Gender story: Gay guerilla

 

This was a paper for my graduate class on gender in 2007. Judy Aguilar, our professor, required us to submit a gender story. I instead made a feature that incorporated stories from various activist friends and presented them as one coherent story. The “I” here consists of many people.

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Back in the early 1990’s, I was a youthful revolutionary who was willing to sacrifice life and limb for the sake of the “people.” The mere mention of the word “people” evoked a sense that I could make my life and the people’s lives better; that somehow I could contribute a bit to the destruction of the structural problems besetting our country. I did not know who those “people” were—never knew their names. As far as I know then, they were faceless, nameless, depersonalized, disconnected from the stale classroom that I went to for the most of the day.

So, I decided that I need to know them better, their day to day life, what they eat, their hopes and dreams. Eventually, my forays in activism led me to decide to integrate with guerillas somewhere in the hinterlands of the Visayas. I knew that my knowledge of the revolution is conceptual and integrating this with revolutionary practice is necessary if I were to transform waging war into a science and an art. Besides, in a poor country with a rich revolutionary tradition like the Philippines, the romantic idea of turning into a guerilla is always an attractive option.

With me during that integration were Maria and Mario, health activists from an urban area in the Visayas. Maria was a lovely chinita nurse who can alternate cheerfulness and sadness as fast as bullets from an automatic rifle. Mario, on the other hand, is laughter personified. I was fortunate to have been in a guerilla camp with them. I think they are aliens because they made nocturnal walking in a very harsh terrain seem shorter. And, as if by magic, they can turn a sack of rice that I used to transport almost every week for more than five kilometers into a kilo of cotton. I also met Brando, a partisan operative from the feared (now defunct?) Sparrow unit of the 1980’s NPA, who also part-timed as the unofficial barber of the guerilla camp.

The context

My gender story revolves around my observations about Mario, an openly gay revolutionary, and Brando, a “remolded” guerilla. Back then, homosexuality was seen by NPA cadres as a product of bourgeois decadence. One cadre explained to me that being gay is the cultural consequence of the leisured class, which eventually gets replicated among the lower classes (read: the impact of ruling class ideology on the subordinate classes).  He reasoned out that those that are more involved in production, such as the workers and farmers, have a lower incidence of homosexuality—which he rationalized as the outcome of the incipient formation of a proletarian identity among the lower classes.  For many cadres, being proletarian meant to be disciplined, fearless, objective, and logical. Traits that are associated with being masculine in mainstream Filipino culture.

The document that served as the guidebook for the relationship between the sexes in the revolutionary movement was the Oryentasyon sa Proletaryong Relasyong Sekswal (OPRS or ORS). This document had been crafted during the early years of the guerilla movement, putting more importance on maintaining class love (love for the proletarian class’s mission) over bourgeois love (which pertains to the personal). OPRS ensured that the revolution is always the primary focus of the relationship—thus necessitating the involvement of various yunit (red collective) in the decision-making process from courtship to divorce. The relationship is not simply an agreement between two individuals but is part and parcel of the revolutionary movement (thus, marital conditions and plans are integrated into the collective planning process). However, the guidelines were solely on heterosexual relations; it was silent about homosexuality.

A good revolutionary aspires for a proletarian character. While the definition of what is proletarian is conceptually clear (from various readings on proletarian morality, for example, the Five Golden Rays of Mao Tse Tung), the meaning of what is a good proletarian however takes a variety of forms in everyday life. One can be a good proletarian in the theatre of war by being adept in military tactics and strategy, by being wounded in an attack, or by refusing alcohol and denying oneself of “bourgeois” pleasures. For the guerillas, the all-embracing concept is self-discipline “to get rid of the vestiges of bourgeois and feudal influence;” thus, the necessity of undergoing the process of “remolding,” a process of  embracing the “seal of the proletarian class.” The difficulty however of defining what is proletarian, bourgeois, and feudal remains problematic among many activists and guerillas. For example, one joke goes that a real proletarian who is in the act of procreating will raise a clenched fist while doing it. In another instance, a student activist segregated her clothes according to bourgeois or proletarian fashion and ended up as confused as I was.

Guerillas euphemistically call homosexuals as mahuyang (weak) and not bayot (from babayeng otinan or woman with a penis). If do spoken, bayot is usually used in jest while mahuyang is more frequently used during formal meetings and casual conversations. I think the preference for mahuyang as a word carries with it a metaphorical weight that is connected to the guerillas’ desire to serve the weak. In some instances, Mario was spared “manly” tasks (involving manual labor) and was assigned to “feminine” tasks like the washing of dishes and cooking.

 

Mario and Brando

Days after Mario arrived, the whole guerilla camp was abuzz. All were talking about a gay urban-bred nurse who was willing to learn the ways of the guerilla. For many, this was a surprise. Many questioned whether a homosexual, urban-bred at that, could survive the rigors of living along the crevices of hillocks, standing guard against the enemy troops, and, much less, firing a gun.

Mario was very open about his sexuality despite the stares and the occasional smiles of amusement. Although most of the guerillas embraced his coming as a change in atmosphere, questions remain about his endurance and determination. In a highly disciplined (and I should say, veeerrry silent) guerilla environment, I could see that the coming of Mario was a welcome respite. The nights became livelier with him around as he poked fun at almost anything. Eventually, his talent for the arts, if you will, did not go unnoticed. He was assigned to oversee the makeshift theatre together with Brando, making the (ir)regular guerilla celebrations more animated.

