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Manalansan's Global Divas

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Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora.

Manalansan, Martin F., IV. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003. 221pp., $21.95, softcover. ISBN: 0822332175.

An ethnographic study of the lives of Filipino gay men who have immigrated to New York City, Global Divas places immigrant people of color as the center of queer inquiry and thus challenges notions of a global gay identity based on the struggles of white gay men in America. As a crossroads for queer studies, Asian and Asian-American studies, anthropology, and post-colonialism, Global Divas should prove to be engaging and informative to people of all colors, gay as well as straight, immigrant as well as American.

Uplifting, empowering, and provocative, Global Divas first of all invites us to peek into the everyday world of the Filipino bakla who have immigrated to America and now live in New York City. In his preface, Manalansan explains bakla as a term encompassing "homosexuality, hermaphroditism, cross-dressing and effeminacy." In difference to the Western term gay, which describes male desire to have sex with other males, underscoring a hypermasculine ideal, the term bakla describes an "in-between" identity, or as Manalansan puts it, a "male body with a female heart" (25). The construction of the bakla, then, would align bakla desire with that of the heterosexual female, that is, for straight men.

As alternative queer identity, the bakla challenges the assumption that "gay" is a global category, and points to the imperialistic nature of white gay culture, which assumes a homogeneous, monolithic identity for all homosexual males. In his analysis of the different cultural perceptions of gayness, Manalansan correctly interprets that most contemporary Western homosexuals would read bakla as an identity that Filipino queer men must go beyond, and rejects this notion: "bakla is not a prior condition before assimilating into a gay identity. Rather, bakla is equally a modern sense of self that inhabits or dwells in the queer sites of the global city. Filipino gay men recuperate the bakla ideology as a way to survive and even flourish within the racial, ethnic, class, and gendered spaces of America" (186).

For while white American gays can (and generally do) subsume all other categories of difference to same-sex desire, queers of color also negotiate racial identity and stereotypes. In the case of Filipino homosexual men in America, the negotiation further includes not only their immigrant status, but their culture of origin, their class, their family, and their religion. At one point, Manalansan illustrates the series of intersections that cross the bakla body by remarking that many of his informants believed that "if you need to look for any bakla, you could find them either in a drag beauty contest or in a church" (121).

In comparison to these multifaceted subjects, the mainstream gay community of New York City, white or black, seems either reductive or hyperbolic, full of "drama," as one of Manalansan's informants explains:

The Americans are different, darling. Coming out is their drama. When I was studying at (a New England college) the queens had nothing better to talk about than coming out. Maybe their families were very cruel. Back home, who cared? But the whites, my God, shedding tears, leaving the family. The stories are always sad. (27)
Where Global Divas succeeds best is in comparing and contrasting the celebratory play of bakla beauty pageants with the appropriation and transformation of the specter of AIDS by Filipinos. In their reconstruction, AIDS becomes Tita Aida (Aunt Aida), a fantastical feminization of the illness that enables baklas to reconfigure the pandemic as "a kind of spectacle of the feminine [that is, the baklas themselves], suffering, and AIDS" (180). Tita Aida, then, is a creative response that highlights the marginalization and suffering of the bakla as disaporic subject, but also helps him negotiate his transnational experiences by fashioning AIDS in his own language and under his own terms.

For the reader's edification, all interviews in Global Divas are first recorded in the original Taglish (a mix of Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, and English), or in swardspeak (the vernacular used by Filipino queers home and abroad), and then rendered in English. Global Divas even includes a short glossary of swardspeak entitled "An Elusive Glossary" since the speech it attempts to transcribe is in constant change so as to keep swardspeak as a code for those "in the know."

Ximena Gallardo