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Julius: Barangay Macalpi, Carigara

The coconut trees are all down from the ravaging of the eastern Visayan ecosystem by typhoon Yolanda but there are stubbly banana groves and spindly wild-seeded guava bushes (their fruit tugged from their branches unripe by children each morning) all along the ascent from the tiny municipality of Tunga, up through the more remote, rural barangay of Binibihan, 156 meters above sea level.

From Barangay Binibihan on Google maps depicts Leyte as a place scraped clean of all life, reduced to an attenuated white line etched across the gray space of an undifferentiated canvas like the calcified trail of a solitary sea creature. In fact, the area is a dense and variegated patchwork of greens and, where the earth’s just been turned, reddish-brown. As you rise, every now and then the clusters of banana trees give way to verdant and grassy pastures, cropped by goats, and sometimes, for added piquancy, nature adds a turbulent brook, dammed with boulders by farmers to make dips for their carabao to escape the heat and rest their enormous weight. Look up, and the mountains brood. Look ahead, and a narrowing road climbs past a wooden house or two, and on through where boys are playing the barangay’s main thing: basketball.

It must, at some point, have been national policy (and a very enlightened one, at that) to allow barangays to finance the construction of a basketball court within near reach of every adolescent Filipino’s family home – under the policy umbrella of the P.A.P. (Programs, Activities, Projects). If the basketball courts were intended simply to help pass a collective youth’s down time, the money has been very well spent, even though cash for basketball means less for investment in economic development. If, too, it was thought that young men on the basketball court were less likely to get up to no good, and the courts were subliminally a crime-reduction mechanism, or a means to stymie anti-social tendencies by cultivating a sporting camaraderie and a communal synergy of a particularly intense sort, then they work at that level, as well. And because Coke, or Coca Cola, is a staple here, with a hard-wired distribution network, and is drunk as a mild stimulant, basketball, for young men at least, is an essential contributor to reducing the cost of keeping the nation healthy, as daily they sweat out their sugary toxins and keep the diabetic devil at bay.

Pressing on and up a bit further, I’m in Macalpi, a village with possibly Leyte’s most idyllically situated elementary school, where every child walks to school breathing an air not just free of any toxicities but scented by its descent from the unspoiled mountains above. Macalpi is a settlement that often sits bathed in a cooling cloud, as if the mountain, priest like, is casting its holy water from its own, naturally occurring aspergillum.

 

I stop a while. I know that this is not far from being a sacred place in Filipino history. I’m at the foot of the long-strung Amandiwing mountain range, which, over a hundred years ago, hid the impromptu redoubts of Filipinos making last stands against the invading colonizers in the Philippine-American war (1899-1903). By that time, Filipinos had already fought one war of independence, and were onto their second. The Americans were just getting into the first of a new type of war and learning the sweaty ways of imperialist appropriation.

Those uber-patriots who finally turned over their rifles and blunted bolos to the Americans in 1903 might be saddened if, today, their spirits were to go down from the mountains only to discover that their compatriots have chosen their life’s work to be drivers of tricycle or sikad-sikad. In just over a century, virile young men who might have put up a fight against the invader have had the stuffing knocked right out of them and opted for an easy life, parceled out in 5 peso coins.

But there’s a tradeoff, perhaps. Now, neither Japanese nor Americans are lobbing artillery rounds into the hills, and the Amandiwing forest-frontier is not just a rural barangay’s imperturbable sentinel, but has established itself as a redoubt of a very different, yet equally urgent sort. It’s here that the 71 year old Republic has, in a moment of enlightened custodianship of natural resources, seen fit to impose a logging ban, registered in law as article No. 9772. It allows not only some peace for the ghosts of patriots who fell in a part of this long range, but is refuge and ecologically fecund hot-spot for a superabundance of flora and fauna. Here’s your Philippine tarsier, your flying squirrel and your eagle. Pangasugan mountain itself, peaking at 1153 metres above sea level at Baybay (and home to a gorgeous university), is a natural sanctuary, so German funded research tells us, for 16 unique types of orchid.

