Repository of my thoughts and images of art, literature, travel, and life.
by: Maria Portia Olenka C. Placino
“The personal is political.”
So it goes for gender studies. As a heterosexual woman, I have to admit that I encountered difficulties in writing this critique since this is not only to write in a personal phenomenological style but also to write in a perspective outside of my personal experience. Usually, this is not an issue for a writer and a researcher in the art studies discipline, but when it comes to the gay and lesbian discourse, personal experience is the foundation of the issue. Must I really be constructed as a lesbian to engage in lesbian discourse? What about in the discourse of gay, transgender and bisexual? Is the discourse exclusive to their groups or could the walls be broken down for a heterosexual woman or man to engage in the discourse?
Tabi-tabi sa Pagsasantabi: Kritikal na Tala ng mga Lesbiana at Bakla sa Sining, Kultura at Wika is a collection of essay that makes the reader experience the gay and lesbian discourse as written and critiqued by people within the community, mainly—the gay and lesbian. This proves to be an intimidating challenge as I delve their personal experiences and share my own insights into a room which is not my own. Often in the text, heterosexuality is equated with conformism to the heteronormative-patriarchal society that we live in. A part of me rebels in this image because as a woman, I had have my share of marginalization in a patriarchal world. At the same time, I feel that it is much worse for the gay and lesbian community as they are viewed as the incomplete man or woman, the sick, the deviant within the heteronormative-patriarchal society that I am also placed in. Like it or not, we do share this space—the marginal space.
How do we break the barriers? The barrier between the male and female, heterosexual and homosexual? How do we break the silence on the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual? The queer? The bakla? How do we break the bondage of society strengthened by myths, legends and stereotypes? How do we move forward?
The text is an experience in itself. The language that is not wholly familiar to a heterosexual other is an exploration of the gay and lesbian experience wherein you are not fully welcome. Yet as the other opens the door into the self, a glimpse is provided. The barrier is there but it can be broken, bit by bit, piece by piece. For once, it is they who are talking and should be listened to.
The book has four general parts—Sipat at Siyasat sa Kasaysayan, Teorya at Estetika, Pagbasa at Kritika and Testimonyo. Each part has a number of essays that embody the theme. The first part, Sipat at Siyasat sa Kasaysayan shows the development of gay and lesbian art and literature in the Philippines as well as the different groups and movements that support the gay and lesbian discourse. The second part, Teorya at Estetika uses different theories and aesthetics of gay and lesbian art and literature in the Philippine context. This includes the deconstruction and construction of identity, the morphology of the image, the representation of the gay and lesbian. The third part, Pagbasa at Kritika applies the various theories discussed in the previous part into other artistic expressions and statements such as in literature, visual arts, cinema, architecture and even pornographic materials. The fourth and final part, Testimonyo shows two testimonies—one of a lesbian and the other a gay. However, the last part of the book, which is the shortest, shows its most provocative part, as it is a direct testimony of a gay and lesbian on their experiences and their analysis of their current situation in the Philippine society.
I experienced the book in a very logical and cohesive manner. It is in the close reading and internalization that I am overwhelmed. I am friends of gays with different personalities and beliefs, from the parloristang bakla to the gay yuppies. As for lesbians, most of my friends are of the literate middle class lesbians, some are directly out, some are assumed to be, I have never asked nor questioned. Although, these personal experiences provide me additional insight, at the same time, they also limit because it is not my experience—it is theirs. The book is very clear on this separation between the self and the other. There are common issues encountered by the gay and lesbian community in the Philippines, such overlapping themes are expressed in the different essays. I will explore such issues through the eyes of the author at the same time, through my eyes—an outsider looking in. Particularly, I will focus on the issues of sexuality and identity, the gay and lesbian body, invisibility and space, their freedom from bondage and the breaking of their silence.
Sexuality and Identity
This point is where we are most different. I am a heterosexual woman studying and critiquing gay and lesbian texts. Once again, a separation between the self and the other can be felt. This is not my personal prejudice but almost an insecurity developed while reading and analyzing the text. Time and again, the construct of the heterosexual reader is assumed as a conformist to the heteronormative-patriarchal society. The separation is almost painful. So is the label. Label on one hand is useless. But unfortunately, it is also powerful. We have to face the fact that labels exist in the society we live in. Labels have definitions. They have implications. They have connotations. More importantly, labels hold power. Man. Woman. Gay. Lesbian. Transgender. Bisexual. And numerous others that are now surfacing.
