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Notes on ‘bayot’ and bigotry

/ 04:04 AM June 21, 2021

“Lahat sila mukha nang babae” is a phrase I’ve heard a disturbing number of times since I became aware of BTS, the seven-member South Korean group called Bangtan Sonyeondan. The impact of BTS in the world is undeniable; just a list of the records they’ve broken would fill up this column several times over. Their impact on culture and art, on the economy, on the music industry, on tourism, on politics, is huge — and yet, the things I hear most often tacked to their name these days are their so-called resemblance to girls and the slur “biot” or “bayot.”

The way we talk about BTS  —  and by extension, the way we talk about masculinity and gender — is part of the bigger issue of how we talk about gender norms and LGBTQ+ acceptance in the Philippines.

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June was Pride month, and with it came the usual onslaught of rainbow capitalism, where companies tack on rainbows and “love wins” slogans to products, and proceed to stay mum on progressive gender advocacies and inclusivity for the rest of the year. During the same month, the term “BTS biot” trended in the Philippines and internationally. Songs, YouTube videos, Twitter hashtags, and TikTok challenges have been created to ride on the derogatory trend. Followers of radio stations have asked DJs to say “BTS biot” on air.

When Grab Philippines stated that it suspended delivery riders who were caught repeating the slur on social media, many expressed surprise that a few remarks would cost these riders their livelihood. Many called out the BTS fandom, known as “ARMY,” as being toxic, or rabid, or going too far. But whether it was due to altruistic tendencies or due to a legitimate fear of the fandom’s reach, Grab still cited a “zero-tolerance policy for inexcusable behaviors” and principles of inclusivity and diversity as it reportedly suspended its riders. This, at least, has to be a step in the right direction — a step that illustrates that acts of prejudice have consequences, or, at least, they should.

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The slur itself doesn’t harm the group at all — not in any direct way, and they have, after all, faced harsher criticisms in the eight years since their debut. (There is some truth to their name, which describes them as “bulletproof.”) The slur does harm LGBTQ+ Filipinos who feel unsafe in these environments, where gay communities and transgender individuals continue to be affected by hate crimes and speech. It harms those whose outlooks continue to be poisoned by this casual bigotry. It perpetuates a disdain for any expression of self that doesn’t conform to male/female gender norms. All in all, slurs set us back, and can undo much of the precious work that has gone into raising awareness about gender equality and identity in the Philippines.

Some of this work comes about through BTS themselves. Aware of the size of their platform, BTS has consciously used it to fight against discrimination, homophobia, and toxic masculinity. In a speech to the United Nations in 2018, BTS’ leader, Kim Namjoon, called on the youth: “No matter who you are, where you are from, your skin color, your gender identity, just speak yourself.”

In the first place, male Korean idols present themselves quite differently from traditional male role models we see in the Western mainstream, with the use of make-up, sleek and colorful clothing, bright hair dye, and occasionally, cutesy speech. BTS also regularly wear clothes and jewelry created for or coded for women, sometimes skirts, in daily life or in concerts and photo shoots. They express physical affection and openly show softer emotions in ways not traditionally considered masculine. In interviews, they have casually mentioned not having “boyfriends or girlfriends.”

They are also often praised for openly addressing issues of mental health in their advocacies and music, where toxic masculinity shies away from tears and vulnerability. Member Min Yoongi told Esquire magazine last year, “There is this culture where masculinity is defined by certain emotions and characteristics. I’m not fond of these expressions. What does being masculine mean?” The same member has worn clothing items created for LGBTQ+ advocacies, and has insisted that their BT21 characters—avatars created as a collaboration with LINE FRIENDS — be nonbinary.

In a recent landmark interview, Kim Namjoon told Rolling Stone magazine: “The labels of what being masculine is, is an outdated concept. We live in an age where we shouldn’t have those labels or have those restrictions.”

If we could make a homophobic slur trend for a whole month on social media, and even reach international spheres, then there’s clearly a lot of work to be done in the Philippines when it comes to discrimination against LGBTQ+. Maybe bigots can start learning by looking for role models in BTS themselves.

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TAGS: bigotry, BTS, gender discrimination, gender norms, Hints and Symbols, Kay Rivera
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