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The importance and challenges of queer representation in PH media, according to gay creators

By CHUCK SMITH Published Mar 01, 2021 7:37 am

Calls for better representation in queer media in the Philippines made headlines last week after actress Nathalie Hart was called out for her comments about her experience portraying a lesbian character in an episode of ABS-CBN’s drama anthology program Maalaala Mo Kaya.

The Feb. 27 episode of Maalaala Mo Kaya featured the love story of queer vloggers Tina Boado and Roanne Carreon. Hart played Tina, while actress Jane Oineza played Roanne.

Hart expressed her discomfort in playing the role in an interview days before the episode aired. In an interview with PEP.ph, she said about the role: “Medyo nahirapan ako. Ang hirap mag-internalize. Kasi when I look at her eyes, I can’t feel the love. Pero I have to do it, kasi nakakahiya na with the director and my co-actor,”

Boado and Carreon took to Twitter to express their frustration over Hart’s statement.

“Nothing more frustrating than having your love story depicted on mainstream media, only for you to find out later on that a homophobe played your role,” Boado said. “Sorry kung hindi mo maasiwa yung katiboan ko ha.”

She added, “Our story deserves better. Queer stories deserve better.”

Hart, later on, apologized, saying she regrets her actions while noting that her remarks were taken out of context. Carreon, in a tweet, said that the Maalaala Mo Kaya production reached out to her and Baodo after the incident.

Based on their tweets when the Maalaala Mo Kaya episode featuring their story aired on television, it seems Baodo and Carreon are happy with how the show turned out. “Grateful for this once in a lifetime opportunity,” Baodo said in a tweet, referring to the Maalaala Mo Kaya feature.

But their call-out on Hart’s statement raised the issue of queer portrayals and representation in Philippine media.

Commenting about Hart’s statement about playing a lesbian character, writer and spoken word artist Juan Miguel Severo tweeted that members of the LGBTQ community should play queer roles in media. This obviously isn’t what happened with the Maalaala Mo Kaya episode in question, as both Hart and Oineza identify as straight.

If hiring queer actors isn’t possible, Severo added that production companies should “observe due diligence” to make sure the straight actors they hire are aligned with the “politics and the message” of their story.

Elijah Canlas and Kokoy de Santos play rivals-turned-lovers in the Boys Love series Gameboys. Photo courtesy of The IdeaFirst Company

Important, but tricky

The call for queer actors to play queer roles in Philippine media has been loud and frequent lately, perhaps due to the number of queer shows that were released last year.

The year 2020 saw the boom of Boys Love (BL) and gay-themed media in Philippine entertainment.

Boys Love is a genre that features homoerotic relationships between men, so it’s only natural to ask why the roles in these shows and movies aren’t always played by openly queer actors.

And while there have been a number of gay media whose cast are members of the LGBT community—for instance, Adrian Lindayag is a femme queer actor playing a femme queer character in the movie The Boy Foretold By The Stars; Kyo Quijano from the Boys Love online show Quaranthings: The Series, among others—many of the gay roles in these queer shows are still given to actors who identify as heterosexual.

Many of the popular BL shows such as Hello, Stranger, Ben x Jim, and Gameboys are headlined by straight-identifying actors.

Whether gay roles should be reserved for gay actors is a question that is asked here and elsewhere.

For instance, this question was raised by the Hollywood press when straight-identifying actor Henry Golding played a gay man in the 2020 movie Monsoon.

"I think it really comes down to understanding each and every angle when it comes to a topic like that," Golding said about playing the role in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "It’s understanding what the struggles have been, why there’s a camp that says gay characters should only be played by gay people versus the camp that says actors should be able to mimic or become who their character is.

He added, “Representation needs to be truthful on screen, but then does that limit artistry? It’s a merry-go-round of conversation and I think neither really… how should I put it… neither are right, neither are wrong.”

A look at two of the most popular local queer shows from last year illustrates how and why queer representation—specifically, having LGBTQ+ actors play queer roles in media—is extremely important.

But it also shows why it could be difficult.

In an interview last year with this writer, Perci Intalan—talking about his media outfit The IdeaFirst Company’s (TIFC) popular Boys Love show Gameboys—admitted that LGBTQ representation is “tricky.”

Besides Gameboys (which will have a second season this year), TIFC has produced several movies and TV shows with queer themes and characters, even before the popularity of BL in the Philippines.

In some cases, the queer characters of their movies are played by LGBTQ+ actors (for instance, Paolo Ballesteros of Die Beautiful and The Panti Sisters). In other cases, the gay roles are given to straight-identifying actors (Martin del Rosario of Born Beautiful). 

Basta right for the role. Kasi that’s the whole point e, napapaniwala ka ba niya.

“Honestly, tricky ang LGBTQ representation talaga. I will say that pa rin kasi that would come up in some of our projects,” he said.

“Do you cast somebody who’s really gay or who’s really lesbian or is she trans? And my answer is, I wish we can, di ba. I wish that it’s possible.”

By this, he didn’t mean to say they cannot cast LGBTQ+ actors for queer roles. 

