Queerness is present throughout the National Democratic Movement of the Philippines. A sign made by Maskara, a member group of the national umbrella organization Pro Gay Philippines, 2006. Photograph by Thea Quiray Tagle.
Elaine Castillo, America Is Not The Heart. New York: Viking, 2018.
R. Zamora Linmark, The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart. New York: Delacorte Press, 2019.
Karen Tongson, Why Karen Carpenter Matters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019.
One of my queerest memories of young adulthood was a blustery weekend spent in Western Massachusetts, sometime between 2003 and 2005. Along with two other comrades (or kasamas), I took the train up from New York for a speaking gig at Smith College, where an Asian American women’s student group had organized a conference for budding political activists across the region. We three were attending as representatives of a US-Philippines transnational feminist solidarity network, founded in 1989 by a famous Filipina novelist exiled by Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship. During our workshop, my kasamas and I talked about the plight of Filipina women around the globe—their being survivors of sex trafficking, domestic violence, and their suffering as nannies and mail-order brides for willing buyers. The students were unsurprisingly moved by our words and images, and promised to follow up with us to start their own chapter of the organization, which they never did (also unsurprising). That night, after extracting ourselves from the conference proceedings, the three of us—queer, lesbian, and trans—ventured into the snowy depths of Northampton to find a semblance of queer community and a drink in this white wonderland. I have, to this day, no idea how we found out about Diva’s, but somehow we were in a laundromat’s parking lot, then descending wooden stairs, the smell of soap wafting behind us as we entered the dank club. It was 10PM, too early for any respectable dance floor to be filled, but this crowd was non-existent: besides a small gaggle of Smith undergrads discernible by their branded sweaters and Seven Sisters vibes, the other dozen people there were islands. One leather daddy stirred a drink lazily at the bar, some combination of despondent or bored as he cruised the club for his impossible match. A young twink was dancing on his own, glitter face paint sparkling under the strobe lights as he twirled. Other, less discernible, white queers were scattered throughout the cavernous space, no one talking to one another or even making eye contact. As my kasamas and I settled into a booth, shitty well drinks in hand, I felt completely estranged from this scene of white queer asociality while, simultaneously, feeling completely at ease with my kasamas as kin; perhaps nowhere else at that hour of night could a fifty-something white trans woman, and two twenty-something queer brown women take up space together and be left alone in peace. The night was absolutely uneventful, boring in fact; it also has lingered in my memory as a special time, unlike the nights of partying in generic packed Manhattan and Brooklyn queer clubs which have bled into one. What can I say—I am endlessly fascinated with the boring.
In the decade and a half since that Northampton night, I have been semi-obsessed with finding queer Filipinx people in boring places. By “boring places,” I mean spaces where nothing overtly queer seems to happen, or really, where nothing interesting seems to be happening at all: no illicit or kinky sex, no hard drugs, maybe some not-so-good rock n’ roll. The boring is not exclusively the domain of suburbia or the rural: some of my most boring nights have been in the middle of San Francisco and Seattle, cities in the ruins of tech gentrification. The boring, for me, is any place that feels temporally out of sync: located in the anticipatory expanse before the party begins, or in the blurry haze after the party has exhausted itself, the boring is never the site of the action, or at least isn’t a site where meaningful things appear to be happening right now. This place-time of the boring is not the afterparty of Joshua Chambers-Letson’s recent text of queer of color critique, in which the party and its aftermath are “performances of resurrection” that draw people together in order to “sustain some fragment of lost life in the presence of a collective present”;1 the boring are the times when the party is over, or has never started at all, and there are no visible signs of queer world-making in this absence. Boring places are never actually without action, but they are sites where queer potential or presence are overlooked, unseen, or unimaginable. I relish in looking for queer Filipinx subjects in these places, which are ultimately sites we aren’t imagined to belong to. For me, at least, finding my fellow brown queers shifts the context (if not the action) of this place completely: we transform it from a boring place into the most interesting place in the world.
