A version of this essay first appeared in Adobo Magazine's first-ever Gender issue.
Any gay guy will tell you: it’s not unusual to hear a straight cisgender person ask, “Sino sa inyo ang lalake o babae? (Who's the guy and who's the girl?)"
It’s the straight cisgender gaze at work.
Whereas women have the so-called male gaze to blame for how they are objectified and stereotyped by society (#patriarchy), we gay men have to deal with the powerful outsider's gaze—that is, the framing of our identities and experiences according to how straight cisgender people experience the world.
In the Hollywood documentary The Celluloid Closet, we see how members of the LGBT community have once been depicted as absurd one-dimensional characters, all for the entertainment of a largely straight, cisgender audience. It took a push back from the community to change that.
The trajectory of LGBT representation in the Philippine media has closely followed this same path. Since the swishy, campy characters that Dolphy and Joey de Leon acted out, more mature, sensitive portrayals have emerged in recent times, from movies such as Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros and In My Life, to last year’s Die Beautiful.
Perhaps the triumph of marriage equality in America has done much good in influencing how LGBT characters are represented here in the country. We see its influence in local advertising, where ubiquitous brands put the spotlight on gay lives, from Smart Telecom’s “Welcome Change” ad that tells the story of a gay guy coming out to his dad, to Globe Telecom’s “What’s Kilig?” commercial where gay men are flirting with each other for kilig instead of comic relief. Heck, even Minola jumped into the bandwagon during Valentine’s with an ad that features a gay couple getting lovey-dovey over dinner (fried, of course).
“My view has always been visibility at all costs; I’d rather have negative than nothing,” says actor and screenwriter Harvey Fierstein. One could say that the LGBT community in the country should be grateful about the positive attention we’re getting, no longer settling for the scraps that Fierstein was all too willing to receive.
Still, is this enough?
Working as the advertising director for TEAM, a media startup for and by gay men in the Philippines and the Southeast Asian region, it amuses me how advertisers who’ve brazenly paraded the LGBT community in their ads have repeatedly turned us down.
Screw research that say LGBTs are 10 percent of the global consumer market, or that 200 million Asian LGBTs have the spending power of about US$800 billion. Who cares that one in 20 people here in Metro Manila identify as LGBT, and that 70% of gay men call the shots on where the family gets to spend their money?
You might call this surge of LGBT-themed advertising as much-needed representation. I call it pinkwashing and queer-baiting.
It is insidious how brands and companies unabashedly use our stories to make non-LGBT people cry or laugh, leading us on and making us believe that they are our allies. Yet these same brands are rarely keen on supporting the efforts the LGBT community has made in telling our own stories, or even fighting alongside us for our rights.
In a call, the marketing manager of a local fashion brand that produces unabashedly homoerotic advertising didn’t mince words: “We’re not really targeting your market.” I knew that this was an outright lie.
And then it dawned upon me what he truly meant: companies like his only see us as peso signs--luring us in so they can make money off of us. Now in identifying with us and advocating for our cause, that was seen as a totally different matter altogether.
The only taste these actions leave in our mouths is a bad one: this feeling that we are being used as tools to make brands appear “inclusive,” “diverse,” and “welcoming,” when in fact these are all lame attempts to bait us into becoming their pawns so they can profit from our joys and pains while they reap all the good PR they can get for being our “allies.”
The next time you see LGBTs being used in marketing campaigns, ask yourself: does the brand actually do something for the community? Do they have policies in place that welcome diversity in their company? Have they put their money into LGBT events, organizations, and media?
As Shakira Sison said: “If you're friends with gay people because they make you laugh and entertain you, or go with you to your errands, but you're fine with them not having the same rights as you, stop calling them friends. Call them clowns. Call them bodyguards. But don't fool them with the term ‘friend’ because friends aren't fine with their friends having different rights.”
Straight cisgender people, we are not here for your feel-good amusement, like circus animals that you parade and then return behind bars when the show’s over (or when you’ve had enough viewing pleasure). We are not here as the tokens who affirm your “open-mindedness” and “inclusiveness.”
If you want to do something truly good, stop staring—and maybe start actually supporting.
HELLO, MY NAME IS EVAN TAN.
I'm a writer and communications professional based in Manila, Philippines. Outside of my regular job, I like to travel, work out, volunteer, watch movies and plays, go to art galleries/ fairs and museums, read books, and eat vegetarian food.
More about me here.