Boys who like boys

I am three years old. My father, out of the blue, asks me what my favorite color is. He probably expects to hear an answer most boys my age — or any age — would give when asked the same question. But I am partial to pink. The next thing I hear is my father’s laugh. I am 13 years old. I am with 40 or so classmates, three teachers, and our school principal in an eco-resort in Laguna. As part of an annual tradition, we are tasked to spend the next 48 hours on sports and prayers while trying to imbibe the virtues of manliness and godliness that our all-boys’ school upholds. Being surrounded by greenery calms me, but being around these people fills me with trepidation. It is the same feeling I have whenever my classmates talk about their favorite NBA players or female adult film stars and I have nothing to contribute, or whenever I have to content myself with sprinting up and down the basketball court during PE classes because no one passes me the ball. But the place is too quaint and quiet for my thoughts. I let them vanish into thick fog.

The next morning, the entire class gathers beside a long stretch of mud. I am still reeling from the previous day’s activities when, suddenly, my classmates take their shirts off and instinctively jump into the thick sludge, eager to outcrawl each other and find out which Spartan will emerge victorious. Nothing about it appeals to me. Not only am I uncomfortable about being half-naked in the presence of others, but I am also terribly insecure about the birthmark on my back. Like a rat terrified at the sight of a cat, I scurry into an area where I can hide and bide my time. But my solitude is short-lived. I am nestled in a hammock when our school principal finds me and goads me into joining the rest of the pack.

The mud, I quickly learn, is thick enough to conceal whatever it is in my body that I wish to keep invisible. But I have a bigger goal in mind: I want to disappear. So I bury my head in the grime, the muck covering my hair and face in a disgusting dark brown. I even lose my sight momentarily, what with the silt blocking my eyes. The next thing I hear is my classmates’ laugh. Much to my chagrin, I do not disappear. But I am more disappointed by the fact that the mud failed to hide the one thing I’m most afraid of revealing.

“I have to be honest with you… medyo malambot ka,” our school principal tells me matter-of-factly during our one-on-one. It doesn’t seem to be the first time he has said this to a student, and he is but a tiny bullet point in my long list of grown men and women who have said the same thing. He then asks me if it causes my classmates to bully me.

A pregnant pause follows. Should I tell him the truth? It will open a Pandora’s box and become the topic of his next school-sanctioned chat with my parents. I know for a fact that the faculty keeps a list of students who exhibit “tendencies.” Should I tell him about the nights I cry myself to sleep because no matter how hard I try, I am still nothing like my classmates — boys who are bold and brash in their own bodies, boys who get butterflies in their stomachs when they see a pretty girl, boys who act the way boys are supposed to? Or should I just deal with it on my own? Perhaps if I just learn how to straighten my hips when I walk, if I just train how to properly dribble and shoot a basketball, if I just push myself to go to confession more frequently, it will eventually go away. I will grow up and live a normal life, marry a churchgoing girl, and have children who will attend single-sex Catholic schools. I will not even remember that this day ever happened.

“No, everyone treats me well,” I say, pulling the words out of the quicksand in my chest.

I am 23 years old and mindlessly scrolling down my Twitter timeline. It is pervaded by memes and glowing reviews of several boys’ love series, more popularly known as “BL.” The genre, which runs the gamut from whimsical to inspirational, portrays romance between young men. Yearning for a breather from all of my pandemic woes, I give a couple of them a try.

The writer of a BL series I am hooked on at present says that one of the reasons he created the show was to atone. As a teenager, he believed that his sexuality rendered him undeserving of romantic love. And as I begin to immerse in the rose-tinted world of BL, I can’t help but imagine an alternate version of my younger self—a boy who is unapologetically soft, a boy who is unashamed to proclaim his love for all things pink, a boy who is allowed to come of age on his own terms. I wish he was here to watch with me.

Maybe it’s easier to suspend one’s disbelief when reality is still a far cry from fiction. But times are changing. Our generation is slowly shaping a society where being gay is no longer seen as a handicap that must be made up for with humor or intelligence. We no longer have to sink in shame for being who we are, because we now realize that we are worthy by default.

I am not going to pretend and say it is nothing short of easy; I am still unlearning more than two decades’ worth of feeling less than worthy. There are still days when I find myself wanting to disappear. But they are far outnumbered by the days when I want myself — and all of us — to be seen.

* * *

Erwin B. Agapay, 23, graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a degree in business administration. He currently works as a client service specialist in a financial services company.