Querring (in) the Philippine Media
A few years ago, I wrote about a young lesbian. I thought it was a simple story of a young girl discovering an aspect of her own sexuality in the shadow of Islam but it became contentious. The subject, realizing that the article might see print in mainstream media, sought to have the story killed.The lesbian advocate who connected me to the subject supported her plea. They both argued that they have realized the article might endanger the woman; that there was the possibility of "honor killing". I might have been at risk also: I could have been coerced to reveal the identity of the woman and accused of smearing a clan's reputation.The editor who commissioned the story also agreed to pull it out, and so I got my kill-fee and the story never saw print in the Philippines.
Looking back at the piece now, I wonder --
1. Will this story and its subject now stand the media glare if the story sees print in a major Filipino media? What changes have happened/not happened in the past 10 years in Philippine society which will allow a discussion on the issue/subject? Is time now ripe to discuss this in Philippine mainstream media? In Mindanao Muslim culture?
3. Does honor killing still exist among Muslims in the Philippines? Will it still endanger the subject and the journalist?
4.What are the hopes and fears and challenges of Muslims who are lesbians now?
5. Was the decision to kill the story, therefore, to self-censor, right and appropriate then, be still right and appropriate now?
Here is the story:
"I grew up believing that Islam and homosexuality are irreconcilable and I still believe so now," says Boom, as she fiddles with a stubble of hair on her unveiled and shaven head. "There's no Muslim who is lesbian and no lesbian who is Muslim."
And religion is not the only problem with her sexual preference. Boom, not her real name, belongs to an influential family of political leaders in her home town.
I meet Boom in a glass-walled, aquarium-like Japanese restaurant in a Mindanao city. She strides in blithely from an afternoon drizzle, profuse with apologies for coming late.
"Something got broken in our house, I had to call the carpenter and supervise the repair before I could leave," she explains.
She is in charge of maintaining her family's house in an upscale village here in Mindanao. “My parents are always on away. Travel. Business,” she explained some more.
She appeared gaunt from lack of sleep. The previous night, where we met for the first time, she was dancing almost non-stop -- black leather brushing against black silk -- among female friends in an all-night party way beyond the witching hours.
Boom had agreed to be interviewed as long as her identity is not divulged.
This realization that she loves women most and is no longer a Muslim of good standing is a secret from her own family. The alternative would be gut-wrenching shame for herself, her family and clan, and severe punishment – possibly even exile -- meted by the religious leaders since there is a strict Muslim taboo against homosexuality, she says.
"Knowing how to keep these things a secret protects all of us from the consequences," she said. "It is working so far.
Boom will not be among those who will be marching to advocate for same-sex marriage or even be seen in the Pride March bills. "I'd court death if I would be very visible! I may join marches and rallies against the President, against domestic violence or ethnic oppression but not for lesbianism," she exclaims.
Boom was barely nine or ten years old and in the grade school when she knew she was attracted mostly to women. "I liked older women, and I got attracted to their voices," she says.
But by age 18, Boom married a scion of another powerful clan that controlled a province adjacent to the one ruled by her own clan. The three-year marriage resulted in two miscarriages and many bad memories. "He [my husband] used to beat me. We always argued. I won't be obedient. I could not keep my mouth shut. I always explained and wanted explanations from him. We were both young, and incompatible. And soon he had other women, of which I did not approve. The last time I left him I vowed never to return," she says now, a dozen years after the separation.
When I express skepticism that the marriage ever took place Boom takes out a man's wallet out of her pants' back-pocket and from among wads of calling cards, fishes out a tattered snapshot.
The photograph shows a much younger Boom, every inch a bride, in turquoise gown and heavily bejeweled. Her hair is hidden behind a silk veil and on her head is a resplendent tiara. She is pouting.
"I keep this photo to remind me of my past and so that I have something to show to those who would not believe my story," she says.
After she left her husband, Boom's family took her back, helped her through a divorce and brought her to live in several other cities where she learned much more about life. There she made non-Muslim friends and began reading a variety of books -- philosophy, fiction and history.
Boom says she knows that despite having to keep a huge secret she is lucky, lucky to have been born to a rich and powerful clan, lucky to have educated and liberal parents who allow her to have women friends who are not Muslims, lucky to have kept a life of her own at 30 despite not having a paid job all her life yet, lucky to have kept a secret.
"Somehow, I got away with many things," she says. "My parents are devout Muslims, particularly my father, but they don't impose religion on us, they don't tell us to be like them. They allow us space to think for ourselves. Maybe the ulama [religious leaders] notice me as I stand out but they do not speak," she surmises.
"I think my Dad trusts me enough to allow me to go out frequently without a chaperone because he knows I am always among women. He thinks I am safe among my women friends. I don't want to abuse his trust so much. It will hurt him and Mom."
Muslim women, particularly in Mindanao, have taken leadership roles in governance. Together, we catalog a roster of mayors, legislators, even a senator who are Muslims and who are women.
"That has precedence. There are strong women leaders in the Koran and in the life of Mohammed the Prophet," she says. But she adds that she has not come across any woman loving woman in her readings of Islamic texts. "If there are texts, I am not yet aware of them. That's the difficulty as we lesbians who grow up in an Islamic setting have no models at all."
"It is a very conservative religion which adheres closely to the scriptures of the Koran so I don't expect it to change radically to accommodate and be compassionate to women like me.The ulama's word is the ultimate law."
For now, she gets a hefty allowance from proceeds of a family farm. For now, she is out of the closet but she still remains underground. She wants her life just the way it is, no elegy nor quick changes yet.
"You know what I want this moment? I need a job. I have to find a job. I want to be independent financially," she says."Or live on my own alone. I will decide when the day comes. I don't worry much about that future yet [since] I am still young.
"And for me life is always an open road. You can take a detour or turn around if you want. That's why I can see myself marrying a man again. I can still see myself becoming a mother in the same way that I can see myself loving a woman only and living with her all my life," she says.
As our conversation ends, she excuses herself for another appointment across town, refusing the soup and sweetened bean curd I ordered for her. As I sip the miso from a black lacquered bowl, through the eatery's thick glass wall, I watch Boom walk fast towards a bend in the highway.