Marga Magalong

Sep 15, 2021

15 min read

Gay Swag and Other Awakenings

**In fulfillment for Creative Writing Non-Fiction (Lit 138) under Sir Martin Villanueva**

I.

Before you call me incestuous, you should know that the lesbian dating pool was limited in the early parts of the 2010s. I hadn’t met any women who were out yet, nor at the very least suspected. The only ones confirmed were my two gay cousins, on each side of the family. Those two became the subject of many of my family’s conversations, most of which made fun of how tacky they were; somewhere along the way, their butch identities became synonymous as well. I had also just turned fourteen that summer and I had an affinity for Zoo York graphic tees, Birkenstocks, Vans classics, and board shorts — y’know, the plaid kind. I had side-swept bangs that were so static you’d think they were clip-ons. I was also lanky, I still am, but if you saw me then, you’d know I was going through a real Stage. The irony is I grew up in an all-girls Catholic school, so I’ve been surrounded with women all my life. Though, I didn’t realize what I wanted because I was so good at convincing myself that I admired them instead. People in my school would say things like “She’s so cool, she’s my idol” or “girl crush” — sure! Women can plainly admire other women, can’t deny that. But when your friend cannot shut up about [redacted], the senior from the Frisbee team, and she asks for a picture with [redacted] on the last day of school — then, I can confirm, she is a Gay. I can confirm because I’m the friend.

When my cousins from the States arrived, I was told I had to meet with them in an apartelle somewhere in Salcedo Village. I never made any contact with these people besides seeing them on pictures last taken in 2001. Knit sweaters, mini vans parked outside their homes, homes that looked like they were bought straight out of an SnR. When I was a kid I’d get familiar with them by smelling their letters and pictures; still cold, still smelling like America. That morning, I was introduced to my 4 cousins — including Lani. Lani was cool and charming in the same way Cobie Smulders was as Robin in How I Met Your Mother. Lani had a BFA from Bennington College and an MFA in Acting. She was an actress mainly, but she worked as a bartender in the East Village. As I pretended to be interested in the stories of how my cousin Andrew worked part-time in Nike, or how I’d teach them how to curse in tagalog; I would be magnetized towards redirecting the conversation back to Lani. Lani whose favorite shows were Survivor: Nicaragua and The X-Files. Lani whose profile picture was her in a trucker cap, holding a gun in front of the American flag.

I got home that day feeling elated — over getting along so well with another girl. This wasn’t the first time I felt so giddy because of a girl. Lately, I’ve been re-examining so many of my friendships under the queer lens (it’s kind of amusing). There’s a kind of pattern with my best-friendships: we’d get along extremely well, spending hours talking or messaging them on my phone, typical bestfriend shit. But I also found myself preferring to spend time with them alone, and when they’d bring another person along or they’d get closer to someone else, I would get upset for some bizarre-totally-not-romantic-reason. And get this: when I would feel the both of us getting closer, or more distant, I would cease all communication. Even more so, when others would ask why I would stop hanging out with a best friend, I was spiteful and lorn in how I would chronicle the demise of a friendship; in the same way you would hate your ex, in the same way you would recall a lover. Maybe I’m just a possessive person by nature, or maybe I was just gay. Maybe it’s Maybeline.

II.

Do you know what’s annoying about straight girls? It’s when I do some kind of nice thing in their general direction and they think it’s because I’m romantically interested in them; as if all queer women prefer, by default, femme girls. It’s become an old and uncommon experience for queer women to approach another woman with nothing else intended but to give a compliment, only to be told “Thanks, but I have a boyfriend.” Cool. I just wanted to say I liked your jeans. It’s assumptions like that that have led to stereotypes like the “Predatory Lesbian” to persist strongly when discussing or depicting the lesbian; and it’s even worse in Filipino pop culture — see: Matabang Tomboy (Gutowitz, 2018; Bernardino, 2019).

Growing up, my older sister would tell me and my brother about the lesbians in our school who would make out with each other in the bathroom. Her favorite subject of ridicule would be Cheska. She would describe Cheska like a monster, in how thick and dry her short hair was, how it would cover her whole face, and how unkempt she was. “Burnouts” she characterized Cheska’s barkada; with their mannerisms hard, grades erratic, and their lack of guy friends rendering them with no currency in the private Catholic school social sphere. What was inseparable from characterizing the lesbian would be their accent. My sister loved telling us how Cheska pronounced Jean Valjean as “djeeen valjeen” when their English class took up Les Misérables. As my sister periodically told us stories about their petty lesbian drama; I would shrink in my school uniform and eventually, I found it funny too.

