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Bakla Hegemony, Gay Universe: Developing Queer Translocalities in a “Post”-Colonial Philippines
Bakla Hegemony, Gay Universe: Developing Queer Translocalities in a “Post”-Colonial Philippines
Abstract: Queer studies in the Philippines have confounded native and foreign scholars alike due to concepts resistant to definition and classification. Using a brief study on Lloyd Cadena’s popular YouTube vlogs, this essay aims to examine the powers and limits of bakla success stories. In this, we see that in response to the globalizing forces of social media, bakla voices do not deconstr uct existing gender structures, but instead can perpetuate a marginalization of non-bakla voices. The bakla thus continues to take up a contradictory position in modern Filipino society as a prescribed other.
Keywords: Lloyd Cadena, Philippines, LGBTQ+, Internet culture, globalization
On September 4, 2020, Filipino netizens were shocked to find a name included among the growing list of COVID-19 related deaths. Lloyd Cadena, a YouTube vlogger with over five million subscribers (one of the highest of any in the Philippines not related to a major TV network), suddenly passed away, only weeks before he would turn 27. What followed was a deluge of videos of Lloyd’s family and friends reacting to the news, often on camera. Thousands of comments have permeated through all of Cadena’s videos, noting their grief. Known affectionally as “Kween LC”, his status as a successful bakla creator was significant in his impact to both Internet and nonheteronormative ideoscapes. What seemed like an improbable rise to fame for Cadena reveals itself to be a development of historical and cultural contexts that, in the current of an online society, presents a new and more powerful bakla icon. This essay places Cadena’s work along these currents, and in doing so, we could see that bakla-driven narratives of progressive universality inadvertently entrench hierarchies of gender in the modernizing Philippines.
Before turning to the heart of this essay, I would first like to preface by mentioning my positionality as a physical outsider to Filipino queer ideoscapes. Like many other foreign scholars (even those of Filipino descent), I am sometimes guilty of entering into these ideoscapes while using a Western lens, but as someone grappling with their gender expression/identity rather than sexual orientation, I noticed that Filipino notions of queerness deconstruct the seemingly inseparable connection of those ideas quite easily. Thus, in a way, I write about Lloyd because I am interested in how these queer ideoscapes interact with globalizing forces such as the Internet. Throughout the paper, I will footnote some of the nuances involved with translating these ideas into English, further emphasizing the “gay nativism” that battles those globalizing forces underneath the surface. This essay then aims to revisit these battlegrounds for the Internet age, where the developments were not unambiguous examples of “progress”, however that may be defined.
Lloyd Cadena and a Bakla Universality
Lloyd Cafe Cadena began making Lady Gaga music video parodies with his high school classmates in 2010, and from then on he has never stopped making them. With both parents working as overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the United Arab Emirates throughout his life, Cadena passed the time by making vlogs that were part confessional, part pop culture parody, and part narration of a modern Filipino trying to make it out of his iskwater (squatter) neighborhood. Seeing his popularity rise, he decided to pursue vlogging full-time after finishing a degree in financial management at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran.
His most popular video as of the writing of this essay is titled “Mga Ganap Sa Jeepney (Laptrip to Bes!) [“Happenings in a Jeepney (This is a “laugh-trip”, bestie!)”]. With over 11 million views, Cadena outlines the everyday absurdities of one of the most ubiquitous experiences for the masa (lit. the masses; subaltern): riding a jeepney. Tight spaces, casual stickups, and stingy drivers are acted out by Cadena and other bakla, but while all the actors are bakla, the humor presented was not those common in bakla repertoire (i.e. sarcasm, dark/shock humor) but that of observational humor. The jeepney that they were in was not a bakla-themed jeep decorated with paintings of scantily-clad men, but a conventional jeepney. But, somewhat radically, it is driven by a bakla (Lloyd) and full of bakla passengers. Cadena’s videos work because of the chemistry between him and his bakla collaborators; many of the funniest parts of his videos are not even the observational humor, but the snide comments and in-jokes between the bakla that are kept in each take. This fantasy of a bakla universe, where bakla are performing the roles of both man and woman, upends traditional views of bakla as inversions of established heteronormative norms. In other words, these scenes find a temporary outlet for bakla to venture outside of societally prescribed roles: hairdressers, artists, sex workers, etc. While the ultimate intention of the video is to entertain, it is also a hopeful vision of a world where bakla did not have to justify their existences by being the butt of their own jokes.
