Queerness of Identity in the Philippines in Edith Tiempo’s The Chambers of the Sea
Each society, community or tribe is unique with its identity. Myriad of factors make up the multifaceted surface and endodermis of a community. Norms, morals, culture, history, economy, hegemony and people, men and women alike push and pull in affecting each other. Often, the people who create and perpetuate the volatile norms, morals, culture and hegemony may emancipate or incarcerate the people who formulate the very same edict. Resistance to it or extrication from it may mean an ostracism or foul name-calling. Anyone who goes against the current becomes a victim of a tyrannical culture. Hence, culture becomes bipolar. It nurtures yet also creates sutures of pain. People are left either to subserviently follow to belong or to excruciatingly fight against to suffer. Or shall we say, a rebelling person in an oppressive culture faces what Helen Cixous calls “castration or decapitation” for not supporting the dominant culture.
One of the most common loathsome social constructions is human identity. Elsewhere in the world, people are divided, labelled, judged and expected according to their anatomy, sex and norm. The issue of male versus female. Each sex is stereotyped according to social expectation. Males are figured to be strong, rational, logical, intelligent, provider, masters, straight, brawny while females are weak, irrational, illogical, moron, receivers, slaves, sexual objects, emotional and even worse, abused, silenced and made evil in different media and literatures.
But what if a person is neither a male nor a female. What if a person opposes all the expected role or identity based from normativity and performativity as dictated by society. Then we imagine the worst. The victim becomes vulnerable of the criticisms of society where he or she is rushly and harshly judged evil, abnormal, odd, impure, immoral or “queer”. This is where the writer positions his paper in fully understanding the very colourful, introvert life of Edith Tiempo’s controversial character Tio Teban in the short story “The Chambers of the Sea” (Tiempo, 2009).
More often than not, queer is defined as anything that is abnormal, odd, bizarre or anything that defies or questions a dominant culture, norm or behavior. In the Philippines, to be queer is tantamount to being weak, soft, different, strange or even immediate conclusions to being gay or a homosexual.
Many scholars believed that society’s notion about sex is deeply inculcated on the minds of the people perpetrated and perpetuated by social institutions such as school, church, family and others. Queer theory challenges this social formulations to understand and tolerate sexual or gender identities beyond the misconstrued-passed-on beliefs on sexual categorization.
The theory and practice of queer criticism is based on interrogating or challenging, debunking the categorization of sex and gender leading to an individual’s identity. Identity cannot be fixed and is not fixed. Issues of performativity and normativity in relation to sex and gender, resistance and power relations are also attempted.
In the Philippines, the family, the school and the church are actively participating in creating, categorizing and fixing gender and sexuality. Choice of colors for the children’s clothes would mean sexuality. Blue for the boys and pink for the girls. A mismatched of colors would mean malicious interpretations leading to labelling such as gay or lesbian, as if colors and children are synonymous with their sexuality. When they grow, children are told that playing dolls are for girls and soldier toys are for the boys. Boys do not cry, fathers would say to their young boys. Implicitly, they say that only girls cry. And these are transferred from generation to generation. There is always a strong categorization in the Philippines full of do’s and don’ts for the boys and girls as they are bound according to social categorization, sexuality and their performativity. Anyone who fails to uphold, anyone who deviates, anyone who does not support the dominant culture of the males is labelled gay or homosexual with Filipino varieties of bakla, bading, badaf, shoke, Darna and other denigrating names.
The story Chambers of the Sea by Edith Tiempo sublty and delicately depicts a man named Teban Ferrer or Tio Teban (Uncle Teban), as addressed by the narrator who grows from Bangan and his diaspora to Dumaguete, whose growing up and eventual maturity is put into a test, interrogation, scrutiny and suspicion based from his sexuality or normativity and performativity. Hence, the haunting question whether Tio Teban is gay, homosexual or queer is focused in the lens of queer theory and analysis.
Tio Teban is in the midst of strong binary opposites where characters are expected according to performativity and heteronormativity. His family from Bangan, with its massive land, on the left force and his newfound family with his cousin in Dumaguete on the right. His family consists of strong males: his father who hates Tio Teban’s womanish behaviour, Antero, his brother-in-law who physically tills the land of the entire family and his sister Quirina who wants him to continue his father’s legacy of the land. The social expectation of Tio Teban’s family is high based from his supposed performance as male and heterosexuality.
