Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Narrative of Babaylan (part 2) - Jofrey Cubos and Atty. Venir Turla Cuyco

I certainly heard of a Pink Alliance, allegedly an underground organization of gay students based at the Narra Residence Hall. My understanding is that it was largely dismantled by the time I arrived in Narra. The information I have about Pink Alliance was based on second-hand evidence gleaned from residents who lived in Narra several years ahead of me. When we were just starting, I was asked several times by some older students and a few alumni if Babaylan was an incarnation of Pink Alliance. There may have, indeed, been other gay or lesbian organizations before us but, like Pink Alliance, they existed underground.

What makes Babaylan unique is that it sought to meld together a group of students who were made to feel like outcasts in the university because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There may have been groups in Narra before and after Babaylan was founded, but I don’t know of any other organization in the university that purposely sought inclusiveness on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. From the beginning, we tried to make Babaylan as inclusive as possible because we realized that oppression and marginalization and the need for a welcoming group made for a strong unifying bond that transcended artificial divisions among this otherwise disparate group of individuals.

On a more personal note, the yearning for an LGBT organization reached its apex when a couple of my roommates in Narra became victims of a serious case of gay bashing. For looking through the window of one of the rooms in Narra, my roommates were beaten and threatened with more serious bodily injury, including death. One night, I arrived at the dorm with broken glass strewn on our beds and all over our room, and with my roommates cowering in fear. They were crying and shaking as they recounted to me what happened. I had to call the campus police to report the incident and to ask for assistance in getting them out of the campus. The psychological damage caused by this bashing was such that one of my roommates felt compelled to leave the university.

This incident occasioned a lot of discussions among Narra’s gay residents. There was fear that any of us could be the next victim of violence. There was also despair and a sense of helplessness about the situation of gay students in UP. Moreover, there was rage that anything like this could happen in an institution that prides itself for its liberal traditions. But more importantly, there was resolve that something needed to be done about this. An informal caucus was thus formed among Narra’s openly gay residents.

As so it was that on a particular day in August of 1992, some Narra friends and I went around the campus to post announcements of the meeting we were organizing. The posters were admittedly provocative (e.g., “Bakla ka ba?”) to attract attention, although I remember writing a footnote in the otherwise in-your-face announcements. The footnote sought to explain that we were commandeering words that society uses to oppress us and employing them instead for our own liberationist ends.

We obtained permission to use the audio-visual room at the second floor of the faculty center for our meeting. Around 20 persons showed up for that initial meeting. I noticed that the overwhelming majority of those who showed up were pa-girl, which is not surprising when one considers how the liberation movement in other parts of the world originated. It is always the pa-girl and those who were already out and have nothing to lose with exposure who initiated the fight for equality. The discussion during the meeting revolved around the objectives proposed earlier in Narra.

One of the more contentious issues was naming the organization. Considering the creativity of the members of the group, there was a surfeit of proposals for possible names, ranging from the hilarious to the sublime. With guidance from J. Neil Garcia, a rising star in the English Department whom we requested to serve as our faculty adviser, we agreed to name our group Babaylan in honor of priestesses in pre-colonial Philippines. Babaylanes were influential religious and political figures among tribal groups in pre-colonial Philippines and there was historical evidence that men sometimes took on and lived this female role. In choosing this name, we wanted to highlight our people’s history of celebrating, rather than condemning, diversity in gender roles. Of course, several permutations to the meaning of our name or the reasons for its choice occurred in subsequent years. 

When we finally approved our draft constitution in December of 1992, it was an exhilarating experience that has happened only a few times in my life. It may not be much when viewed from today’s perspective, but it was a heady experience at that time. The experience was so personally enriching that, to this day, I still feel grateful for the privilege of working with that group of intelligent, principled, thoughtful, and passionate people. Certainly, my subsequent professional experience in drafting legislation that passed Congress never matched the sense of fulfillment I felt when Babaylan’s constitution was approved.

We knew that establishing an aboveground LGBT organization in the university would not be an easy task. Homophobia, not to mention transphobia, was still the norm in the UP community. At that time, obviously bakla people can’t walk past some fraternity tambayan without getting catcalls or insulting remarks. Gay people were expected to suffer these indignities in silence. Complaining to authorities was laughed at; confronting these offenders was certainly unheard of. And remember what happened to my roommates. The perpetrators escaped the consequences of their deplorable act with not even a slap on the wrist.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to worry about official recognition. The vice chancellor said one of the reasons she wanted to see me was the filing of an opposition to our use of the name Babaylan for our group. The oppositor (who, incidentally, became a transgender woman several years later) was apparently objecting on supposedly anthropological grounds. The oppositor’s position was that our use of the name allegedly desecrated the hallowed position that babaylanes held in pre-colonial Philippines. I explained that, on the contrary, we were adopting Babaylan as our group’s name to honor the babaylanes and the only way it could be deemed disrespectful was if one agreed with the notion that LGBT people were unworthy of taking on important roles in Philippine society. The vice chancellor seemed to agree with my position, and said that the bigger reason for summoning me was to tell me personally that our organization was welcome in her office. She warned me though that the road ahead would be difficult for a group like ours because homophobia was pervasive even in a supposedly liberal community like UP.

And so when UP Diliman decided to increase dormitory rates, we were at the forefront of Narra residents petitioning Quezon Hall for a rollback. It was one of the first few times that Babaylan was involved in a public demonstration. I was terrified at speaking in public and I desperately wanted Tuting Hernandez, our founding vice-chair, to speak on behalf of Babaylan. Tuting had more experience in this regard and he was a better public speaker. But being a dorm resident myself, I was compelled to speak and so I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and plunged on with my short harangue the content of which I can no longer remember. What I can remember is that, imitating the previous speakers, I had my clinched fist raised throughout my short rant and that there was communal singing of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” afterwards.

And then there was the issue of the continued presence of US military bases in the Philippines in 1992. We were a loud and colorful part of the UP contingent in the anti-US bases rallies. The ­pa-girl members of Babaylan had to put on a lot of sunscreen to protect their skin from the scorching sunlight and suffered silently while marching arm-in-arm with grimy and smelly marchers. To be sure, there were token protests from them, but I could see pride and a sense of achievement in their eyes at the end of every rally. Our efforts were rewarded when, in recognition of our rather conspicuous presence in those rallies, UP students and other Narrehan marchers lustily chanted: “Bakla ng bayan, ngayon ay lumalaban!”

We decided to further our alliances by affiliating with one of the dominant political parties on campus, SAMASA. The choice was not difficult to make. When the governing council of SAMASA summoned me to appear in connection with our application to affiliate, I was asked why we chose SAMASA over the other party. My answer was simple: there was no choice. SAMASA at the time represented the kind of progressive and inclusive politics that we thought corresponded with Babaylan’s own. Years later, this decision proved providential as SAMASA decided to have my successor to the Babaylan chair, Narrehan Perci CendaƱa, run for the highest position in the university student council. When Perci was about to make history as the first openly gay person to win the student council chair, SAMASA’s Miro Quimbo exclaimed to me in seeming disbelief: “’Langhiya! Mukhang bakla pa yata ang mananalo ah!”

If I have to live my life over, founding Babaylan which has its roots in Narra, would be at the top of the list of things I would gladly do over again.

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