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Volume 3,  Number 6              March 9 - 15, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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Oscar Atadero: Leading the Gay Life

“Militant gay” may seem like a contradiction of terms to some but the phrase fits Oscar Atadero, secretary-general of Progressive Organization of Gays in the Philippines (Pro-Gay), to a tee.


Every 26th of June, the gay world celebrates International Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Day, and again, gays, lesbians, their partners and their friends take to the streets and proudly proclaim themselves not merely as members of the so-called ‘third sex,” but as human beings who live and love, experience hurt and feel elation the same way their heterosexual counterparts do.

In the Philippines, it was June 26, 1994 when the first gay and lesbian pride march in the Philippines – and in Asia – was launched. The organizers were PRO-Gay leaders.

On that historic day, gays marched from EDSA down to Quezon Avenue and around the Quezon City Memorial Circle as part of the global commemoration of the uprising of global militants in New York on June 26, 1969.  From then on, the date has been recognized as the international day for gays and lesbian liberation movements around the world – gays’ version of Labor Day, or International Women’s Day.

Being Filipino and gay

Atadero thinks that being gay in a Third World country, is much more complex than being one in the West. “In the Philippines, to be bakla (gay) mostly means dressing up, and making a living in the woman's role, while his partner is usually straight, as amply demonstrated by gay showbiz managers who flaunt their affairs with their macho talents,” he says. 

According to Atadero, masculine gays in the West do not have to behave effeminately in public to be called gay; any two men who have consensual sex are easily called homosexuals. “Tourists can't understand why Filipinos whom they would call gay back home insist they are only silahis, bisexual or even heterosexually inclined and never self-identify as gay,” he says.

Atadero insists that this difference hinges on the fact that the mass concept of sexuality has never been fully developed as a separate school of thought among Filipinos. Thus, it is not unusual to find many gay college graduates brag about expertise in the most esoteric philosophies but remain clueless or evasive about their own sexualities. 

It also makes it difficult to estimate the number of gays in the country at a given period since Filipinos have yet to set the baseline description of gay, lesbian and bisexual.

But what makes Filipino gays different from their foreign counterparts aside from the lack of in-depth understanding of their sexuality? And yet again, what unites them?

“The older generation of Filipino gays still insists that a bakla should only find straight guys for soulmates; the younger Filipino gays on the other hand are more willing to settle down with other gays or, at the minimum, bisexual men,” Atadero explains.

But there is an even more basic difference. In affluent capital cities, gays have less problems dealing with unemployment. “Food is cheaper, there’s adequate housing and subsidized social services available. Gays and lesbians in western societies find it easier to become more independent from family, that is why millions of Europeans and Americans can afford to join gay pride parades or trash religious orthodoxy and not worry about being fired the next day,” he says. 

The Filipino gays find the backward economy a cramp to their style. Many of them are unable to leave home and even among those who can, many usually feel they have to support their extended families. In turn, parents who beat up their bakla kids later on grudgingly tolerate the grown-up breadwinner who can pay the bills. It's a paradox with two realities, making it hard for observers to really pinpoint if Filipino society really accepts or still rejects having gays in the family.

Organizing gays

The Philippines is known all over the world as a hotbed of activism. Every year, hundreds of activists from America, Europe, and neighboring countries in Asia come over to the Philippines to learn from progressive and militant mass organizations on ways and techniques of effective – in activist-speak – arouse, organize, and mobilize people for specific causes. 

Gender issues have always been espoused by groups such as Gabriela, Kilusan ng  Manggagagawang Kababaihan (KMK) and Amihan. These groups maintain that the exploitation women suffer is twofold: they are exploited as members of the class they belong to (as workers, or as peasants); and as members of their sex, treated as either whores, ornaments, slaves, or untouchable saints. 

Gays and gay issues, meanwhile, are more complex (they’re both man and woman, after-all), and thus organizing them is more difficult. Atadero would be the first to admit how difficult it is to convince gays to come out of the closet and speak out.

“Very few effeminates are hired or succeed in industry and mainstream professions, shunting most to self-account trades such as salons, showbusiness and street commerce, even sex. Income and benefits are irregular. Fags are three times more likely to get fired because of job discrimination and change livelihood and residence than the average Filipino,” he says. 

“Oppression against gays remains very real which makes it necessary for the local bakla community to organize and fight for their political rights in the local context. The great majority of the identifiable gays are semi-employed effeminate workers in the service sector, and they are mockingly called parloristas, the local version of screaming fags.

The shifting lifestyle and low self-esteem make gays more prone to substance abuse and anti-social behavior, provoking the public to become even more homophobic (fearful of gay ideas and people). Many gays even tend to distrust and pull down their own kind.

Advocacy and rage

Despite the lack of funds and a permanent office, Progay has kept on with its public advocacy, oftentime the only group speaking out in the mass media whenever an anti-gay politician or church leader attacks gays and lesbian causes. But unlike their US-based counterparts who are known for hitting back with bitchy personal tirades and "zapping actions," Progay prefers to go after the deeper social problems that make anti-gay attitudes deeply rooted.

Six years after gay issues have been politicized in the country, homophobia remains deeply rooted in Philippine society, which prevents the full integration of gays into society. That is why Progay is conducting the RAGE Campaign, which stands for Raising Awareness for Gay Empowerment.