In 2019, I had three significant literary encounters with queer Filipinx people in landscapes of boredom: in Elaine Castillo’s 2018 novel America Is Not the Heart; Karen Tongson’s hybrid text Why Karen Carpenter Matters (2019); and R. Zamora Linmark’s young adult novel The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart (2019). Their characters all find themselves in suburban sprawl or island isolation that are outside geographic hotbeds of art and activism. In all three of these texts, sex and sexuality appear sneakily, never taking up the entire frame of action; legible LGBTQIA issues like HIV/AIDS and trans rights are non-existent plot points; and the queer action, when it occurs, is privatized and individualized rather than collectively experienced or shared. In spite of these features—or perhaps, enabled by them—these texts do not peddle in centrist LGBT politics of inclusion and assimilation. Rather, they widen the horizons of queer Filipinx America, expanding the places and times we exist in reality and imagination: outside of the bedroom or the gay bar or the dyke march, we infiltrate and transform the rest of this big, boring world.
America Is Not The Heart opens typically, with the inner monologue of a Filipina woman named Paz navigating the class divides between herself and her husband’s wealthy family through her entrance into a new life in the United States as a nursing professional. I stifle a small groan, for these are the well-worn themes of Filipino American literature and historical narratives: the Filipino worker, California and the San Francisco Bay Area, the pains of immigration and assimilation. Beyond this opening prelude, however, Castillo’s saga unfolds unexpectedly—not with Paz’s story, but that of her fresh off the boat 30-something niece, Geronima De Vera, nicknamed Hero. Readers follow Hero as she navigates the South Bay Filipino American community of the 1990s, a place shaped by suburban sprawl and a general sense of banality—her days and nights are a cycle of taking care of her eczema-ridden niece, Roni, while Paz works around the clock hospital shifts; working at a popular local Filipino restaurant not for money but for something to do; and negotiating her friendships with California-born Pinoys and Pinays, working class b-boys and DJs and makeup artists who are terribly bored of the whole Bay Area scene (“Do I need to see another dude spinning Planet Rock with his dick?” asks one, trying to get out of a party invite).2 To kill the time, Hero parties in Fil Am enclaves from Fremont to Daly City with her guy pal Jaime, and has sex with whomever asks, guy or girl, a coping mechanism to numb the mental trauma and the permanent physical pain that she carries from the Philippines. America Is Not the Heart is the Filipinx American bildungsroman for the 21st century—a feminist and queer update of Carlos Bulosan’s 1943 semi-autobiographical novel America Is In The Heart—chronicling what happens after the action is over, and what a person does to create a semblance of normalcy after the horrors of displacement, trauma, and war.
Readers come to understand that Hero wasn’t always so aimless: she was once a doctor with the New People’s Army (NPA), the guerrilla unit of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and spent years in the mountains with them until being violently ripped away from that life. Now an exile drowning in American conformity, and remembering the deep relations she had with her NPA kasamas Teresa and Eddie, Hero ruminates on forming kinships in the wake of her time “in the movement”:
It was possibly Hero’s first time making friends with no shared cause, whose lives and deaths weren’t on Hero’s head or under her scalpel. Which meant that she often had the feelings of not knowing what the hell she was doing; where the boundaries and codes were in these friendships, in how people acted, what people said, or gave, or kept back. Before she met Teresa and Eddie, she’d had family members, and people she was fucking. Teresa and Eddie were neither of those things.3
In this void of suburban ennui, Hero germinates the seeds for a queer life. For the first time ever, she has an option to form a non-nuclear family of choice, away from both her upper-class family in the Philippines and the structures of the leftist movement: she can nurture a budding same-sex romance with or without strings, and can fiercely protect her niece the way that her own uncle once cared for her. In the aftermath of leaving the front lines of a guerrilla war that nearly kills her and everyone she has grown to love, Hero’s seeming post-political orientation challenges readers to recognize the radical potential of cultivating the domestic as a politicized act of life- and world-making. Listening to New Order songs and other “music about white people having feelings” in car rides with a woman you might be falling in love with is hardly the stuff of militant action, but these queer attachments should be understood as insurgent acts that are continually policed.4 So often, queerness in leftist movements is seen as an interruption to political life as usual; imagining queer political, sexual, and affective orientations as central to movements outside the confines of acceptable “LGBTQ issues” appears to be an impossibility, today as much as in the 1990s of the novel. America Is Not The Heart, in treating Hero’s fluid and promiscuous sexuality as non-pathological and in no contradiction to her life during and after her involvement with the NPA, is thus more than a mirror of the little-told history of Martial Law exiles in the United States: it is a utopian work of fiction.
