I hate cigarettes
I recall an incident two years ago. It was my first time to be surrounded by professional writers. As a freelance ghostwriter, I only needed to work in the four corners of my room and bother my guardian angel with my poor writing skills. I saw them smoking after we submitted our articles to the editor. I found it weird to see them smoking together instead of going home after a long day. One of my colleagues said it was normal. She said smoking was typical among media workers, as a way to cope with stress.
“No!” I said, my voice trembling — which left her looking confused. That day, I went home with a heavy heart. The fear I had long suppressed was triggered.
That day, I was not able to speak.
Flashback to seven years ago when I was a high school freshman. My friends and I decided to go to a town fiesta. I was walking through a dark street and passed by a group of bystanders. Then I felt something painful, and I noticed they were laughing at me. I realized my elbow had gotten scorched by a cigarette. They threw it at me and were laughing. The reason? Because I was gay.
“Tiisin mo ‘yan, bakla ka kasi!” they shouted.
That day, I was not able to speak.
I had to cover up what happened, because who would understand the struggles of being gay? I endured the suffering on my own. But the memory remained as clear as the smoke from a newly lighted cigarette. The guy who threw the cigarette at me was a year older, someone I knew in elementary, who used to torment me for being fat, dark-skinned, and gay. It was the start of my fear of cigarettes, and of physical abuse.
At 11 years old, I began to accept that verbal abuse would forever be part of my gay life. At 12, I experienced physical abuse through that lighted cigarette thrown at me. In fact, it happened twice, courtesy of the same abuser.
At 13, I was humiliated in front of the class by my math teacher because I was unable to answer an equation correctly, and what she said stung: “Puro kabaklaan lang kasi alam mo.”
At 14, I was blackmailed by a schoolmate that he would out me to my father if I would not give him P50 every week; the harassment lasted for a month.
At 15, I won the student council elections and was appointed editor in chief of our publication, but I heard some of my teachers murmuring, “Baka kabaklaan lang gagawin niyan sa council, hindi naman magaling ‘yan siya pa in-appoint sa campus paper.”
At 16, I proved them wrong after I became a champion in a journalism contest and represented our province in the regional competition. But a classmate told me, “Sabi nila (former teachers) walang silbi pagkapanalo mo kung magiging bakla ka lang.”
At 17, I was verbally abused by a former schoolmate because I declined to write his poetry project.
At 18, I was denied freelance modeling work because, as they told me, clients preferred those who were manly.
At 19, on my way to Manila, I was forced to transfer seats because a passenger didn’t want his son to sit beside me.
At 20, I was harassed in the LRT.
At 21, people made fun of my gay pictures and exposed them while I was celebrating my birthday.
For nine long years, I refused to speak about these experiences, which all boiled down to my being gay. I decided to be silent. I endured my pain, I was driven to achieve many things (for the sake of acceptance), and I acted as if nothing happened, every time. I worked very hard to earn respect and acceptance.
Today, I have decided to speak.
I hate cigarettes not because it’s bad for the health. I hate cigarettes because it reminds me that gay people are still susceptible to discrimination, intolerance, and harassment up to this day. That what happened to me years ago still happens, and that many stories like mine have been ignored because we live in a society of overwhelming heteronormativity.
The release of Joseph Scott Pemberton only proves that patriarchy is odious and repulsive. I am no different from Jennifer Laude. The only thing different is that I am still able to live despite having endured so much abuse. We, all of us, grieve in isolation.
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Jericho Zafra, 21, is a third year journalism student at Colegio de San Juan de Letran-Manila.
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