Still in the Running by Karla Maquiling

Note: I am re-posting this interview done by Karla Maquiling and posted in www.pinoycentric.com last August 7, 2007. Karla did a three-hour interview and cut it down to manageable size. This will partly answer the very few but very venomous e-mail from closeted and bitter members of the gay community who are asking me in another site why am I running again when 1) I lost in the last elections; 2) I have no money; 3) I am just full of "delusions" and I am just a "glamorous mendicant." I love that last phrase, but I think it comes from a gay painter who became a has-been before his career peaked, and is now reduced to paying his neighbors' gardeners south of Manila for a . . . posing session?

Happy Easter ;-)

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Filipino voters must have thought gay rights advocate and award-winning author Danton Remoto had come out of nowhere when he showed up at the Comelec office earlier September of 2006 to represent the party-list group, Ang Ladlad, in the May 2007 elections.

But really, this English professor from the Ateneo de Manila University has been around.

While Danton is identified mainly with the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transsexual party that he chairs, his reading public and the academic community know him for the gay anthology Ladlad (the precursor of the party-list group), which he edited in 1994 with UP professor J. Neil Garcia. (Ladlad 2, the sequel, followed in 1996. A third one is set to be released this year.)

Not to say that Danton’s earlier works in poetry and fiction were not as significant. Danton wrote Skin, Voices, Faces in 1991; released a poetry compilation, Black Silk Pajamas, in 1996; and Pulotgata: The Love Poems (2004); and edited Buena Vista, Alfredo Navarro Salanga’s poems and fiction, in 1989. He also won the 1987 Palanca award for the essay, and has also published three collections of his columns.

Ladlad, however, was groundbreaking in Philippine gay literature because it opened doors for other books of similar themes.

Lodestar

Despite the support of the LGBT community (the “Pink Vote,” which Danton says accounts for 10 percent of the entire voting population), Ang Ladlad’s foray into politics didn’t go as smoothly as expected. Never mind that it already had the support of the “trapos” in the provinces or the Catholic Church, since Danton teaches at the Jesuit-run Ateneo.

With the Comelec’s dismissal of Ang Ladlad, Danton and company aimed for a Senate seat instead, despite the fact that they were not ready for it. Considered a nuisance senatorial candidate by the Comelec, Danton finally opted to run as representative of the third district of Quezon City, going up against and losing to Matias Defensor.

But of course, it doesn’t end there. Danton is not going down in defeat so easily, his detractors be damned. “The good thing about losing,” he reveals, “is that the day after the elections, everybody started calling me and asking me to run in 2010.”

In this interview with PinoyCentric, the ever-quotable Danton tells us about his experiences during this year’s elections, how he’s preparing for 2010, and how he put his foot down on botox and skin whitening.

PinoyCentric: You ran for representative of the third district of Quezon City in the May 2007 elections. How much did the entire campaign cost?

Danton Remoto: The Comelec says we can only spend P3 for each voter. Since I have 150,000 voters, legally we spent P450,000. It’s a small amount. My kalaban spent like P50 million.

So the bulk of it came from donations?

Yes. I got donations from Filipinos with dual citizenship. Not all of the P450,000 is money. Half of it was money; the other half was food, and kilos and kilos of dressed chicken. Some people gave me clothes and free rent for the political headquarters. Somebody gave donations for tarpaulin, posters, and flyers. Somebody even gave me a pair of shoes. I don’t say no to anything. I accept everything.

What does the third district cover?

It covers the rich areas of Corinthian Gardens, Loyola Heights, and Ayala Heights, and the middle-class areas of Quirino, Project 2, 3, and 4, and Cubao. And of course, Camp Aguinaldo where I lost, Eastwood, and an area there for Iglesia ni Kristo, where I got zero.

But in these areas there are pockets of really poor people. I used to call them slum areas but napagalitan ako, because the politically correct term is informal settlers. The third district also covers Balara and Pansol. Hindi ko napuntahan lahat 'yan.

How big is that district?

