Home News The Philippines is a bastion of Christianity, where cross-dressing has gone mainstream

The Philippines is a bastion of Christianity, where cross-dressing has gone mainstream

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Paul Hidachan went through his pre-show routine in a busy dressing room before donning a shimmering neon yellow fringe bodysuit, a yellow wig, lip-syncing and dancing on stage under colorful spotlights. He pulled a small white Bible from his bag and sat down to read a verse.

“I grew up in the church,” said Mr. Hidakam, 21, who attends services in a midriff-baring top, short skirt and boots and began performing in drag last year. “I know some people frown when they see me, but the pastors accept me.”

In many parts of the Philippines, drag is becoming more mainstream and more popular. It is no longer limited to comedy bars, gay beauty pageants and LGBTQ spaces. New clubs dedicated to drag are opening. Drag queens are appearing on the covers of fashion magazines and promoting designer products such as MAC cosmetics, Shell gasoline, Durex condoms and Samsung phones. Students at at least one public university recently held a drag contest.

The art form has gained more attention largely due to changing religious and gender attitudes, as well as the huge success of the global television series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

But for many performers, drag is not only a cultural phenomenon but also a political statement promoting social justice and gay rights, which they hope will further change Philippine society.

The Philippines is The largest Christian country in the worldAbout 80% of the population is Roman Catholic and abortion is a crime. It is one of only two countries in the world where divorce is still illegal. Unlike many other countries in the region, the Philippines does not ban homosexuality, but there are few legal protections for gay Filipinos. Same-sex unions are not permitted.

However, Filipinos are more welcoming of expressions of gay identity than many other Asian countries, and surveys show support for gay minorities is growing.

“We are seeing a shift in what it means to be Catholic or Christian for young people who are seeking authenticity. Sometimes they find that authenticity outside of institutions or traditional practices,” said Jayeel Cornelio, a sociologist of religion at Ateneo de Manila University.

Still, the church remains influential. More than two decades after it was introduced, a bill to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people remains stalled in the Philippine Congress. The Philippines also has laws protecting the rights of other groups, such as women, children and indigenous peoples.

Mr. Hidakam grew up in a religious family and was told by his parents to “control his homosexual tendencies.” But he ignored those requests and continued to transform into a character he called “Zymba Ding.” The nickname is a play on the “Lion King” character Simba and the Filipino word bading, which means homosexual.

“Zimba is not my alter ego,” Mr. Hidakam said. “She is an extension of me, a manifestation of Paul who is not restricted by religion,” he added, referring to himself.

Mr. Hidakam is part of a new generation of drag artists, many of whom, like him, are gay men in their teens or early 20s known as “baby queens.”

Timmy Flores, 19, began performing as Abigail four years ago while a student at a Catholic high school. Like many artists working during the pandemic, he live-streamed his performances on Facebook and received tips from viewers. Flores, who is gay, performed despite his family’s objections to his conversion therapy.

“Drag is more than just entertainment,” he said as he adjusted another artist’s long blond wig before a show at Rampa drag club in Quezon City. “It’s a form of resistance in itself for a man to dress as a woman in public.”

Some performers, like Samantha Palambiano, are straight women. “Drag is an art form and a form of self-expression,” said Ms. Palambiano, who performs as Kieffy Nicole. “Drag has no gender.”

It’s also a thriving business.

“The drag market is really big right now,” said Loui Gene Cabel, owner of Rampa Drag Club, which opened in January. “Straight women are the main audience right now.”

He added: “Before, drag shows were just intermissions. Now people go to clubs to watch them.”

The growing popularity of drag has changed some perspectives. The siblings of the gay artist, who has performed for a decade under the name Arizona Brandy, did not approve of it. At one point, her sister called a priest to pray for her and convert her. But after Ms. Brandy made it to the finals of the second season of “Drag Race Philippines” last year, her brother began to support her.

“The Philippines is slowly coming around,” said Ms. Brandi, whose legal name is Genesis Vijandre. “Drag is not limited by gender identity — both for the performers and the audience.”

Marina Summers, a famous drag queen in the Philippines, mesmerized many Filipinos with her performances on RuPaul’s Drag Race: Britain vs. the World Season 2. In March, she held a viewing party and performance outside the theater, where a large crowd lined up outside the theater.

“Drag queens are great performers,” said Summers’ fan, Imelda Del Carmen, 56. “They make people happy.”

Drag performers do face some risks.

Amadeus Fernando Pagento, who goes by the name Pura Luka Vega in drag, has been arrested twice and faces criminal charges of indecency and immorality for portraying Jesus Christ in drag and performing the Lord’s Prayer.

Athena Charan Presto, a sociology professor at the University of the Philippines, said the case exposed the tension between evolving views and deep-rooted traditional beliefs.

“While a younger, more globally conscious generation may be pushing for liberalization, the church’s influence remains,” Ms. Presto said.

But she said, “Many Filipinos have found a way to balance their faith and support for diverse identities.”

In the rural town of Tago in the southern province of Surigao, 16-year-old Leord Abaro recently discovered drag through YouTube. Soon after, he began buying makeup and learning how to hide his genitals.

In February, he debuted his drag persona as Macchaia Ra at his small school in the middle of the valley, donning a waist-length wig and lip-synching to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.” “This is just the beginning for me,” he said in an interview a few weeks later.

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