Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The first ever Filipino to join Mr. Gay World was Wilbert Ting Tolentino, recounts Rodgil Flores of the Kagandahang Flores beauty camp, which handles all the training needs of the Philippine delegate to the Mr. Gay World stage. In that year of 2009, Tolentino faced a sold out audience at the pageant’s grand finale in a mountain resort in Whistler, Canada. He did not place, but he won Best in National Costume, among other special awards. It was a good start for the Philippines in arguably the most prestigious gay pageant in the world.
Flores has been supporting Tolentino from the start. In 2007, he guided Tolentino on his journey to the international stage, ever since the pre-pageant, where about 50 hopefuls join every year to win the title of Mr. Gay World Philippines. But even before the international Mr. Gay World and way back before Tolentino was part of it in 2009, he has been considered as a magnate of sorts of pageants for gays and bisexuals in the country.
“Wilbert Tolentino is considered to be the Donald Trump of pageants for gay men,” says Ryan Soto, one of Tolentino’s long-time collaborators. In 2003, Soto and Tolentino started a bath house and entertainment lounge business called the Fahrenheit Cafe and Fitness Center, which became an exclusive meeting place and membership club for gay men. One of the events it hosted was a gay pageant called Mr. Fahrenheit, once an “experiment” exclusive to Fahrenheit’s members. It was the first pageant exclusively for gay men in the Philippines, and has now become an annual tradition and one of the longest running gay pageants in the country.
This then snowballed into a string of similarly branded specialized pageants for gay men: Miss F Universe, a contest for gay men and bisexuals, and a play on the original Miss Universe; Miss Earth Fahrenheit, which advocates for environmental involvement for gays; and Fahrenheit Look of the Year, which is Mr. Fahrenheit’s counterpart for younger gays and bisexuals — all established by Tolentino. The first two are spin-offs of their pageant namesakes.
Today, Tolentino is the national director of the Mr. Gay World Philippines Organization (MGWPO), which handles the overall production of the national pre-pageant before moving onto the international stage, with Soto and Flores being members of the board of directors. The three men act as foster fathers of sorts for Mr. Gay World’s Philippine representative, and after a pre-pageant show with an audience of around 3,000 at the UP Theater last year, the title was won by 36-year-old John Fernandez Raspado.
Three years ago, Raspado came out in ABS-CBN’s Showtime segment, “I Am PoGay,” in a black suit vest and leather tie, singing a slightly sensual rendition of “Sway” in a tenor voice. For some people, having these masculine attributes cast doubts on his sexuality. But, if anything else, this says a lot more about our country’s recent perception of LGBTQ than Raspado’s mode of self-expression when it comes to his sexuality.
“I handled stage fright, fear of the mic, fear of criticism — all of that, the bashings,” says Raspado. “Because when I joined ‘I Am PoGay,’ people would say that I was straight. So there’s a connotation that … a person like me who’s buff, with a mustache, manly looking, joining a gay contest [would make them say], ‘Are you really gay?’”
He would go on to win the contest, and eventually, the Mr. Gay World Philippines pre-pageant, where from now on, not only could he express himself to a larger audience, but he could also make a stand for it for himself and for gay men in general. For Raspado, it was natural progress toward advancing his personal advocacy. Mr. Gay World was his cherry on top. And as the responsibility entails, he is now an ambassador of the LGBTQ community.
“Because [John is] joining a gay pageant, people expect him to be effeminate,” says Soto. “Because that is their perception of being gay.” While the international Mr. Gay World leans toward a more holistic vision of empowering gay men, the MGWPO and the rest of Tolentino’s pageant brands, as a response to the country’s perception of LGBTQ, uphold the breaking of stereotypes.
“We’re trying to break the stereotypes [with these pageants],” Soto explains. “Through this, we reintroduce and redefine the image of gay men. There are gay men who are in the armed forces and other professional fields … We are also introducing gays from the different conservative sectors such as the Muslim community and the Filipino-Chinese community. That’s why the Mr. Gay World Philippines candidates all [come] from all walks of life.” Soto is himself a licensed realtor, while Raspado is an online marketer for organic products.
Flores adds, “Mr. Gay World has had a lot of gay men really see the value of coming out. It sort of shattered the stigma of just being closet gays. It has been an inspirational and motivational tool for gay men to really be comfortable about who they are."
“Long before the popular Showtime segment, 'I Am PoGay,' Mr. Fahrenheit and Mr. Gay World started it,” he continues. “In a way, we’re very happy, because if you come to think of it, the objectives have been realized. These types of gay pageants, for example the Miss Gay, are really ingrained in our society right now. Yung Mr. naman, the [image of the] masculine looking, the masculine acting gays, it’s [gradually] going into mainstream. It’s a big achievement from everyone who has started this type of pageant, from Mr. Fahrenheit to Mr. Gay World.”
But a specialized pageant has its specialized problems. The way people express themselves in terms of their sexuality has been diversified to the point of abstraction — a good thing, but also somewhat makes it difficult for the pageant’s screening committee to select qualified candidates.
“Sometimes, you doubt if this [candidate] is really gay,” explains Flores. “But then again, of course, nobody will come out and join a pageant and brand himself as gay if he is not gay.” Before Mr. Gay World Philippines gained more television exposure, some straight men even attempted to join for the prize money, which is higher than that of a conventional male pageant.
This is largely because the gay pageant hinges on the process and format of hetero pageants — an issue capable of sparking a double edged debate. On one hand, there is the aforementioned specialized problem, and on the other, the fact that this sort of screening process template has been effective for beauty pageants everywhere, and in the same way, should be applied to every aspiring individual, gay or not. Points of judgement — even for Binibining Pilipinas and Miss Philippines Earth, among others — have always been the “face, build, and personality,” Flores says. All training therefore revolves on these three main aspects, such as, as Flores reiterates, working out, personality training — especially for the question-and-answer portion — and refining how the contestant presents himself visually.
But this may only be a small cost and a slight compromise in holding a pageant for the purpose of destroying heteronormativity. Hopefully one day, society will adjust until specialized problems become naturalized and accepted into the norm.
For now, Mr. Gay World can take pride in setting itself apart from other conventional pageants, in terms of its priority and focus on advocacies and LGBTQ issues.
“Mr. Gay World is an advocacy pageant,” answers Raspado, when asked about the pageant’s edge over others. “What sets [it] apart from conventional pageants is, we do not stand for beauty or physique [mainly]. We are there for our advocacies as well. We don’t have to just stand there, just like other male pageants.”
Flores further explains that actual immersion is important as part of the training: “As Mr. Gay World, [John is] the ambassador of the LGBTQ community so he really has to have a deep involvement on all the projects that will be beneficial for the community.”
I ask the three men if the pageant is slowly catching up to the level of the big league pageants like the Miss Universe. Flores answers, “We’ve got a long way to go. But I’m confident we’re gonna hit it in a few more years.” This year, however, Flores feels that the winning streak of Filipina beauty queens will catch on to Mr. Gay World, "because we've conquered everything, all the pageants for women, and now it’s time for gay men to shine internationally.”
Flores adds, “‘Di ba everyone will be happy if the best gay man in the world is a Filipino?”