150,000 voters, but only 40 percent voted. Doesn’t that tell you anything? The 60 percent thought nobody was running against [Matias] Defensor. If only 20 percent voted, disqualified ang aming results.

When I lost, I just forgot about it while my followers were crying and wanted to protest. Allegedly, there was vote-buying and tampering with results, but I have no evidence of that. So I said pabayaan niyo na lang 'yun.

There was an anti-Defensor feeling in the district because the family has been there for, like, 12 years. And Tito Mat and his son Mike are with GMA. So malakas ang anti-GMA feeling dito. I was ahead in the surveys. Kaya lang, the local election is an election where the candidate has to know the people. 'Yung mga kalaban ko, they have networks everywhere.

I wasn’t able to go to the areas of the informal settlers. If you want to go there, you need five days and you have to crawl because their houses have such low roofs. I have no problems with the poor. I really go there and talk to them, but physically it was impossible and we didn’t have enough money. Some people who promised money never gave money. This big clothing company—this famous underwear company—promised me tarpaulin and T-shirts, and they didn’t even give me. So I won’t sit on their bench next time.

Could I quote you on that?

Yes, you can quote me. [Laughter] Ang taray ko ‘no. The media tells me, “My God, Danton, you’re like Miriam; you’re so quotable.” English major din 'yang si Miriam.

Do you remember how many votes you garnered?

I think I got 10,000. And none of that is bought.

Did you expect to lose?

No. It’s like this: I thought, in a clean election we would have been neck and neck. If I had campaigned earlier, I would have won because the surveys said I would have won if everybody knew I was running.

If we had run as Ang Ladlad, we would have won two seats because the surveys showed we were number 2. We were behind Bayan Muna and before Mike Velarde’s party list, Buhay. But [Comelec chair Benjamin] Abalos said I had no constituency so he didn’t allow us to run. So I filed as senator but was considered a nuisance.

That’s problematic because they allowed [actor] Richard Gomez to run. Sabi nila, they allowed Gomez to run because when he filed his papers, there were celebrities with him. He had Ben Chan and his wife. So if I had brought my friend [talk show host] Boy Abunda and [hairstylist] Ricky Reyes, okay na ako? I mean, what is the problem there?

In a February survey of 5,000 government workers, [Cong.] Butch Pichay, who had spent a lot of money was number 38. [Former senator] Tessie Aquino-Oreta was number 34. I was number 28 to 30. I was ahead of these rich people. I was even ahead of Sonny Trillanes (now senator), who was number 32 or 33.

If I had campaigned as senator—I am not saying I would have won—I would have landed in the top 20, which is a dry run, a preparation for my 2010 campaign, when I’ll really be running as senator. As we speak now, I’m meeting three groups of people running for president and I might say yes to one of them.

So that’s certain: You are running for senator in 2010.

Yes, I’m running. I cannot run for party list anymore because I lost as congressman. I don’t want to run for congressman, because in a local election there’s vote buying. So I’m running as senator because you cannot buy the whole Philippines.

Danton Remoto at the campaign trail

How are you preparing for 2010?

Right now, we’re planning this national campaign focusing on the DE market. The DE voters constitute 90 percent of the entire voting population. We really have to reach out to them.

I am starting a tabloid column and an AM radio show. And we’re having this nationwide tour every month, teaching seminars and livelihood programs. In short, I’m bringing my name to the grassroots, to the masses.

I keep on resisting this but they want me to co-anchor a showbiz TV talk show. I said no. It will destroy my reputation as an English teacher.

So aside from the radio show and the tabloid column, what else are you busy with?

I write twice weekly for the Philippine Star. I write an arts and culture column every Monday and discuss youth issues on Friday.

I’m also hooking up with Mother Ricky for her Isang Gunting, Isang Suklay livelihood program for the poor. Also, I’m launching a reading and literacy program. I’m asking someone for free books. My friends in the medical profession are giving me medicine for my health missions in the informal sectors.

What’s your platform?

