How much do Filipinos love beauty pageants? As much as good fried garlic rice for breakfast. That is saying a lot if you know anything about Filipinos. Seven thousand islands, so many people, and they are all glued to the television when The Miss Universe pageant is on. There is a YouTube video from the 2010 contest that took place in Vegas. Four Filipino kids, all guys, all gay. They represent how enamored Filipinos are with these pageants. The kids are of all shapes and sizes. One kid is picking his nose, the others are counting down, some clap when their favorites are announced. The clip is the announcement of the 15 semi-finalists. Miss Ukraine, France, South Africa, these contestants get loud applause from their fans. They are down to the last contestant, the 15th runner up. The chubby one says it will be Miss USA. Another folds his hands in deep prayer. The other kid makes the sign of the cross and picks his nose.
With a dramatic pause, the emcee announces contestant number 15, the last of the girls from many countries who will potentially be the next Miss Universe. He hems, he haws, the kids sweat. Remember this announcement is for the 15 semi-finalists, not even the winner! He announces loudly, “And number 15…Miss Philippines!” Bedlam, they go nuts. They scream and jump for joy, they hold hands, scream some more, and thank the Lord, just like the whole country is doing at that same point in time. That is how intense Filipinos are about Miss Universe. Search on YouTube, “We love you Maria Venus Raj” and go to the 2:15 mark to see how insane this is.
I am retired, have not visited The Phillippines in 40 years. I received a BA in Journalism from The University of the Philippines under Martial Law. Marcos and his Army ruled. When the schools closed down to stop student activists, I got a job as a radio deejay, at The Rock of Manila. I also started writing record reviews and music articles for a magazine called Jingle. Their logo was an angel, back turned, pissing. They reprinted lyrics to songs with chords. Copyright was not a big thing during Martial Law. It was a very popular publication, ran no ads. Singing along and playing guitar with friends was popular under the rule of a dictator.
With Martial Law, the army took over most media. Military tribunals ran radio stations. They introduced payola. Instead of playing what I wanted, I had to use a playlist of songs that record companies had paid the army tribunals to push to sell their records. I quit and wrote about radio industry payola in Jingle magazine.
I was invited to an investigation, me in front of several generals holding my fate in their hands. I envisioned disappearing like Roland, an activist classmate who no longer existed on the face of the earth. Nothing happened to me. I was offered a job at The Manila Times. They would train me to be a financial reporter. No thanks, I said. If I can get invited to an Army tribunal for writing the truth about payola, in a magazine whose logo was an angel pee peeing, well I would pursue a future career elsewhere.
40 years later, I am visiting my father’s hometown in a northern province. There is a new celeb in town. She has just won Miss Photogenic in an international beauty pageant. The twist, it is a transgender, transsexual beauty pageant. As with all beauty pageants, this news is wreaking havoc. Held yearly in Pattaya, Thailand, a Filipina has won the title two times before. This trans from my father’s hometown is almost guaranteed a spot in the top 5, having won Miss Photogenic a few days before the actual competition. An article about her, I should be able to sell to some gay mag back in the US. Did I say, another reason I left the Philippines, I wanted to come out gay, not a comfortable thing to do under Martial Law.
In the states, the gay revolution had come and gone, along with the AIDS crisis. The US Supreme Court had made same-sex marriage legal. Being gay is now LBGTQ whatever. There is a girl named Francis/Chiara who just won Miss Photogenic in an international annual Miss Transgender/Transexual beauty contest in Pattaya, Thailand. This was the 15th year. It is called the Miss International Queen beauty contest, “because that is every girls’ dream, to be a Queen!” Queen Puhleeze! In my retirement years, I was itching to use my Journalism degree. I was going to interview and write about Miss Photogenic, who just might win the year’s trans-Miss International Queen!
I ask Francis on the phone about her trans name, Chiara.
“Chiara is an Italian name. You use the hard “Kuh” sound to pronounce it, like Christine. That’s how Italians say it. Still, others want to pronounce it like Charles. And some like to pronounce it like a “sh” as in Shy. That’s what makes my name great. You can pronounce it three different ways, depending on your mood, Key-Yara, Chih-Yara or even Shee-Yara. Italian is my favorite. Do you know St. Clare? She is a saint mentioned always in conjunction with St. Francis of Assisi. Chiara is her Italian name.”
I ask about her christened name.