I fully came out of the closet in and through the aforementioned US-Philippines feminist anti-imperialist org, when I and other leaders from chapters across the nation formed an LGBTQI caucus within the organization at our 2005 National Congress. For two years after, our queer caucus wrote position papers, organized events, and engaged in multiple, fruitless conversations with our founder (the famous exiled author) and the national board to press the organization to queer its analysis of violence against Filipinas in the homeland and diaspora: to consider that Filipina women were both cis and trans; to recognize that not all sex workers are trafficked against their will, but can and do have agency over their bodies; to consider that carceral solutions to violence only benefit the state while working against men of color. Queer theory and activism around transformative justice, sex work, and the prison industrial complex was nowhere near what it is today—or at least weren’t distributed on the internet like they are now—and we had to make the language up ourselves. For our efforts, we were stonewalled, endured transphobic and biphobic sentiments from Marxist feminists who lauded themselves as “the gays’ best friends,” and were told that our issues were “identity politics” and not properly anti-imperialist in analysis. Broken down by this fight, our caucus leaders ultimately resigned en masse in 2007; some of us moved into other mass organizations, but many of us channeled our energies instead into academia or the arts. In the twelve years since I left “the movement,” I have mourned the loss of my Filipina activist family, not only for what we could accomplish together at rallies or in meetings, but for what we shared together in our day to day lives. What I would give to be as bored as I was in Diva’s Bar in Western Mass, doing absolutely nothing with Filipina women that I called my sisters in the struggle. It’s corny to miss this, I know, but I do it all the same.
“To be corny is to be ‘mawkishly old-fashioned; tiresomely simple and sentimental,’ and this definition describes my attachment to the Carpenters with searing precision. Even though Karen was supposed to be my gateway to a whole new world, albeit a world obsessed with yesterdays once more, she actually ended up being the anchor to my old one: to the Philippines, where corny still means something. And even if the Carpenters were perceived to be the whitest of musical acts—even by the ginger-headed January brothers—and engineered in the most white bread of contexts, nothing felt more Filipino to me in those first lonely years fresh off the boat than the sound of Karen’s voice.”
—Why Karen Carpenter Matters5
Queer Filipinx American scholar Karen Tongson’s confessions of corny self-identification through musical fandom are the cornerstone of Why Karen Carpenter Matters, a book that is both memoir and anti-hagiography of one of America’s most beloved singers. Weaving her own memories of multiple migrations—first throughout Asia with her touring musician parents, then to the suburbs of Orange County, California—into the story of the “Lead Sister” of the Carpenters, Tongson fashions a complicated document on the trappings of fame and the frustration of queer desires. Karen Carpenter, Tongson’s namesake and the doomed musician who died too young, might seem a strange object of attachment for an outcast FOB, but Tongson’s sensitive portrayal of Carpenter’s personal and professional struggles to be seen made a believer out of me. What makes the Carpenters so significant, Tongson writes, is the queerness of “their exacting normalcy and polished exemplarity,” or “a ‘nothing remarkable to see here’ finely tuned into the thing a lot of people aren’t even consciously aware they desire most.”6 Over the arc of the book, Tongson demonstrates how, time and again, Karen Carpenter was pushed to hide away her non-conformity to embody the pretty lead singer role that brother Richard and parents Carpenter desired for her, and literally disappeared in the process of trying; Karen Carpenter’s grueling embodied labor to craft the artificial soundscape of white suburban banality is evidence for Tongson’s argument that the normal is an impossible place that “could only exist in song, in the shadow world of performance,” even for a middle-class white girl from Downey, California.7 This world of normalcy—or the possibility of inhabiting the realm of the boring—is what Karen Carpenter, Karen Tongson, and the rest of us truly desire, especially those of us who are too brown or too queer to ever fully blend in: “Like my namesake, I felt lost in the eternal sunshine of Southern California, adrift in something bigger than the insecurity its prevailing message of joy and the good life inspired in disoriented souls. Both of us were longing without knowing exactly what for.”8