But outside of the Internet, the boundary between performance and “authenticity” is still at the center of bakla life. Cadena admits that when he secretly installed video editing software in all the computers at the local Internet cafes, he was overjoyed because he loves how he can edit himself to not look as sad as he actually is. These sentiments are reminiscent of Fenella Cannell’s ethnography in Bicol (1999), where she concluded that “the bakla epitomize the recapturings of power, not literally through possession, but through a wrapping of the symbols of protective status”. Cadena’s video parodies of Lady Gaga, Tina Turner, and the like typify the hyperfeminine American camp that characterizes bakla behavior, but looking without the Western lens, and especially in a society that has been much more globalized than the one that Cannell writes about, does this “mimicry” still have the same powers of protection? Cannell’s work looked at the bakla seemingly trapped within the context of the Bicol region, given the socioeconomically charged nature of the term as lower-class and financially unstable. However, a more online bakla “community” no longer have to cater to their local barangay. Bakla can now dance on platforms like TikTok to an international audience without the baggage of exclusion, for example.
Given these new contexts, then, the possibilities of challenging or even deconstructing existing gender structures in Philippine ideoscapes are slim, and Lloyd Cadena’s work shows that there is still much success to be had in portraying the “authentic” bakla life. His tagline, “Gusto mo ‘yon, gusto ko ‘yon!” [You like that? Me too!] is a function of bakla swardspeak, but it also reveals a consensus-based approach to his work. While visions of bakla freedom from heteronormative structures occasionally pop up, Cadena’s vlogs are first and foremost an invitation to a happy bakla life. Many of the important moments in his life were recorded to provide content; he records the moment when he reveals to his mother that he has bought her a new house, meaning that she no longer needed to work abroad; he also filmed his father publicly accepting him as a son that loves so much despite his kabaklaan (bakla-ness). Through the thorough documentation of his private life, Cadena achieves a celebrification of his private self; his selling point is the authenticity in his humor and his real interactions with modernity. Prolific YouTubers such as Cadena have molded a new type of “microcelebrity” in the Filipino mediascapes that seems to be untethered to the mass media networks and the top-down prescribed ideologies that come with it. His successes were powered through a proximity to authenticity in its bakla universe, but as we see in the next section, the effect of bakla universalism on Filipino mediascapes could actually have some worrying effects for those on the margins of margins.
A Bakla Hegemony in Filipino Queer Spaces
A working knowledge of Filipino queer spaces is paramount in understanding why bakla have such capabilities to dominate visions of queer identity in the Philippines. The concept of an LGBTQ+ “community” as it exists in Western contexts does not translate well to the Philippines. Instead, due to legacies of class disparity and the colonial influence of Roman Catholic beliefs on homosexuality, queer community-building in the Philippines has been characterized by a distinct locality. Essentially, queer communities were formed out of necessity, and in a very real sense, bakla and other queer folk banded among themselves for survival. Michael Tan (2001) followed bakla and tomboy community formation in the end of the 20th century, noting that at best, both rural and urban bakla find solace in “small and localized” pockets that undertake some territorial characteristics. These pockets, especially in rural areas, exist from a central location related to occupational niches—most commonly, in beauty parlors. The parlorista –slender, effeminate, abrasively camp—is the caricature of kabaklaan, but it bears noting that there are Westernizing forces among middle and upper-class queer folk pressuring them away from and enforcing this caricature. Analyzing these differences is not the topic of this paper, but suffice it to say that despite their differences, historical/nationalist contexts often conflate the two regardless, and it is this generalization that allows lower-class bakla such as Cadena to participate in these entrenched gender hierarchies.
As one could notice in the “Mga Ganap sa Jeepney” video, Lloyd Cadena’s community also contained their own pocket of bakla, this time centered in the pink-walled living room of his house in the iskwater. A hierarchy is seen in his official leadership of his gay comedic troupe, Bakla ng Taon (Bakla of the Year). After finding local bakla in his barangay to stand in as Pokémon in a video game parody video, Cadena sought to “take in” this group of neophyte parloristas and train them in his talents of online comedy and, as time went on, Internet business acumen. Until the troupe surprisingly broke up in 2019, Cadena reached his creative peak with Bakla ng Taon by his side; most of his most viewed videos today still are those from that time period.
