, the same restrictions still fall into place: you must marry someone Chinese.

Individual Filipino-Chinese have rebelled against their families, some successfully, others not. But unlike a group united by the same cause, the attempt merely ends up being a personal struggle rather than one that concerns the entire community. Worse, it’s not as if the public is totally ignorant of this prejudice, yet it is tolerated and accepted. So what if you have successfully convinced your family to let you marry a Filipino? It doesn’t help the other Filipino-Chinese residing in this nation. It’s not even a matter of waiting for your parents to pass on to the next world. Others will take up their cause: your relatives, your siblings, even your friends. They will all pressure you into doing (or rather not do) what they think is appropriate.

I do not speak of this because I will directly benefit from it. I am bringing up this matter because it is a freedom which has been withheld from us Filipino-Chinese for so long. By no means is it impossible to attain, but every step taken forward is an uphill battle, and all for the happiness of an individual rather than a community. I do not speak up because I intend to marry someone not Chinese, but I fight for it for the mere possibility of being able to marry someone for love, irregardless of race or stature.

Not that such prejudice is without its benefits. Such a dilemma probes into the hearts of every Filipino-Chinese as they ask themselves, is this all worth it for the person I love? Such a marriage entails risking everything for the person you are to marry. For both parties, it’s not just marriage with each other, but a marriage with adversity as well. But at least your significant other will be certain of your feelings, if not your bank account. And who here doesn’t fantasize about having a Romeo & Juliet love story?

But in the end, romance need not end in tragedy. Until people are willing to speak up and rally under a common banner, even the most hard-fought cause will fade into silence.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

[Essay] Sleight of Hand

When I was in college, there was this girl I courted for my entire stay as an undergraduate student (well, more like tried to court her for a year, and spent the next three years trying to get back into her good graces). Needless to say, my intentions were transparent to nearly everyone, from the girl’s blockmates to her friends from other courses. This story isn’t about her though. While me, my blockmates, and my crush had some overlapping classes, my blockmates never suspected (short of me blatantly telling them, and even then…). Instead, they thought I was attracted to someone else, someone closer to home. They thought I was in love with a fellow blockmate.

As a freshman student, my heart had just got broken, and I had given up my flirtatious ways after knowing (and lost) true love. However, that didn’t mean I couldn’t the same techniques I used to woo women to gain new friends. It was also a time when I would fall in love once more, but this time, I was a bit more cautious. If I were to do favors for a certain individual, I had to do favors for everyone. Suffice to say, I was still lacking in experience, and the love of my life shunned me.

Enter my sophomore year, still heartbroken but a little wiser. With no individual to focus all my energies on, I had decided to simply dedicate myself to making as much friends as I could. I was in this writing class and my classmates varied, some were blockmates, while others belonged to different courses, or even a batch higher than me. It was on that occasion that one of my upperclassmen caught my eye. I admit I was attracted to her, but not so much as to detract me from giving up on my crush (in other words, my intent was a platonic relationship rather than a romantic one, although I was sorely tempted). By chance (or strategic positioning), she was my seatmate and on our second class or so, she happened to ask me for candy.

Asking for candy is a common occurrence. People will ask it when they suddenly have a sweet tooth, need to get rid of a foul taste in their mouth, or simply for the sugar rush when you’ve had a really bad and tiring day. If you’ve seen me in real life, you’ll also notice that I carry this really huge bag that seems to contain everything from masking tape to staplers… except candy. On that day, I vowed that the next time she asks for candy, I will have some ready.

And just as expected, the next class we had, I had chocolate with me (because you can’t go wrong with chocolate, unless you’re like me and have allergies to it). I thought why settle for simple candy when chocolate is even better? Who knows, the recipient might actually fall in love with me. Anyway, not waiting for my seatmate to ask for candy, I offered her the chocolate, stating her craving the day before. As can be expected, I get the “that’s so sweet” response. Of course I know that if I kept at it, it would seem as if I was courting the girl. Which I wasn’t, nor did I want to project the image of. So I applied my rule of doing favors for everyone. I gave her seatmate, another upperclassman, chocolate too. And then by chance (an inevitable chance), a blockmate of mine passed by. The chocolate, by then, was too late to be hidden. So I offered her chocolate too. And then that caused a commotion as my other blockmates wanted chocolate too. I was hesitant at first, but then one of my classmates said “why are you only giving chocolates to xxx (xxx being my blockmate and not my seatmate)?” At that point, I realized I had the perfect smokescreen as everyone else thought I was pinning for my blockmate rather than my seatmate.

To make a long story short, yes, I gave chocolate to everyone. And I didn’t stop there. These days, when I run into a batchmate acquaintance and I ask them if they remember me, they say of course, and then associate me with giving chocolates.

Moving back to the story, my smokescreen unfortunately worked too well. Even until the very day I graduated, all my blockmates continued to think I was attracted to a fellow blockmate (honestly, she’s not my type and never found her pretty), even when I was obviously courting someone else. And so it happened that when I met my crush’s friends and blockmates, I’d get teased about my crush, but when it gave to my block, I’d get teased about my fellow blockmate.

Well, it did prevent my blockmates from teasing me about my actual crush. But it’s funny the wrong assumption carried on for several years (actually to this very day, until one of them reads this essay).