The imagined America of The Carpenters mediated Tongson’s own understandings and attachments before she ever stepped foot onto the US mainland, as is the case for many Filipinos raised on a diet of American pop music, television, and SPAM. Reading Tongson’s confessions of wanting “our home, our life, to look as neat and glossy as the one that butterflied open so splendidly on the cover of that Carpenters album” brought back unpleasant memories of the squalor of my own childhood home, with its stacks of unread magazines and piles of unfolded laundry threatening to take over every surface from ceiling to floor (22). Tongson’s meditations on watching Karen Carpenter wannabes, the “Karen Carpenters of the Philippines,” vie for prominence on Philippine TV and social media, meanwhile, rekindled fonder memories of my uncles and aunties (by blood and by choice) crooning Sinatra and Streisand on the Magic Mic sets at family parties, and my own corny karaoke renditions in dive bars across the United States and the Philippines. Tongson intersperses the text with these personal and collective memories to argue that Why Karen Carpenter Matters, ultimately, is because “The Carpenters, in other words, like the Filipinos who loved them then and now, became originals by making the most beautiful copies, sometimes of themselves […] to transform what we have, and sometimes the little we’ve been given, into something far more remarkable.”9 In claiming Karen Carpenter as belonging to us, to Filipinos who have “the power to reanimate her as our echo,” Tongson transforms the enduring fandom of The Carpenters from blind adulation into queer inhabitation.10 The late José E. Muñoz, a key figure not only for the field of Performance Studies but also for Tongson’s personal and professional lives, declared in Cruising Utopia: “we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.”11 As Why Karen Carpenter Matters reminds us, we have never been queer, but we have also never been normal, either: “that something will always remain elusive even if we are always good. Even if we are perfect. Even if, for a moment, we can see just beyond the horizon.”12
I spent the first 18 years of my life desperately trying to be normal, until I remade myself into a radically queer person in my early 20s. Perhaps it was my birthright: my semi-lapsed Filipino Catholic immigrant mother refused to have her first child born in Jersey City, as she desired the words NEW YORK on the birth certificate. As it was, I was nearly birthed in a cab in the Holland Tunnel, a January snowstorm threatening to transform my glorious entrance into a New York Post cover story. I was born, blessedly, in St. Vincent’s Hospital13 in Greenwich Village, forever marking me as a born (if not truly bred) New Yorker. What my politically conservative mother conveniently omits in her biblical retellings is the place of St. Vincent’s in LGBTQ history, namely in the years directly following my birth: St. Vincent’s was a Catholic hospital that offered free and reduced cost services to financially strapped folks and immigrants, like my mother, but it also was one of the few hospitals in New York, let alone the United States, that cared for people afflicted with HIV/AIDS during the height of the crisis. During my triumphant collegiate return to New York from the backwaters of Northwest Florida, where I had been marooned against my will during my adolescence, my Barnard feminism and the shock of 9/11 led me back to the site of St. Vincent’s and thus to the history of militant HIV/AIDS art activism by the likes of ACT UP and Gran Fury. I soon after found the language of militant queerness while organizing in the ongoing afterlife of the AIDS crisis and with the growing anti-war movement, framing my queer identity as an anticapitalist political act of rejecting state and social institutions that seek the death of brown and Black people, poor people, and trans and gender non-conforming people to preserve white heteropatriarchy; I took this queer political orientation into the Filipina feminist spaces that ultimately rejected it, and me. Though I’m far less idealistic now about its radical potential, I still hold onto queer as a politicized identity, the way that dykes of a certain generation will never let go of the word lesbian, even if these terms have long been divorced from their militant edge. I have wondered what my youth would have been like if I had instead claimed queer as simply a descriptive of who I liked to kiss; if I had inhabited a queerness as boring or normalized an identity as it must be when you’re straight. I don’t need to imagine this otherwise queer Filipinx youth anymore, however, now that I have read R. Zamora Linmark’s teen dream, The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart.