It’s not just GLBT [gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender]. It’s national. That’s why I’m focusing on my education program because I’ve been a teacher longer than I have been a gay rights advocate. Of course, LGBT pa rin ako. But the bigger campaign—and the more important one—is education because it’s in bad shape. If you go to the public schools, they have three shifts a day. What can you learn? I was in grade school 30 years ago and we had classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

How strong is the Pink Vote?

The Pink Vote is like this: If you have 45 million voters, 10 percent are pink, so that’s 4.5 million. So how do you tap that 4.5 million? That means you have to have chapters in all the big towns in all the major cities. So what we’re going to do is reach them by provincial radio stations. Maganda 'yan because we can reach the farthest nook and cranny of every region. Talagang yung mga tatawirin pa ng dagat, ng isla, a radio show can reach that.

Tell us about your most memorable experience during the campaign.

'Yung isa, when we went to Brgy. Silangan in E. Rodriguez. There’s a bridge and a river there, and there were houses beside the river, so I went down [to the riverbank]. I saw this old woman who was almost blind, and I said, “Lola, lola, I’m running as congressman.”

“Ano, councilor?”

“Hindi ho, lola, congressman.”

“Ah, congressman. Sa wakas may lumaban din na di nabili. Mananalo ka sa amin.”

I’m just quoting her. I’m not saying that Tito Mat is doing that. Anyway, I was staring at her and when I turned at the corner, the river was there and walang harang between the river and the houses. May nahulog na mga bata doon. Imagine, we’re here talking, and the river is just there. Walang wall! So sabi ko even if I lost, I want to erect a wall kasi children have fallen. Kaya naman pala their house is two stories because when the water is high, they’d go up.

These poor people were so happy because when I ran, I had no illusions of winning. If I lost, I’d teach again and forget about it. But then, after the elections, I got all these calls from people asking me to join their senatorial slate for 2010 because they said I fought a clean and brave campaign.

What were the lessons you learned during the campaign?

This is terrible, but I have to say this. You cannot trust anybody. Terrible, terrible. And you really have to plan way ahead. In fairness to our group [Ang Ladlad], we planned for it. We were number 2 in the surveys. We had been campaigning since 2004. So when we ran in 2007, winner na kami. Itong Abalos na ito, ayaw talaga. Maka-karma 'yan, I'm sure.

So we prepared for Ladlad, we had everything—we had alliances with traditional politicians in the provinces. But when I ran for senator, the group was not prepared. Pero takbo pa rin ang mga baklers para hindi makalimutan.

In the congressional campaign, we were not prepared for the close contact. Like somebody died, they’d come to me and ask for money. Somebody’s going to give birth and they want money. Somebody’s having a baptism and they want money. My policy is not to give money to them, so I lost a lot of votes.

Sabi nila, “Eh bakit si ano namimigay.” Sabi ko, “If I count all of that, what is the legal salary of a congressman? P35, 000 a month. Less witholding tax, P20,000, saan naman aabot 'yan? Pang gasolina lang 'yan ng congressman.” In short, I tell them, “I will have to steal money for you. Do you want that?”

Pag sinabi mo 'yun, nasa-shock sila. Sabi ko, I don’t have money because I did not accept money. People I do not know were giving me lots of money-in cash. Will you accept P5 million from someone you do not know? You do not know where the money comes from. They say, “We’re giving you the money because we like you?” And I think, “Ah. Why didn’t you like me before? Why only now?”

So when I did some investigation, I would find out that these were dirty money. Ipabaril pa ako ng mga 'yan later. So I didn’t accept money. My hands are clean. I’m not on anybody’s hit list—yet.

During the campaign, my cellphones and my landline were tapped. So for the first time in my life, my father had to give me a bodyguard and a driver. [Now that the campaign is over,] I’m happy that I was able to ride on the LRT again, which I did for our interview today. Everybody was staring at me on the train. Ay naku, wala akong pakialam.

So I lost my privacy. At one point I couldn’t even enter the mall because people were staring at me and talking to me. Siyempre I have to talk to them; they’re voters.

My campaign team banned me from wearing slippers. I was banned from wearing shorts or laughing so loud in my TV interviews.

