COVER STORY

With Boys' Love, a generation of gay boys get a second coming of age

Philippine media is slowly being saturated with shows depicting male to male love stories. This might be a chance for gay boys to redo a queer awakening — even if it's at the most primal level.

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) —

I.

The haze in my memory prevents me from recalling when I first watched two boys sharing a kiss. There are not many scenes to draw from, with homosexuality being a taboo subject to be depicted on T.V. or movies during the ‘90s (perhaps, to some extent, until now). It might have been a sleazy digital gay movie of the early 2000s, the kind of movie that you skip to the “best” parts, but it also must have been “Y Tu Mamá También,” a film so radical in its approach of the concept of coming of age that it annihilated me completely.

When I say “shared a kiss” I meant with deep seated passion, not merely a kiss of flaring, heightened emotions because that could be found in any gay porn, which I have watched (and there are some good kisses in there), secretly, in the pre-incognito browser era internet cafes. Seeing men lock eyes and connect before sharing a kiss is a storm of emotions, something that lead me into a realization that I, a renewed gay boy, finally want this love that they speak of, not only because every one seems to have it — especially during puberty — but because I want to experience it, to be consumed by it.

Tenoch and Julio weren’t Filipinos but they were brown boys at the height of their sexual awakening — and they certainly weren’t facing any adversities that made it hard for them to claim their sexuality. They were living in a world that permitted them acts of excess that proved their manhood, much like in any patriarchal society. (Spoilers herein if you haven’t seen the film.) The kiss that they share in the climactic scene may not be entirely founded solely on homosexual attraction but of course teenage me didn’t care. They were two guys! Kissing! And in a great movie that’s won awards!

The normalization of their kiss was a moment for me as a gay kid who only knew of queer roles who were used for ridicule (the roles of Roderick Paulate, Bernardo Bernardo, Dolphy, Vice Ganda, etc.) or tragedy (various films about HIV AIDS or T.V. movies where gay men die at the hands of their lovers or of suicide). In my world, fictional queer characters didn’t deserve the world, but Tenoch and Julio showed me that you can have that one moment in the world where everything felt like love.

To accompany this essay, we asked "Hello Stranger" production designer Whammy Alcazaren to collaborate with us on what a gay boy's bedroom would look like to reflect the interior life of someone looking to pop culture to help him with his identity. Photo by JL JAVIER

In 2007, “Love of Siam” came out, the proto-Thai BL that became the topic of conversation for many burgeoning baklas like me in college. I remember the exact moment I watched the film: I just had sex with a beautiful boy, who I’d only met a couple of days before. He popped a bootleg DVD of the film and we watched it on a small TV. For the next 150 minutes, we shared the journey of Mew (Witwisit Hiranyawongkul) and his love for Tong (Mario Maurer). The title did not prepare me for the melancholy of the ending. I only wanted a few minutes of okay-ish sex that night, but it turned out that I would also be carrying the pain of loving someone like Tong, who will utter one of the most heartbreaking lines in gay cinema (“I can't be with you as your boyfriend… but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you”). The boy and I never met again but I would remember Mew for years; the brown boy who harbored this love for a gorgeous boy he deeply cared about. He didn’t have a happy ending, just like many other gay men onscreen back then who would dare to love. But he didn’t know, years later, that the idea of a sad ending would be a far-off dream for boys like him, that a sad ending would be sacrilege to an international fanbase who have been watching two boys try to get it on for thirteen or so episodes.

Finally, the gays would have their own fairy tale ending.

II.