The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart is sparing in its details of the personality and life of its protagonist, Ken Z: we learn he’s a nerdy high schooler who has never been in a relationship, is the only child of a single working mother, has two openly trans and queer besties named CaZZ and Estelle, and loves Oscar Wilde, but are not given much else about his interior life or motivations. The setting for the story is just as murky: Ken Z and his crew live in South Kristol, the working-poor and brown sibling to North Kristol, which it shares an island with but is divided from by a border line. On this island, “the north has access to the south, which is dependent on the north. For everything. That’s the main difference between a superpower island nation and an underdeveloped one that keeps getting poorer and poorer as its government gets richer and more corrupt.”14 With “North Kristol remain[ing] our only gateway to the world and our only means of returning home,” South Kristol could be any city with US military presence in South Korea, Japan or the Philippines; an island territory of the US like Guam or Puerto Rico; or even a North American border city like Tijuana in relation to El Norte’s San Diego.15 South Kristol is a politically charged setting that is never is explored beyond these vague descriptions of it as an island outpost; it is just that boring of a place.
Ken Z’s story opens with his bunburying adventure, following in the footsteps of his literary hero Oscar Wilde: he engages in some light class passing at Mirage (the luxury shopping mall in South Kristol), trying on clothes he can’t afford and ordering a meal from the overpriced health bar. His weekday excursion into the heart of crass consumerism leads him to Ran, a mysterious stranger from North Kristol who, inexplicably, is similarly obsessed with Wilde, launching the book’s tender exploration into first crushes and missed chances between two young men from opposite sides of the border. Wilde at Heart has all the makings of a transnational romance against the odds but, as in America Is Not the Heart, dramatic political intrigue is forestalled in favor of explorations of mundane disaffections and desires. Ken Z’s best friends get frustrated, then angry, about his secrecy over the new crush, and I experienced these same feelings while reading pages after pages of unanswered text monologues and Ken Z’s depressive behaviors of self-isolation—with the book’s thin character development, I found it challenging to care about Ken Z or his heartbreak. By the time I finished reading, I felt most akin to Ken Z’s mother, a laconic woman that he shares an affinity for silence with: we never learn why she is so withdrawn, but perhaps she just has nothing much to say to or about this boring young man.
In his lauded novella Rolling the R’s (1995), Linmark gave us Filipino-Hawaiian queer youth who were pidgin-swearing, crude, and completely themselves: these were groundbreaking portrayals of Brown and Indigenous pre-teens living on island time, trying to survive and thrive in a brutal environment: sexual abuse, homophobic slurs and physical violence always threatened their playful wanderings at home, school, and through their town. Rolling the R’s is a masterpiece of Filipinx literature; it is a joyful, raucous, and heartbreaking book that I read precisely when I needed to, in those first moments of coming into my queer Filipinx adulthood. It made me wish for and work towards a more loud and proud queer life. The anticipated sequel to Rolling the R’s this new book is not: The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart withholds any real narrative tension or release, and is a light story of young love with its false starts and life lessons. I assumed, at first, that I was bored by the book because I’m not its targeted teenage demographic. I realized, later, that it also frustrated my own desires for “real action” to unfold in ways that are legible to my sensibilities; I still desire queerness as a political identity, despite my disavowals of such, even in the space of this writing. Wilde At Heart’s queerest feature, however, may be the very thing that incited my annoyance: it conjures a world where queer youth, living in a militarized occupied society with massive class inequities and barriers to movement, can still become preoccupied by puppy love and first heartbreak. This gift of fully living and feeling has been bestowed onto white heterosexual love stories since time immemorial, but it is a storyline, and real possibility, that is routinely denied to everyone else. This book thus maps, improbably, the most queerly utopian Filipinx horizon of all, and the one I am always seeking: the state of being boring.
- Joshua Chambers-Letson, After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life (New York: New York University Press, 2018).
- Elaine Castillo, America Is Not The Heart (New York: Viking, 2018), 159.
- Ibid., 160.
- Ibid., 174.
- Karen Tongson, Why Karen Carpenter Matters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019), 74.
- Ibid., 17.
- Ibid., 17.
- Ibid., 74.
- Ibid., 111.
- Ibid., 123.
- José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.
- Tongson, 93.
- R. Zamora Linmark, The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart (New York: Delacorte Press, 2019), 26.
- Ibid., 26.