“I was christened Francis as in St. Francis. My daddy says when I was born, birds would come by the windowsill in my room and to sing. The butike, the geckos, they would come down from the ceiling to visit my crib. Daddy chose Francis for my name after the patron saint of animals. Daddy is so poetic. I got those traits from him. Sensitive, lyrical, a romantic, that is how I was as a child named Francis. My parents doted on me, especially my dad. I was daddy’s little boy.”
Chiara says she has a photoshoot and has to go soon. “Only I always felt not like a boy, but like a girl. In my dreams, I was always a girl! I always preferred what the girls in the town did. When I started school, I did not feel comfortable with the other boys. I did not play with the guns, robots, trucks. Nakakadiri! “ (Gross in Filipino.) I did not shoot hoops.” (Basketball is huge in this nation of short people.) “ With the girls, I always felt good. The boys, I always felt they were always doing things contrary to my nature. Looking for frogs, competing with each other in sports, being mischievous to no end. Me, Francis, I held back. I would rather play dolls, I preferred to learn the crafts the mommies taught their daughters.”
Chiara’s mommy, Juris, and I talk at their home, a chicken farm, ten minutes away from my father’s old house.
Francis was religious for a little boy. I was not surprised he was. You know, how you say in English, he was so fem? (Bakling in Filipino.)
Do religious fervor and femininity go hand in hand in The Philippines, I ask.
Yes, of course. But, you are so American! You don’t know that? Francis would go to church often. He would pray to all the saints, Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. But he also prayed to Tuglibon, the wife of Tuglay. Do you know their story?
I do not.
You are more American than Filipino, hindi ba? ( That is “aren’t you” in Filipino.) They were the beings who created the world according to our ancestors from Mindanao. They took cornmeal and created the first human beings. The husband, Tuglay got it all wrong at first. His humans were stiff and ugly. They walked in a herky-jerky manner, not graceful. Tuglibon, his wife, complained his humans were faulty and they needed to be corrected. He was insistent that there was no problem with them. One day, she was fed up, she threw cornmeal in Tuglay’s eyes. While he struggled to rub the cornmeal out, his wife created male and female beings that were beautiful, who moved with much grace. When her husband could see, he agreed with Tuglibon, these humans were an improvement. The graceful humans procreated and that’s how the Filipino race came into being.
Great story, I thought.
Francis prayed hard to Tuglibon whenever he had a chance. He told me, he felt he was a girl trapped in the body of a boy. I taught him this prayer. Dear Mother Tuglibon, deliver me with cornmeal. When I grow older, make me a woman for that is what I feel that I am in my heart. Our Christian God and native father Tuglay got it wrong. Fix me, please, I pray to you. Francis would pray this at church, after his rosary and novenas and especially after the stations of the cross.
I talk with the dad over San Miguel, the native beer, at the town beer garden.
He says he always understood Francis. His mother has told me otherwise, that the dad preferred a more masculine child, who would marry, have children, and carry on the family name.
“Francis did not hang out playing male games, being more like other boys. When he was eleven, they told me he was walking around the square swaying sexily like a girl. I did not get mad.”
Juris has told me stories of anger and fury.
“ I encouraged him to hang out with my cousin Jock who had changed his name to Jackie. He was very binabae.”
That is the word for gay in Filipino. It literally means to act like a girl.
“My wife believed Francis, being binabae and so devout, meant Francis would become a friar like his namesake. The kids would make fun of him and called him St. Francis is a Sissy. That was his whole life, kids making fun of him. Me, I was always supportive. You know why?”
“Transgender, transsexual trans whatever. It is a matter of acceptance. I am the one who taught Francis about Tuglibon. “
I know that the wife, Juris, had done the teaching.
“It never worried me that he acted like a she. We are what we are. You just have to accept it. I knew Francis needed a makeover. Francis would find a way with Tuglibon to fix the mix.”
The dad’s name was Pinkerton, like the guy in Madame Butterfly. He became somewhat of a Pinay Trans hero. Pinay Trans is the Filipino phrase for Ladyboy. Ladyboy is the Thai name for transgender/transexual. Pinay Trans has a more non- demeaning connotation. Chiara’s daddy’s nickname was Pinky. With the new media attention, Pinky was becoming a hero in the Pinay Trans community, a father completely supportive of his trans offspring. They were calling him Sir Pinky now.
It is Juris who tells me more about the instrumental uncle/auntie.
My husband’s cousin, Jock, during puberty he changed. He used to be a Jock talaga ( that’s Filipino for really.) Then he became very binabae. Used to be so sporty, he was a great swimmer, loved the water sports. Francis loved his Uncle Jock. He followed him everywhere. When Jock became binabae, he taught Francis all his tricks, how to walk like a girl. How to soften your voice and use a feminine cadence so that when you talked on the phone people thought you were a girl. When Jock moved to Manila, Francis was crushed. I promised him, he could follow his Uncle Jock, now Jackie to the big city. First, he had to finish high school.