Action movies, animes, soap operas, and variety shows. This was the kind of pop cultural consumption that I had growing up. Free T.V. meant that whatever formula the big networks were gunning for will likely be in all the shows that you’ll end up watching. A steady diet of shows like “Mara Clara,” “Sarah ang Munting Prinsesa,” “Bubble Gang,” and “Maalaala Mo Kaya” (plus, the occasional educational show like “Sineskwela” and “Hiraya Manawari”). There was barely any gay representation. If a show did have it, it’s almost certain that the character would be played for laughs or as the stereotypical depiction of a bakla. I remember Bernardo Bernardo’s upper crust-snob character in “Home Along Da Riles,” Roderick Paulate’s politician’s wife sidekick in “Abangan ang Susunod na Kabanata,” Michael V’s bakla skits, various actors in women’s clothing pretending to be gay or a woman to get away from goons, or the types of Diego, dubbed as “Ang Pambansang Bading” in “Bubble Gang.” It’s characters like the latter that made me deathly afraid to watch T.V. It was either someone watching with you would make an awful remark about being gay, or, the next day, your classmates would make fun of you and call you “Ang Pambansang Bading” or sing the song with your name in it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the Steves, the Bennys, and the Diegos of T.V. They still helped me form a semblance of queer consciousness that was rooted in the context of my culture (versus Western Gays who were but a far-off fantasy when you’re living in a small city in Central Luzon). But when the roles tend to be one note, their characters serving more as a punchline rather than being treated like an actual person, you’ll start to wonder, is this all that awaits me as a gay man?

Sometime in the wilderness of the 2000’s, when content such as this wasn’t perceived to be offensive, Michael V. released a parody song to the tune of Neocolours’ “Hold On,” about an incompetent gay boss. The hook goes, “Don-don, joklang Don-Don / Nagmamarunong s’ya / He’s feeling so smart / Don-don, joklang Don-Don / Kaka-imbyerna ka day / Wag ka ngang pasaway.” The karaoke-like skit has the show’s Diego, the much-maligned token gay, playing the song’s Don-Don. “Bubble Gang” is all fun and laughs — you even laugh at the jokes that make fun of Diego, his appearance, and his sexuality — until Michael V. makes a song about a hated bakla who shares the same nickname as you. Come Monday morning, your classmates are singing the song to your face.

Anime became an easy playground for queer boys. There were characters such as Sailor Moon and Dennis who you could connect to queerness. Photo by JL JAVIER

So you look for yourself elsewhere.

Anime became an easy playground for queer boys. It wasn’t until Dennis in “Ghost Fighter,” an Asian character, that I found someone I could relate to. It made me think, “Hey, I want to be that guy/girl.” Although Dennis is a demon fox who, in his human form, is often mistaken as female because of his flowing red locks and slightly feminine features, he was powerful, feared and mysterious. The fact that his character had brushes of femininity only made him more endearing to my young gay heart. He was probably genderqueer at best. I loved Dennis because he wasn’t a snarling, macho fighter who bulldozed the enemy at the ready, like Eugene or Alfred. He was intelligent, cunning, and his gorgeously meek appearance masked his killer instincts.

The show also had other forays into queerness. One of the Sensui Seven, Itsuki, was clearly in love with Sensui. There was a transgender villain, Miyuki, during the Taguro tournaments. Master Jeremiah, too, proved to be a woman after all. And Jericho sucking on a pacifier? Definitely a twink with daddy issues to me.

This was the same case for many gay boys during that time, such as screenwriter Ash Malanum, who wrote the groundbreaking Filipino BL “Gameboys,” arguably the first local BL after the mediastorm created by Thailand’s “2gether the Series” earlier this year.

He says, “I grew up watching soap operas and anime as the only sources of TV entertainment available for me. So naturally, I gravitated towards Judy Ann Santos and Claudine Barretto as the queens of soap operas. I also remember imitating Sailor Pluto from the anime, ‘Sailor Moon,’ like her dialogue and wand. Although, I had to do the role playing alone in my room, away from the judgmental eyes of the adults. I was afraid that I was going to be teased for being gay when I [didn’t] even know yet that I’m gay.”

He adds, “Unfortunately, there weren’t really gay characters I could identify with as a growing gay boy. I think it was in college [that] I discovered queer media through the internet, which opened a whole new perspective about being gay in this generation and in this country.”

