Bakla ka ba? It’s the same question from before, the same question yet again. I’ve grown too familiar with the hostility masked by a curious tone. There is no specific place or time; the question can come up when you least expect it until it has run enough laps on your mind and you learn to anticipate it. Except the anticipation feels more like defusing a bomb: one wrong move, and you can set everything off. One wrong move, and I get asked “the” question.
Bakla ka ba? This question has so many faces. Some are more familiar than others, some I remember more vividly than others. At one point, it looked like the vendor in our school’s canteen who would ask me the question every day. Sometimes, she would spot me from afar and mouth the words to me. No sound came out of her mouth, yet I heard her loud and clear. The next thing I knew, I was too scared to go to the canteen and would rather starve than be asked again.
Bakla ka ba? I learned that part of the experience of being gay is navigating your way through this question. First, you learn how to calculate all your moves. Then, you try to practice speaking in front of the mirror late at night while everyone is asleep. “Lalaki ako,” you repeat to yourself; you repeat it until you sound manly enough so that when the older students ask you to do it, they will laugh with you and not at you. You repeat it, hoping that the repetition would somehow trick your unconscious into believing you are one. But as soon as you drop your guard, you get asked, again. This time, you are on the school bus on the way home. I do not particularly remember who asked, but I do recall the feeling and the sound when laughter erupted.
Bakla ka ba? I remember believing that high school would be a brand-new start. This time, I was determined not to draw any attention, because I thought that was the best way to avoid the question. Maybe closing myself off was best to be safe from judgment and unwarranted jeers. Two weeks in, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The population in our school was small. We all had to live in dormitories on the second floor of the building while we attended our classes on the first. Safe to say, living in a dormitory with 60 other pubescent boys felt more like a jungle than a school; it was every man for themselves. My classmate once sang “Bloody Mary” by Lady Gaga a little too loud, so the third-year students made him stand on a stool in the middle of the room and sing it for everyone with a paper bag over his head. Everyone was laughing, I was not. But I did not feel bad for him either; I thought it was better him than me.
Bakla ka ba? Soon enough, the fear has taken over your entire agency. You worry about the question more than anything else, more than your own principles, and sadly, more than the people you once cared about. Looking back, much of my time in high school was relatively quiet because I, too, was quiet. I was quiet when people were slut-shaming my friend, convinced that comforting her was better than speaking out. I was quiet when one of our teachers asked why segments like “That’s My Tomboy” and “Super Sireyna” on noontime shows were wrong and harmful. One of my classmates answered that it was immoral because they normalized homosexuality among Filipinos, and I nodded in agreement. I was quiet whenever people I used to be friends with suddenly ignored me. It was simple: You keep quiet and you get used to it.
Bakla ka ba? In one of our computer science classes, we learned about disassembling and assembling PCs and troubleshooting whenever there is an error in the system. The first thing you need to do is to make sure that the power cord is detached. Then, you can start disassembling the unit in hopes of finding what is wrong. Getting asked whether I am gay or not has always been my power cord. Almost immediately, I would shut down because back then, I never really had an answer despite getting asked the same question over and over again. I tried to cover myself up with armor, but reality would almost always seep through the cracks, and people would know where to attack. Like the broken CPUs in our computer laboratory, I tried to disassemble myself, looking for something wrong within, because people told me so. I took apart fragments of my being only to lose pieces of identity in the process, even when I wasn’t even broken in the first place.
Bakla ka ba? When you google this question, you will find video compilations of men being asked, “Bakla ka ba?” They would always say no, then proceed to dance flamboyantly and laugh at themselves because they find it funny. Written in the video description is a disclaimer that the video is just for fun and should not be taken seriously. I wondered how one question that has brought me so much anxiety and apprehension has become a source of entertainment for others. They got to laugh, while I got to make sense of my experiences and scars slowly and excruciatingly. How exactly was I not supposed to take such a matter seriously?
Bakla ka ba? I no longer fear the question as much as I did growing up. Funny enough, the more I become comfortable with who I am, the less the question arises. Whether it is because people feel it is no longer necessary to ask, or they feel like they can no longer use the question against me, getting asked “bakla ka ba?” no longer scares me because now I have an answer.
Emmanuel Lopez, 23, is a communication student from the University of the Philippines Los Baños. Since college, he’d find himself writing about his sexuality because he never got to acknowledge it as a child.