A still from Xeph Suarez's Astri Maka Si Tambulah, 2017

The advent of digital technology allowed film production to take place in the regions outside of the film capital, Manila, remaking the landscape of Philippine national cinema into its archipelagic nature today. Filmmakers have explored various issues of geo-cultural importance ranging from the armed conflict in Mindanao to cultural identities including queer issues.

This is a subject of cinematic and anthropologic significance given the diversity of queer expressions in the vast Philippine islands as well as attitudes that local communities exhibit towards their queer population. 

There are many terms that pertain to the queer that appear in different languages in the regions. For 'gay man', the Cebuano bayot is the most dominant not only in Cebu but also in different provinces that utilize the language. The Hiligaynon agi is used in Panay island and in the Ilonggo settlements of Mindanao, and the Chavacano mareng for the Zamboanga Peninsula. For the Moro groups, bayas is the term in Maguindanaon which is barely used today, binabay for the Maranaw, and bantut for the Tausug and Sulu islanders. Sirongan or pesirongan is a Maranaw term for intersex and hermaphrodites. Mentefuwaley libun is the Teduray term for trans women. 

This linguistic excavation is important to understand how cultures perceive queerness. Most euphemisms, for example, equate gayness with effeminacy. The Maranaw uses 'kalemek' meaning a softie, while the Maguindanaon use 'pembabay-babay' or 'one who acts like a woman'. Bantut is also used to refer to a trans woman.

The term for 'lesbian' is conspicuously absent especially in the Moro groups. Borrowing from English, tomboy is the most commonly used term. The euphemism 'penmama-mama' which translates to 'one who acts like a man' is used by the Maguindanaon. There is a relaxed attitude towards lesbians because it is seen as something transitory which can be cured once a lesbian gets married to a cisgender man. 

In Arnel Mardoquio's Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin Sa Gabing Madilim (The Journey of the Stars in The Dark Night, 2012), the protagonists Amrayda and Fatima accompany the boy Faidal as he tries to escape from U.S. troops and their local counterpart. They navigate the difficult terrain of Sulu, and for more than an hour, we do not see any trace of the romantic relationship between the two female protagonists. Only in the last ten minutes of the film, when coast is clear, do we discover their relationship when the lovers engage in a kiss. This nonappearance of queer identity in the film's narrative reflects not only the linguistic absence for lesbian in the Tausug lexicon, but also the prevalent heteronormative attitude towards lesbians. It is fine for as long as they do not act like a man, because it is just a phase that marriage can cure. 

On the other hand, ontological complexity surrounds the bantut. More than queer expression, it is rooted in ambiguity in the notion of Self – a bantut cannot enter the Afterlife as a cisgender man or woman so they are doomed to remain phantoms roaming the earth (or sometimes, lumped with the binatang or animals).

Xeph Suarez's Astri Maka Si Tambulah (2017) revolves around the relationship of Astri, a Badjau transwoman and her lover Tambulah who earn a living by busking on a boat to the delight of tourists to the sea. Astri is also saving money for a dowry as she is expected to marry a cisgender woman named Sittie. She does this halfheartedly, torn between her love for Tambulah and her familial obligations. We see the Badjau community's tolerance towards the bantut. Astri lives in a house with Tambulah whose relationship is not seen as a form of impropriety or a subject of public gossip. The bantut are also invited to weddings to perform the pangalay. Only when the money intended for the dowry suddenly goes missing do we see the limits of this tolerance. Astri is accused by her father of intentionally losing the money to prevent the wedding. When her father reprimands her, she is told that her kabantutan and her relationship are tolerated for as long as they do not run counter to family priorities.  

The indigenous notion of the Afterlife is used in Ram Botero's Pamalugu (In Limbo, 2019). In the opening shot of the film, we see a trans woman emerge from a luggage in a vast barren landscape, a cinematic rendition of some purgatory or a transit point. She meets two figures, an activist and a poet, and they search for the river from which all souls are cleansed before they can cross to the Afterlife. It is interesting that Pamalugu is written and directed by a trans filmmaker who argues the struggle of trans people so succintly in the film – from the misuse of the bayot to refer to trans women to the failings of Marxism in addressing gender struggle as part and parcel of class struggle. Botero also asserts gender equality as an essential quality of indigeneity. Mythologies often feature trans women in their dramatis personae which might be reflective of the dual nature of creation and destruction, or malevolence and benevolence co-existing in one character, in contrast to the clearcut Judeo-Christian binary distinctions of man and woman, good and evil, heaven and hell that were later introduced by the colonialist Catholic religion.  

This dichotomy and the influence of religion is explored in Aedrian Araojo's Pundido Luz de Casa (2012). In the film, Tina discovers the presence of a magazine featuring half-naked men in her son Julio's bedroom. She confronts her son about his sexuality. At first Julio denies that he is mareng, but when his mother assured him that she will be understanding, Julio is forced to confessed that he is gay. This confession betrays Tina's initial assurance and is hesitant to accept her son's gayness, arguing that homosexuality is a choice and Julio can opt not to choose it, and that the Catholic God only created man and woman. Tina is also afraid that if Julio's father, who turns out to be extremely homophobic, finds out his son is gay, there will be repercussions. Araojo's short comedy also benefited in the filmmaker's keen awareness of popular culture and fallacies surrounding homosexuality. Over dinner, Julio's father complains that the consumption of chicken causes gayness and is fearful that it will turn his son into a mareng. 

While we can debate on the sins of Ara Chawdhury's Miss Bulalacao (2015), fraught with its lack of understanding of gender identities and is seen to reinforce gender stereotypes, the film can be appraised on the context of understanding cultural phenomenon that happens during times of great sociopolitical upheavals. The film revolved around a young drag beauty pageant contestant (I refuse to use trans woman or even hermpahrodite here due to the ambiguity of the character and the filmmaker's understanding of the bayot) who is abducted by an alien and then as a result conceives a baby. It mirrors our own tabloid culture in both print and television. In the late 1980s up to the 1990s, Inday Badiday hosted an entertainment TV show called Eye To Eye that had a section devoted to the bizarre and macabre. The show featured stories from aswang sightings and a woman birthing a fish (which was the inspiration for Adolf Alix's Isda/Fable of the Fish in 2011) to Marian apparitions and a gay man or hermaphrodite reportedly pregnant. Miss Bulalacao reminds me of the case of Carlo/Diane who was said to have been pregnant coming at the heel of the 1992 national elections which was accused of massive electoral fraud that elected Fidel Ramos at the expense of the popular Miriam Defensor Santiago. The story deflected public attention from the national crisis similar to the aswang sightings in Iloilo a few weeks into quarantine this year as criticism rose due to the weak government response to COVID-19 pandemic.  

But the queer is not that strange at all. They have existed in different cultures across the Philippine archipelago for centuries. These films are only the beginning of a long examination of their real struggles – past or present. 

Gutierrez Mangansakan II