That’s the ecological and historical backdrop. But who’s now foregrounded beneath the Amandiwing ridge? That day, pushing against the pedals of my bike on the shallow inclines and sweating out my own toxins as I did so, I found out who. I had to swerve off the single-track road to let a child crouched atop a carabao go by: the thing massive, seemingly prehistoric, almost alien in its bulk beneath him, and he, deft-boned, wirily-framed, wholly master of it, as if its bulk and power were not simply in service to, but an animated extension of his very being.

Of course, I immediately saw his etiolated equivalent in my mind’s eye: the urban child in a Manila condominium statically wired to his digital device, swiping and dabbing with nervous fixation at a screen and exerting a sort of control, but in a wholly disembodied way, without any part of his anatomy, except the hectic thumb, at work. Who of the two is better off? Quantitatively, the urbanista, with the whole panoply of a city laid out before him, with all it offers by way of access to a miasma of confectioned carbohydrates and other mesmerizing superficies of consumerism.

But qualitatively, the Filipino boy in a rural hinterland, by contrast an index of poverty, and nowhere near, or not at all as worldly wise as his urban counterpart, is the more truly alive. Alive, in this instance before me, not just in the oxygenated straining of the boy’s sinews, but in the way he is absorbent of the massive musculature of the carabao and, through, it co-extending himself into the universe. No digital stimuli could hold a candle to that. No child aback such a beast as a carabao is poor, at least not in terms of raw experience; not in terms of how he rides an animal, as Achilles must have his chariot, and as fearless, or as deeply attuned to the world he’s subdued beneath his knees.

But then, as I prepare for the descent, there comes a near absolute contrast, the stark difference made more apparent by child and carabao still being fresh in view. I’m obliged to stop my bike again for a different reason, but one equally astounding and arresting. For here is boy waving; boy beckoning; boy broadly and uninhibitedly smiling, ear to ear. You can’t just bid an English ‘good day’ to that, not least because the sudden moment of extravagance, different in type to that of the child on the carabao, is backdropped by the undemonstrative ordinariness of the banana grove and rice paddy, which throws the demonstrative boy’s superabundant gesturing into ironic counterpoise.

Within seconds of stopping, I’m in the company of 13-year-old Julius: mobile, effervescent and irrepressible, his arms and hands spiraling as if acting of their own volition, in unrestrainable eddies about him. But I also am not. Or, rather, am not only in his company. Because Julius, no sooner has he introduced himself to me, instinctively, by one name – let’s say his male name, a boy’s name – he let flies another, and introduces himself again, as a variant; as Juliet. It is as if he knows that Julius as a name cannot define or contain or fully comprehend him, and that he lives truly and fully only when he’s nomenclature is doubled up, and he accounts for being both boy and more than and other than boy; accounts, in fact, for that essence of him whose instincts and mannerisms and deep-rooted genetics are feminine.

So, there stands androgyny before me, fully announced, fully declared, before any other word is said, as if he knows that such self-namings are the first thing about him which need to be laid out like a flush deck of cards. And it strikes me, as I try to absorb and respond to and find a way to be open to him, in the way that Julius-Juliet seems to demand, that in a remote, rural barangay, exposed to not much by way of popular culture, without a drip feed of affirmations of the various forms of gender identity available on the broad spectrum of possibilities, that he was speaking and acting and being who he was naturally, by genetic disposition. Cued to be a boy, yes, but feminized in how his limbs chose to work, how his waist behaved when he walked, and, most of all, by the extraordinary ‘joie de vivre’ that suggested that for him, his double identity was what gave him room to live a diverse, pluralized, less restrictive life; a scope to traverse and merge identities in an oxymoronically unified bifurcation, in the company of others who must make do with identities fixed on rails far more singularly laid down.

