Anyone who has been through the struggle of being a 20-something will tell you that dating is hard. But any queer person who has been through the struggle of, well, simply being who they are, will tell you that dating as a queer person is even harder. Before we even get the chance of finding love, there is a mountain of things to figure out: whether or not you want to come out, having to accept yourself, and navigating out how to move and present yourself in a heteronormative world. Things aren't as simple as choosing your best selfies for a dating app and hoping for the best.
It also doesn't help that there aren't many examples of queer dating in media. There simply aren't any roses being handed out to queer people as they do in "The Bachelor,” nor are there any modelesque queer people in guilty pleasures like "Love Island.” While there is more hope in the realm of rom-coms, examples where queer love is front and center are few and far between.
All things considered, Black Sheep's new queer dating show "Sparks Camp" is a salve in our representation-hungry mediascape. The show premiered last May 24, and features 10 queer men in a "Bachelor"-style format show, all hoping to find a date. “Sparks Camp” stars Gabe Balita, Karl Bautista, Stanley Bawalan, Nick Deocampo, Alex De Ungria, Dan Galman, Bong Gonzales, Justin Macapallag, Nat Magbitang, and Aaron Maniego.
The show is hosted by LGBTQIA+ advocate and Miss Trans Global 2020 Mela Habijan, who serves as the group's Mother Sparker. Each week, the contestants — campers, as they are called — play a game to determine which two of them will go on a date. At the end-of-day bonfire, secrets are revealed about each camper, which allows them to get to know each other as a group. Following that, the campers then select one person to give a spark to.
While the show's tone is fairly light, it has courted some controversy. When its trailer premiered online, Twitter was abuzz with comments about how the casting choices lacked diversity, especially because the show presented itself otherwise. However, according to Habijan and the show's director Theodore Boborol (of "Pinoy Big Brother" and "Pinoy Dream Academy," among others), the show's diversity lies in the campers' social experiences, and that viewers will find them more relatable once they give the show a chance.
And true enough, halfway through the season, the sentiment on Twitter has turned around. And while there is definitely room for improvement, Habijan notes that this first season might just be the gateway to even more representation.
CNN Philippines Life talked to Habijan about the show, her thoughts on diversity, and her own experiences in dating.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
How did you feel when you were first approached for the show?
I got so excited. When I heard of the concept, I told myself, "Finally, there's a venue for us." For me, as a host, for our love to be seen and to be felt, and for people to see a number of boys who are really into their sexuality, exploring the world and enjoying being gay, being pansexual, being queer.
Did you have any input in the casting?
When it was first pitched to me, ang una ko talagang sinabi, "There needs to be diversity." I hope we're able to cast people of different backgrounds, experiences, body types, different profiles. Because that's what we want. IIt's very important that this representation [will] resonate [with] the public's standpoint in terms of relatability. Kasi, if a person is relatable, he, she, or they will never undermine their existence as well. Mararamdaman nila, "Hindi ako nag-iisa." And that makes a difference. If you see that there's someone like you, you'll feel that you matter too.
What was your first impression of the cast?
Nung una ko silang nakilala, I was happy that they cast two femme people na hindi nahihiyang ipakita ang kanilang femininity. Because more often than not, this is the common issue among men. That masc gay men would only prefer masc gay men. But now, I'm seeing two flamboyant figures (Bong and Dan) na very in touch with their femininity. Actually, if you look at the roster of campers, most of them are in touch with their feminine side. Sadya lang talaga na [mas] kita 'yung flamboyance ni Bong, and the quirky, feminine side of Dan.
Ang gusto ko sanang makita pa dito ay isang chub effem. That was my recommendation. Because in the world of Grindr, 'yun 'yung pinaka-lowest of the low. And I saw my chub effem friends suffer in their insecurity of not being liked by anyone, kasi hindi sila preferred. So sana, in the succeeding seasons, chub effems would dare to join “Sparks Camp,” because if they show up, malamang sa malamang, one of them will get casted. And they will empower another chub effem from anywhere in the world.
There's been a lot of talk about the casting. When the trailer premiered, you said that diversity isn't just found in the physicality of the campers; it's also intersectional.
One thing I learned as an LGBTQIA+ advocate is [to look] into the lens of intersectionality. Because being queer doesn't only involve love. It doesn't only involve the physical aspect. It also involves how you relate with people, your education, your social circle, the circumstances that you are in.
