What Came Before BL: Gay Men in Filipino Showbiz

By Simone Yatco

The attention that the Thai BL (Boys’ Love) show, 2gether: The Series, received from Filipino audiences encouraged Filipino creators to dabble in BL media themselves. Though BL is seen as the newest trend in the Philippines, there is a long and winding history of gay cinema that begets Gameboys and Gaya sa Pelikula, some of the most popular BL series in the country as of this year. This explainer will attempt to condense the history of gay characters’ identities in Filipino media, to show how it all inevitably led to BLs.

According to Dr. Mikee Inton-Campbell of the Communication Arts department in De la Salle University, the stereotypical images of homosexual men in Filipino film became popular due to Dolphy’s gay caricature as Gorio or “Glory” in the 1954 movie Jack and Jill. Listed on IMDb as a comedy, the film stars two siblings, a burly sister pretending to be a man, and a girly brother mistaken as a woman. In the film, the sexuality of Glory is coded as wrong and a source of shame. Present in Dolphy’s past films is also the conversion trope, as Dolphy’s gay character  is forced to go through certain processes in order to achieve masculinization. 

It is no surprise that one of the first Filipino movies to depict a gay man portrays him negatively, given the Philippines’ history of homophobia and aversion to gay rights or protection initiatives. For the years before the shift to handsome masculine stars in BLs, the depiction of gay men in media had not changed much from Dolphy’s caricature, and the effect of his film can still be seen today, one recent example being The Panti Sisters (2019). Oftentimes when gay characters are included in Philippine films, their purpose is to elicit laughter through excessive flamboyance.

A study titled Filipino Gay Stereotypes in Mainstream and Independent Films pinpointed the two main stereotypes of gay men in Filipino media as effeminate gays and discrete gays. Effeminate gays are shown to be crossdressers or flamboyant parloristas with feminine traits or behavior, often with sexual or romantic desire directed towards a heterosexual man. Discrete gays, who are often accepted by the characters, are bisexual males with a masculine physicality. The study noted that majority of Filipino films depict the bakla, a hybrid term formulated from babae and lalake, as a subject of ridicule and discrimination in our patriarchal society. Furthermore, it was found that characters who reveal their sexuality but remain discreet or masculine physically continue to be respected by their peers, unearthing the effeminophobia of the queer community and “allies”. Between these two kinds of bakla is also the association of urban and middle-class gay men to the discrete kind, and the working-class to the effeminate bakla.

Undeniably one of the most popular gay Filipino actors today, Vice Ganda potrays the latter type of bakla in more than 30 TV series and films, usually acting as a foil of a straight masculine lead, which can be seen in his films Beauty and the Bestie (2015) and The Super Parental Guardians (2016). Vice Ganda often provides the camp or comic relief in a film. Actor Jason Tan Liwag expounds on his role in Philippine cinema: “In the unapologetic kabaklaan of Vice Ganda […], there is space for the average Filipino to laugh at their own self-contradictions, and for the queer child to see a rags-to-riches story come true.”  A thesis conducted surrounding the bakla in film argued that Vice Ganda’s presence in Filipino media has made him representative of the ideal bakla, someone who is engaged with LGBT rights and affluent, and thus palatable to middle and upper classes, but still accessible or relatable to the masses. 

The same study cites J. Neil Garcia’s research Philippine Gay Culture, where he states that even the depiction of same-sex sexuality or desire is heteronormative. Garcia explained that the loob (inside) is taken as more important than the labas (outside), so following this model, the bakla’s lust for the masculine character is seen as heterosexual in nature. 

The 2013 soap opera goes beyond this, however. My Husband’s Lover, aired on GMA-7, was the first show to put a non-heterosexual romantic relationship on the forefront of a teleserye. While this was deemed to be progressive, as both male leads were masculine and queer, the gay romance was an affair happening alongside the main character’s marriage to his wife, Lally. In the end, her husband Vincent leaves her and his young child for his lover, Eric, which ultimately frames the gay relationship to be problematic and a threat to the nuclear family. The series had its ups and downs in terms of gay representation, but it went beyond the trope of the flamboyant and boy-crazy bakla nonetheless. 

While the issue of sexuality has been tackled by several series and movies, there have only been a few to make it into the mainstream. This is why the response to BLs was so surprising; Philippine cinema was never bereft of gay narratives, but this is the first time there was an obvious rise in demand and popularity for them. BL in itself is a different genre within LGBT media, as BL is often centered around two handsome and masculine teens or young adults. With the IdeaFirst media company as the first to hop on the craze, Gameboys quickly became a local and even international favorite, as the series hit a million views on Youtube after only 2 episodes. Other series such as Gaya sa Pelikula, Boys’ Lockdown, Quaranthings, and Hello, Stranger have likewise been released and have been receiving attention from Filipino audiences. These BLs navigate unexplored territory in Filipino film by depicting innocent and slow-burn love, complex issues such as homophobia or biphobia, and realizations of one’s sexuality. Like My Husband’s Lover, the leads are masculine, but their sexuality and love are not depicted negatively, but instead, in a wholesome manner. 

However, writer Patrick Ernest Celso explains the harm that the popularity of BLs can cause, as these series mainly show gay characters to be visually pleasing or ‘eye candy’ without a trace of effeminacy. In his opinion, young LGBT viewers may see themselves as too ugly to be gay or undeserving of that romance due to their physical appearance. The masculinity of all the leads in the recent BLs can also possibly be a result of effeminophobia in the Philippines, or the overplay of the trope in past films.

The messy and somewhat harmful history that the depiction of gay men has somehow created an underlying demand for the simple yet engaging love story that BLs provide to viewers. Though these series are still new and making waves in our country and abroad, Celso suggests that Pinoy BL goes beyond the hype of only providing handsome actors, in order to serve “a greater purpose [to inject] pressing social and political realities.”

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