If you’re a politician, you will learn that people will make you do things you don’t want to do. I was supposed to go to a cosmetic surgeon for botox and all this reduction for wrinkles and scars. Ay naku, I said no. They were also forcing me to undergo a skin-whitening regimen. Can you believe it? It’s so funny but many politicians do it.

They do?

Of course! Ninety percent of them did that.

I also underwent training on how to deliver three-, five-, and ten-minute speeches. I underwent sessions in grooming, smiling, waving, and walking. I promise, parang beauty queen. Sabi ko, “I feel like a horse.” Sabi nila, “No naman, feel like a beauty queen.”

I underwent training to speak in Tagalog. While I taught Filipino in Ateneo, I have to be taught conversational Tagalog because my Filipino is so Ateneo, very polite.

Ang maganda diyan, I met a lot of people whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise. We’re talking about the poor, the young, and of course, those politicians and political operators.

Some of them were horrible, and I cannot name them. Not all of them. Maybe 80 percent are horrible. And all they talk about is money. When they talk about P1 million, for them it’s like, nothing. It’s like . . . [he snaps his hand].

There are so many promises. “If you join us, we’ll give you P5 million, an SUV, a lawyer, and an agent who’ll take care of you and make sure you win in the elections.”

Of course, I did not bite because I am not stupid. If I say yes, they will control me for the rest of my life, all for P5 million or an SUV or a lawyer. What if I ran as senator in 2010 and I win?

So I had meetings with several people. They’re very strange. One of them told me, “You know, we like you because it’s easy to campaign for you. You deal with issues; you don’t deal with personalities.” Isn't that what a politician is supposed to do?

Another one said, “We like you. It’s easy to campaign for you because you did not steal anything.”

Still another told me, “It’s so easy to campaign for you because you don’t have skeletons in the closet.” So I told this person, this ambassador, this venerable person, “Ay, I have no more skeletons in the closet, sir. I’m already out of the closet!”

In short in 2010, walang issues of corruption or stealing can be thrown at my face.

The amount of money I said no to from last year until May was about P35 million from three different people. They wanted me to join their party, or not to run as congressman anymore but to run as a councilor of Q.C. They belong to two parties, which I will not name.

People laugh and tell me, “You’re so funny. You’re so nice. Everybody likes you when you’re on television. Who’s your speechwriter?” And I say, “Wala, I’m an English teacher. I’ve been teaching for 21 years. You give me a topic I’ll talk about it.”

Most of the candidates have to be trained how to speak and even what to say. They have to memorize keywords. Someone told me, “With you, Mr. Remoto, we will save a lot of money because you don’t have to be trained. You will even train your fellow candidates.”

They say the 2010 elections is for the young people. Johnny Flavier is not running anymore. Miriam Santiago has a heart problem. I think Johnny Ponce Enrile and Joker Arroyo are not running. So all the people between 60 and death are not running anymore. I’m convincing Adel Tamano [Genuine Opposition spokesperson] to run.

I think he should.

Yeah, I’m pushing him to. So many young people are running. And of course the ones who lost this year might run again. You know who they are. They have lots of money. I hope they lose again. [Laughter] It’s not their money they’re spending. Like me, when I campaign, it’s not my money. A politician has to accept donations. I don’t have a hundred million pesos for 2010. Where will I get it. Hello?

I also notice that since I’m a teacher, everybody I meet, whether opposition or Lakas, is so polite and so respectful.

They ask me: “What can we offer you, sir?” “Do you like the food?” “Can our driver pick you up and can we bring you home?” “Where do you want to go?”

Ang bait bait nila. Their image is so maton, but when they talk to me, they’re so kind. Sabi nila siguro, “Naku, teacher yan sa Ateneo,” kaya they speak in English kahit mali-mali. So I talk in Tagalog. [Laughter] I just lost another 10,000 votes.

Let’s talk about something other than politics. Someone wants to know: Are you fond of queer cinema?