Sexuality is the most defining factor in the discourse of gay and lesbian art and literature. The idea of sexuality and the identification to gay and lesbian art and literature is open to various opinions and limitations. Rodriguez identifies the gay not just in the subject-matter but also in the person. The art or literature will be recognized as gay even without the validation or acceptance of the individual, especially in the case of closeted gays (181). This issue is critically problematic because if the artist is closeted and does not identify himself as gay, then how will he or his artwork be identified as a gay? Would the assignation of an artist or artwork as gay without the self-identification be correct?
Lesbianism in art and literature is specifically characterized in the identification of the self as a lesbian. This is pointed out by Pineda in her essay Pagbasag sa Katahimikan: Pagpapakilala ng Sining-Biswal ng Lesbiana sa Pilipinas. Self-identification as a lesbian is key in the characterization and analysis of lesbian art and literature. Thematically, there is no identified lesbian art. The expression, particularly the assertion of one’s self as a lesbian is the factor taken into consideration in lesbian art (56). The difficulty arises when an artist, even if a lesbian, does not wish to be identified as a lesbian artist because of the constrictions that the label gives such as in the experience of Tata Lim. She wants to be recognized as a photographer first, rather than being boxed into a definition of a lesbian artist (78).
Issues in the validation and identification of sexuality are important in the discourse of gay and lesbian art and literature. On one hand, anything done by a gay or lesbian could be considered as gay or lesbian art, but is their self-identification and validation necessary for this consideration? Another point of conflict is their want or need for such identification or would that supercede their identity as an artist? These issues do not have a concrete answer or resolution. The intention of the artists is a factor but the reception and opinion of the audience would also affect this form of expression. Who really holds the power over sexuality and identity? The self or the other? The artist or the audience?
Sexuality and even identity is located in the body. How do we make sense of the body in the gay and lesbian discourse? I personally find it fascinating that the body can be regarded as the actual text and a point of analysis. There is a varying interpretation on the analysis of the body between the gay and the lesbian text. The experience of the body as a lesbian text and the gay gaze is different from the traditional historicism accepted in the heteronormative-patriarchal society. The breaking out from the marginalization of the traditional society serves as a venue for the gay and lesbian discourse.
Lesbianism sees and analyzes the body in terms of the self. Pangilinan points out the concept of jouissance or the love and fascination for one’s own body and the concept of ecriture feminine or seeing the body of a woman as a text. These concepts center on the body of the woman—particularly the body of the self rather than the body of another (32). Traditional historicism sees the body of a woman as a subject of art such as in nude paintings but not as the art or the text in itself. The patriarchal “masters” see the body of the woman as the subject of their art production and as object to be admired. This breaking of the bondage to become the text itself instead of the subject is a significant development in the lesbian discourse. The lesbian can therefore admire her own body, instead of being the mere subject of admiration.
Gay art and literature approach the body in a different manner. Unlike in lesbianism, the gay perspective looks into the body of the other, particularly the body of the other man. If jouissance finds the body of the self fascinating, the gay perspective in the arts sees the body of another man as fascinating. This is pointed out in the studies of Eugene Evasco on gay literature, particularly of pornographic gay literature—Pagkaligalig ng Musa sa Paglaladlad ng Kapa: Giya sa Pag-aligwas sa Panulaan ng Bakla sa Filipino and Naisatitik sa Katawan, Nakalagda sa Pagnanasa: Paano Hinihiray ang isang Bakla. The gay gaze becomes a powerful gaze as they choose to look at and own what they see.
There is a significant difference in the interpretation of the gay and lesbian text on the body. While the lesbian text sees her own body as the self and admires her own body, breaking away from the bondage of the patriarchal gaze on the body, the gay gaze breaks away from the heteronormative demand of looking at a body of a woman instead of the body of a man. The breaking of the barrier and limitations is central to the regard of the body, especially as they oppose the heteronormative-patriarchal demands. The gay and lesbian own power through the body in their own way, expressed in their own language.
Invisibility and Space
From the issue of the body, the next question is on where should that body be placed? How do we make sense of the body in the gay and lesbian perpective and locate them in a heteronormative-patriarchal space, at the same time empowering them to claim their own space? Despite the freedom that was fought for and won, where do they go? We used to ignore their existence until they became invisible. But they are no longer invisible now. They are here, they have a voice, and they will claim their space among us.