Indie movies would become our refuge. From the onset of digital queer films like Cris Pablo’s “Doubt” and Joselito Altarejos’s “Ang Lihim ni Antonio” (I had to wait for everyone in our family to sleep and watch these films on low volume) to award-winning hits like Kanakan Balintagos’s “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros” (which was the first time I ever saw myself in a film character — that gay kid who dressed himself in curtains and blankets and paraded around like a Miss Universe contestant), Eduardo Roy’s “Quick Change.” Queer director Samantha Lee was right in saying that seeing these relatable characters on a 40-foot screen assured me that I have the right to exist just as much as everybody else.

But I watched these films way into my adulthood years, when online “discourse” and other materials had already helped me expand my queer consciousness. I thought I was already set in my ways. Until one stressful night weeks into Enhanced Community Quarantine, I watched “2gether the Series.”

"Gameboys" directly dealt with post-coming out issues and the effect of the pandemic to queer love. Screencap from IDEA FIRST COMPANY/YOUTUBE

In "Quaranthings," Judah (Kyo Quijano) felt the pressure to prove himself worthy of love after being berated by his grandmother, who didn't approve of his sexuality. Screencap from RIDE OR DIE/YOUTUBE

From that moment, I devoured all the Boys' Love shows I could find. “Kiss Me Again,” “Tharntype the Series,” “Lovesick the Series,” “Where Your Eyes Linger,” “Until We Meet Again,” “HIStory 2: Crossing the Line,” “Theory of Love.” I didn’t stop. It became my salvation, especially when the anxiety over the pandemic (and the government’s slow response) was eating the dregs of my soul. Then the Pinoy BLs came in. “Hello Stranger,” “Gameboys,” “Quaranthings,” “Gaya sa Pelikula,” “Boys Lockdown,” “Ben and Jim.”

I was a fourteen year-old again, wanting to know what it was like to be in love.

III.

What would our lives have been like if we had BL shows growing up?

“I would have come out to myself earlier had I known what I know now,” says Malanum. “I have never seen a successful or at least a professional gay character on TV. Have you seen an out and proud gay CEO on Philippine TV that is not predatory? How about a happy gay couple? As a young kid who’s having an identity crisis, those poor gay representations or the lack thereof prevented me from living the best gay childhood experience.”

There is much to be said about the stories of the BL genre; a genre that — should be pointed out again and again — originated from Japan in the 1970s by women who wanted to write about love stories devoid of the male gaze and other “societal constraints.”

“While BL shows do present male-to-male relationships, it can be argued that they do not necessarily represent gay relationships,” Chuck Smith pointed out in this BL primer for this website. “Yaoi in Japan was initially created by female writers for a female audience. Because of this, early Japanese BL employ tropes that are used in straight romance fiction or are designed to appeal to women. Men in older BLs are usually classified as seme (dominant, masculine) and uke (submissive, feminine) to mirror heteronormative gender roles.”

Harmful archetypes run the shows. Soft boys fall for tsunderes. Occasional gems do break through. Noteworthy of which is “Until We Meet Again,” which is in some ways, a rectifying of all the sad gay deaths on screen. In the show, lovers In and Korn commit suicide after their fathers forbid them to see each other ever again. Years later, they are reincarnated as Pharm and Dean. The roles are switched. The hardy Dean (a swim team captain) pursues the effeminate Pharm (an ace member of the cooking club). They recall their past lives in flashbacks, until a thread untangles, unraveling their connections to In and Korn. They get a happy-ever-after, but not without many many tears shed.

"Boys' Lockdown" sets itself apart from the rest of other Pinoy BLs as one of the shows written by a woman, Danice Mae P. Sison. Screencap from TICKET2ME/YOUTUBE

In the Thai BL “Dark Blue Kiss,” boyfriends Pete (Tay Tawan) and Kao (New Thitipoom) talk about an often unspoken truth about being gay. Screencap from GMMTV/YOUTUBE

There are problematic tropes that are hard to dismiss in BL. Abuse is romanticized (someone even gets away with gang rape). There are way too many step-brothers in love. Consent is hardly ever discussed. Female characters are treated like dirt or villainized. And since these are written as fantasies, they hardly approximate the LGBTQ experience — and they don’t really mean to.

The idea of "reclaiming" the queer narrative from the BL genre has sparked a debate. Should we still call it BL if it doesn’t follow the genre conventions? At this point, the term “BL” acts more as a marketing term. So should we just leave queer stories be?

