Taib is the nom de plume of a cultural worker and a student of creative writing. Born and raised in Mindanao and now based in Metro Manila, he observes the quotidian affairs of the capital through the eyes of a Muslim minority, taking notes of peoples’ nuanced actions and attempting to decipher their personal values. He hopes to translate his observations into stories and essays.
The central figure in the short story is a young Muslim woman with dreams of becoming a doctor in her community but must give up her aspirations to become the wife of a wealthy businessman and secure the future of her family. The narrative dwells on this tension between masculinist tradition and female subjectivity within the context of religion and the patriarchal structures which subdue women and prevent them from securing a place of their own in society. The introduction of another female character revises the tragic predicament this person must face by providing her with a feminine source of friendship and affection, even proposing possibilities of joy and pleasure within a domestic life already doomed in marriage through queer forms of kinship that may still be forged within. That the cis queer writer is male and employs female characters to illustrate this tells us about how identifications and alliances with women, and with queer women at that, point to networks of solidarity that are deemed comparable from the points of focalization.
It was immediately clear to the workshop participants that the submitted stories of this cisgendered bantut (the Tausug word for “gay) Muslim author are “allo-identifications”: as narrative visions they seek to unpack and address the oppression of queer subjects in this part of the world by putting them in analogy with the suffering of (in these stories, homoerotically inclined) women. Questions were raised, however, in regard to the following: the tendency to exoticize and therefore simplistically reduce and fetishize this admittedly little-known reality, particularly within the tradition of mainstream Philippine literature; the fraught politics of sexual cross-identification itself, and how important it is to be clear about the similarities and the differences among queer subjects as far as the experience of heteropatriarchal oppression is concerned; and, finally, the perils of reverse discourse, in which the positions of who oppresses and who are oppressed are inverted, even as the hierarchical structure remains in the end unquestioned and intact. These points seemed particularly germane, given the “antiheroic” female protagonist in one of the stories, who murders her tradition-bound Muslim husband ostensibly to free herself from her regimented life, and even invokes the possibility that the deed is done for the sake of a “lesbian” relationship between her and her household help. On the other hand, it was also recognized that the author’s desire to embrace his own queer subjectivity is indistinguishable from his desire to champion his own cultural identity as a Muslim and a Tausug, and it was everyone’s wish that the workshop could provide him the kind of artistic and political encouragement to do this, primarily by enfolding him into a pan-Philippine queer fellowship that would nurture and affirm him as well as help him improve in his craft as a writer.
In His Own Words: Where I Come From
I was born in Zamboanga City, but that’s just paperwork. If by “from” we mean the point at which a person begins, then we may argue that she only truly begins with her coming into consciousness, as acted upon by many influences of course, but ultimately as a consequence of her own will.
We must also acknowledge the many variables that have journeyed along with the individual to that point of cognizance. With me, it was the irreversibly interlinked culture, values, and religiosity of the Tausug peoples of Sulu, followed and practiced strictly by my parents who migrated to Zamboanga to start our family.
Zamboanga is an ambivalent city. Its city hall stands proudly, displaying its Spanish colonial architectural design at the heart of the downtown area. Its “Spanish-ness” stretches in all directions, from the magnificent Fort Santiago to Cawa Cawa Boulevard, and farther on.
Festooning it on all sides, however, are the veils of Muslim women—the vividly woven designs of the Maranao and Tausug, all the malongs and hijabs being sold by enterprising mothers. The Protestants, Catholics, Christians, and Ang Dating Daan [evangelical] followers all fall into respectful silence when noon comes, as the mosques’ Bilals start to chant the Adhan. And at a table of friends, a late Muslim woman may enter with a hurried “Salam!” and proceed to explain her reasons in Chavacano; her friend may respond in Filipino, another in Tausug, and they might just end their banter with goodbyes muttered in thick-accented englishes. Spatially, culturally, that’s the Zamboanga I am from, or at least how I remember it. However, the “you” of the question (which is to say, my “I”) is a more important matter to address.
My formative years were not my own. A child may claim she knew her identity at the age of seven, and she may well be right. However, she may have also witnessed something at that age; she may have made an observation that has forced her to keep her “self” to herself. In my many meditations about my past, I can say that this may well have been the case for me, and it may well have been my first experience of trauma…
I remember the biceps of men, glistening and toned. I remember blue basketball jerseys. I remember the Tausug language, hard, forthright, and proud. My mother was there wearing a malong, crouching and cooking in an earthenware pot and tending to the firewood. Our house then had no yard and the fence and house walls pressed against each other. Roosters were constantly crowing and smoke was rising from the kitchens of the other houses. I must have had friends before; my parents mostly did not allow us outside. If I did, I do not remember.
Vague memories, all of them… Mostly, I remember Uncle Gulam. My brother and I—there were only the two of us, at the time—never knew his full name. We only called him Uncle Goli, while the grownups called him Gulam. I do not recall him caring for my brother; all my aunts and mother told me was that he cared for me. He was the first gay man I knew. In my language, they/we are called “bantut.”
