Colonized by Spain and the US , and later occupied by Japan, the Philippines has a long history of discourses imposed on its own traditions, including the ones related to gender identity and fluidity.
To understand the impact of that process, Global Voices interviewed Alton Melvar M Dapanas, essayist, poet, and translator from the southern Philippines. They are the author of “In the Name of the Body: Lyric Essays” (Wrong Publishing, 2023) and “Towards a Theory on City Boys: Prose Poems” (Newcomer Press, 2021). Their work has also appeared in “World Literature Today” and BBC Radio 4 and they serve as editor-at-large at “Asymptote Journal.” They have been published in South Africa, Japan, France, and Australia and translated into Mandarin Chinese and Swedish.
Filip Noubel (FN): In your collection, “In the Name of the Body: Lyric Essays,” you share your experience of growing up as a non-binary person — a bayot — in the predominantly Christian Philippines. What were you facing in such an environment, and what gave you resources to overcome prevailing homophobia and transphobia?
Alton Melvar M Dapanas (AMMD): The bayot originates from a lineage of politico-religious indigene leaders in what is now the modern-day ‘southern Philippines,’ and the nomenclatures vary depending on the ethnolinguistic group — the Binisaya bayot, the Sinamadnda-dnda, the Tagalog bakla, the Tausug bantut, the Ilonggo agi, and in so many ways, the Teduray mentefuwaley.
Filipinx theorist Bobby Benedicto is particularly instructive in defining these identities as a ‘local sexual formation often read as a conflation of homosexuality, transvestism, and lower-class status.’ Scholar Francis Luis Torres, positions the bayot as an ‘oscillat[ion] between the “male homosexual” and a “feminized man.”‘ And that is what sets the bayot (and the bakla, among other permutations in the Filipino imaginary) apart from the Western(ised) cisgender gay man.
When I was digging through Stanford University’s archives of Southeast Asian periodicals, I came across (blatantly homophobic) opinion-editorial articles and short prose in Binisaya, my native tongue, published before WWII equating the bayot with ‘babayen on’ or ‘babayin on,’ woman-like or effeminate.
It’s vital to centre conversations like this towards unlearning what colonisation and its lingering aftermaths have done to the colonised. Among the colonial projects of biopolitics was, after all, queerphobia — white Christian Europe’s man-woman dualism was largely irreconcilable with the presence of transgender/nonbinary Natives when the colonisers first set foot in our lands. Today, the SOGIE (sexual orientation and gender identity and expression) Equality Bill — the law that is supposed to protect everyone but most especially the sexual/gender minorities — has been pending in the congress and senate since 2000 thanks to religious lobbyists, the pundits who amplify hate, and the politicians who seem to answer to the conservative base. The Filipino Christian majority is one of the culprits — they will invoke the name of God in issues like gender equality and reproductive rights but never in extrajudicial killings or genocide.
For more on extrajudicial killings, read #JusticeForZaraAlvarez: Filipino Activists protest worsening impunity under President Duterte.
FN: Part of your writing unpacks the concepts of “straight-passing” and heteronormative patterns among certain gays. Could you explain those concepts, and why they seem to resist a true acceptance of gender diversity?
AMMD: Queer culture has always had a troubled relationship with the idea of passing — almost like a fixation to appear and be perceived as cisgender and heterosexual. The heteronormativity behind this cissexism trivialises the value of a queer/trans person to their mere appearance and expression.
Back in 2021, I did an (unofficial) ethnographic fieldwork among cis femme gays — in other words, the textbook bayot — of the older generation from my hometown. As I was already writing the essays in ‘In the Name of the Body‘ then, I’ve read queer theorists Naomi Tucker, Jack Parlett, C. Winter Han, Tom Roach, and Sharif Mowlabocus who discussed body image fascisms so compellingly. I confirmed what I should’ve long acknowledged: the many prevailing misconceptions even within the LGBTQ+ community, e.g. that bisexuals are tops and are therefore masculine (notice the erasure of bisexual women/femme here), while gays are bottoms and are therefore effeminate. A lot to unpack in these prevailing fallacies confined within outdated binaries.
