Bright, Catholic -- and gay
Raymond “Bong” Alikpala seemed like the perfect guy any girl would love to bring home to mother. He is a blue-blooded Atenean from grade school to law school, an honor student and student council leader. He is also a practicing Catholic; cheerful, bright, and personable.
But for many years he hid a secret in the innermost chamber of himself — his homosexuality. After almost four decades in the closet, he has finally come out and written what may be a most controversial book, God Loves Bakla: My Life in the Closet.
Published by the author himself in Cambodia where he now works as a lawyer, the book’s Philippine edition was launched by Ang Ladlad Party List a fortnight ago. In reportorial mode, Alikpala begins his narrative this way.
“I am a gay man, a homosexual. I engage in sexual relations with the same sex. I have paid other men to have sex with me. I have never had sex with a woman. I have a husband.”
The words come out staccato-like, unblinking. The prose is like fizz from a soda bottle that had long been covered.
After a closeted life in Manila, being an over-achiever and super-competitive in everything he did, Alikpala took his Master of Laws at the National University of Singapore. Then he returned to Manila and began training as a priest at the Jesuit Novitiate in Novaliches, but was asked to leave after 16 months. Days of depression made him feel like a boat without anchor: in a stroke of irony, he would later go to Cambodia and work with asylum seekers and refugees — people without moorings, like him — at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And at the age of 42, he began writing this book.
In 21 chapters, Alikpala sketches for us the brief history of a life. But unlike Western coming-out books that rage and rage against the light, this one is very Filipino in the sense that it is, eventually, anchored on family and God. He acknowledges love and devotion for his hardworking parents, who sent him to a good and expensive Catholic school; to his circle of friends, most of them male, with whom he (tried to) have a platonic relationship as comrades-in-arms.
His teachers at the Ateneo are also mentioned, described in terms more sweet than bitter: Dulaang Sibol, Prayer Days for Coeds, generally liberal advice dispensed by his Jesuit mentors.
“Fr. Joel’s initial advice was to try to be at peace with myself, to learn to accept myself as I was. He told me to pray for the grace of peace and self-understanding. In later sessions he would tell me that I was too preoccupied with my own self, and he encouraged me to join student activities which were others-oriented, which could draw me out of myself and place my problems in perspective. He said that I should learn to accept my homosexuality peacefully, and then learn to go beyond it, to transcend it, because it did not have to limit or define who I was.”
And so our young and confused gay man in the closet began doing apostolate work for an urban poor community in Commonwealth, Quezon City. Later, he would throw himself headlong into the student council, leading protests against the Marcos Government in the mid-1980s. But still, at the heart of it lies a life of contradiction: because unable to accept one’s self, one abandons the inner core and offers one’s self to the altar of community and country. But when there is a black hole inside one’s self, what then can one offer, except hollow words and acts of charity?
With confusion hounding him like a shadow, Alikpala graduates, takes up law, and becomes involved with human-rights cases. He teaches at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City, cuts his legal teeth with the law office of the legendary Senator Rene V. Saguisag. Already 30 years old, but still lost. The photograph at the end of Chapter 11 captures it perfectly: a man with an umbrella on a rainy day, carrying a cane as he walks on the slippery street.
And as with the case of many Filipinos who lived abroad, his stint there freed him in a way. He received an ASEAN Scholarship to take the Master of Laws at NUS.
“Living abroad for the first time, I was able to move and behave in a way unencumbered by past frustrations, embarrassments, and failures. I felt liberated, for once, to be myself, and not to have to be the dutiful son, diligent student, model Atenean, and hardworking attorney. I felt young, carefree, and irresponsible. I still remained closeted all my life in Singapore, and yet the feeling of being a student all over again made me happier, friendlier, more fun to be with, more happy-go-lucky. And this happier Raymond, the backpacker Raymond traipsing with them across Malaysia and Indonesia, was who my European friends got to know and grew to cherish.”
It’s like the Chinese poem of a beautiful parrot suddenly freed from the golden cage of home. And again, in a life of ironies, only to find another golden cage in the Jesuit Novitiate, where he stayed for 16 months and was finally expelled by the Father Provincial for a homosexual act. Set adrift and gripped by depression, he later found solace in work as a lawyer for refugees in Cambodia under the Jesuit Refugee Service.
There he met an 87-year-old priest, Fr. Pierre Ceyrac, who counseled him: “Umbra lux Dei, [he said], drawing with his finger a sundial on the cabinet door. He illustrated how the shadow on the sundial told us the time, and that without the shadow the sundial would be useless. ‘The shadows are the light of God.’ he translated. It was the shadows in our lives through which God revealed Himself to us. . . .”
After the metaphysical, it was time for the physical — and out of the closet at last. Alikpala was en route to attend summer school at Oxford when he had a stopover at Bangkok and a friend brought him to Silom area, to have “massage for men by men.” Suffice it to say that he had finally tasted the forbidden fruit in an atmosphere that was free from Catholic guilt.
The coming-out part of the book is written in prose that is shorter and more crisp, as if the liberated Raymond is taking a jaunty walk in the park. He has found his own voice, own friends, and finally a lover — Robert from Saigon.
“Robert and I were married on 14 June 2008. It was not a legal ceremony; neither Philippine nor Vietnamese civil laws recognize same-sex marriages. It has been the fashion to call this a ‘commitment ceremony,’ but for Robert and me, ours is a real marriage — we have made our own vows before God, promising to love each other, for better or for worse, until the end of our days.”
And where did they get married? In Angkor Wat, the ancient ruins in Cambodia. This is also the place where the character played by Tony Leung in the film In the Mood for Love finds a crack in the wall. And in the ageless ruins, he confesses his most secret love for the already-married character played by Maggie Cheung.
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God Loves Bakla sells for P400. Copies are available at Achieve office, 162 Sct. Fuentebella Ext., Barangay Sacred Heart, Quezon City (426-6147). Or you can deposit P490 to Ang Ladlad BPI savings account 1993077425, inform me at [email protected] and we will send your copy by courier.