Early historicism on gay and lesbian art and literature ignored their existence. They are not just silent, but invisible as well. This issue of invisibility is discounted by Lopez in her study of the protolesbian text in Filipino literature entitled Si Nena, Neneng, at Erlinda: Ang Sex Variant sa Panitikang Pilipino. Lopez points out how there are protolesbian images in Philippine literature even before there is the word lesbianism (131). In contemporary times, the issue of lesbian space is tackled by Pineda in her paper Mula sa Silid, tungo sa Indayog: Paghugot ng Estetikang Lesbiana Mula sa Katawan. The traditional space for women artist is the home, but with the advent of lesbianism, that space spreads outside of the home into the public sphere, yet still central to this is the actual body of the woman as she claims her space within a heteronormative-patriarchal society (219).
Though marginalized, the gay in the Philippines enjoyed a space early on, compared to their lesbian counterparts. Cabalfin shows the gay space in Philippine architecture in his paper Mala-baklang Espasyo sa Arkitekturang Filipino: Estetika, Morpolohiya, Konteksto (184). The gay space is primarily classified as a marginalized space—the space in the darkness such as movie house, bath house and bars (Evasco 105). This limited concept is broken by Cabalfin as he sees the outside, the everyday and the city as part of the gay space. The morphology and aesthetic of the gay space is examined through the overpass and the basketball courts/ plaza. The concept of the everyday is combined with the multi-functionality that embodies the day space. This extended the gay space from the indoors and the darkness into the multi-functional outside space (195).
We are no longer blind to recognize that in contemporary times, lesbians and gays are no longer invisible no matter how much some sectors try to ignore them. In the arts and literature, they are ever-present. They are no longer limited to their homes or in the darkness, instead they became part of various activities in the everyday. Though the gay still has more freedom compared to their lesbian counterparts, the lesbians are resisting and crossing the doble marginalization (as a woman and as an incomplete woman) assigned to them by the heteronormative-patriarchal society. This issue still needs to be addressed in the gay and lesbian discourse. But the fact of the matter is, they are no longer silent and invisible. They have claimed their voice and their space within the the heteronormative-patriarchal world. Who will adjust? Whose wall will be broken? What will be changed?
Freedom from Bondage
There are strong bonds that hold the gay and lesbian in their place. There are still strong cultural forces that silence and limit them. Sometimes, it is their peers that marginalize them. A friend of mine who attended a conference on the GLTB (Gay Lesbian Transgender Bisexual) Studies informed me that it is a different movement from the Queer Studies and Gender Studies. All these movements and other sympathetic or aligned movements, though they have a similar general goal have different focus and different approach on the issue. They also do not necessarily agree on the process of achieving that goal. This provides even more difficulties in the already complicated discourse on gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, bakla and other gender and sexualities that I did not mention here.
Slowly, they are breaking away from the heteronormative-patriarchal stereotypes and prejudices. They are also fighting the abuse—physical, emotional, psychological abuse that they suffered because of such prejudices. Yet, there are still powerful myths that hold the consciousness of the Filipinos. Rolando Tolentino shows such myths that result in prejudices in his paper Richard Gomez at ang Mito ng Pagkalalaki wherein he points out how power relations in Philippine society is expressed through different myths in the everyday (253). The cinema, as a powerful tool in the assignation of power relations also shows the lesbian in a very unfortunate light, never getting their happy life, their happy ending, as articulated by Libay Lisangan Cantor in her paper Lesbiana, Lesbiana, Paano ka Isinasapelikula? Ilang Pagmumuni-muni sa Pagsasadula ng mga Lesbiana sa Pelikulang Filipino (362). There is a fight against prejudice, but at the same time, such prejudices are strengthened by the popular media.
The arts and literature are good starting point towards a breakage of bondage into the freedom seeked by the gay and lesbian. There are various movements towards this such as the visual arts exhibits, publications and even the gay and lesbian pride march held every year. This is a good start. But the the discourse needs something more. They need to move beyond. The coming out has been articulated numerous times, though that step is no less significant, there is something more to do, more challenges to face after coming out. The gay and lesbian discourse has already gone through the painful process of coming out. The next challenge is the construction of their identity after decontructing the stereotype and assigned roles and identity. The representation of the gay and lesbian identities should move beyond the body. The body is a steady starting point of the revolution but there is always something that comes after coming out. It is where they need to solidify their strength.
Breaking the Silence
“In seeking to learn to speak to (rather than listen to or speak for) the historically muted subject of the subaltern woman, the postcolonial intellectual ‘systematically’ ‘unlearns’ female privilege. This systematic unlearning involves learning to critique postcolonial discourse with the best tools it can provide and not simply substituting the lost figure of the colonized (Spivak 91).”