There has to be a constant critique among us as a ‘community’ when the (hetero)normative of us, in particular these masculine cis gays, would drop us any chance they get at acceptance or assimilation into the cishetero majority. As trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson tweets, effeminacy has always been the “necessary foil” for the masculine queers towards homonationalism, a symptom of the military-industrial complex. And the media constantly replicates and reinforces that — our gay and lesbian-themed series and movies (dubbed as ‘boys’ love’ or BL and ‘girls love’ or GL), produced locally or those by neighbouring Asian countries like Thailand — casts either straight actors or straight-passing LGBTQ+ ones. The couples who are the centres of these series or movies are disconcertingly silent on vital LGBTQ+ issues in real life despite profiting from a largely queer viewership. Plot-wise, the room that exists for the femme gays, queers, womxn, butch lesbians, enbies, trans, and other gender-nonconforming folks are those of the flat characters — mostly for comic relief.
Even within the LGBTQ+ community, we certainly have a lot to talk about. The pride march chant that is ‘Equality,’ as it turns out, a faraway tiny light at the end of this long dark tunnel.
FN: In your book, you dwell on terms across languages to describe accepted and non-Western traditions of recognizing and naming non-binary people who have always been present in all societies. Can those traditions help to end erasure, phobia, attacks, and killings, as recently witnessed in your country in the case of drag artist Pura Luka Vega?
AMMD: The discourse should begin with interrogating the mythos that the Philippines is an LGBTQ-friendly country — our lived experience as queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming folks would attests otherwise. I haven’t seen a single episode of any ‘Drag Race’ franchise especially ‘Drag Race Philippines‘ and ‘Drag Den’ (where Pura Luka Vega was a season 1 contestant), just snippets here and there. But I must say, Pura Luka Vega has become an epitome of this fight.
It is quite saddening that a lot of self-proclaimed allies will chant ‘Trans Rights are Human Rights!’ and ‘Drag is Political!’ until situations call them to be actually political and pick sides. And although the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has issued an official statement affirming that there are more pressing issues than a drag queen dressing up as Jesus Christ, the Filipino right-wing (in an unlikely alliance with liberal centrists and even straight-passing cis gays and the trans-exclusionary radical feminists) is an arsenal on its own against drag queens who cosplay Biblical prophets but will actually cheer for Rodrigo Duterte [the former president who is being probed by the ICC for crimes against humanity] cursing on the Pope.
So when I said unlearning what colonisation and its consequent ideologies, it’s both ethnoreligious, sociopolitical, and beyond. And that’s a lot of work.
FN: What about the circulation of queer literature. How can we decolonize queer literature among authors, translators, and publishers?
AMMD: Although I write in/translate from Binisaya, I work primarily in English. How can writing in an imperial language, that of our American colonisers, not widely understood by Filipinos be decolonial? Am I thus challenging or reinforcing imperialism? I love what Tanzanian writer-publisher Nuzhat Abbas cautions, ‘who and what translates, where and how, and within what engines of power and currency.’ So I honestly cannot tell you anything about decolonisation.
What I can tell you though is the literary production within the Philippines. Creative nonfiction pieces that read ‘like a short story’ dominate the publications and prizes. An old poet, now dead, who taught at the country’s national university, would shun prose poetry on Facebook a few years ago, spewing that poetry is for feelings and essay is for ideas—there is no room for the in-between. Another Filipino writer who, in an email correspondence published in ‘Teaching Creative Writing in Asia‘ (Routledge, 2021), expressed that:
‘[The Millennials’] blogs, and their posts on social media are all autobiographical in nature … But much of this writing has no literary merit whatsoever, so I don’t concern myself with them.’
Who needs self-doubt when you have older writers like them populating the country’s award-giving bodies, publications, writers workshops, literary collectives, and writing programmes? Total clusterfuck. So my choice where I get published has nothing to do with me believing or not believing in decolonisation.
I remember when I was younger, an old poet who was a magazine editor would tell me, ‘Writing is writing. Everything else is showbiz.’ It sounded well-meaning but it was a symptom of the politics he upholds: that of apolitical comfort, that of the status quo. That time, I didn’t have a response — I just know he was wrong. Years later, in the brink of this US/NATO-sponsored genocide in Gaza by the Israeli settler-colonial government, I would come across Palestinian poet Marwan Makhoul: ‘In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political, / I must listen to the birds / and in order to hear the birds / the warplanes must be silent.’ And maybe that’s my answer.