What ‘Hanging Out’ means for Filipino LGBTQ representation

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The cast of "Hanging Out" (from left): Eboy Fernandez, Jox Gonzales, JP Mercado, Paulito Del Mundo, and Albert Saspa. Photo by JL JAVIER/TEAM MAGAZINE

Manila (CNN Pilippines Life) — As the first gay web series in the Philippines, Team Magazine and Blued’s "Hanging Out" hasn’t had it easy.

Created by Petersen Vargas and Patrick Valencia, produced by Team Magazine and co-presented by the gay social app Blued, the series tells the story of David (Paulito del Mundo), a young newspaper cartoonist who enters the wrong condominium unit for a Grindr hookup and mistakenly gets pulled into a group of friends: Adrian (Jox Gonzales), Jessie (Eboy Fernandez), Kiko (Albert Saspa), Fidel (JP Mercado), and Misha (Sheena Ramos).

From its inception to the end of its first season, the series has dealt with a fraught but fascinating journey. Since the casting call came out, questions flooded in from gay audiences. Why focus on an urbanite, affluent, attractive set of gay men? What about the “chubs” and “femmes?” Why does it already feel so much like the acclaimed HBO series “Looking”?

“From the start, I knew it was going to get some pretty negative stuff,” shares Vargas, the show’s director. “When [Jade Castro] did 'Zombadings,' a few gay groups called it anti-gay and I knew those weren’t the intentions of the film. Now we’re doing a gay show; it’s a way to promote an advocacy and people would dismiss that. I expected that.”

In “Hanging Out,” there was a conscious decision to tell a post-coming out narrative. Wanggo Gallaga, one of the show’s writers, explains: “A lot of the LGBT stories that we’ve seen, it’s always about coming out. There’s always that struggle about coming out or hiding, but there are no stories out there of just them being themselves.”

"Hanging Out" director Petersen Vargas with 2nd camera operator Sophia Anwar on the set of the web series's fifth episode. Photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

One of the show's writers, Wanggo Gallaga, who is also a poet and screenwriter ("Sonata" and "T'yanak"). Photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

It’s a compelling premise, because coming out of the closet opens one’s life to boundless possibilities. It’s not a question of “How and when do I come out?” It’s “I’ve come out; what now?”

When the first episode, “Best Hookup Ever,” premiered in December of last year, Jansen Musico gave it a lukewarm, if optimistic review on CNN Philippines Life, noting some technical problems and stilted performances. “Most of this could have been fixed through a reshoot, dubbing, and extra work in post, but it seems that time and budget were main setbacks. It also didn’t help that majority of the cast were first-time actors who were still getting their bearings,” he wrote.

“Although generally passable, the pilot episode feels very wobbly. Like watching a baby trying to get used to its legs, however, we can’t help but still cheer it on. There is something about ‘Hanging Out’ that makes you want it to succeed.”

There was something imperfect yet admirable in the pilot. It had this unpolished charm, and it came with a feeling of validation for gay viewers. Here was a web series that told these stories about what it was like to be gay in the Philippines today — written and directed with love, played out by a charming cast, and set to a stirring soundtrack of local independent music.

How has it made it along now that we have all six episodes? The season walked us through the goings-on in the group of friends, from Kiko’s HIV scare to Jessie’s preparations for his childhood friend’s coming out party, through the conversations, both raucous and intimate, that all the friends share. All the while, the makings of a love story unfold between David and Adrian.

Paulito Del Mundo, who plays David in "Hanging Out," was in drag for the web series's fifth episode. Photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

Jox Gonzales, a first-time actor, plays Adrian in "Hanging Out." Photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

Along the way, the series addressed key issues in the LGBTQ community, which Gallaga notes sprung organically from the show’s narrative needs. “From our conversations in the writing group, we didn't sit down and say, ‘Let's make an episode about HIV’ or, ‘We should tackle trans issues,’” he explains. “We looked for stories and situations that gay people go through and used them as metaphors for the character development of David and his relationships with the barkada.”

As the season progressed, the show found its rhythm and the actors grew more comfortable in their roles, offering some standout performances, particularly from Saspa and Fernandez.

Apart from the minor technical quirks that persisted, the show had its narrative flaws. It seemed like there was little to justify the six-episode slow burn between David and Adrian’s meet cute and any sort of definite confrontation about the feelings they were developing for each other. There was no obstacle in the way of the two dating as early as the second episode except their own hesitations — hesitations that we as an audience just couldn’t grasp.

“It certainly has much room to improve here and there, but the one thing we’ve always been proud of about ‘Hanging Out’ is how sincere and honest we’ve all been all throughout the process of making it,” Vargas says in a previous interview with CNN Philippines Life.