“It’s very important to revise a genre once they start peddling oppressive status quo,” said Juan Miguel Severo during the presscon of their show “Gaya sa Pelikula” (written and directed by gay men and starring a queer actor as one of the leads). “Some people say this cannot be BL because it’s written by a gay man. So ako, if you don’t want to call it BL, eh ‘di I’m not going to call it BL, I’m going to call it romantic comedy. Pero sa akin is, I think you should be open sa mga klase ng revisions na pagdaanan ng isang genre. I think it’s about time na marinig natin yung mga bakla. For me, it doesn’t matter kung tawagin niyo itong BL o hindi. Ang importante sa akin ay mas marami pang bakla ang makapagkwento ng kwento ng mga bakla. And that goes for lesbians too, for trans and femme experiences. They should all be allowed to tell their stories.”

So what’s the difference between a cis het love story and a queer one? Lots. There’s the issue of coming out, a contentious point in shows like “Hello, Stranger” and “Gameboys” where one of the protagonists is only on the cusp of his queer awakening. There’s also the public stigma. Expressions of love that are usually made by straight couples are frowned upon when queer couples do it. Expanding the level of representation is another matter. There are hardly any femme characters in BL and most of the actors still look like they star in a glutathione commercial (and some of them do).

Watching Thai BLs made me feel like I was an adolescent again. But with Pinoy BLs, it was like I was re-doing my coming of age. I was being guided by the journeys of characters like Cairo (Elijah Canlas), Mico (JC Alcantara), Judah (Kyo Quijano), and Karl (Paolo Pangilinan), who were still figuring things out and have their whole lives ahead of them. I love watching someone like Key (Ali King) or Ben (Teejay Marquez), who already know what they want and aren’t afraid to chase after it. The fact that BL more or less requires a happy ending assured me that their stories wouldn’t end up badly.

“I think one of the most terrifying things about being a young gay kid is believing that no one will love you and you don’t deserve to love and be loved,” says Malanum.

In the Thai BL “Dark Blue Kiss,” boyfriends Pete (Tay Tawan) and Kao (New Thitipoom) talk about an often unspoken truth about being gay:

Pete: You and I are just like other people.
Kao: It’s like we disappoint our parents with our sexuality. So we have to be a good person, get a good job, make them proud.
Pete: That doesn’t make sense. I’m good because I want to be. Not because I have to be a better person than everyone else because I like men.

The truths are already familiar to me as a thirtysomething who’s had enough clownery from a heteronormative system. But what if I watched this scene while I was a confused teen in high school?

Coming of age in the ‘90s, an era where you only got a handful of queer representation, proved challenging. Pop culture plays a large part in shaping our personal selves. And during that time, no one told me that choosing to be gay was not something to be ashamed of, that it’s just as normal as choosing to be attracted to the opposite sex, or choosing your favorite brand of chocolate.

All my life I thought I’d have to be 10 times better than my straight classmates/colleagues. It was not because I wanted to, but because I would have more value as a person if I excelled at something — that being gay was already a detriment to my being, to everyone around me.

This belief was more of an accumulation of many years worth of judgment starting from high school, a notion made manifest whenever people looked at me. There’s always that voice at the back of my head that I had to get good grades, that I had to excel at choir, church youth group, Bible quiz team, dance troupe, etc. to prove my worth as a gay, so that I could just stay in the room. By the time I was out of high school, I knew that I had to get a good job at a prestigious company so my parents could be proud of who I am, like one of those power gays on T.V. who were executives and proved themselves over their straight counterparts.

Perhaps the erasure of the LGBTQs in the familial experience is to blame for the lack of queer stories. To tackle the experience of being queer is taboo, much of it anchored to a life of sin, as we are led to believe. So it doesn’t fit with the story of having a family. Screenwriter Ricky Lee pointed out that Filipino shows tend to center on “conservation and affirmation of the empowerment of the family and the identity of the Filipino.”

