How to Be a Post-Pacquiao Man
One morning, Manny Pacquiao woke up and said a few words that cleft this country in twain, and rent its sexual politics asunder. Homosexuals, he said during a television interview, are worse than animals. To quote as precisely as I can in translation: “If men have sex with men, and women have sex with women, then they are worse than animals.” Zoologists were quick to point out that homosexual sex was common in the animal world. And quick upon their heels was the lynch mob of the LGBT activists, descending on the boxing star and politician, attacking everything from his notable lack of attendance in the House of Representatives to the sport of boxing itself (“two sweaty men in a ring beating each other—who’s the animal here?”)
What was most surprising, at least to those ensconced in a liberal middle-class bubble like myself, was the amount of support Pacquiao was able to drum up: not just for himself, but for his sentiments, which, it appeared, was shared by more than a few. After Nike dropped the boxing star as one if its endorsers, not only were there howls of protest, but there were also people who gathered to burn their Nike shoes in a shadowy ceremony, preserved on YouTube. “Burn the Nike sole for my soul,” the officiator began, completely devoid of irony. “We Christians will no longer be silent. We don’t have to hide anymore, we don’t have to be silent.”
Manny Pacquiao had opened up the floodgates of a hitherto silent group who had long harbored anti-homosexual sentiments, but found themselves on the sidelines of what seemed to have become the status quo of tolerance, if not quite acceptance. Pacquiao’s remarks were a crude articulation of bigotry, but that very rawness made it all the more compelling. Thus, it was not just staunch fans and the all-too-predictable Christian right-wing who rushed to his support, but people across the political spectrum, across class lines, across age groups, who felt that Pacquiao had had the temerity, in his bungled and clumsy way, to articulate what they had been feeling all along: that, despite what the white people and the media (run by gays) might say, homosexuality was wrong at a visceral, ineffable level.
To cast this as a clash between LGBT activists and the Christian right, with Manny Pacquiao in the center as a cotton-wool punching bag mouthing off his uneducated views, would not only be dismissive, but dangerously wrong. Like one of his better-aimed punches, his words showed a plastered-over crack to be a fi ssure that runs deep in our society, at every level. Boy Abunda and Vice Ganda, who are arguably the most visible gay figures in Philippine television, condemned the attack on homosexuals; their silence afterwards led to rumors that they had been told to desist. Although Nike was quick to drop Pacquiao, and HBO condemned his actions, his local endorsements have largely remained intact. On AM radio the vitriol against the tyranny of the sinners and the ungodly was spewed in a rare combination of poetic yet crude prevarication. While gay scholars at UP parse the fine points of queer theory, just a few hundred meters out of the ivory tower, parents are beating their gay children; or, the middle-class equivalent, sending them for psychotherapy to be “healed” or to a priest to be “cured.”
It was on social media, though, that acquaintances showed their true colors. Fuddy-duddy old grannies turned out to be closet liberals, while apparently sophisticated, erudite, and well-travelled friends, some of whose best friends are gay, turned out to be vehemently anti-gay. “But it’s only the act, not the person. You know, hate the sin, not the sinner.” It’s like murder, they explained. We all have dark thoughts of wanting to kill someone—but when you actually go out and stab them in the neck, that’s wrong.
Apart from the innate problem of comparing an act of homoerotic intimacy to stabbing someone in the neck, there is a more fundamental fallacy with this comparison. The biggest flaw is that sexual preference is defined performatively—there is no separating the sin from the sinner, because the group we’ve identified here is defined by who they have sex with. Also, it concerns all of us: not just LGBT activists, not just gays and those who still have to come out of the closet in the hostile environment that is our society; not just those with gay friends.
One cannot separate a person’s self from his deeds, any more than one can separate mind and body. Moreover, a person’s identity is, as fundamentally as his deeds, his relationship to others: it is how he treats people and how they treat him.
This is why the term “tolerance” seems misplaced: it implies that straight-acting gay people are fine in polite society as long what they do at night does not find its way into the daytime. “Acceptance” is less condescending but also problematic. This is why “equality,” a term that has become stripped of much of its meaning by overuse, is the only acceptable outcome, and our fight, as a society, cannot be considered finished until it is achieved.
Equality means that in every realm, but crucially the social and political: gay people should be seen as equals, have the right to choose whom to love; to marry their partners in a civil or religious ceremony; to adopt or have children by surrogacy; and for these children to inherit in full. It ranges from being able to hang out with a gay friend of the same gender without feeling weird, to female priests being able to marry one another.
As of 2008 the percentage of Filipinos who see this behavior as wrong had dropped to 78.7 percent, down from 83.5 percent in 1998. In the SWS polls during the run-up to the 2016 election 75 percent still oppose gay marriage, which made it a non-issue for the elections since almost no one wanted to touch it. There are those who believe that the Philippines is where the United States was ten years ago, and that over time our views will slouch towards a more evolved position; they could not be more wrong. Nor does the Catholic faith in the Philippines deserve all the opporobium it receives; only a handful of pointy-hatted bishops gather together once in a while to issue statements that are received with the appropriate ridicule and dismissal.
The simple truth is that Philippine society is deeply homophobic, even those who claim to support social inclusion but limit their roles in society. Pacquiao’s views, notes gay activist Jonas Bagas, had always been in keeping with the majority. “But he violated what is perceived to be an acceptable level of homophobia and transphobia when he made that comment. By taking that stand, Pacquiao was giving nod to a wealthy, small religious block in the Philippines.” It was not that his views were bigoted (they had always been), or that the majority disagreed with him, but that he had overstepped the bounds not just of decency, but of what even a prizefighter of his stature could say.
But not all is lost. As of the time of writing Pacquiao had dropped 12 points in the surveys, which translates to 4.8 million votes. He had invited a number of LGBT leaders to “dialogue” with him in his General Santos training camp, an exercise of debatable utility. Taking the long view, Pacquiao’s explosive statement may have done more good than harm. It has given us a glimpse of the enemy, the shadowy fringe figures aligned with evangelical groups and the Catholic far-right. It has shown us how deeply divided we are as a society, and the extent to which the majority live in a state of hypocritical acceptance. It has shown us how deeply rooted our homophic prejudices are, and upped the stakes from being an LGBT issue to a malaise of Filipino society as a whole. Recognizing its existence is the first step; how to move forward from this has now become an issue for Philippine society as a whole.
Straight men, especially straight Filipino men, are often reluctant to show their solidarity or get involved in the battle, for fear that they will be regarded as closet homosexuals, receiving both stigma from mainstream society and opporobium from the gay community. This must change. Without the support of the mainstream, it will continue to remain a battle between a circumscribed group on one hand and a small but dangerous cabal of fringe far-right loonies on the other. As long as the fight is pitched in these terms, the movement will be toward further polarization, rather than integration and equality. A struggle that has become everyone’s problem requires everyone to be part of the solution.