Launched during the 51st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2001, the program ran all sizes of gatherings among gays and mixed groups.

"We realized that social change for the benefit of gays could not be done by gays alone. We hold RAGE forums in both small and large gatherings, to gather data on how other people think of gays and vice versa. We were surprised to learn that gays, at least in some areas in Manila, tend to think worse of themselves than other people do of them,” Atadero explains.

When Pro-Gay discusses the higher unemployment rate among poor gay men and how this often leads to low self-worth, the audience begin to rethink themselves, and become kinder to other gays. “After settling that (issue), they become more ready to change the negative stereotype images of gays,” he says.

Even so-called straight people appreciate RAGE forums for the chance to get to know the gay world first hand and in a systematic manner. For instance, they learn that the popular theories of gay identity were a recent invention made to help ruling classes control social relations.

"I thought homosexuality was either something that you were born with or got from outside influences. RAGE helped me realize that it's just something people do and not a permanent label or central part of their existence. Now, I will stop asking my nephew how they came to be that way," said a macho trade union organizer.

"I grew up with gay and lesbian friends all my life, but after attending my first RAGE forum, I realized I was more patronizing than understanding to them. I think more of these forums should be done in the people's movement," added a feminist.

"With RAGE and other programs of Progay, we hope to make more people have a more well-rounded view of the Pinoy bakla, and less of the haphazard analysis offered by gossip and bad science textbooks," Atadero says with pride.

The Bakla as a political activist

Peace, Unity, and Equality. Although it sounds more like a slogan for the United Colors of Benetton, Pro-Gay’s slogan is actually very political. Atadero explains that it refers to the war in Mindanao, the religious discrimination on gays, and the discord rampant in the country.

Atadero himself has experienced discrimination. But unlike other gays who launch into semi-sob stories that eventually turn into epiphany tales, Atadero explains his own personal history with an analytic mind rather than melodrama.

Atadero, 38 years old, is now into his sixth year of doing part-time work for gay concerns. All in all, Atadero has been with the people’s movement for 14 years now.

"While I was growing up I was confused and had no one to turn to. I looked at the neighborhood bakla and I couldn’t relate to them. At the University of Sto. Tomas (UST), I had crushes on my engineering classmates. I had the feeling the whole college knew and avoided me.”

Atadero remembers anti-Marcos activists as being ‘grossly homophobic, never mind that many NGO and culturati top brass then were gays. “We were tolerated but told that to really belong, gays had to change. I didn't change, but I stayed on a bit longer, I got arrested in 1983 a few months after Ninoy was killed and laid low for six years. Then I worked for activist organizations again, by then confronting homophobia on a personal basis.”

Atadero has had his share of trauma.  "One night in 1993, ushers in a Cubao cinema harassed me while I was walking down the aisles. I was traumatized with the thought of my family finding out from a sleazy tabloid. The feeling of helplessness really hit me that time. I signed up for a gay men's support group but I felt I didn't belong. I needed to be with people who take risks for change,” he says. 

The following year, Atadero heard about this group Progay announcing plans to march and, on impulse, decided to join. After that, he started a gay column in Mr & Ms magazine, and got invited to talk shows left and right.

"It didn't sit well with family even if I was seen rubbing elbows on TV with Margie Holmes and Dong Puno. To them, having a gay son was a family scandal, so I had to move out and leave behind a life of relative comfort," said Atadero, who was born to a middle class family in Manila.

"I didn't like going out with other people. I just wanted to write angst-filled sweet choovachoochoo for our college paper. I hated my editor for assigning me to a story in the Tondo slums and I went there for kicks. It was there that I got my first taste of grasa (coconut grease) and de sabog (sprinkling of rock salt) on cold rice. “

The humbling experience prepared him for the wild and wacky world of street gays.

"Screaming faggots scared me. I admit I was very homophobic to them because I said they bring shame to gays like me. My work with Progay helped me change my bias against them, now I spend almost every night visiting be auty salons and slums where I meet the most down-to-earth faggots in the most atrocious manners of fashion."

"Lately I find I love singing kitschy songs with them, though I know I really cannot be in the same exact league. I have no sense of style, I can't dance, can't act, can't even remember a classic movie line. A new group of parloristas sometimes finds it difficult to welcome a boring gay like me, yet they are patient. Once I have earned their trust, I am treated like family.

I know street gays are the most dependable line of defense against bigotry and homophobia and society will one day wake up to realizing their pageantry, dismissed as nonsense frill, revolutionized society's way of exposing its own hypocrisy and insecurities.

He says he dreams of a day when society no longer has to invent categories to describe people according to the sex of their loved one. "While the artificial categories of sex and gender exist, Progay will continue to push for the political, economic, social and cultural rights of this minority, the one we call today gay people. We will continue to march and educate those who wish to categorize and oppress us for decades to come.

But generations from now, the words homosexual and gay will no longer be relevant and people with same-sex behavior and feelings don't need the law and state to define or defend their rights.

"In the meantime, by the way, I'm single and available and I'm looking for a gay boyfriend. I don't just march and fight, I also cuddle,” he smiles.  Bulatlat.com

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