Cadena’s collaborative approach did not stop there, however. Especially during the later years, he sought to create a network of bakla Internet creators from his likeness. The clearest instance of this was that of Erika Embang, another bakla whose Lady Gaga impersonation, filmed on a flip phone and uploaded on YouTube, garnered a small viral audience. Lloyd Cadena, seeing her potential, flew her out from her native Negros Occidental to Manila, nearly 430 miles out. They met up, and throughout a well-recorded few days, collaborated on some skits, joked around, and in a symbol of trust and support from Cadena, gifted Embang a digital camera and other vlogging equipment. After these collaborations, Embang’s channel went from having 330 subscribers to nearly 100,000 within a month. So clear was Embang’s connection to Cadena that during her emotional vlog responding to Cadena’s sudden death, she kept referring to him as “Mother Lloyd”, a callback to the “den mothers” that served as leader of these bakla territories. Since Cadena’s brand of humor depends on bakla-on-bakla improv, he depends on other bakla creators to collaborate with; meanwhile, those bakla creators often look up to him as a mentor and idol. This symbiotic system works as a pyramid scheme of prestige, with Lloyd Cadena at the top.
Seeing this emerging centralization of online bakla communities allow us to connect Cadena’s success story to greater trends of bakla being the defined, even predetermined, other. For one thing, Cadena was nowhere near the first bakla icon; many successful bakla have come before Cadena’s first YouTube post, and all of them achieve this success through a form of self-tokenization. Throughout the progression of his channel, Cadena was often compared to one of the most visible queer figures in Southeast Asia, comedian Jose Marie Borja Viceral, better known as Vice Ganda. Whereas previous representations of bakla in media were done by non-bakla actors—a subtle message that kabaklaan is something that one can take on or off—Vice Ganda appropriated the camp associated with kabaklaan and took it to new heights. Now one of the most successful entertainers in the history of the Philippines, with his film The Unkabogable Praybeyt Benjamin the first Filipino movie to ever surpass 300 million pesos at the box office, his influence could not be understated. In fact, Cadena places him as his main inspiration, further saying that since he cannot sing or dance that well, “nagkokomedy na lang kaya ako, kasi bakla ako eh” [I might as well do comedy, since I am bakla]. While Vice Ganda’s irreverent comedy style is admirable, much of his success is borne out of his willingness to participate in the gender dynamics and stereotypes in the Philippines instead of questioning them. A cursory look at the other films he has starred in—Petrang Kabayo [Petra the Horse] (a remake of a classic film that puns on the stereotype that bakla are ugly like horses), Girl, Boy, Bakla, Tomboy (where Vice Ganda plays all four main characters, each of a different “gender”)—reveals this point. Vice Ganda’s position near the top of not just the bakla nest, but Filipino celebrity in general also made him a de facto representative for bakla everywhere. This was exemplified in his public response to Manny Pacquiao’s statements on LGBT people being “less than animals”: “Manny, di ka namin mapipigil kung gusto mong husgahan ang mga bakla sa mundo. Siguraduhin mo lng [sic] na di ka namin makakasalubong sa impyerno.” [Manny, we cannot stop you from judging the bakla of this world. Just make sure that we won’t see you in hell]. Notice that in his response, Vice Ganda reduces the queer people of the Philippines to bakla. Throughout recent history, then, most (if not all) of the representation in Philippine media of what it means to be queer is to be bakla.
By extension, those outside of the designated “outside” margin are pushed out of sight from Filipino queer mediascapes. Jake Zyrus, an internationally-renowned singer whose viral rise to fame led to appearances at the Oprah Winfrey Show and Glee, is a prime example of this. He came out to the Philippine public as tomboy in 2013, then came out as trans; by the time that he made his announcement public, he has already began his gender affirmation processes. While support still outpoured from other celebrities immediately (notably from Vice Ganda), it was clear that opportunities for Zyrus decreased significantly due to his transition. In that same interaction with Vice Ganda, Zyrus said that he ultimately appreciated his now-diminished stature in showbusiness, as it allows him to be himself. It was also noted that when he was still presenting as a small Filipina woman with a big voice, his fame was a source of potent nationalist pride; when he failed to fit Filipino society’s aforementioned “four genders” (really three), he was “disappeared” from the public eye. This erasure of non-bakla queer people in Filipino society is exacerbated by the divide between the rising bakla inter-community and the still localized pockets of tomboy and other non-bakla identities throughout the country. Thus, while bakla icons appear to mobilize other bakla into a somewhat monolithic structure, those like Jake Zyrus hide from the limelight and find comfort within their own localities.
