World War II in the Pacific ended 60 years ago with the infamous bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the Philippines, the end of the war was hardly observed even if only to reflect upon the atrocities committed at that time with the Filipinos as the principal victims. A hidden chapter of those dark times is the story of “comfort gays.”
BY AUBREY SC MAKILAN
The Japanese occupation 60 years ago was a difficult time for the Philippines. For over three years and until the day Japan surrendered to the USAFFE (or U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East), the Filipinos suffered grievously under the Japanese Imperial Army.
Among these Filipinos was Lola Rosa who, together with other aging “comfort women,” in the 1990s related the horrors of being forced into prostitution by Japanese soldiers. As their stories were being documented by women groups, human rights activists and journalists including TV anchor Loren Legarda, one soul found the courage to come out of the closet and share his own nightmare.
In an interview for a college paper with this writer in 2000, Walter Dempster Jr., a.k.a. “Walterina Markova” – a Filipino-Jamaican gay – said he was forced to become a sex slave by the Japanese army during World War II, at a time when homosexuality was then considered a cardinal sin and social taboo. Markova’s story had also apparently lured Legarda to the Home of the Golden Gays in Pasay City supposedly to interview a former comfort woman in the 1990s. At first disappointed that Markova was actually a gay, she nonetheless agreed to record his story.
Growing up in the 1930s in Manila, Markova’s young life was already shaped by brutality. As a child, he told this writer, he was constantly bullied and abused by his older brother, Robert. His first taste of freedom was when Robert died. Markova later joined a barkada (group) of six cross-dressers who made a living as stage performers. He and his gay friends were into cross-dressing without anybody noticing their true gender.
In the early 1940s, Markova said, the Japanese soldiers’ presence in the country did not at first bother him. In fact, the soldiers only laughed when they saw his group looting a grocery store somewhere in Harrison. But he was almost arrested in a raid by Japanese soldiers who were looking for Americans. His American stepfather was with him when the soldiers came and so they took him to a garrison at the University of Sto. Tomas.
After a while, Markova said the Japanese soldiers became brutal. “They were like kings in the land they do not own,” he said. The soldiers started confiscating rice, vegetables, and other supplies to store in their barracks. Forced labor was also imposed by then, he recalled.
Violence was an ordinary scene at Japanese sentry points. Markova narrated how they were ordered to get off the vehicle to salute them. Failing to execute the right salute – bowing the head to hip-level with the hands atop the thighs – they would be beaten up. “‘Pag hindi maganda ang saludo mo sasampalin ka…bibigyan ka ng mag-asawang sampal” (If the salute was not executed well, the soldiers would slap you on both sides of your face), he said holding his cheeks.
One day, Japanese soldiers were chasing gays after being tipped off by an informer that a gay, in revenge for his parents’ death, killed a Japanese. A gay friend was arrested and was tied at the gate of San Beda College where passing Japanese soldiers beat him up and burned his skin with cigarettes. He was set free only after another gay suspect, believed to be the Japanese killer, was captured.
Markova said the suspect was then brought to Fort Santiago, where his arms were hanged with burning woods placed under his feet. His toe nails were all apparently pulled out during torture.
Historical accounts show that some 80,000 to 200,000 women were forcibly enlisted to service Japanese troops at “comfort stations” throughout the Pacific during World War II.
In those days, Filipino women were not safe even with the company of men. Actually, Markova said, women were raped anytime, anywhere, even in front of their male companions. “Nanghahatak na lang sila ng mga kababaihan saan man nila gustong gawin ang kanilang kahayupan” (They would force women to go with them and assault them sexually anywhere), said Markova.
At the age of 18 – the age for women adolescence – Markova, together with his gay friends, were not spared from such “service.”
Markova’s barkada was at first mistaken for women by Japanese soldiers when they were taken to the Japanese officials’ rooms at the Manila Hotel. Aside from beating them up using guns as punishment for their “deception,” all drag queen performers were ordered arrested. The gays were brought to a camp – known today as the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex – where they became comfort drag queens, repeatedly raped far more brutally than comfort women.
“Buti sana kung isang beses lang ginawa sa amin ‘yon, eh hindi. Para bang galit na galit sila na…’mga bakla ito, hindi ito mga tunay na babae.’ Lahat ng klaseng kababuyan ginawa sa amin. ‘Di ka naman makapagsabi ng ‘huwag,’ e bayoneta ang kaharap mo” (They did it not only once but several times. They were even angered by the fact that we were gays and not women. They did all vicious things on us and we could not protect ourselves because their bayonets were aimed at us), he recalled.
For years, the barkada would be brought to various Japanese camps to offer their “service” to the soldiers. During those days, Markova revealed that they only had a set of clothes. They would only wear rice sacks, he said, while washing their clothes.
The barkada were also made to do forced labor. Every morning, they would shine the combat shoes and wash the uniforms of the soldiers, then clean their barracks. They were also made to mow the grass in front of the Manila City Hall.
Despite all the “service” and other work they did, he said, they were often fed only with lugaw (rice porridge). It was already a feast for them if they were given sisid rice – rice from the sea which needed frying because of foul smell – with ginataang ubod ng saging (banana stalk cooked with coconut milk) and mongo beans.
Under Japanese custody, Markova saw the soldiers raiding communities almost everyday. Persons arrested would have their hands tied and then killed. “D’yan sa may Remedios Church, ang daming pareng Amerikanong pinatay d’yan” (At the Remedios Church [in Baclaran], many American priests were killed), he added.
But what horrified Markova was the killing of infants. “Pati ang mga sanggol!” Markova said shaking his head in terror, “ihahagis nila nang pataas bago sasaluhin ng bayoneta.” (Babies were tossed up in mid-air and their bodies pierced by bayonets as they came down.)
Because of these horrible incidents, Markova treated each day as if it was his last. But even so, he had not forgotten his dream to be free again.