Doon ko nakikita 'yung ganda ng selecting people across ages, across locations, across social experiences, because when they discuss things, you'll see different perspectives. For example, during Episode 1, si Stanley, 'di niya nakuha 'yung L.A. na Lower Antipolo joke ni Aaron. And sinabi niya na, "Sorry ah, 'di ko kasi gets 'yung Manila jokes." And that's totally fine! Because perhaps, they have a different language of what's funny. Iba rin 'yung forms of communication ng isang introvert na kagaya ni Alex, sa isang outgoing personality ni Bong. So 'yung dynamics nila also reflect the realities of how we interact as a community, na iba-iba pa rin tayo.
I welcome the discussion with so much hope. The [criticism was] hurtful, for sure, pero I saw it as a silver lining. Because, number one, they are aware that a show like this is happening. They want to contribute something to make the show better. And now that I am seeing excited viewers, I am looking forward to a better “Sparks Camp.” Kasi mas makakapag-produce pa tayo ng mas meaningful na shows and editions in the future.
As the show's Mother Sparker, what advice would you give to younger LGBTQIA+ people who want to start dating but are hesitant?
First and foremost, don't feel insecure about the things that people have already dictated upon you. Like beauty standards. How to move in a certain space. Your level of femininity and masculinity. Kasi ito 'yung mga unang levels of insecurity. I want you to free yourself from those labels that are set by society. Because now, we're breaking all these stereotypes that we've created, and are forming a diverse definition of what it's like to be queer.
So, as a young kid exploring your sexuality, know what you want. Start getting to know your non-negotiables. Kasi these will define how you will be able to move in a relationship, if it happens to you.
Number two, don't be afraid to be single. In a society that grew up in a rom-com environment, it shaped us to make love the end-all-be-all of our existence. But as a single woman, singlehood is actually a stable place to be in. Because you [get to] look at yourself as an evolving individual. And as you evolve, doon mas lumalalim 'yung pagtingin mo sa pag-ibig. Embrace being an individual.
Pangatlo, 'pag wala sa Pilipinas ang spark mo, nasa ibang bansa. (Laughs)
Another thing I liked about “Sparks Camp” was that you said there aren't necessarily winners or losers. It's not a competition; if you walk away with no date, that's okay too.
Yes. Hindi ka talo kung wala kang spark. I mean, ang definition ba ng pagkapanalo parati is merong mutual understanding of emotions? Hindi. Actually, panalo ka kahit single ka. So we need to appreciate that there's beauty to being in a relationship, and there's beauty to being single.
One thing I've discovered is that a relationship is work. It entails dedication, acceptance of the other person. Ins and outs, flaws and all. Kailangan tanggap mo 'yun. At 'yung dynamics of time, languages, different contexts, kailangan mo kasi pagsamahin 'yun. At mahirap 'yun ha, to blend with another person. That's tough. At maso-solidify lang 'yun if you appreciate your singlehood.
One of the things that struck me in Episode 3 was your conversation with Dan, when he said that he felt conscious when people would say, "Oh, you're soft pala." But then you said that his softness is his power. As a trans woman, how were you able to harness your femininity and your softness into this power that you have now?
When I began appreciating my femininity, that's when I saw myself in my most beautiful. Physically, mentally spiritually, socially. Because I am my most confident. Because this is the real me. I see femininity as my power because it made me fly. Nung identifying pa lang ako as a gay man, actually, tinry ko mag-gym. Sabi ko, "Hindi ako 'to." I am a queen. I am Miss Universe. So why will I build huge muscles when in fact, ang gusto ko lang na muscles ay sapat lang.
So for gay men na nakikita kong insecurity 'yung pagiging femme, kasi hindi sila “marketable,” it insults me. Kasi, are you telling me that I'm not likable? Let's not insult ourselves. Instead, I will tell you, that based on my experience, this is power. Because it led me from one place to another. Liberation.
I really appreciated what you said to Dan. Because in gay dating, like you said, femmes and chubs are at the lowest rank, which needs to change.
Correct. Alam mo, meron akong reflection nung isang araw. I met two drag queens, in drag, [who] approached me and said, "Mag-jowa po kami." Sabi ko, in a masc-for-masc, femme-for-masc world, hindi kaya ang solution is for femme men to date femme men?
A lot of people would say that that just leads to marehan.