In Dumaguete, with its boundless sea, Tio Teban has more solace with the softer, weaker environment. His cousin Amalia is a typical housewife who performs social role according to her sexuality, a mother to four children. More often than not, Amalia’s roles are extended to Tio Teban when the former runs for family errands. His wife’s husband is a passive male who never questions his behaviour for he exhibits a quiet male who provides.
Amalia’s honest-to-goodness rowdy children interrogate and criticize Tio Teban’s different behaviour. Their ill-humoured laughter is like Tio Teban’s immediate family who harshly condemns his queerness. Because he does not perform and he is against the norm of a typical male, as expected he was minuscule to a weak, sluggish and odd guy. Mentally, they are lashing him out for his queerness. His father, who is supposed to understand him for who he is, is the first to ostracize him. His judgement is based from Tio Teban’s “womanish disposition” and could not forgive his only son for turning out to be so like him in looks but quite unlike him in his ways (p. 103). Tio Teban’s father has contempt on his inclination to cultivating a rose garden, drawing and painting using watercolours, his strolling in the countryside, his perpetual reading of literatures, his stature and squinting in his eyes. All these are beyond his father’s acceptance.
But above all these artefacts, do we see him retaliate against his family even if they offend, hate and even denounce him for being different for failing to “satisfy their selfish desire” of wanting him to be that he is not. He felt violated and exposed. From a dilemma between “fight or flight”, he chooses a quiet, resolute decision of leaving his family in the pursuit of graduate studies in Dumaguete where he successfully finished a Master’s degree in Political Science. It can be gleaned from a psychological point of view that he displaced his silent rebellion against his family into scholastic pursuit where his family could not reach him in the mental and intellectual plane. He chooses his battle with an intellectual elegance against the rough furrows of the land. His identity, though different, abnormal and queer from the judgement of his family and the children of Amalia, Tio Teban is happy with himself. His identity for himself is not an issue, not a question, not a problem but rather a choice. His stature only becomes beleaguered when people once again interrogate and gauge him according to his sex and role. In this text, Tio Teban becomes a role model of a positivist existentialist who finds happiness in the midst of people’s too much preoccupation of his identity. He chooses as he pleases without personal qualms. He has no identity crisis in contrast with the popular notion. Their notion is also affected, influenced and enveloped as well by socially constructed formulated criticisms against not-so-typical male like Tio Teban. The question on what he is doing in his room in Dumaguete is more of a personal introspection in terms of economics. He, with an MA degree, remains docile in his cousin’s house. He is again forced by society to work according to his heterosexuality. The choice is his.
Suspicion of his identity versus his personal choice as opposed to the social expectation and labelling of his besmirched gender identity is subjected to a test ending in a crystal clear dramatic close of the story. He received a letter on the demise of his father. Tio Teban became a persona with two faces as he runs to the sea. He summons his grief yet finds happiness on thinking on the death of a father who is greatly prejudiced against him. Without his father, there is more of himself, liberty. The hegemony of power wielded and created by his family only oppresses him. Thus, with his father’s death there is more personal emancipation from the obtrusive family and social expectation rather than lamentation. The queer becomes clear. He rejoices on his true self. He is neither a man nor a woman; neither a mythical merman nor a mermaid but a person. He is happy of what he is without a label. His queerness, from the people’s perception, is only a myth. All the world is a stage, and people have different roles to play. A man needs to be happy whether with a minor or a major role in this vast world of identities only constructed by men and women. As the narrator clinches it “At least Tio Teban knew one thing for himself as he turned and walked rapidly away.” Tio Teban is “He is what he is” a hierros gamos, a union of male and a female; not gay neither homosexual but a person with an appointed corner in the sky, with a niche in the land and has his own “chamber in the sea”…
Con Davis, Robert and Ronald Scheliefer. (1989). Contemporary Literary Theory: Literature and Cultural Studies. New York: Longman, Inc.
Tiempo, Edith (2009). “The Chambers of the Sea”. Montage: Anthology in Philippine Literature in English Manila: PNU Press.
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Queerness of Identity in the Philippines in Edith Tiempo’s The Chambers of the Sea