Drag Takes Off in the Philippines, a Bastion of Christianity

Before he put on the glittery neon yellow tasseled jumpsuit, donned the yellow wig, and lip synced and danced onstage under colorful spotlights, Paul Hidacan went through his preshow routine in a busy dressing room. He pulled out a small white Bible from his bag, sat down and read a verse.

“I grew up in my church,” said Mr. Hidacan, 21, who has attended service in cropped tops, skirts and boots, and started performing in drag last year. “I know there are some who raise their brows when they see me, but the pastors accept me.”

In many places in the Philippines, drag is becoming more mainstream, and more popular. It is no longer confined to comedy bars, gay pageants and L.G.B.T.Q. spaces. New clubs devoted to drag are opening. Drag queens are on fashion magazine covers, and are pitching name-brand products like MAC Cosmetics, Shell gasoline, Durex condoms and Samsung phones. Students of at least one public university recently held a drag competition.

The new visibility of the art form has come largely because of changing mores around religion and gender, as well as the runaway success of the global TV franchise “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 that they hope will transform Philippines society even more.

The Philippines is one of the biggest majority-Christian nations in the world. Roughly 80 percent of its population is Roman Catholic, and abortion is a crime. It is one of only two countries in the world where divorce remains illegal. Homosexuality is not illegal here, as it is in many other nations in the region, but there are few legal protections for gay Filipinos. Same-sex unions are not allowed.

Yet, expressions of gay identity are more welcome in the Philippines than in many other Asian nations. And surveys show that support for the gay minority is rising.

“What we are seeing is a transformation of what it means to be Catholic or Christian for the youth, who are looking for authenticity,” said Jayeel Cornelio, a sociologist of religion at the Ateneo de Manila University. “Sometimes they find this outside the institution or traditional practices.”

Still, the church remains influential. More than two decades after a bill that would bar discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people was introduced, it remains stuck in the Philippines’ Congress. There are laws protecting the rights of other groups, like women, children and Indigenous people.

Mr. Hidacan grew up in a religious family and was told to “control his gayness.” But he defied these calls and pushed ahead into drag with a persona he calls Zymba Ding. The moniker is a play on Simba, the “Lion King” character, and the Filipino word bading, which means gay.

“Zymba is not my alter ego,” Mr. Hidacan said. “She is an extension, a revelation of what Paul can do without religious restrictions,” he added, referring to himself.

Mr. Hidacan is part of a new generation of drag artists. Like him, many of them are gay men in their teens or early 20s and are known as baby queens.

Timmy Flores, 19, started performing as Abigaile four years ago when he was a student at a Catholic high school. Like many artists working during the pandemic, he livestreamed his performances on Facebook, and the audience offered tips. Mr. Flores, who is gay, kept performing despite the opposition of his family members who wanted him to undergo conversion therapy.

“Drag is not just entertainment,” he said, while fixing another artist’s long blonde wig before a show at the Rampa Drag Club in Quezon City. “The mere fact that a man dresses as a woman in public is already a form of defiance.”

A few performers, like Samantha Palambiano, are straight women. “Drag is an art form and a means of self-expression,” said Ms. Palambiano, who performs as Kieffy Nicole. “Drag is genderless.”

It is also a thriving business.

“There’s a really big market for drag now,” said Loui Gene Cabel, an owner of the Rampa Drag Club, which opened in January. “Straight females are now the main audience.”

He added: “Before, drag performances were just intermission numbers. Now people go to clubs for them.”

The rising popularity of drag has already helped changed some opinions. The siblings of the gay male artist who has performed as Arizona Brandy for a decade did not approve of drag. Her sister, at one point, gathered pastors to pray over her and convert her. But after Ms. Brandy reached the final round of the second season of “Drag Race Philippines” last year, her brother started supporting her.

“The Philippines is slowly moving forward,” said Ms. Brandy, whose legal name is Genesis Vijandre. “Drag isn’t limited by gender identity — both for performers and the audiences.”

Many in the Philippines were enthralled by the run of Marina Summers, a prominent Filipino drag queen, in the second season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK vs The World.” Throngs of people queued outside the theater where she held a viewing party and show in March.

“Drag queens are excellent performers,” said Imelda Del Carmen, 56, a fan of Ms. Summers. “They make people happy.”

Drag performers do face some risks.

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

The case exposes the tension between the evolving views and entrenched legacies, said Athena Charanne Presto, who teaches sociology at the University of the Philippines.

“While more globally oriented younger generations may drive liberalization, the church’s influence remains,” Ms. Presto said.

But, she said, “many Filipinos find a way to reconcile faith and support for diverse identities.”

In Tago, a rural town in the southern province of Surigao del Sur, Leord Abaro, 16, recently discovered drag through YouTube. Soon after, he started buying makeup and learning how to tuck his genitals.

His first performance in drag, as Macchaia Ra, came in February, in the middle of his small school that lies in the middle of a valley. He donned a waist-length wig and lip synced to the Taylor Swift song “Blank Space.” In an interview a few weeks later, he said, “It’s just the start for me.”

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