I first meet Janet, he prefers this name, at a resort called Pugo, surrounded by his family. They’re a big group, about thirty, uncles and aunts, cousins, parents and the latest additions to the clan Servitillo.
I have just arrived in the area as a guest of the family and Sharon, my host, introduces me. Smiles and broken English are the order of the day and it isn’t long before the food is rolled out. Eating is something of a national pastime in the Philippines. I am slowly picking up the local dialect and afford everyone hours of entertainment with mispronounced words.
We spend the afternoon at the resort chatting and enjoying the pools. It’s May and the weather is sweltering. Later a family member buses the whole entourage back to Binalonan. It’s a two hour trip, to their Barrio which I am proudly told is comprised almost entirely of Servitillos. Imagine living in a suburb made up of your family. I surreptitiously look at the hands I can see and start counting fingers. Five everywhere, so all good. Almost every house we pass gets the “my cousin lives there” treatment.
The bus stops every twenty metres and deposits batch after batch of the family. We get to our stop and Janet climbs off with us. His house is next to Sharon’s where I will be staying for the next few weeks. I have been in the Philippines for nearly six months now and no longer notice the Baklas. Men who dress like women, they are to be found everywhere in the Philippines. Like everyone else here, I have learnt to accept them as a normal part of Philippine society.
I suspect there is more to this whole issue though, more than the term gay can comfortably describe. It’s interested me since I first noticed the large numbers of Baklas and I sense an opportunity to get answers first hand from Janet.
If it’s true that we are a product of our environment then I need to describe the small community I will call home for now. The little village or Barrio is one of many in the area. Houses are clustered together with few or no fences, sometimes a single stand will have three of four separate houses on it with narrow passages between them. It is very much a typical Asian farming village. Family and friends come and go all day long wandering in and out of each other’s houses. I am a long way off the beaten track here and find myself afforded temporary celebrity status as foreigners are not a common site in the village.
The main income for the area is rice. Beautiful green paddies stretch for miles bordered by clusters of palms and bananas, all fed by a large irrigation ditch that carries water from a lake nearby to flood the fields. The children and teenagers use this fresh water channel as the local resort and I spend many lazy hours with them, swimming in the refreshing cold water, eating impromptu meals off banana leaves and enjoying their companionship and easy humour. They live a very frugal life, a day to day existence and yet still retain huge amounts of humour, compassion and love.
Two weeks into my stay I decide to approach Janet about his or rather her life. I have become firm friends with her and have been impressed by her fierce loyalty to Sharon, her closest friend. She doesn’t hesitate and agrees to allow me to at least attempt to give her her moment in the spotlight. Here then is the story of the Bakla from Binalonan, C2 and Ginebra.
Christened John Paul Servitillo and born into a typical farming family, she is the third of four brothers. I ask her when she first realized that she was born a girl in a boy’s body and her answer surprises me.
“I was two, my parents did not have a girl, so they raised me as a girl. There was no one in the house to help with the chores, cooking, cleaning. My mother works in Hong Kong, so I was raised as the girl.”
I am fascinated by her answer as it’s not the first time I’ve heard this and immediately want to know, had she been the eldest, would she still have been bakla? She thinks for a while, possibly never having considered this?
“Maybe. I don’t know. I am bakla now and I am happy the way I am. I don’t know any other way”.
I want to know more about her family, how do they feel about Janet? She is after all in many ways their creation.
“They call me the black sheep. My father shouts at me and gets violent and my brothers hate me. I am not happy here, but I have no where else to go and work is scarce. My mother comes back one month out of the year from Hong Kong and maybe this year she will take me with her when she goes back”.
I can see her becoming visibly emotional as she talks about her relationship with her family. Sharon is a first cousin and the only real friend in her family circle. I decide to change the subject and ask about her dreams and aspirations. Every girl has them.
“I want to leave this place. My dream is to become a runway model and work whilst I travel. It’s difficult to leave here, but it’s not just me, we all want to go”.
By all Janet is referring to her circle of young friends, some straight, some not. Their urge to escape this place is palatable and is reflected in their conversations. Not so different to Janet they long for the city life, work, wealth and all the trappings money can buy. The reality is that only some will escape their close knit community and even fewer will elude the permanent servitude to family felt so strongly by the Filipinos.
Life is hard here and you tend to forget that when you are surrounded by laughing smiling faces. As a means of escape the local little stores all stock Ginebra, bottles of locally distilled gin which is then mixed with C2, an energy drink of questionable origin. It’s cheaper than beer and only takes two or three bottles to numb the pains of the day. A shot glass is passed around, the conversation flows and the laughter gets louder with each round.
Janet is not immune to the effects of this and has written off three scooters driving under the influence. Her last accident was serious, hospitalizing her for two weeks. She tells me how the only person who visited her during this period was Sharon.
“She was the only one to see me, my family don’t care. I think they were sorry I didn’t die”.
Her pain is obvious but cannot overcome her bubbly personality. The smile and cheeky laugh are always in evidence.
I cannot help but wonder how many other Baklas are a product of their families desire for either a son or daughter. It’s difficult at the best of times to be different, but I suspect for many gay people in the Philippines, it’s even more complicated. In this instance social acceptance by the community at large may actually be encouraging families to raise their sons and daughters with a different sexual identity, completely removing that oh so important little word from the equation. Choice.
There is a raft of research and potential studies than can and needs to be done here. The influence of our environment and upbringing on our sexual preferences and our subsequent personal identity are just some of the questions our Bakla from Binalonan can help us to better understand.
“You won’t forget us when you leave here Robert?”
Her question catches me off guard and makes me realize just how privileged I have been to spend time with them. I have been accepted as part of the group and shared their food, their gin and their lives. I pray that those of them that do fulfil their dreams and escape here for foreign shores are shown the same kindness there. Somehow, I doubt it.