What I assumed, of course, was that Julius-Juliet was making the most of his circumstances, both natural and cultural, despite what must, surely, have also come at him in forms of discrimination and prejudice; by ostracizations and isolation; by name calling and bullying, even out here in rural isolation. But such presuppositions, in fact, need careful glossing when in the Philippines. Why? Because, as was evidenced to me on many, many occasions biking through Leyte’s barangays, the third-gendered Filipino child is present and foregrounded in just about every rural community. Discriminatory prejudices and vicious policing of sexual identities are not, apparently, at play here; at least not overtly, or not any more. Rather, children like Julius emerge free of having to learn to self-censor their gender; free from having to rein in an instinctive disposition; free from having to suppress or cauterize or judge or condemn themselves whilst trying to get on with the difficult art of growing up, and, in Julius’ case, growing up poor.

Today, it would seem that the cultural and moral mores of rural communities allow for children such as Julius to be acknowledged and accepted rather than marooned or berated or constrained. And hence there exists in response a sort of third-gender flowering in the Philippines, not just in quality of life – I mean in terms of a young person’s capacity to enjoy fullness of expression - but in quantity, too. You’d be hard pressed not to come across a boy, intensely feminized, in any barangay and at any gathering, except, perhaps, in church.

But then, hold on a moment. In the brief encounter I had with Julius, a broad smile never leaving his face, he was never anything but exuberant. Backdropped by nothing much, except vegetation and then the mountains, he seemed doubly, triply alive, morphing between the gender identities which genetics and a bit of nurture had strung upon his frame.

But it was a conversation with a worldly-wise émigré Filipino in Manila the following week that sounded the note of caution. There’s the contextualism, she argued, of third gender children in the Philippines in ways that purport to be nonjudgmental, but in fact construct the child not as an organic whole, but as a function: as an entertainer, to amuse.

If true, isn’t then the apparently easily, untroubled acceptance of the effeminacy of boys in Philippine society also a form of discriminatory behavior, and possibly a powerfully determining one at that? Because attitudes which appear to be predicated on acceptance conceal forms of rejection. Julius, a child whose identity runs fluidly across a spectrum to incorporate traits of male and female, is given amplitude, yes, but his family’s and community’s regard at the same time limit the scope of his development, and suggest he’s still impacted by stereotyping, even if it’s casually prejudicial. If a livelihood for Julius is defined so as to require a fluidly gendered boy to think of his future only in terms of aspiration to be a nurse, to work in a salon, or be part of a dance troupe, then a prejudice, notwithstanding it is applied benignly, can be as crippling as one applied violently, with malice.

Descending from the foot of the mountain range, I ran straight into Tunga’s school reunion parade, with graduates accompanying their brightly festooned floats. And there, in one float, feathered and tin foil tiara, was the class queen, the young man playing the very prominent role allotted him in fulfillment of society’s expectations and predilections. He might, as queen, have been thrilled. He might have felt in his element. He might have felt the rush of freedom that comes when all inhibition is cast off.

But I suspect nobody ever sat down and talked it through with him. Not ever. I suspect nobody had a conversation with him about how he saw himself in the world, or how he might see himself, or whether the roles he felt obliged to take up were the ones that he felt would most fulfil him. And I doubted, too, that he’d sat in a classroom often or long enough to know that a boy who identifies as female, and who moves by the dictates of genes in a certain, feminized way, and who feels a type of energy course through him that a definition as male can’t accommodate, need not necessarily be obliged to accept being typecast as the parade queen, in feathers and leotard.

Julius-Juliet’s smile was uninhibited. But it was also an expression of a learned and disarming persona. He, too, and many others, deserve more than to be reactively constructed by a set of societal assumptions, or beliefs that he’s there, essentially, as an object of amusement, and not a subject in his own right. Julius, too, must have opportunity to think through Newton’s 3 laws of motion; learn that the Philippines has paid a price in blood for its independence; learn that quantum physics tells us that an atom can be in two places at once as a single, and not as a divided, entity. He must know he can, if he so wills, pass by a salon and not be required, by dictates of societal prejudice, to see it as his destiny.  

Heidegger’s belief was that whatever or whomever is present is so, in greater or lesser measure, by the nature of our regard. Which means, when you stop to respond to Julius’ greeting on your way up to a mountain once the site of guerrilla warfare, you must first glance beyond him, to Amandiwing, to get the better, larger, more profound perspective of who he is and what he may be.