MANILA, Philippines – I was packing a year’s worth of belongings during the frantic days after Christmas. My mother was about to have an aneurysm. In a few days, her irresponsible bunso was relocating to Siargao, an island on the northeastern tip of Mindanao. Frustrated by my usual cramming, Mother savored the last chance to berate me. I countered with eye rolls and a well-practiced, “Ugh, whatever.”
“Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t do that at all when you get there.” Her tone shifted from stern to cautious.
I knew what Mom meant: They’ve always known about me, but I was not to rock the baroto in Siargao.
Small Town Gurl
For all her exasperation, my mother has been an amazing woman. She and my dad had built a household where it was okay for an 11-year-old son to print Legolas’ face on A4, just because “his face looked nice.” I have grown up in the big city and all its liberations. Boy Abunda was respected, past boyfriends were introduced to family, and straight friends imagined my future wedding. Our tipping point was near and there was no need to hide.
Yet arriving in a small town in Surigao del Norte, I shared my mother’s uncertainty. For the locals, the tall, lean Tagalog in jeans and T-shirt could not possibly swing for the other team. I kept a balance between blending in and adjusting.
The town mayor introduced me as a consultant during an assembly. Without missing a beat, he asked the audience to find me a girlfriend. I smiled while crying inside. My Platinum Gay status was about to be challenged.
A few weeks later, a group of giggly colegialas invited me to Friday night disco at a local restaurant. Yes, disco has not yet died on our side of the archipelago. I excused myself from attending the best — and only — party in town.
My newfound straightness peaked when I was drafted into the liga. There was talk of jerseys, practice drills and team positions. At no point I was asked if I preferred to be a cheerleader instead. To this day I have avoided liga members. My height could not be counted on to bring glory to our purok.
Beshies and Bashers
I tinkered with dating apps for a while just to check the online gay scene. The nearest guy was 67 miles away. While company would have been nice, no meet-up was worth a three-hour ferry ride.
I did not find a connection either with the local gay 20-somethings who called each other “beshie.” They sang Katy Perry songs on karaoke, rode their bright red habal-habals, and ruled the dance floor with every remix of Dessert. Sometimes the beshies invited me for drinks, a way of recognizing the ping in their gaydar. But I have always been of the paminta geek variety — glasses, books, and misspent youth online.
To my disappointment, we were different for another reason. I noticed the sneers from shirtless tambays.Their attitude towards the beshies was neither harmless nor playful. The squints were sharper; “bayot”was whispered with palpable dislike.
“Anong problema nila?” I asked a beshie my age as we worked together on a field project.
“Wala ‘yon, sir. Huwag niyo na pansinin,” he said, acting small and embarrassed.
That day I became aware of my privilege back home. I was a bromo to my roughhousing, basketball-playing friends. They checked NBA scores and I checked out Jeremy Lin. The few moments when they exclaimed “Ang bakla mo!” were only in jest.
To see discrimination that vicious was sobering. The big city was the exception after all, not the rule. Beshies still have to hide from bashers. A newcomer like me could only do so much.
Coming Out Again
I’ve been more open to my colleagues five months into my assignment. The tourism officer has noticed that I jump at the chance to interact with hunky surfers. My gay boss has been cajoling me to share my “Makati stories.” I’ve been shedding the obscurity of being a Manileño in their tight-knit town.
But there was one moment when coming out again mattered. I was eating late dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restobar. I shared a table with two beshies and a tipsy woman in her 40s. That night’s topic was politics. The newly elected president was open to civil union — much to manang’s dismay. She laid down her bigotry as the two beshies quietly drank. When my patience had finally snapped, I couldn’t help jumping in: “Sa sinasabi niyo po, parang mas matimbang ang karapatan niyo kaysa ‘yung sa aming tatlo.”
Her drunken defense was as irrational as her intolerance. My mother would have been livid at me. But seeing the two beshies follow my lead, I knew that some boats were meant to be rocked. Beshie or bromo, we were meant to row this baroto to shore