Oscar Atadero: Leading the Gay Life
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.
INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
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
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
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.
Filipino and gay
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.
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
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.
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
what makes Filipino gays different from their foreign counterparts aside from
the lack of in-depth understanding of their sexuality? And yet again, what
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Bakla as a political activist
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. “
humbling experience prepared him for the wild and wacky world of street gays.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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