Chiara is still busy having won Miss Photogenic. She makes some time for me.
“I go to Manila after high school. I did not fall into the cracks. Most Pinay Trans, when they can’t get a job, they end up as prostitutes. I had my Uncle Jock, well, Auntie Jackie to save me.”
I tell her I know about Jock/Jackie from her parents.
“He was not transsexual. He did not dress up in woman’s clothes. He was very effeminate though. He looked like Ru Paul, dressed as a man.”
I get the picture.
Jackie takes Francis under his wings. With his guidance, Francis, now Chiara joins a trans beauty pageant. She is beautiful as Chiara. She is a finalist. Jackie uses his connections and gets Chiara a job as a model, around the time when androgynous models were so big. Within a few months, Chiara becomes THE transgender model in Manila. She is young, gorgeous and has those pouty full lips everyone loves. The magazines from Japan and Korea and Thailand, they all come knocking. Chiara the model is hounded. She is so successful, making so much money. She is sending some home. Sir Pinky and Juris have built a fish farm and are raising tilapia to supplement the chicken farm. All the success she says, she owes to Jackie and someone else.
“I always went to the famous church near Jackie’s house, in Quiapo. This church houses the famous Black Nazarene statue. During Lent, thousands pour into the streets for the annual procession. This Jesus is a more accurate depiction of a Jewish profit from the Middle East. He is almost black. All those preachings on the mountains and walking on the waters, you figure Jesus would be quite tanned.”
“I went there and I prayed at the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. She looks the least Western of all the depictions of Mother Mary. She looks like the women in the desert between Afghanistan and China, Eurasian, almost Asian. I envisioned her to be the closest to what Mother Tuglibon would look like. Her crown and clothes are like the Igorot goddesses from the mountain province! All my modeling successes are Tita Jackie’s successes. But it is also because I prayed at that altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon!”
Chiara’s gotta go and says we will talk again tomorrow.
Sir Pinky, he tells me the sad, untimely end of the Jackie story. A year ago, Jackie and his boyfriend go on a scuba tour of Palawan, some of the best scuba diving in the Phillippines. It is an island near the deepest part of the waters in the Philippines. Jackie goes missing, after two days of searching he is assumed dead. A few days later, they find his body, entangled with his boyfriend in an embrace both trying to share the valve of a tank gone empty.
In our interview the next day, Chiara says, “The Miss International Queen beauty pageant, my Tita Jackie set it all up. It was her dream that I do this. So that is why I am here in Thailand, in Pattaya. I may not win. Already, two Filipinas have won. And this is the 15th year. The fact that I won Miss Photogenic, that is big. Tita Jackie, she set me up with my modeling career. I believe that success helped the judges decide I was most photogenic.”
Chiara almost whispers to me on the phone. “Can I share with you? Last night, I dreamt of Mother Tuglibon. She was smiling. I don’t know if that means I might win. To me, it means I am a winner, even if I lose! Oh, and when I woke up, there was a small puddle of water near the bed. I tasted it. It was very salty, like the sea! Tita Jackie and Mother Tuglibon they have visited me. I believe they will be happy with whatever will be the outcome!”
Spooky, I thought.
We hang up. Chiara needs her rest. The beauty pageant is tomorrow.
I return to the Chiara house after the phone call. Juris has invited me to merienda, which is at 4 o’clock. You might call it teatime, but Filipinos don’t drink tea or eat biscuits. They eat another meal called merienda!
Pinky, he told you about Jackie’s demise, so sad. But Jackie had a plan, and it was all in motion before the accident. Chiara was scheduled to participate in the beauty pageant. Two years ago, Jackie started her on estrogen. She would take the female birth control pills for the hormones. It is the cheap way of Pinay Trans transition. Her hips got rounder and breasts developed.
Me, I remember walking my dog, Murray at 6 AM one summer in The Village, and a drag queen taking birth control pills was cruising the last of the johns, wearing short shorts and shirtless, baring barely developed breasts. Many cars with Jersey plates stopped to ask how much. In between she admired Murray, referring to him as she even though he had a he name. Murray was a rescue with a broken foot. His two front legs were in a permanent ballet position, 4th or 5th except his knees weren’t crossed. He had a doggie male organ but stood like a ballerina.