How do we give voice to a marginalized group without usurping their own voice? Perhaps, the best thing to be done about the past is to point to the silence rather than forcing to express a voice, a belief, that was not expressed to begin with. Yet, in the contemporary times, are the outsiders not allowed to develop a discourse on gay and lesbian issues? Or are we bound to silence as well?
This is my early attempt to develop a discourse on gay and lesbian issues without actually being identified as one. There are various contexts and discourses already available on the subject. The power relations and identification in gender and sexuality is already explored by Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault (Castle 102-3). Judith Butler developed gender theory into a model of performativity as opposed to simply being a model of performance. Performativity contests the notion of the subject rather than presuming the subject as in the earlier practice (Butler 111-12). Monique Wittig explored the importance of the body in lesbian studies while Theresa de Laurentis and Lynda Hart breaks down the canon on the beliefs regarding lesbian sexuality by disproving the psychoanalytical preconceptions and the pathologization of the male imaginary (Castle 106-7). The popular show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy helped in the empowement of the term “queer” within a heteronormative-patriarchal society (Castle 105). Meanwhile, in the local setting, there are studies such as Neil Garcia’s Philippine Gay Culture: The Last 30 years, Binabae to bakla, Silahis to MSM that enrich the gay discourse in the Philippines.
These theories and studies contribute to the development of the gay and lesbian discourse. In the Philippine setting, there are various studies on the subject, a number of which are represented in the collection of essays in Tabi-tabi sa Pagsasantabi: Kritikal na Tala ng mga Lesbiana at Bakla sa Sining, Kultura at Wika. But there seems to be something lacking still. Perhaps the discourse is still fresh from its coming out stage wherein the silence is broken and they are now newly visible. The long ingrained definitions and labels need not just a deconstruction from the heteronormative-patriarchal assumptions but also a construction that comes from the gay and lesbian community.
Another point is in the issue of the lesbian in particular. There seems to be an ongoing struggle from being doubly marginalized, as a woman and as a lesbian. How can they claim a space when feminism is still struggling within the patriarchal Philippines? Being a lesbian makes it much more difficult. There are numerous foreign studies on lesbianism but there seems to be a lack in the Philippines. The lesbian artists are struggling with the label much more than their gay counterparts. The question on the construction of a lesbian is still unanswered. How can they express themselves in this limiting construct?
The last part of the book—Testimonyo, is the shortest part, yet the most meaningful. Since the gay and lesbian experience is central to the discourse, then their actual experience should be discussed more within the discourse. Oscar Atadero’s Magarang Kotse sa Lubak-lubak na Kalye: Bakit Kailangang Makisangkot ang Bakla sa Kilusan sa Pagbabago shows the gay in the grass roots and how they can improve their own situation (379). This essay is a powerful one but where are the other gay artists? How can we hear their voice, their perspective? Meanwhile, Irma Lacorte’s Ang Makulay na Daidig ng Isang Lesbiana sa Sining-Biswal expresses the life and works of an educated middle-class artist—almost stereotypical of the woman artist identified in a patriarchal world (391). Where are the other lesbian artists? What is their experience? Can we experience it through her art, her writings, her literature, her photographs, her films? Where is she?
We should go beyond the labels and the assignation. We should try, perhaps, to construct ourselves within their constructs. But there is also a challenge for the gay and lesbian—to let the heterosexual into their world. Otherwise, there would still be the silences and the misconceptions. Discourse should be made both ways. Researches and studies must be developed on the subject. Much more, there should be a reason for each gender to get through the barrier of a different language and cultural experience. Afterall, if bondage is unwanted within the gay and lesbian context, it is just as unwanted for a heterosexual woman, and perhaps even for a heterosexual man.
How do we break the barriers? How do we break the silence? How can we understand? Perhaps the answer lies in what I attempted. We just have to try. Just as I tried to write and see on a personal level—experiences and cultures which are not my own, so should the rest of us try to see what lies on the forced margin of our world. The challenge goes both ways, to gain freedom from bondage and break the silences.
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Castle, Gregory. The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. Print.
Evasco, Eugene Y., Roselle V. Pineda, and Rommel B. Rodriguez. Tabi-tabi Sa Pagsasantabi: Kritikal Na Tala Ng Mga Lesbiana at Bakla Sa Sining, Kultura, at Wika. Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 2003. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Print.
Garcia, J. Neil C. Philippine Gay Culture: Binabae to Bakla, Silahis to MSM. Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 2008. Print.
Osborne, Peter. A Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.