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What a Drag Queen Karaoke Contest Taught Me About the Philippines

Philippines Travel
by Leslie Finlay May 13, 2014

She asked the audience to choose between Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, tossing high-pitched giggles at the half-full bar before the stage as she flipped her hair.

“I can do anything, baby,” she squealed, kissing at a solo foreigner slumped behind a table, an empty bucket of San Miguel bottles in front of him. He just grinned up at her, drunk.

“I know what can make you less shy: Lady Gaga.”

We’d just wandered into this bar off the main drag in Puerto Princesa, on the Philippine island of Palawan, to get a much-needed beer after dinner. It was a particularly warm night and a beer or two would be just enough to lull us to sleep in the heavy evening air.

So we beelined for the beer menu and all of a sudden snapped to awareness as she launched into a full-blown rendition of “Bad Romance.” My jaw dropped. She wasn’t exactly hitting the notes, but she was belting the song out with all her soul. Our cheeks flushed from her energy and spirit…but well, that wasn’t all.

An Austrian I’d met at the hostel leaned over to me. “How does he…she do that? I mean hide it?”

My eyes scanned southward, and sure enough somewhere beneath where the slinky bandage dress gripped her hips was surely something taped back.

She caught me staring from behind the menu and with her most convincing bedroom eyes began to move off the stage toward me before stopping abruptly, tilting her head back in a passionate “Oh-oo-oh-oo-ohhhhhh…”

It was then her partner who strutted up to the stage, an extremely large and be-jeweled lady boy with a sequined dress and curled wig, harmonizing to the song. “Give it up for Tina!” he yelled over the song as Tina sang and sang and sang.

So we did. Hovering in the corners were gay and lesbian couples. A teenage birthday party had just casually filed in. We foreigners had, of course, sat directly in the middle of the room. But without fail, everyone raised their San Miguels to Tina.

“And I’m Marcos,” Tina’s aficionado announced as the song died down. “But you may as well call me Beyoncé.” Marcos flashed a toothy grin and heaved his body up onto a table, crossing his legs seductively.

I laughed, and Marcos locked eyes with me.

“Oh honey my jokes are short, but my penis is loooong.”

The amount of personality in the room doubled with the addition of Marcos, but Tina continued to dominate the stage. I’ve rarely seen someone with that much confidence, that much stamina to be exactly who she wanted to be. It sounds trite, but a part of me admired her.

They’re expected to be entertainers, artists, or in the creative professions, and their relationships are expected to mimic traditional gender roles. Their lifestyle is tolerated as long as they live up to these stereotypes.

At the end of set one (of who knows how many), we wandered back to the hostel to fall asleep to the hum of motorbikes and shrieking roosters. Tina bid us all adieu individually as we filed out (she’d learned all of our names by then), and we passed by a few more gay couples on their way in and a family with several small children.

“Certainly a family affair,” my friend said.

But the fact is that the Philippines, in general, is extremely tolerant of LGBT lifestyles (in fact, allegedly the most friendly in Asia), something that’s particularly surprising given how much the country’s ethos is shaped around Catholicism, patriarchy, conservativism, and tradition. A study by the Pew Research Center released in 2013 actually revealed that 73% of the Filipinos surveyed are of the opinion that “homosexuality should be accepted by society,” a figure far greater than the country’s Asian counterparts — Japan stood at 54%, Korea at 39%, and Malaysia at 9% — and even overtook much of the Western world (the United States came in at 60%). The results also completely go against the global trend that the importance of religion in people’s lives is negatively correlated with incidence of LGBT acceptance.

Of course, the country does still have its share of LGBT issues, particularly at the legal / governmental level — gays still cannot marry, for example, and hate crimes often go unrecorded because police lack the resources to report them as such. An anti-discrimination law has been lying dormant in Congress since 2011. Additionally, members of the LGBT community in the Philippines claim that while they experience acceptance from the larger population, it’s confined to a certain set of parameters. They’re expected to be entertainers, artists, or in the creative professions, and their relationships are expected to mimic traditional gender roles. Their lifestyle is tolerated as long as they live up to these stereotypes.

But even in countries where homosexuals are protected by the law, the larger battle is often cultivating a society that views homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, and one that is warming to continued liberal change. This social climate is growing in the Philippines, with a progressive spirit taking root. Recently, a Reproductive Health Bill was passed to enable women access to reproductive healthcare, and there’s also now a political party for LGBT Filipinos — both massive strides for a traditionally conservative, developing Southeast Asian country.

Gay celebrities, publicly visible entrepreneurs, professors, and politicians have a very dominant presence in the Philippines, helping to shape the nation’s attitude toward homosexuality, paired with increased education about sexual orientation. Even the national police have undergone LGBT sensitivity workshops.

LGBT members face discrimination globally, and it’s difficult to award accolades to a country for showing improvement when the reality is so many continue to face daily injustices for simply being themselves. But with tolerance growing and clear change laid out for the conservative, Catholic nation of the Philippines, there really are no social or anthropological excuses when it comes to human rights.

Hell, even I blushed a bit, head slightly cocked and grinning like crazy when Tina first belted out her melodies, but why shouldn’t a drag queen karaoke competition be just another performance the family can take in? At least if they go a bit lighter on the penis jokes.

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