In High School I’d be extra careful about where I would stare when my classmates would change out of their gym clothes after P.E. Even though I wasn’t out even out yet and much less acknowledged my sexuality, I didn’t want to alarm anyone about the dyke in the classroom. I avoided at all costs any suspicions about being gay. I would attend soirées to amass a network of straight-guy friends, and diligently study the ways of which girls and guys ought to act around each other to eventually flirt — this is what I’m supposed to do. I will find out the allure of boys eventually, just like in the movies. I would tell myself. So I built up my heterosexual lexicon, shopped in American Eagle, and watched the films Aubrey Plaza was in — I wanted to be straight, but if I wanted to retain some parts of my tomboy personality, she had to be hot. Like Olivia Munn talking to you about video games and being snarkily funny kind-of-hot. Eventually, I was straight-passing, but in the way where your self-expression felt matte and dull. But even if I had claimed my heterosexual identity, I still couldn’t get rid of that gay vibe I had.

A few years ago I was with my girlfriend and our friends Erika and Bea. My girlfriend brought up the term ‘gay swag’, wherein Erika asked me to walk in front of them. As they examined me, Erika said “Oh you’ve got a vibe, definitely. It’s the walk.” Since being out for 4 years, I am often proud of this vibe that I emit; but sometimes it is also the very thing that keeps me from dressing too butch or too gay. When I buy clothes, the severity of the clothing’s queerness is a factor that pervades my anxiety in the fitting room; suddenly, I start to notice little things about the clothes that accentuate the gay vibe exuding off my face, my posture, my body language — I walk out of the store.

Sometimes, when I’m in a situation where I don’t know anyone else, I find it both gratifying and annoying when another queer woman is in the room. I feel a flurry of things: comforting to know that I can always find a community in any part of the world, exciting to have the possibility of someone to flirt with, and annoying that someone else may have noticed that I was queer. At worst, I think to myself, in the most private recesses of my brain, “What are you looking at, dyke?”. Okay, I don’t say the d-word but, in essence, that’s the primal reaction that creeps up sometimes. Frankly, I feel like a phony claiming that I’m out about my sexuality. I’ve done everything to claim the title of “Ms. Margarita Magalong, Out” (gays need more abbreviations attached to their name! It’s just hierarchal like that! Just kidding). I’ve come out to my family and friends, I incessantly tweet about being gay, I am affectionate to my girlfriend in public; but coming out isn’t a one-time event. In fact, most of the ‘coming out’ happens after you officially become public about your sexuality. You’ll have conversations with your mom where she refers to your girlfriend as just a friend. You’ll run into old acquaintances from high school, and they’ll ask about the crazy rumor that you’re dating a girl. Not to mention the discomfort when someone straight says “dyke” or “fag” around you. It’s in these situations where you realize how much of a lifelong commitment ‘coming out’ can be, and I feel a little undeserving to be part of my community when I am passive about my ‘pride’.

For the longest time, even basic forms of affection would make me feel awkward. I could look people in the eye but not too much. I could let you hold my hand while you’re drunk but I’ll make sure our fingers won’t interlock. We could hug each other but I’ll make sure our boobs won’t touch. Having been a tomboy in an all-girls Catholic school, I find it hard to shake-off much of my self-imposed rules; because the last thing I’d want is to scare you off by being the dyke in the classroom. ‘Pride’ is a tricky thing to have when you’ve been conditioned to hate yourself.

III.

Most days in university, I am late for my morning classes; but not because I woke up late nor was I delayed by traffic. I’m late to class because I take two hours (or more) to get ready; most of which is occupied by deciding what to wear, changing and undressing, and finally, changing again into an outfit that is both the compromise of who I am and the most I can afford given that I am middle-class. It is definitely a class thing. Identity was completely mine to decide, but part of which made being gay so hard was how I ought to have expressed it in all the right ways, in a social circle I was never meant to be a part of. My circumstance is funky, you see. I am a queer woman born into a middle-income family, brought up in a class A to upper B Catholic private school, studying in a university that is comprised of also class A to B. The cherry on top of it all is that I have a very very insecure personality. Middle to upper-class doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but things work differently here in the Philippines. Where in the States you could actually lose your street cred if your art school friends find out you’re old money; the movement of Filipino society is largely dictated by class. Of course competence and your personality factor in to thriving in a field, a career, or a community — but class will definitely hold the door for you in penetrating these circles; and if that’s not what got you in, then you’re probably faking it like I am.