Unlike trans people like Zyrus, bakla have the option to at least force themselves into nationalist narratives. From the vestiges of the patriarchy, queer men from the middle and upper classes have had an advantage in the intellectualization and classification of non-heteronormative identities in the Philippines. Take for example the predominant gay organization in the University of the Philippines (UP), UP Babaylan. As a highly politicized group in an elite university, Babaylan has sought to advance gay rights in ways that look similar to American universities, but it is their name that carries an interestingly nationalist context. The babaylan were shamans that served as spiritual leaders in several pre-colonial societies in the Philippines; in these pre-colonial societies, there have been records of all feminized men being considered natural-born babaylan, automatically putting them near the pinnacle of the spiritual hierarchy. UP Babaylan thus presents an image of a cross-dressing man—re-indigenized as bakla—as a symbol of a pre-colonial Philippines (implications of purity included). This is despite evidence that suggests that shamanic duties in these pre-colonial societies was still dominated by women. We then see precedence for the formation of bakla nationalisms that enforce the bakla as woven into a constructed “Filipino DNA”. In the Internet age, this manifests into opportunities for bakla to act somewhat as a modern-day babaylan—acting between the “two” genders, bakla icons such as Cadena can create a paradox of being “above” gender while still technically oppressed under the pressures of heteronormativity. Similarly to Vice Ganda, Cadena thus managed to impose a towering influence not in spite of but because of his kabaklaan, even if this dominance is conditional to the continued repression of non-bakla queer voices.
Previous scholarship on YouTube and other video-based social platforms have painted them as a possible source of community, especially in queer spaces. Instead, the advent of the online society has provided a different permutation of similar bakla hegemonic success through self-tokenization. Even if we grant that the prevalence of bakla Internet successes like Lloyd Cadena could be globalized extensions of the postcolonial hybridity that characterizes kabaklaan, existing structures of “girl, boy, bakla, tomboy” continue to thrive in the Philippines. The rags-to-riches story of Lloyd Cadena is a glowing example of that—to his collaborators and subscribers, his legacy will remain iconic.
Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture & Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” (1990). Theory, Culture & Society 7, no.2-3 (1990): 295-310.
Benedicto, Bobby. “The Haunting of Gay Manila: Global Space-Time and the Specter of Kabaklaan.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14, no. 2-3 (2008): 317-38.
Cadena, Lloyd Cafe.
“Rabiosa Filipino Parody by LC”. YouTube, June 2, 2011. https://youtu.be/YhqWcATFgto
“Pokemon Go in Real Life (Parody” YouTube, Aug. 7, 2016. https://youtu.be/Tw1finzmb_U
“Mga Ganap Sa Jeepney (LAPTRIP to Bes!)” YouTube, Sept. 24, 2017. https://youtu.be/zMhnU8m-QIM
“What’s In The Box Challenge (LAPTRIP HA HA HA)” YouTube, Jun 7, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNBYJvLspgE
“Pumasok ang Baha sa Bahay (ANG BUHAY NG ISKWATER!)” YouTube, Aug. 17, 2018. https://youtu.be/_E1zeRgNHpg
“Pinagshopping Ko Si Erika Embang (DESERVE NAMAN NIYA ITO!)” YouTube, May 10, 2019. https://youtu.be/645mPHaCuGI
“Remembering Lloyd…” YouTube, Sept. 23, 2020. https://youtu.be/1xbDmuStIqU
Cannell, Fenella. “Beauty and the idea of ‘America’”. In Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines, 203-226. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Diaz, Robert. “The Limits of Bakla and Gay: Feminist Readings of My Husband’s Lover, Vice Ganda, and Charice Pempengco.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40, no. 3 (2015): 721-45.
Embang, Erika. “MA MIMISS KITA KUYA LLOYD”. YouTube, Sept. 4 2020. https://youtu.be/8zKCPq01h4M
Garcia, J. Neil C. Philippine Gay Culture: The Last Thirty Years, Binabae to Bakla, Silahis to MSM. University of the Philippines Press, 1996.