Smith said: “This can explain why we don’t have BL shows, apart from possible cultural concerns and issues with the local censors. Our modern Filipino soap operas are collective stories: they’re usually centered on romance, but they’re also about family, community, and country. Love in soap opera isn’t an individualistic pursuit; it is always informed by economics, by social status, by, what Lee pointed out, the need to rebuild the Filipino family.”

IV.

In the course of writing this essay, I found myself turning back to Richard Linklater’s “Before” Trilogy, acknowledging the fact that my foundational beliefs of love and intimacy are built by these films. I, too, dreamed of being whisked away by a handsome, non-threatening stranger on a train, who would talk to me about literature and sexuality and would ask me to get off on the next stop and explore a gorgeous European city.

Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine both became avatars of my romantic self when representation was scarce. I found myself reflected in Jesse’s optimistic belief that love conquers all and in Celine’s regard for soft moments (“We had sex twice, you idiot!”). I unabashedly modeled myself and my subsequent relationships after what Jesse and Celine had. A boy serenaded me as I was minutes away from boarding a four-hour bus trip home; I had hyperverbal moments in dates, walking around BGC, Cubao, and, as luck would have it, Rome, launching onto every topic possible; and when I found myself in Cafe Sperl, I wished I had a date — maybe with “a boy with beautiful dreams … who kind of kisses like an adolescent...” — so I too can have a fake phone conversation over coffee like Jesse and Celine did in that very spot.

Coming of age in the ‘90s, an era where you only got a handful of queer representation, proved challenging. Pop culture plays a large part in shaping our personal selves. Photo by JL JAVIER

Of course, the reality of this heterosexually-modeled escapade does not escape me. Jesse and Celine were free to love. While I and my partner would probably be met with cold, judgmental eyes here in public.

But with shows like “2gether,” “Dark Blue Kiss,” or “Gameboys,” the fantasy of a perfect love — at least at the surface — wasn’t far removed from the reality that I lived in. In “2gether” — which dealt with a post-coming out conundrum for a gay relationship — seeing a boy proclaim love for another boy was empowering, exciting even, like I could publicly propose to my boyfriend. The entire plot of “Dark Blue Kiss” hinged on Kao’s hesitation to come out to his mother because he feared rejection. In “Gameboys,” the confusing entanglements of a newfound queer life challenged Cairo (Elijah Canlas) at first, but it was also the key to liberating himself.

But these shows shouldn’t also take us out of the reality that we live in. Millions of views on YouTube doesn’t equal acceptance — or even ‘mainstream’ appeal. It takes a queer village (along with our allies) to get our rights recognized — and not just merely tolerated. The SOGIE bill continues to languish in the congress and is even met with fierce opposition from the Senate president himself.

The Metro Manila Pride March grows stronger each year, but organizer Nicky Castillo also reminded us that it is no time to be complacent about our fight. She said, “For as long as the lives of trans women like Jennifer Laude are lost to anti-trans violence, for as long as LGBTQI+ people are discriminated against in receiving disaster relief aid, barred from work opportunities, sanctioned in schools, and subjected to forced medical and psychological "treatment" then we need to continue to fight.”

We have our little freedoms. The fact that there is more queer content being produced is partly a reason to be hopeful (but the capitalism counterpart is part of this conversation). Cities are working on their own, enforcing anti-discrimination ordinances while a national law is non-existent. When I see a queer couple being cute or being sana all-ed on Instagram or Twitter, I am reminded that queer kids — even the one inside me who still dies from kilig because of these BLs — can feel encouraged to live their life.

“LGBTQ+ people are still not accepted in this country,” says Malanum. “Same sex marriage is far from happening thus people, even the gays, think that a happy ending is not meant for gay people. So as much as possible, if the story permits, I want gay relationships to be depicted as deserving of happy endings as well.”

Perhaps in the future, we won’t need to come out, we won’t need to defend our rights from people who think we’re abominations, and we will be free to love whoever we want to love.

***

Photos by JL JAVIER
BL room shoot modeled by VINCENT AFRICA
Production design by WHAMMY ALCAZAREN
Cover design by PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA
Produced by DON JAUCIAN