Diba, 'yun yung sabi, marehan. "Ay, 'yoko, marehan." Anong masama sa marehan? Sabi ko, okay, maybe to counter the masc-for-masc and femme-for-masc phenomenon, why don't we revolt against the concept of marehan? And instead, embrace marehan as an opportunity for a relationship, kasi for me, a romantic relationship is [also] friendship. Eh kung mag-kumare kayo, diba, you consider yourselves as safe spaces.
Madalas ko naririning 'yung mga femme, "Ayoko, kasi kailangan siya 'yung brusko." Stuck pa rin 'yun sa binary definition of gender eh. So ibig bang sabihin, isa lalaki, isa babae? So ikaw ba 'yung babae? Very patriarchal pa rin siya. And we feel like damsels in distress that need a Prince Charming to save us. Alam mo kung ano 'yung nagpakawala sakin dun? Si Mulan. Si Mulan, hindi siya damsel in distress. (Laughs) Kaya girls, be Mulan.
I'm curious to know about your experiences dating as a trans woman, because I feel like we don’t hear a lot about it, even in LGBTQIA+ circles. Could you share some of your experiences with dating?
Here in the Philippines, dating as a trans woman is very difficult. Because we're still confined with the prejudice against transgender people. Maybe it's easier for trans men, I don't know. But for trans women, it's tough. Because nandoon pa rin tayo sa notion that dating a trans woman would make you gay. That's number one. And number two, gay men and bi men typically don't prefer dating women like me. So, sabi ko, maybe I'm not meant to be with a Filipino. And true enough, yes. (Laughs). Dating is more colorful [abroad].
The first guy I dated was a foreign guy, and it changed my perspective in dating. Kasi for the longest time, I was insecure. But when I experienced my first date, sabi ko, “Oh, I do well on dates.” Ang galing ko pala makipag-date. I discovered something about myself. More importantly, I also learned what I want for a guy.
"One thing I've discovered is that a relationship is work. It entails dedication, acceptance of the other person. Ins and outs, flaws and all. Kailangan tanggap mo 'yun. At 'yung dynamics of time, languages, different contexts, kailangan mo kasi pagsamahin 'yun."
Dito sa Pilipinas, there's a limit to men daring to date trans women. But in other countries, I don't have to explain myself. It's written in my profile, or they can actually figure out that I'm trans with my Adam's apple, with the sound of my voice. But they're not afraid to say, "Would you like to go on a date with me?"
And recently, I had this meet-cute. Kinwento ko 'to sa "Ang Walang Kwentang Podcast," that I met someone on the train [in New York]. This is a moment that only happens in movies, but they do happen, and it happened to me. And what a beautiful moment to affirm my trans womanhood, because there was a guy who helped me out, in my damsel in distress moment na gawa-gawa ko lang naman. (Laughs). But he opened himself up to me, and that became the ground for a good friendship. And I'm so happy to say that the guys I went out with in the past, some of them I still communicate with. It created a huge impact within me, that I can honestly say that in terms of dating, I'm no longer insecure as compared to my 25-year-old self, or my 30-year-old self for that matter.
Have you found joy in dating?
Yes. I find joy in dating. Because the conversations I get with dating allow me to see [different] perspectives. It deepens my empathy, kasi iba 'yung circumstances nila. So I try to learn from the people I go out with, and nakikita ko 'yung appreciation of my being trans, and humanity in general. Kasi the people I date also recognize the value of equal rights. They recognize the value of visibility and representation of LGBTQIA+ people. They appreciate people from the Philippines, people from Southeast Asia. And it is shaping how I define my life, and how I define my world.
Do you think we're close to having a trans dating show here in the Philippines?
Yes we are. I mean, “Sparks Camp” could be a vehicle for it. My dream is actually for “Sparks Camp” to feature all types of queer love. If there's a Season 2 — I don't know if it's still [going to be] a queer guys edition — I'm excited to see a bisexual edition, a lesbian edition, a trans edition. So that people can normalize queer dating, especially here in our country. So it is possible, and hopefully "Sparks Camp" will be that vehicle.
What do you hope people will take away from the show?
For Filipinos to see that all types of love are valuable. At dahil mahalaga siya, makakakuha ka ng kilig, ng points of reflection, ng bagong takeaways about love. Matututo ka. And when people learn about it, the more accepting [they become]. That's what we need right now. We just need people to see how we live our lives, so that they can fully understand and accept that being queer is merely being human.
“Sparks Camp” is streaming on Black Sheep's YouTube channel. New episodes come out Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m.