Juris says, Jackie didn’t care if Chiara won or lost. The idea was to get her to Thailand. We are very Catholic here. We do not tolerate Pinay Trans the way the Thais tolerate the Ladyboys. The Thai people, they are 90% Buddhist. And Buddha teaches acceptance. Big difference from the Catholics!
They have many doctors in Thailand, Bangkok especially, those who perform sex reassignment surgery. There is one who has done over 70 a year. Jackie and Chiara set up an appointment with him, they had scheduled surgery after the pageant. Mother Tuglibon’s work will be done by a Bangkok Doctor, aya, too many syllables, I cannot pronounce his name! Chiara will return, Jackie would say, no longer a chick with a dick. That Jackie, he could be so vulgar at times!
I laugh, Juris cries. Jackie is gone.
I leave Juris, Chiara’s mother, full of the merienda, allowing her moments to shed some tears for Jackie the jock who drowned in the deepest of seas in his lover’s embrace.
On the day of the pageant, Chiara still has time for my phone call.
“I am most nervous about the swimsuit competition. You know many of us still have the male organs we were born with.”
And how do you deal with that?
“We tape it up. We shave down there, use packing tape so you do not see it when you wear a bikini. It is like the women who do not want it to be known they have breasts. They use packing tape to tape it all up”
“Naku“, Chiara says. Naku, loosely translated means goodness gracious. ” Some trans entrepreneurs should start a packing tape company for us. We use it so much! They can call it Trans Tape. ‘For those packages, you want to hide!’ Let me put you on speaker while I finish taping.” She speaks with an echo. “I have a stampeta, a Holy Card, of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, you know, my icon for Mother Tuglibon. I am keeping the stampeta taped down there for safekeeping. A few years back, Miss Brazil, she did not package correctly, and it popped out of her swimsuit. Naku!” In this case, Naku translates as Yikes!
“ Win or Lose, I have Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon with me!”
The Miss International Queen Beauty pageant has a viewership of a few million in Southeast Asia, mostly in Thailand. In the Philippines, many have gathered around the television to cheer on the 2019 Miss Photogenic. There is no jumping up and down or screaming with joy. Chiara does not even make the top 5. Her answer to the question, “Why should you become Miss International Queen?” is a rambling extolment of the merits of Mother Tuglibon and how she will deliver the trans community with cornmeal. Miss Brazil wins, the first black person to win since the inception of the competition. Her response to the question is “My dream is every young girl’s dream, in my case, to be a black queen!”
Chiara is not upset with the outcome. She is happy and jubilant. She keeps her appointment in Bangkok with Doctor No Dick. She returns home, victorious, Mother Tugliban’s work complete. There are banners int the town square. Balloons surround St. Augustin Church, a Unesco site, a Baroque church built in the 1700s with enormous buttresses on the side, a style you don’t see much, some call it earthquake rococo.
I call, a year later. I have not sold the piece about a transgender, transexual international beauty pageant in Southeast Asia. I might turn into fiction and sell it that way.
I call just to see how they are all doing, Juris, Sir Pinky, Chiara. I find out, Jackie had one last card up his sleeve. Aside from having managed finances, Jackie had Francis deposit some semen in a sperm bank. With the abundant modeling jobs Chiara has had since the pageant, she can afford an in vitro baby. She has to leave the Catholic Philippines to have the baby and return after the baby is born. But she can now afford all that.
Sir Pinky is happy, the family name will continue. Juris and Chiara are happy with their faith in Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon. And Jackie is smiling from heaven.
A Jesuit sociologist termed a phrase back in the ’70s for all this. He called it Split Level Christianity. I call it the brand of religion from my native 7000 islands, Catholicism with an undercurrent of primitivism.
There is an altar at St. John The Baptist Church near Penn Station in New York City. It houses the shrine of Padre Pio in NYC. At the back of the church, is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Of late, I go there and pray to Mother Tuglibon. I ask her to help sell my story. I also ask her to use her cornmeal on my peas and carrots. At my age, 64, I could use the help, especially with the carrot.
Previously published in Anak Sastra, a Southeast Asian online journal for Asian authors who write in English
About the Author
Ben Umayam moved to NYC to write the Great American Filipino Gay Short Story. He worked for political consultants, became a chef at a fancy hotel, then worked privately as a chef for priests. He is now retired and is working that short story again. Recently he was published in the online publications Maudlin House, Digging Through The Fat, The South East Asia Drabble Anthology published by Insignia, 34th Parallel Magazine, and Anak Sastra. He can be found on Twitter at Ben Umayam@UmayamBen, on Facebook at Ben Umayam, and on Instagram under benyum82.