Still, the show is a wonder for having been made at all, for the confluence of creative minds at play in its creation despite the odds. Working on a shoestring budget, Vargas and his team work with a skeletal crew and shoot two episodes a day.

Eboy Fernandez (Jessie) and Albert Saspa (Kiko) on the set of "Hanging Out." Photos by PATRICK DIOKNO

"Hanging Out" cast members JP Del Mundo (Fidel) and Sheena Ramos (Misha). Photos by PATRICK DIOKNO

CNN Philippines Life spent a few hours on set and had a look at the tight production. On one side, 2nd cam operator Sophia Anwar and assistant director Easy Ferrer would be mounting a scene for episode five, while on the other side, Vargas would be checking an edit for episode four before moving back to set. Shooting two episodes a day means moving fast and shooting for nearly 24 hours. Still, the love on set is palpable. You get the sense that people know it could be better, but it’s worth bearing with to make something as special as “Hanging Out.”

The question of representation has dogged the series from the start. However, it was always too much to ask for “Hanging Out” to represent all LGBTQs, or all gay men for that matter. In a discussion with Vargas on a smoke break in between sequences, we come to an agreement that it would be ideal to represent the entire spectrum in a cast, but it would simply be contrived. Especially given a web series’ limitations as a medium, there’s only so much space in a story for different characters. The solution isn’t trying to squeeze everyone into one narrative; it’s having more narratives.

And while Vargas acknowledges the need for a greater variety in queer stories, he says that the show was an attempt to work from what he, Valencia, Gallaga, and Lorenzana knew. “From the get-go, we knew what we wanted to do — that we were going to present a story that all four of us know, and that it’s going to tell a very specific slice of life.”

“The way I see it, so much has been presented out there, like just recently, [we had] ‘Die Beautiful,’ a trans story but treated very differently and very humanly versus the Vice Ganda comedies that we’ve been seeing … Nasa baby steps pa lang tayo with how people are seeing LGBTs in any kind of media. Hindi siya puwedeng biglain, eh.”

“Growing up as a kid who never saw stories [of LGBTs] — maybe that’s why I’m so stuck with high school stories, and now with ‘Hanging Out’ which is very young gay life stuff, because these are the kind of things I want to see. I don’t know if it’s selfish, but I think it’s a very necessary baby step towards sharing the same vision in the future to show the whole spectrum of the LGBT community. So parang, ako, ito ‘yung nilalakad ko because it’s what I know.”

Eboy Fernandez on the set of "Hanging Out." Photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

Eldzs Mejia (whose drag name is Francesca Towers), a guest on the fifth episode, helps David (Paulito Del Mundo) and Kiko (Albert Saspa) with their make up. Photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

Perhaps the show has undergone some unfair scrutiny as the first gay web series to come out of the country. And while it’s by no means the country’s first gay narrative (we have a rich, storied history of LGBTQ cinema), it’s the first that people can see for free online, then comment on immediately using the same platform. All eyes have been on the show because it’s so readily accessible.

But it’s worth taking a step back and seeing that “Hanging Out” has been a triumph, not just as a treasury of meaningful stories, but as something that makes us feel seen.

“I started to notice since 2013, more and more LGBT stories coming out in the indie film festivals. And as much as there are more and more stories coming out, people want to see more. It tells me, and based on the reaction that people [have had to ‘Hanging Out’], it’s that stories like these count. It validates people. It makes people feel hopeful, like they’re around and that they exist,” Gallaga says. “I love it when people comment, ‘Oh my God, that’s us!’ And then they’ll tag their friends in the comments section. And it’s great to see that because people need to see that.”

“Hanging Out” is by no means the last say in what it means to be gay in the Philippines today, but it’s proven that the demand for these stories is overwhelming. Cumulative Facebook views for its first five episodes are over 800,000. While this is admittedly an imperfect metric (the number doesn’t distinguish between actual views and auto-plays), the show’s social media traction reveals a significant fan base — who showed their love during the web series’ recent season finale screening event. There’s a hunger for a second season and a hunger for a full spectrum of queer narratives.

Director Petersen Vargas with "Hanging Out" co-creator Patrick Valencia, the screenwriter behind movies such as "How to Be Yours," and "Always Be My Maybe." Photo by Patrick Diokno

Will there be a second season? Vargas and Gallaga say it’s only a matter of finding the funding, and hopefully getting enough to shoot more comfortably and with less hectic schedules. The cast is eager to continue the series and given the first season’s closer, there’s still a surfeit of stories yet to tell about the barkada.

Though the future of the series hangs in the balance — it can still improve on adequate representation for everyone in the community, among others — it has opened a conversation which will hopefully be heard beyond LGBTQ circles. It’s time more of our stories were heard on mainstream platforms. We’re queer, and we’re here to stay.