A Response to Dennis Altman from Michael Tan in the Phillipines

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This is a response to Dennis Altman’s article On Global Queering.

I write this recovering from Manila’s Gay and Lesbian Pride celebrations held last weekend. I have also just caught a television special feature looking into the pride celebrations. The broadcast is in English and the commentator starts out with gay pride’s history, traced back to Stonewall in New York. The feature in fact starts out by saying that the event is part of global celebrations of gay and lesbian pride.

The queens in costumes dominate in the visuals and the newspaper reports compare the event to Mardi Gras celebrations. A UPI news feed says about 5000 show up for the march in the afternoon. A few more hundred stay on, or show up, for the street festival that night. At the street festival, I am ambushed by a television crew for an interview about drag queens. The first question: do I think that the drag queens reinforce stereotypes. Earlier in the week, in a newspaper article, one of the march organizers is quoted: “Not all (gay men) can be stereotyped as screaming faggots. . .” The statement strikes me, strangely, as very American again, a kind of 80s into 90s political correctness that meant scathing critiques for films like Priscilla and Bird Cage. Three days later, I go through another television interview with similar questions, about baklas, about drag, about stereotypes.

I have mixed feelings about this because the bakla, the local cross-dressing “gay” originally associated with the lower classes, were in fact the first to come out (or, put another way, have always been out). There can be no gay and lesbian pride without the bakla.

Yet suddenly, they become the “stereotypes”; they become the “screaming faggots”; they have become “they” versus “us” decent educated middle-class gay/lesbian/bisexual and, oh yes, incidentally, transgendered (trans what, said my bakla friends when I first introduced the term to them).

I celebrate global queering for the ways it creates space for us in the Philippines. I am reminded of Richard Fung’s essay where he describes himself growing up, an “Asian” in Trinidad and seeing, one day, in the newspapers “Gay Liberation” as a caption to a photograph of two men hugging “in front on a statue somewhere in America”: “I had seen the word and I knew that it was to me that it referred.” My yuppie friends have many similar stories, seeing “the word” in a newspaper or magazine. Today, some young middle-class Filipino adolescent surfing the Net will inevitably find QueerNet or GayWeb or even Kakasarian, a Filipino gay website based in the States and, know, too.

The gay and lesbian pride celebrations in Manila draw on this space. It was closest to what one might imagine as a celebration of diversity; yet one could easily see that Manila’s Pride Space is still Bakla Space. The few yuppie gay men who showed up would duck or look away whenever TV cameras would pan in their direction. Several yuppie friends in fact called me after the celebrations to ask how it was and to apologize about not having gone: too risky, they said. So while pride organizers talked against stereotyping, the success of the march depended mainly on the “screaming faggots” showing up.

I fear global queering as well, especially in the way oppressive power relations can be amplified. An elite “gay” culture is upheld as the norm, with hopes that eventually we’ll have “gay and lesbian rights” defined mainly as gay marriages; to bring home Steve to mom and dad for Thanksgiving dinner; to be able to adopt and raise children and to claim frequent flyer miles for a same-sex partner to fly to Sydney for the Mardi Gras. These aspirations are real, picked out from conversations I have had with friends. I need not describe the contrasts with bakla life and the many occasions on which Bakla Pride has indeed been asserted, not just drawing from but also contributing to a globalized Stonewall.

I celebrate and fear global queering, conscious that we are all products of our times, of AIDS; of individualism and consumerism; of an AIDS industry and trendy red ribbons; of “a retreat from principles of social justice and the welfare state” as Altman describes, so that at day’s end, I wonder if we are mainstreaming, or are being mainstreamed.

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