Thursday, June 19, 2014


Rizal sa Dapitan: The movie in VHS

Jose F. Lacaba           
Manila Times, December 31, 1996

Messing with history 2: Rizal in drag

FILMMAKERS have been getting a bad rep lately for messing with history, but it isn’t just filmmakers who are guilty. Historians themselves mess with history all the time.

There’s a difference, of course. Filmmakers, following in the illustrious footsteps of playwrights like Shakespeare, often play fast and loose with the facts for dramatic purposes. Historians, on the other hand, normally stick to the facts (or at least the facts available to them at a given time), but may extract varying, even conflicting, interpretations from those facts.

It has been argued, for instance, that Andres Bonifacio was not plebeian but bourgeois because, in the only existing photograph taken of him, he’s dressed to the nines—coat, cravat, slicked-down hair, the works. On the other hand, the very fact that there is only one existing photograph of him, a studio shot, could be cited as proof that he was too poor to have his photograph taken as often as did Jose Rizal and the Filipino exiles in Madrid.

When you can only afford one shot for posterity, you want to be seen in your Sunday best. That’s why in Philippine barrios in the Sixties, when instamatic cameras were not as common and as inexpensive as they are now, the poorest hovels often had these framed and colorized photos of husband and wife in barong Tagalog and terno. More often than not, those costumes were provided by the studio photographer.

Also cited as evidence of Bonifacio’s alleged middle-class status is his work as a traveling salesman for a multinational company. That’s like saying that those door-to-door promo girls selling soap and shampoo shouldn’t be classified as urban poor because they hawk multinational products instead of puto’t kutsinta.

Yesterday being the centenary of Rizal’s assassination, the national hero has been coming in for his share of iconoclastic scrutiny. A question often raised these days is: Was Rizal gay?

It’s a truism that each age reevaluates the past from the vantage point of the present. Especially in the present century, historians are fond of breaking up the icons of the past and scraping off the myths that attach themselves like barnacles to historical personages and events.

Back in the Fifties, Rizal was described as a Filipino Hamlet because of his wishy-washy attitude toward armed revolution. After the First Quarter Storm, student activists denounced Rizal for his decisively reactionary repudiation of the armed revolution.

Filipino machos used to take pride in the fact that the national hero was a great womanizer. Today, with women’s liberation and gay liberation in the ascendant, it is not surprising that a new view of Rizal is coming into focus.

Womanizing is no longer the glamorous activity it was before Henry Miller got the shaft from Kate Millet. It isn’t just immoral; it’s politically incorrect.

Today you have pop psychologists claiming Casanova, whose name used to be synonymous with libertine, was gay. His many amorous affairs with women are in fact cited as proof of his gayness, because it supposedly implies an inability to sustain a long-standing relationship with any woman. In the old days, he would have been seen as just a guy who liked effing around.

In Rizal’s case, the F word may simply have stood for flirt. Since he was not the kiss-and-tell type, we’ll never know if he really scored with the women he came to be acquainted with at every port.

Among the circumstantial evidence cited of Rizal’s alleged gayness is a photo taken in Madrid showing Rizal and other Propagandists in drag. I have yet to see the photo myself. But I have seen Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze, not to mention Dolphy and Eddie Garcia, in drag. And I have seen priests and abbots in skirts. I don’t know if that makes them, or the other Propagandists in the photo with Rizal, gay.

Another supposed case in point is Rizal’s ambiguous relationship with Nelly Boustead, allegedly “a liberated Frenchwoman who, like many European women of the time, didn’t have qualms about sleeping with men before marriage.”

Actually, although resident in France, Nelly wasn’t French. Her father was the bastard product of a liaison between an Englishman and a Filipina. According to historian Austin Coates, Nelly considered herself a Filipina, “though for the present I am an English subject.”

Far from being liberated, she was a devout Protestant. My own suspicion, based on nothing more substantial than the fact that she liked engaging Rizal in disputation, is that she belonged to that disputatious variety of Protestantism now known as fundamentalist or born-again.

It was Nelly herself, and not her family, who laid down the condition that Rizal, the lapsed Catholic and active Freemason, would have to convert to Protestantism—in her own words: “embrace Christianity as I understand it”—before she would marry him.

Nelly seemed to have been something of a George Sand, the French woman novelist who liked dressing in men’s clothes and smoking cigars. Coates says Nelly had “a boy’s face,” enjoyed men’s sports, and “thought nothing of fencing with Rizal.”

George Sand had a long-running affair with Chopin in which she took on the aggressive and he the passive role. Does that mean their relationship was one between butch and closet queen? Or did they simply ignore social and moral conventions that today would be labeled as gender stereotyping?

And what of Rizal and Nelly Boustead—was their relationship of a similar nature?

How would I know? I’m no historian. But I’ve just worked on a script about Rizal’s exile in Dapitan, so I’ve done a little rereading of the Rizalist canon lately. I’ll have more speculation and extrapolation in my next column, about the scandalous live-in relationship between the 35-year-old Rizal and the 18-year-old Josephine Bracken.

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