At times, he was assigned to conduct organizing activities among the farmers to form revolutionary groups. He was very active in raising the awareness of the peasants. However, some of the feedback of his organizing activities was viewed as unseemly by many of the NPA cadres when the peasants started asking whether the NPAs are accepting homosexuals. Mario is expressive of his gayness. He traversed muddied pathways with swaying hips and raised pinkies. He talked in a sugary voice with the the last syllables sounding as if it were rubber. Although he had a receding hairline, this was covered by long bangs that reach to the ear, which appeared in clumps when wet thus exposing his rather long forehead. Yet he was a good educator. He could relate the peasants’ sud-an, which was usually salt, to the burning issues of the day and then to the need for a revolution.

Despite the adeptness of Mario in educating the peasants, many guerillas found the peasants’ comments disturbing. They feared that the peasants might not believe in them. I mean, they must have imagined how out-of-sync it was to bear arms against the government with a gumamela (red hibiscus) stuck by the flaps of the ears (they have not heard of that gay muay thai champion at that time).  The concern of the guerillas was understandable considering their interpretation of what a peasant mindset was: as basically feudal and patriarchal, thus intolerant of homosexuality. To remedy this, some of the guerillas followed up Mario’s work and explained to the peasants that Mario was still in the process of “remolding”—that it would be helpful if the farmers understand Mario’s predicament and help him return to “being a real man.”

However, Mario was adamant about his sexuality and maintained that he does not need to be a man to be considered a good revolutionary; that his many years of service to the revolution are a testament to his dedication and commitment to the cause. Despite this however, stories were recounted about how a gay armed partisan operative turned traitor because military intelligence units were able “to discover his weakness for handsome men.” Thus, being homosexual was imagined also as being mahuyang sa baruganan (weak in principles) and not only as being physically weak.

In spite of the rumors, Mario’s dealings with the guerillas remained warm, fun, and friendly. The polysemic character of Mario’s sexual identity perhaps explained this ambivalence, added to this was the fact that the cadres themselves were still in the learning process (in their continuing search for the “correct proletarian” approach vis-à-vis homosexuals). In Maoist revolutionary parlance, this conflict was merely a contradiction among the people and not a contradiction between the people and the enemy. Lastly, the long record of Mario’s revolutionary service could not be simply dismissed. He had shown fortitude in the face of the enemy albeit in an urban setting where the enemy is armed with “mere” truncheons and water hoses.

What the guerillas insisted was for Mario to follow Brando’s way back to “being a man, the casting away of bourgeois decadence,” as part of his remolding process. By turning into a man, Brando was seen as a “better guerilla” because there is less weakness in him that the enemy can exploit. It appeared to me then that maybe the guerillas are afraid that the enemy might “out-man” them in this war of men, where the jargon is steeped in “manly words” like insertion, penetration, finding the enemy’s weakness, coaxing and teasing the enemy, etc. (This reminds me of a poem by Adonis Durado where he used the encircling-the-cities-from-the-countryside metaphor in a very sexual verse).

One night, Brando, the guerilla barber, confided that he was gay but had turned back from homosexuality to serve the people better. He said that by being a man, he does not need to explain to the masses why he is gay and thus the discussion is more about them and their predicament and not about him. His sexuality is secondary to his proletarian mission of liberating the people. He na  his initial struggles in containing his sexuality and was only able to get through it by remembering what the revolution means to him. “Anyways,” he concluded, “in the last analysis, in the society that we are striving to build, people will not be relating to each other as man, woman, or gay, but as persons.” So, for him, the words bayot, lalaki, or babaye become moot and academic. Gender becomes obsolete.[1]

I would have recounted more but I was reassigned to another guerilla zone and later to urban revolutionary work (besides, my memory is starting to fail me). A few years after, I reintegrated back to the mainstream society and went back to “normal” life. One day, I stood amused as I chanced upon a headline news about the Communist Party of the Philippines “legalizing” same-sex relationships and marriages. How times, indeed, have changed. I wonder if it took an increase of homosexual cadres within the revolutionary movement to finally break from this decades-old tradition of homophobia. Later on, I saw on the news that Brando was captured and was eventually released. Friends later told me that Brando finally embraced his homosexuality and was in a healthy relationship. Mario remains a health activist who balances his time with teaching and NGO work. He never “remolded” and thus remains a dyed-to-the-bone revolutionary gay.

Discussion

Gender ideologies permeate all aspects of social life, including liberation movements that aspire for social justice and equality. These gender ideologies are not mere ideas that people can debate and intellectualize about and then move on. The em-bodiment of these ideas is a violent act, which Bourdieu calls as symbolic violence, where people need to reconfigure their selves and bodies to fit into the structural demands of society. The example of Brando and Mario also shows that individuals have a say in the formation of social structures. They contest and negotiate prevailing structures and thereby creating spaces by which these same structures are eventually changed. Gender structures are never fixed or static. They are, as Bourdieu said, structured structures as well as structuring structures.

While the question of class is important, I refuse to consider class as a determining factor in our total social life. The tendency of certain liberation movements to subsume other dimensions of social life to economic questions reduces the diversity of our human experience.  Reducing ideology to class interest largely ignores the independent existence of other factors, such as gender, race and ethnicity, in affecting a person’s social position or life chances.  However, I admire the reflexivity of the cadres in the mainstream revolutionary movement. They tackled the issue of heterosexism head on and presented a more progressive alternative than what the Philippine government currently offers. This is clearly a case of better late than never.


[1] Brando and Mario have gotten closer as the days went by. Certain NPA cadres feared that the frequent association of Brando with Mario might set back his remolding process. After three months, Mario finished his exposure trip and went back to the city. Brando remained with the NPA until his capture.

 

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