My Trip To The Philippines, Part 1: The Power of Queer-Affirming Theater

As a Filipino American kid, I always felt cursed for being gay. Growing up in a traditional Catholic family, I had a lack of queer role models – with the exception of two distant female relatives who my aunties referred to as “tomboys”, or a distant uncle with “a roommate” who no one acknowledged. American media portrayed LGBTQ people as flamboyant, promiscuous, and predatory – all who would eventually die of AIDS. I internalized these messages so much that, after every sexual encounter I had, I was convinced that I had been infected with HIV. I was so certain that I would die young that it seemed pointless to even imagine a long-term future. It was not until I met my husband (and a decade of psychotherapy) that I no longer believed this narrative.

It was so hard to initially accept my sexuality because I did not know how my family would react. My parents never explicitly said that LGBTQ people were going to hell, but they certainly did not say anything positive about LGBTQ people either. My brothers and cousins made mild to harsh homophobic comments occasionally, but they were definitely not as mean as my White American classmates who taunted me daily. Without any affirming portrayals of gay men in my life or in the media (let alone gay men of color), I did not know that love, intimacy, and happiness were even possibilities.

While my official coming out did not surprise my peers, my parents initially struggled. But who could blame them? They were raised in the Philippines- a predominantly Catholic country in which LGBTQ people were “cured” of their “illness” through heinous methods (e.g., shock therapy) or harmful messages (e.g., “praying the gay away”). They were raised in a culture in which LGBTQ people existed, but were never spoken about – unless they were beauticians or provided comic relief on television. When my parents were married on June 29, 1969 in Quezon City, Philippines, they had no idea that transgender, lesbian, and gay New Yorkers were fighting for their future son’s freedom on the other side of the world.

Two weeks ago, I visited the Philippines for the first time in 20 years – the first time as an out gay man with a husband.
When we arrived, we opted to watch a musical in Metro Manila- as the idea of watching an all-Filipino production was fascinating. When we learned that Tony Award Best Musical Kinky Boots was playing, we bought front row tickets immediately.

What moved me most about the show were not just the impeccable theatrical sets and the phenomenal talent, but rather the opportunity to witness an all-Filipino ensemble performing a show in which none of them would be traditionally cast. Given the lack of roles for Asian American actors, seeing all Brown people on stage (portrayed as protagonists) was heartwarming and empowering. Further, to observe a majority Filipino audience laughing, cheering, and dancing along to the story of a drag queen who finds acceptance in a small rural town was beyond moving. Could this possibly mean that LGBTQ people were now more accepted in the Philippines?

A perfect person to ask was Laurence Mossman, 27, who stars as Charlie Price in the Manila production of Kinky Boots.
Last year, Mossman was an ensemble cast member of Fun Home – another Tony award-winning LGBTQ-themed musical (starring Lea Salonga). While Kinky Boots is clearly more comedic and optimistic, Fun Home portrays a darker side of queer life. Thus, I hoped he could share perspectives from both ends of the spectrum.

Mossman is a New Zealander with a mother who immigrated from Leyte, Philippines. Like me, he is the youngest of three boys (i.e., the bunso) and grew up with an extended Filipino community. A singer by training, Mossman described the power of musical theater: “You see yourselves in the characters. You see real people. And the music says it’s okay to feel.”

As Mossman identifies as straight, I was captivated by his commitment to promoting messages of acceptance. Citing Kinky Boots’ theme: “You change the world when you change your mind,” he described how “the message far outweighs any personal gain.” When reflecting on Fun Home, he mentioned that some audience members walked out during the first lesbian kissing scene. “They came to see Lea- not knowing what the show was about.” Though disappointed by those outliers, he remains confident: “You know you are affecting people’s lives. One person at a time is all you can ask for.”

Perhaps Mossman is so open-minded because he knows what it is like to be different. While attending an all-boys boarding school in New Zealand, he initially avoided joining the choir because of the stigma attached. It was not until his teacher Claire Caldwell recruited rugby players that the culture changed. Mirroring Glee, choir was not just acceptable for the young men; it became something that people sought (and fought to be part of).

In this way, Mossman’s personal history parallels the message of Kinky Boots because it shows how one person can change the trajectory of someone else’s entire life. If Ms. Caldwell did not make efforts to redefine gender role expectations at his school, would Mossman have been brave enough to join the choir and do what he loves today? If Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group did not take the risk to produce shows like Kinky Boots and Fun Home in Manila, would theatergoers be exposed to LGBTQ stories that could potentially change their perspectives?

In retrospect, I wish I had an all-Filipino Kinky Boots or Fun Home as a kid. In seeing someone who looked like me, loved like me, or struggled like me, I may have felt more validated and less alone. Nevertheless, I can take solace in knowing that young LGBTQ Filipino Americans can learn that we exist; I just hope they continue to tell the stories of how we persist.

Kinky Boots runs until July 23 at the Carlos Romulo Auditorium.

by Kevin Nadal, Ph.D., Contributor, Professor of Psychology, City University of New York
Source – Huffington Post