Goli never attended mosque prayers, even if it was required of all Muslim men. He never attended social occasions either. Or rather, he attended them, but confined himself mostly to the kitchens, along with the women serving at these events. His main duties were really just buying produce from the local market, and cooking the food. There were many coffee sessions after Asar, the Islamic afternoon prayer. Goli would serve them all from a tray, together with Baulu, Pitis, and Hantak: all of them were short and balding, and they were often to be seen sashing about in pink shirts and short shorts.
Goli would sit in a corner, ready to serve, as my father and the men he’d invited from the congregation would talk politics and business. Uncle Goli would now and then chime in, but the response would be the same: an agreeable silence, and a faint spark of thought, as though what he said was the signal to move on to the next topic. Any men who visited home would ask him in a mocking and audibly girlish tone, “When will you marry?” He would reply with a strained smile, or a raised eyebrow, and would promptly retreat to his room. The women who heard this would chuckle, and some would even look at me knowingly. Whenever I did something girlish, people would jokingly quip that this was all to be expected, as I was cared for by Uncle Goli when I was young.
It was gradual, but my preference for solitude grew. I started reading and watching movies, anything that would give me an excuse not to be around people too much. I continued to be observant but detached all the way to high school, which was an even harsher time, and then to college (in Zamboanga), in which dark desires expressed themselves in a love of alcohol, smoking, and arriving home late in the morning—all forbidden by religious and domestic rules.
Mockeries continued, secrets deepened, and a support system was still nowhere to be found. This was a small city after all, and at every turn there was someone who knew someone else who knew the members of one’s own family. Soon, a restlessness developed inside me, growling, clawing, festering, wanting to gnaw its way out. I finally decided that enough was enough. I dropped everything, and proceeded to Manila to pursue my studies.
I felt the electric burst of energies from the airport going to Sampaloc, Manila. The traffic, the severe expressions on the faces of city folk, the heightened stress of metropolitan life—all this was a welcome change from the rustic and laid-back rhythms of my hometown. After I had settled into my room in our first home in the capital, a small, roach-infested apartment near España Boulevard, I lied to my brother (then studying at the University of Santo Tomas), and went down to the street outside to smoke. I felt the gush of freedom when I turned a corner from our building, smoking freely, openly, on the side of the edifice, with absolutely no one caring about my standing there. While my over-cautiousness—paranoia—subsided a little as I began to explore the city, it never really went away.
I still did not reveal my love for men then. But in just about every classroom I entered, and eventually, in all the jobs that I landed, there always were secret admirations, seductions, and longings. So many longings. Soon I began to learn the secret language of the closeted, a language in which the greeting was a long, meaningful glance, confirmed by a turn of the interested head, or an affirming lift of the eyebrow. And on and on it continued: the hesitancy, the guilt, the repression. I carried on this way throughout my years at the Lyceum of the Philippines, as well as my one year in Dubai, and my three months in Thailand.
As I grew up, my “I” eventually, softly, revealed itself, insinuating itself through the layered filters, the “defenses,” that I had built to protect myself, and my family. Until, at last, I came out to one of my friends in Thailand. She told me the same thing that all my other friends to whom I would eventually come out also told me: “Halata naman, wala lang kameng proof talaga”; “Gurl, alam ko naman, pero good na sinabi mo na din, musta feeling?” [We’ve long suspected as much, we were just waiting for you to confirm it. Girlfriend, it feels good to come out, doesn’t it?]
“Congrats! Matagal na naming alam!” [Congratulations! We’ve known all along!] One confidante became four, four became twelve. At this point I decided to enter into yet another school.
With my failed plan to teach abroad, I decided to come back to Manila and pursue a Master’s Degree. I was eventually accepted into the Creative Writing Program of De La Salle University, where classes are held every Saturday. I instinctively tried to hide my sexuality, until a classmate casually said, “Girl, lunch tayo” and at that moment I thought, “the hell with it; I’ll be gay only during Saturdays.” Needless to say my Saturdays eventually turned into weekdays, during which I would reveal bits of myself to people that I trusted. I felt I had been inhaling all throughout my childhood, and finally, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, I could exhale all I wanted!
I told myself: “As long as none of this ever reaches my family in Zamboanga.” About this I was, I am, certain.
My biggest risk, my greatest blessing came when I was accepted into the Second LGBTQ National Writer’s Workshop. With all my special requests for “pseudonymity” granted, I received not only guidance in the craft of writing, but also much-needed help as far as my overall well-being, my selfhood, and my sexuality, were concerned. A late-blooming butterfly, I find I am still scared to leave my chrysalis behind, even though I know that the time to completely break free and come into my own has come.
I hope you understand it when I say that my life, my “self,” as I have chosen to live it, really only began in my young adulthood.
Now I’m thinking that this “I” will probably always stay unfinished—for it is a lifelong work in progress.
I’m thinking this may well be true for one’s own gender identity, and one’s own sexuality, as well.