My high school was Assumption College, and growing up there only made my formative years even more particular. Homophobia and coming to terms with your own sexuality wasn’t as simple as whether you were a classic tomboy or not. As the second in line to definitively cyber and progressive generations, Gen-Zs knew that there was nothing wrong with being gay, even when we were much younger. But affluent Filipino society localized it somehow; particularly in pointing out what was baduy (Filipino slang for tacky) and what wasn’t. Football was cool, but Basketball was the butch sport. TV shows were generally all permissible, unless you were too obsessed with anime. If you spoke English and your dense Filipino accent bled through, it would be off-putting for other students. That’s not to say that all queer women did not have their own struggles if they just abided by what was cool; we all still had it hard. But it felt good to have someone we could take out all our repressed homophobia on — and tacky gays made the easiest targets.

I was never supposed to be here in the first place. Recently I’ve come to accept that what made feeling content so difficult was that I had been living beyond what my middle-classness could actually afford. Speaking for myself and my siblings as well, we never asked to be a part of this social stratum — we were kind of just, pushed into it. My dad grew up well-off, educated, and a child of ’70s Manila, but he inherited nothing when his mother found out about his dad’s affair. Soon his dad went rogue and left their family to fend for themselves. But when my dad had us it was only second-nature for him to enroll us into the schools him and his siblings went to — the expensive kind. Growing up around the upper class kind of screws up your version of normal, especially in the Philippines. It was normal to visit the States every summer, normal to pay four-hundred Pesos for a cocktail while on allowance, and normal that every Filipino gave a fuck about your depression. The upper class lived in their own little America; and for them it was just suburbia, but for the rest of the Philippines it was decadence. While my dad had been pulling teeth trying to get loans for our tuition fees, me and my siblings wondered why we couldn’t attain the normal.

But sometimes, I didn’t complain about being rich-passing. I felt safe in thinking I was a cut above the rest; especially the rest of the gays. Elitists believed in their own delusion that the poor and new rich have no access to refined matters of taste and manners, such as resisting to take selfies at Art Fair or caring about, um, Brexit. For the longest time I feared I would eventually embody the tacky gay me and my friends used to laugh about. When I was coming to terms with my identity towards the end of high school, some part of me still clung onto wanting to be liked by everyone; so I watered down my queerness by keeping my hair long, or making sure people knew I cared about global issues, like um, Brexit. It is easy for Filipinos to assume that our country has made strides in progress towards becoming truly inclusive of the LGBT; but its obvious we’re far from it. Butch lesbians are rarely ever depicted as anything but social deviants on local television, and in the first half of 2018, I witnessed friends and family take part in the proliferation of Matabang Tomboy memes on Facebook. Philippine society still remains dominantly butchphobic, and since admitting I was queer, I’ve spent the rest my life trying to unlearn this hate.

Me and my girlfriend dress like school shooters. If you’ve been paying attention to fashion trends among the Gen-Z, you’ll notice that everyone either looks like Prince, the cast of Clockstoppers (2002), or ’90s Aga Muhlach. What made it easier for me to express my queer identity was that camp was chic again, and I can now wear my cargo pants without the excuse of a costume party. But it wasn’t just in fashion. When I bid my heteronormative pretenses goodbye during my freshman year of college, I found myself surrounded more and more by other queer folk. Only recently did I realize that I’m a part of my own little queer community; and I find there to be a certain power in celebrating the tacky. In succumbing to the guiltless pleasure of being “tacky”, I felt my hateful years in Assumption College reclaimed.

But while I spend a Friday night watching my friends spin in TodayXFuture, I still ask myself would they let me in if I looked lame?

IV.

The first movie I had ever watched in the cinema was Polar Express. The second was She’s the Man.

V.

Ellen Degeneres famously came out on national television through her sitcom Ellen. When her character reconnects with Richard, her old college friend, through a dinner, she meets his co-worker, Susan, a big-shot producer who is played by Laura Dern. Like many of my favorite patriarchal subversions, Susan and Ellen hit it off; while Richard sits awkwardly, not picking up on the vibe of high-plane thinking lesbian superiority. After having been in Richard’s room until he awkwardly comes onto her, she finds herself going to Susan’s room telling her she can’t understand why she doesn’t like gorgeous ol’ Richard. Ellen asks if Susan’s ever liked Richard romantically, to which Susan says “Ellen, I don’t date men.” Their eyes looking away from each other, silence pervading the room, and Ellen twisting and turning and grappling her knees. Susan follows it up by saying “ — in fact, I thought you were gay too.” I love this scene to death and I encourage you to look it up right now because it’ll have you laughing in tears. The rest of it is Susan apologizing due to how obviously uncomfortable and defensive Ellen is, and here’s my favorite part:

Ellen: It’s not ENOUGH for you to be gay, y’know? You’ve gotta RECRUIT others too.

