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Queering Art after ‘Ama Namin’

By Carmy Dimaano Published Feb 23, 2024 5:00 am

When I first watched Drag Den, it felt like something special. The set was baroque in its metropolitan decay and as campy as its contestants, who were free to be as filthy or as political as they wanted—at least, on the surface. It felt forbidden, a secret garden of tongue-in-cheek humor and ornate outfits, a testament to the complex beauty of Philippine drag.

Despite this, it still is an Amazon Prime exclusive, stuck behind a paywall and curated specially for a niche market. It’s queerness in a zoo, a controlled environment that audiences can choose to peek into. So what happens when queerness breaks from the safety of a marketing category and is thrust into the mainstream? Apparently, public persecution.

What was meant to be a discussion of religion in a queer space became a national debate, with various people using this opportunity to tear down queer folk and our art.

In June 2023, Drag Den contestant Pura Luka Vega performed what would become a controversial set at a Pride event hosted by Elephant. Clips of the show bubbled up online and the power was palpable even from a phone screen: Vega bathed in red light and dressed like the Black Nazarene, crowded by patrons reaching out towards them, holding up their phones like candles. A punk remix of Ama Namin blared from the speakers, with people screaming along as if they were at a Christian rock concert. For Jouache, an illustrator who attended the set, it resonated deeply. “Like Pura, I grew up surrounded by Catholics. May something na nag-spark sa’kin, parang, ‘Ay, pwede naman pagsamahin yung religion and yung drag performance.’ A kind of celebration of my personal upbringing din,” she explained. “Sa time (na) ‘yun, happy naman ‘yung crowd, walang mga violent reactions.”

On the violent reactions that would come after the event, Vega commented, “Honestly, it felt like I was in a really bad Netflix special or like a Black Mirror episode.” They laughed. “It’s like ‘Luka is Awful,’ parang ganon!”

They said they were used to their performances sparking debate, so the initial virality of the event didn’t shake them. That was until prominent political figures with larger platforms started having a say about it, dragging the underground performance up to the scrutiny of a world that played by the rules of a cisheteronormative Christian majority. What was meant to be a discussion of religion in a queer space became a national debate, with various people using this opportunity to tear down queer folk and our art. As the months passed, as many as 12 municipalities declared Vega persona non grata, two Christian groups sued them over indecency under a law that was grandfathered in from the Spanish colonization, and one arrest was made, with the Manila police detaining Vega for three days. The biblical parallelism was not lost on them.


While empathic with the faithful, the queer artists I spoke to shared disappointment and outrage, agreeing that a double standard lay at the heart of Vega’s persecution. Where are the personae non gratae declarations against comedians who have poked fun at various religions in TikTok, film or television; or other drag queens who have donned religious clothing? Is this what defending religious beliefs looks like or is it a show of bigotry in a patriarchal, homophobic, conservative country? Is a drag queen truly as much a societal threat to warrant so many municipalities spending government resources to declare the queen unwelcome while they do not do the same with known abusers, criminals, or thieves?

I think what makes the performance different is the context. Not only is Vega—self-described as “gender apathetic”—queer, but the performance itself was queer. It was a sincere expression of faith, not a parody to be easily consumed. What many overlook is that there is a difference between art made by queer folk and queer art, which challenges society’s ideas of gender, sexuality, identity, and various other norms, usually explored through the lens of queer individuals. Without understanding this context, meaning is lost if not distorted.

On this subject, poet March Abuyuan-Llanes pointed out that despite the shifts towards collective politicization in the ‘90s, queer art remains monolithic. It’s rare to find intersectional stories of queerness in the Philippines as most mainstream depictions of queerness are love stories between gay men and a handful of lesbians, and most Filipinos’ brush with queer entertainment begins and ends with transfemme celebrities in comedic roles. We don’t popularize other queer experiences like transitioning, living under certain socioeconomic realities, and other meaningful human experiences related to queerness because in our current media landscape, queerness is a flat category and not an expansive genre that reflects our unique experiences. To be a queer Filipino, one has to reckon with all sides of one’s identity and that multidimensionality is not seen in mass media.

Adding to this, narrative designer Kulay Labitigan described alternative queer art as inaccessible to the fringes of Filipino society. On one hand, its distribution is unequal across the country; similar to wealth, infrastructure, and education. Unless they do the work to cater to and reach a very specific community, an artist’s visibility is not guaranteed. On the other hand, with audiences primed to see queer art as entertainment and not a personal form of storytelling, they are not ready for the complex conversations about the intersections of queerness with their reality. In Vega’s words, it is difficult for audiences to appreciate queer stories if they cannot—will not—empathize with who we are.

Despite or because of these boundaries, the art scene is slowly changing and so are Filipino audiences. Queer illustrators and writers are creating more expressive, less restrained art to push the boundaries of conservative sensibilities, and both queer and non-queer Filipinos are eager to show their support. In a world that denies our existence, there is power in weaving who we are into the stories we tell. On a wider scale, Abuyuan-Llanes and Labitigan call for the creation of grassroots art networks and communities to build solidarity not only with queer folk but with Filipinos across geographic, economic, and ethnic lines to collectively push for inclusive and diverse narratives in all mediums so that our stories may be normalized both in the mainstream and the fringes. Ultimately, the goals of the artists I spoke to do not end in queer liberation: they expand to sociopolitical change across the board so that no Filipino gets left behind.

Vega especially looks forward to future projects even as they grapple with the legal battles that remain from the Ama Namin controversy. They said, “(This incident) has reinforced and strengthened my drive to tell more queer stories. If that particular performance has affected you in any way, then maybe I can create more thought-provoking performances that you can learn from.”


The first season of Drag Den ended with the wail of an alarm: the authorities found the underground ballroom and the queens scrambled to escape. The second season sports a new walled garden, brimming with the promise of the curated underground. Across the Philippines, new drag ballrooms are popping up, queer bars are gaining new patrons, and artists of all kinds are putting pen to paper despite fear, hesitation, and the threat of persecution in a country that has yet to pass any anti-discrimination bill, let alone a piece of legislation that acknowledges the queer underbelly of our society.

They tried condemning one of us. But I doubt they can crucify all of us.