Jerslev, Anne. “In the Time of the Microcelebrity: Celebrification and the YouTuber Zoella”. International Journal of Communications 10(2016), 5233-5251.
Manalansan IV, Martin F. Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. doi:10.1215/9780822385172. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822385172.
Mendoza, S. Lily. “Pasakalye/Introduction”, in Back from the Crocodile’s Belly: Philippine Babaylan Studies and the Struggle for Indigenous Memory, edited by S. Lily Mendoza and Leny Mendoza-Strobel, 5-26. Santa Rosa, CA: Center for Babaylan Studies, 2013.
Tan, Michael L. “Survival Through Pluralism: Emerging Gay Communities in the Philippines”. Journal of Homosexuality 40, no. 3-4 (2001), 117-142, DOI: 10.1300/J082v40n03_07
Wesch, Michael. “An Anthropological Introduction to Youtube”. Presented to the Library of Congress, 2008. YouTube: https://youtu.be/TPAO-lZ4_hU
 Martin Manalansan (2003) devotes a beautifully written chapter that merely begins to tackle the relationship between bakla and gay, but to summarize, bakla is a term used to describe effeminate men with varying degrees of divorce from Filipino masculinity. Not all bakla are homosexuals (in fact, many would only partner with “real” (straight) men). While “gay” by definition centers sexual orientation as an identity, bakla describe those assigned-male-at-birth with a “heart of a woman”. Confusingly to Western readers, this does not define bakla as transgender either; Manalansan defines the bakla as “a social category” at its core (24), with femininity being an unattainable ideal (even with involvement of surgery and/or hormones).
 Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture & Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”, Theory, Culture & Society 7, no.2-3 (1990): 298.
 J. Neil C. Garcia, Philippine Gay Culture: The Last Thirty Years, Binabae to Bakla, Silahis to MSM. (Manila: University of the Philippines Press, 1996): xviii.
 From my experiences in speaking the language, people who identify as bakla often refer to themselves as bakla instead of taong bakla (bakla person). Thus, in this essay, the Western academic convention of referring to sexualities as identifiers instead of nouns (e.g. “transgender person” vs. “transgender”) would not be followed.
 Garcia, Philippine Gay Culture: The Last Thirty Years, 117.
 Ibid., 37.
 Fenella Cannell, “Beauty and the idea of ‘America’” in Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 223.
 For more on swardspeak, or bakla lingo: Martin Manalansan, “Speaking in Transit: Queer Language and Translated Lives” in Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003): 45-61.
 Anne Jersley, “In the Time of the Microcelebrity: Celebrification and the YouTuber Zoella”, International Journal of Communications no. 10 (2016): 5239.
 Unfortunately, the nuances of YouTube sociopolitics often complicates views such as this. In Cadena’s case, his YouTube channel was eventually managed by a multi-channel network called Adober Studios, which was acquired by the media conglomerate ABS-CBN Corporation.
 Michael L. Tan, “Survival Through Pluralism: Emerging Gay Communities in the Philippines”. Journal of Homosexuality 40, no. 3-4 (2001): 122.
 Bobby Benedicto, “The Haunting of Gay Manila: Global Space-Time and the Specter of Kabaklaan.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (14, no. 2-3 (2008): 318.
 Tan, “Survival Through Pluralism”, 130.
 Robert Diaz, “The Limits of Bakla and Gay: Feminist Readings of My Husband’s Lover, Vice Ganda, and Charice Pempengco,” Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society (40, no. 3, 2015): 731.
 Tomboy identifies a gender expression that is best defined the inverse of bakla: those assigned-female-at-birth with the “heart of a man”.
 Tweet from @vicegandako, Feb. 16, 2016. https://twitter.com/vicegandako/status/699462111865344000
 Diaz, “The Limits of Bakla and Gay”, 735.
 Tan, “Survival Through Pluralism”, 127.
 S. Lily Mendoza, “Pasakalye/Introduction”, in Back from the Crocodile’s Belly: Philippine Babaylan Studies and the Struggle for Indigenous Memory, ed. by S. Lily Mendoza and Leny Mendoza-Strobel (Santa Rosa, CA: Center for Babaylan Studies, 2013): 13.