Ay oo. I watch them. I think the last gay film I watched was Brokeback Mountain. There was this old couple behind me, and during this scene with two cowboys kissing, sabi ng matandang lola sa kanyang asawa, “Pedro, Pedro, iba na pala ang mga koboy ngayon, naghahalikan na sila.” Sabi naman ni Lolo Pedro, “Oo nga, dati sila John Wayne walang ganyan.”

I could hear them. I was giggling. I was shaking in my seat. That’s why I don’t want to watch movies with gay themes in the theater because you get a lot of reaction.

I like queer cinema if I can watch it. But people lend me tapes. I hardly have the time to watch because I teach three times a week at Ateneo.

Do you have a blog?

No. My staff started one last year but since we didn’t have enough money with Ladlad, I told them to look for other jobs because we couldn’t pay them anymore.

It’s in my list of things to do. Somebody gave me money to start a Website. The blog is important, especially if you want to raise awareness in the Internet. My problem is I need people to do that on a regular basis. By August I should have that. I’m just busy right now because I have to attend weddings and meetings and funerals.

The others running for senator in 2010 already have blogs and websites. It’s hard to squeeze that in, especially when you’re running for public office.

Do you go online a lot?

Only when I read my e-mail or the news. I read all the newspapers online. The major four. Favorite sites? The local newspapers and the International Herald Tribune, New York Times, and the Financial Times.

Do you read Jessica Zafra’s blog?

Yes! She’s my friend, actually my evil sister. I also read Manolo Quezon. Ellen Tordesillas. PCIJ. Newsbreak.

So what has been the weirdest question you have been asked?

Actually it’s more of the weirdest experience.

When we were launching a book at Powerbooks Megamall in 2006, there was my picture on the tarpaulin and I was reading from my book and this man stood up and began to caress my face on the tarpaulin. So I looked at the assistant and the guards and they encircled me. I know some aikido, but if this guy had a gun I’d be dead. He was so strange.

I’ve been coming across all these people. Indecent proposals over the phone. Phone calls at 2 a.m. Annoying e-mails offering sex.

Someone allegedly circulated a naked picture of me on the Internet. Know what I said? “I hope they pasted a nice body to my face.” Imagine? Samantalang I’m rarely online.

You mentioned in an interview that you have two adopted children.

One of them is my nephew. My sister’s abroad so I’ve kinda adopted him. The other is my yaya’s daughter. She’s a single parent. They're bright kids. I see them once a week because I’m very busy. I’m an absentee father, but I’m the one who’s strict with them. I call them every night and check whether they did their assignments. They’re used to saying “opo.” I’m a terrible father, ano? I’m such a tyrant.

“Naiintindihan mo ba 'yung sinasabi ko?” “Opo.” “Nag-aral ka na ba?” “Opo.” “Kumusta ka na?” “Opo.” “Bakit opo ang sagot?” How dreadful.

Kasi I’m an old person. 'Yung upbringing namin, you don’t answer back. You always say yes. You study hard. You sleep early and you fold your blankets. My father was a military officer and my mother was a teacher—very strict and very Catholic. So when people ask me, “Why are you so disciplined?” I tell them I grew up in the military base.

Your last book was Buhay Bading. Is there a new one coming out soon?

Three, actually. Ladlad 3, Rampa, then the gay dictionary called The Gay Dict: The Uncut Version. All with Anvil. I’ve been with Anvil 17 years and I have no problems with them. We think along the same lines.

In your campaign and your interviews, you talk about what you want to change about the Philippines. My last question is, what qualities does the Filipino have that you think is worth keeping?

What I want to answer first is what we have to change. Filipinos talk a lot. We should talk less and work more. Work is more important than words.

What I want to keep? Filipinos are generally kind and hospitable, which I saw in the last elections, maybe because I’m a teacher. Pagbaba ko minsan sa may informal settlers’ community, there was a fire, and people kept screaming, “Ay, si Danton! Si Danton!”

The bodyguard my father just assigned to me said, “Sir, ganyan ba talaga sa mga campaign ninyo?”

I said, “Ay, oo, the people scream.”

“Galit sila?”

“No. I think they’re so kilig. They’re happy I’m here.”

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