From Literature to Life

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From Literature to Life—Danton Remoto

Speech delivered before the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines National Conference, Santo Domingo, Albay, May 22, 2006.

I have been asked to give some words about gay and lesbian literature in the Philippines. Being obviously not lesbian, I can only talk about gay literature, lest I be accused of violating the ethics of representation. I will first talk about the Ladlad series of gay writing, which I co-edited with Neil Garcia of the University of the Philippines. Then from literature I will go to life: I will link Ladlad, the book, with Ang Ladlad, the national organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Filipinos that we formed in the year 2003.

In 1989, on British Council Fellowship, I went to the University of Stirling in Scotland to take my Master’s degree in Publishing Studies. I spent my school breaks in London, a good eight hours away by train. And one day, I bought a copy of Gay Times magazine and scanned the listing of the gay bookstores.

Buying that magazine was already a brave stand for me. Going inside a gay bookstore was more so. I remember going to the place where Zipper Bookstore was located. Yes, Zipper was the name of the store. In my malicious mind shaped in super-conservative Philippines, I thought that sex orgies and all kinds of un-Catholic acts might be going on inside. However, a young man in black leather jacket entered it. When the batwing doors swung open, I caught a peek of the interiors. No orgies, but only a well-lighted space inside.

I took a deep breath, crossed the street, and went inside the store. And there, before me, like the treasures in the cave of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, lay the books, magazines, and newspapers I could not find in Manila. I bought a copy of the novel A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.

No gay books

When I returned to Manila, I wanted to start a series of books like the ones I found in England. There were no gay books available in National Bookstore in the early 1990s. There were no gay books in the Psychology section or in the Health section. Why, there were no gay books even in the Occult section!

So one fine day, I met Neil Garcia at the University of the Philippines and we decided to put together an anthology of gay writing. It took us more than one year to gather everything together. Why? Because the established writers did not want to submit their work to us, fearing it would ruin their reputations.

Once, I called up the director Ishmael Bernal, a friend of mine, and asked him if I could reprint his old story. You see, Ishma was a Comparative Literature major who once wrote a story called "Ulysses." His short story described a young man as having the qualities of a "colt" -- dark and beautiful and bursting with energy. Bernal told me, "But Danton, I’m no longer gay. I am now a woman."

I thanked Ishma and told him it was good that he has evolved, and then wondered how we could put the darned thing together. But the contributions came in, one by one, mostly from writers still in their 20s and 30s. The poems came, and the stories too, as well as the essays and the plays.

Altogether, Ladlad served notice to Philippine Literature that from henceforth, the writers will no longer be straight, will no longer be macho, and will no longer have bad taste in fashion. We kicked the door open. Suddenly, gay writing was no longer outside the house. It stood in the center of the room.

Life in the Closet

I saw three themes in Ladlad. The first is life in the closet. It is described as the life of the living dead, because it is a life lived inside the coffin. This is shown in the story "Boys Who Like Boys" by Vicente G. Groyon III.

But all they could do is demolish the beer bottles in front of them, since one of our characters is still locked up in the closet. This utter sense of longing is also shown in Ronald Baytan’s poem, "He Who Sleeps on my Lap." Listen: "My friend/ who sleeps on my lap/ loves someone else./ He says he is a man/ and a man needs a woman/ and I disagree./ We argue until he grows/ tired of talking/ and sleeps on my lap/ on this chilly night./ And I sigh,/ knowing he loves/ someone else/ but still sleeps/ gently on my lap,/ innocent, not knowing/ that I am here/ slaughtering/ one wicked wish/ that when he wakes up/ I shall be his dream."

The second theme in Ladlad is coming out, leaving behind the life that turned one into a mere shadow. Ted Nierras attended the Male & Gay forum of Katlo, the gay group I belonged to, in December of 1992. Later, he wrote an essay that defined what coming out means.

"Coming out is a process rather than an event: I don’t simply, only once, come out; instead, I come out in various ways, in different situations, and I keep coming out all the time. I know that my gay friends have been influential, supportive, and caring of me as I continue in my process of coming out. Some of us are lucky to have family members and straight friends who are supportive and caring too; many of us, however, are not so fortunate. As gay people, we give and receive encouragement, advice, and support about being gay, and sometimes, we also behave rudely towards each other without consideration, or we speak derisively of each other without understanding, but I believe that those are times when we falter, forget, and act like the intolerant straights around us."

Jerry Z. Torres also has a short story called "Coming Out," which is written in epistolary, or letter form. Jerry would also write three other stories using different media. One story is a series of text messages between two gay men. Another story is a series of e-mail messages blazing in the void of cyberspace. And a third story is a transcription of a series of Internet chats between a gay man in the Philippines and another in Australia. He has collected all these stories about forms of communication – and miscommunication – in a book called Pink Men and Other Stories, published last year by the Dominican-run University of Santo Tomas (UST) Press.

Living the Life

The third theme in Ladlad is living the life. After you have left the closet and have accepted your gayness, then what?

The heart – what the poet Carolyn Force called "the toughest part of the body" – still breaks. Listen to the poem by Romulo P. Baquiran Jr. called "Sa Trellis." "Sa restaurant na ito/ Sa ating pag-upo sa sangkalang mesa,/ Parang mumunting bituin ang mga ilaw sa paligid./ Nakikingi ako sa inyong kutsilyong dila/ Habang parang sibuyas nitong ginagayat/ Ang aking puso./ Umiiyak ako./ Pero paloob ang tulo ng aking luha/At ayaw lumabas ng aking hiyaw./ Kagilagilalas: una at tanging/ Pagkakamay natin ay pagpapaalam./ Hindi na kita kaibigan/ At natural lamang/Hindi rin kasintahan."

But like the faces of tragedy and comedy in the ancient Greek drama, hope strings eternal in the human breast, especially that of the gay man’s. Playful, wicked, and sly, this poem by Rody Vera boards a ship called hope. His poem is called "Tip sa Panghahagip."

It goes this way: "Kapag biglang kumabog ang pusong/ Namamanglaw/ Sa asiwang lugar (sa loob ng bus, halimbawa)/ Dahil namataan mo ang bigoteng/ Matagal mo nang pinapangarap; hindi malago,/ Hindi rin inahit; bagong tubo;/ Magpalipad ng isang sulyap—/ Pero mag-ingat!/ Huwag gaanong madiin/ Baka mapansin/ Ng maraming ibang mahilig ding/ Umungkat ng lihim./ At baka kung lumabis/ Ang sulyap ay maging/ Malamig na titig/ At baka siya’y magulat/ Mabagabag, malito, mabuwisit.

Huwag din namang/ Gaanong pino at baka di rin magising/ Ang puso niyang naiidlip./ Suwabe, bigla ngunit malambing!/ Parang isang maamong tapik,/ Mapagbirong pitik,/ (Matamis na halik . . .)/ At kapag napukaw/Ang kanyang antuking damdamin,/ Kapag sigurado/ Nang ikaw ang laman/Ng maulap niyang kamalayan/ Sa susunod mong sulyap/ Sabayan mo ng isang/ Di sinasadya,/ Medyo nangingimi,/ Ngunit pinakamaganda mong/ Ngiti."

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