Susan: Yeah, I’ll have to call national headquarters and tell ’em I lost you…Damn! Just

one more and I would’ve gotten that toaster oven!

Ellen: W-what is that? Gay humor? Because I DON’T get it! That’s how UN-GAY I am.

Gay humor has become a non-negotiably fundamental part of my personality. In fact, I can’t even imagine myself if I weren’t gay. If god made me into a man, I’d be a gay man. That’s just logic, love! Ellen’s ‘Puppy Episode’ particularly resonated with me because she was so apologetic and so defensive all throughout confronting others about her sexuality. Like Ellen, I can’t help but notice the homophobic hiccups in my numerous coming out stories.

The first time I ever came out to a group of people was in my friend Bianca’s despedida extravaganza-slash-sleepover. It was a game of ‘Truth or Truth’ and JV, a devotee of Church-youth groups, asks “What are you?”. This was a few days after graduation, where I had just come to terms with my bisexuality, and I took little steps in individually telling only a few people — mostly through, um, “DM games” on 2016 Twitter. “What are you?” could’ve meant so many things, but my gayness had been on the forefront of ALL my thoughts at the time. As if by reflex, my mind pushed me into wanting to be as transparent as possible and I said, in an attic full of high school friends, “I’m bisexual.” No, I didn’t let that one statement just simmer in silence; I quickly said after “ — but I want it to be a secondary fact about me lang. I don’t really wanna be like those people who put pride flags on their bio, haha. I’m just lowkey. I just want it to be a fact that’s separate from me — like, I like girls too, that’s it. Haha.”

Last summer was when I told my family about Andi, my girlfriend whom they understood as my best friend whose house I just slept-over in a lot. Frankly, like many milestones along my gay journey, I’m not proud of how I executed this one. I wanted it to be as painless and as quick as possible; so the morning before I left for my internship, I had rushed out of my house. I call for my mom and dad; and with half my body out the door, I tell them “I have something to tell you. I…..AM……..DATING SOMEONE.” Relief washes over them. “ — I’m dating Andi…as in my friend. She is my girlfriend.” They looked confused, but they were fine. Despite that, I still felt so defensive; to which I then rambled things like “I’m not like our butch cousin, okay?” — or “ — but Andi’s really smart.” To no one else’s surprise but mine, the same rambling occurred when I told my big brother while driving home from work; he stopped me and said “Marga, it’s fine. It’s fine.”

When you grow up with parents and siblings talking down on the gay cousins of the family, you grow up fearing and hoping that you won’t turn out like them — because who wants to be the subject of ridicule right? I’ve since accepted the non-negotiable parts of myself, but the little girl at the back of my head still begs me to make the negotiables changed, because the lesser gay I am, the less ridicule. I’d like to think that maturity, in this decade, did not just come with the fact that my generation is getting older; but the rest of society had figuratively matured as well. We’re living in a different era, whose predecessors had values that have been criticized and exposed of its repercussions. Hence, I forgot that the values of my family had changed too.

It’s easy to discredit pride parades as being just another invention of, what the far-right like to demonize as, SJWs. Too often do I read and encounter people complaining about ‘LGBT pride’ being too excessive and unnecessarily assertive in everything from television, to comic book adaptations, to politics. And honestly, maybe several years ago, I would’ve agreed too — but ‘pride’ saved my life. I have since become shameless of the possible fact that being gay could be the only interesting part of my personality — even if that were true, I still wouldn’t mind. Pride occurs in many ways through gay culture. Whether it be Gay Twitter, gay humor, my girlfriend putting up a book club called “Bakla Book Club”, or purchasing the clothes I truly shine in; I am certain that it’s in this community and their pride that have helped me see the life in me. And if anyone else complains about the dyke in the classroom, they better talk to me, because I am the dyke in the classroom.

Bibliography

Bernardino, K., et al. (2019). Ang T-Bird ng TV: A Textual Analysis of Representation

of the Lesbian Filipina in Maalaala Mo Kaya, Magpakailanman, and The Rich Man’s Daughter [Undergraduate thesis, Ateneo de Manila University].

Gutowitz, J. (2018, Dec 18). Not Everything is a ‘Harmful Trope’. INTO.

https://www.intomore.com/culture/not-everything-is-a-harmful-trope