Rather, what Intalan meant is that there are other factors to consider when it comes to movie and TV show casting. 

For him, what matters is “who is right for the role, whether straight, whether gay.”

Intalan said: “Basta right for the role. Kasi that’s the whole point e, napapaniwala ka ba niya. Kung napapaniwala ka niya because of his or her personal experiences, then great. Pero kung napapaniwala ka niya in spite of his or her personal experiences, then (it’s good too),”

He wouldn’t want to “turn a blind eye” on a straight actor for a gay role, in the same way that he wouldn’t want to turn a blind eye on a gay actor for a straight role.

“So it’s a tricky issue,” he reiterated.

Which isn’t to say that queer representation isn’t important for Intalan. It is, he said. But comparing the Philippine entertainment industry to Hollywood, Intalan said: “I understand where Hollywood is coming from also kasi they’ve matured. And their audience (have matured).”

He also said that in Hollywood, where there is an increased call to cast queer roles to queer actors, “mas maraming naka-cast talaga for those roles,” citing Pose, a US drama series about transgender women starring primarily transgender actors.

“Sana umabot tayo sa ganun. Sana umabot tayo (when) people have the choice to cast more and audiences would welcome it because they’re familiar faces na,” he said.

But while their actors on screen may not always be queer-identifying, many TIFC staff members are members of the LGBTQ community. Intalan and his husband Jun Lana of The IdeaFirst Company are openly gay. Gameboys writer Ash Malanum is gay. Intalan said they make sure their portrayal and depiction of gay characters and stories are sensitive and intelligent. The production makes sure that their actors understand the topics and issues being tackled in their movies. Intalan said he and Lana talk to their actors if they have questions about their queer roles.

In Gameboys, for example, they made sure to depict the show's main characters, rivals-turned-lovers Gavreel and Cairo (played by Kokoy de Santos and Elijah Canlas), as relatable and realistic, true to homosexual lives and experience.

After Gameboys, TIFC produced Pearl Next Door, a Girls Love series about the title character Pearl who is torn between two women.

Pearl is played by actress Adrianna So, who said in an interview that she works “closely with my director and our writer to ensure that LGBTQ+ characters are depicted as (three-dimensional individuals) whose experiences can be both unique and universal.”

The team of Pearl Next Door includes members of the LGBTQ community, including its writer Keavy Soria and its consultants Bernadette Neri and Laurel Fantauzzo.

Ian Pangilinan and Paolo Pangilinan in the gay romance show Gaya Sa Pelikula. Photo courtesy of Globe Studios

‘To reward pride’

Meanwhile, when writer Severo developed his 2020 Boys Love show Gaya Sa Pelikula, it was clear to him that he wanted to hire a team that are primarily members of the LGBTQ community.

“Main priority is to get cast and crew na LGBT,” he said in an interview last year.

For Severo, an openly gay writer, it’s important to let the LGBTQ community tell their own stories because “there are nuances that only we can understand, only we can understand because only we have lived through it.”

“Iba pa rin kapag sa iba’t ibang aspekto ng produksyon alam mong queer people yung nagtatrabaho kasi naiintindihan nila palagi lahat ng konteksto,” he added.

It was a conscious decision for him right from the start; when Severo pitched the show to Globe Studios, he was upfront about his intention to get a cast and crew that are members of the LGBTQ community (if not, then they should be “allies”—a person who supports equal civil rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ social movements).

I realize visibility isn’t always representation. How will I be able to say that we are forwarding representation kung ang ica-cast namin na hindi kayang angkinin ang queerness niya?

“Hangga’t sa maaari, totoong queer actors for the queer roles,” he said about his goal when he started casting for the show.

Still, even if Severo knew how and why queer representation is important, he admitted that the decision presented a few challenges.

There is, for instance, the issue of gay actors who are not out. But Severo said the choice to pick gay actors "isn’t to set aside those who are fearful of coming out but to reward pride.”

“This is a reward to those brave enough to own their identities, to own their sexuality, to own their truth, to live their truth. This is to honor. This is to celebrate.”

This is important to him because there are instances when queer actors get replaced or rejected for roles because of their SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression). Paolo Pangilinan, an openly gay first-time actor who was eventually cast in Gaya Sa Pelikula opposite straight-identifying theater actor Ian Pangilinan, even made a reference to this during an interview for one of the show’s publicity materials.

Severo further explained: “Kasi I realize visibility isn’t always representation. How will I be able to say that we are forwarding representation kung ang ica-cast namin hindi kayang angkinin ang queerness niya.”

Severo admitted that casting queer actors for Gaya Sa Pelikula was difficult because of “systemic homophobia”—gay actors in the Philippines are usually hesitant to play gay roles due to fears of homophobia among their audience or that they might be typecast in queer roles.

But this is precisely why Severo believed queer representation is imporant in a gay show like Gaya Sa Pelikula.

“I want queer kids to know that these actors, these staff members, the creative team behind the show got this job because of their queerness, not despite it,” he said.

Photos from ABS-CBN, The IdeaFirst Company, Globe Studios