Around this time last year, we were marching. Though the verb isn’t quite accurate—it was pouring, the traffic was impossible, we were shoe-deep in muddied grass and bits of soft, torn-up protest signs and the most we could do in the way of actual movement was trudge forward after 20-minute intervals, an exercise in repetition-turned-temporary-reflex. Not that that mattered considering anything but convenience and comfort and the literal meaning of the word march. Jun. 29 at the Marikina Sports Complex was loud, and the people (it was all about the people) were themselves—partly, completely, parading different permutations of selfhood. The agenda was love as dissent, dissent as love. And though, as in many things, some cracks were visible, the point was we were there and it’s the stories that count.
Also: We were free to gather then. It’s a startling concept these days, a gathering. A year ago, we were free to think about what the Pride March and queer safe spaces meant, and what else needed to change before we could truly call this place a gay-friendly country. (The friendship remains superficial.) We can still do all this now, but not without first fearing for our health, not without first thinking of death as taking on a renewed sense of immediacy or arbitrariness. The practical facts are inescapable, rules are rules (read: some government officials think otherwise): intimacy has been prohibited, and the spaces that run on the deep, momentary bond among strangers have been deemed non-essential.
On June 19, Today x Future (TxF), a fixture in Cubao nightlife, permanently closed. It would’ve celebrated its 12th anniversary this year. The bar, above anything else, was a safe space. “Much of what makes it safe is not just the people who run it, but also those who are in it. There is a shared responsibility to ensure that Today x Future and Futur:st will be spaces that inspire and empower,” says Samantha Samonte, one of the co-founders of TxF and Futur:st.
For more than a decade, the owners and regulars shared a tacit dialogue about community and freedom and sexual identity; it was an institution deserving nothing less than an outpouring of lamentations and personal testimonies in reaction to its closure, and of course a Facebook group where people pretended to be at TxF. “Thank you for letting us be your space, your home where you grew up, fell in love, fell out of love, discovered so much, learned a lot, met so many people we’re sure you hold close until now,” its statement read.
Yet the fact that it closed down despite the unwavering patronage, frequent food service (and occasional pick-ups and deliveries), a brief AV collaboration series called Future Isolations, rent forgiveness from landlords and some help from fundraisers and donations can—as is the case these days—be almost perfectly explained by the pandemic. Still, how to make sense of such a loss? Maybe we can’t; maybe we shouldn’t. Because for now we can only turn to the fact of closure and its many meanings and repercussions, the worst of which is the loss of jobs. But also TxF closing means one less refuge for queer people in a country that sorely needs it, perhaps all the more so during an indefinite period of mandated isolation. “Countless queer people are not out, and are not accepted by their families within the households they’re living in. They’ve had to endure and suppress even more so during lockdown [where] how they are made to feel have been inescapable,” says Samonte.
Months into quarantine, Samonte and her business partners Leah Castañeda and Sharon Atillo did everything they could to keep both businesses afloat, relying in part on the kindness of patrons and strangers alike while exhausting their savings to keep paying their staff the same wages, as the term “non-essential” signaled an end. The owners of these so-called non-essential businesses have had to reconcile the nature of what they did for a living and the communities they’ve built with the immediate effects of a lethal virus. But for those who ran businesses that also served as queer safe spaces, the dilemma seemed not necessarily more complicated, but certainly a lot more far-reaching in its effects. It wasn’t just about not having a place to drink.
“It’s essential to cultivate spaces that naturally allow someone to feel safe and secure. Queer people [have been] experienc[ing] oppression in every shape and form for so long now, and to have a place where they can not only be free to be who they are but also be respected for who they are makes all the difference. It’s what makes them feel at home,” says Samonte, adding that their queer regulars “have always been expressive about their love and support.”
Futur:ist, which its owners describe as TxF’s “baby sibling,” remains open, along with the handful of other Makati bars and restaurants that also serve as safe spaces. As is the case for many of these establishments, 20:20 and XX XX, a bar and club nestled within a sort of tiny compound along Corner Sabio street, have also been resorting to online initiatives to stay alive. They’re participating in panel discussions and fundraisers and holding online streams with their resident DJs and artists. It’s how they’ve been interacting with their community, with many of their regulars often present in the streams.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to pivot our business into something that generates income during this pandemic so we are depending heavily on how our landlords will charge us rent for the months of April till the time we are allowed to open. As a team, we took the time off to focus on how we can emerge from this unscathed,” says co-owner Anna Ong, who keeps in touch with their promoters and some guests. Their conversations aren’t all too different from the ones we’ve been having with our loved ones in the past months—what things were like before a global health crisis became our reality, what we’ve lost since then, and a constant longing for closeness marred by fear.
“I’ve spoken to some of our regular guests and yes, they do miss our venues. But we all agree that safety comes first—and we all need to be patient and wait for the right time before we get ourselves back on the dancefloor,” says Ong, who, along with her team had initially underestimated how long they were going to have to keep their venues closed. One month was the hopeful estimate, and now here they are, caught off-guard by the amount of time the pandemic is taking away from them. “Three months down and [we’re] still unable to go back to what it used to be.”
When these venues closed, we also lost the “freedom to let loose and interact without fear,” as Ong describes a basic right that has historically been denied to minorities. But it’s not like pre-COVID, homophobia and sexism didn’t exist as these forms of human blindness that need constant dismantling—the need for dissent remains just as crucial, it’s probably just harder to act on that need these days given, partly, the impossibility of closeness and the absence of safe spaces.
But do the implications of its absence make it essential? Here are places that could offer a sense of imperfect connection, solidarity, and security by way of simultaneous anonymity and visibility, things we could use during a time like this—except, of course, we can’t have that now. And though it’s painful (although a privilege, to some extent) to think about what used to be, this pandemic seems to demand that we accept that very few things are essential and that everything changes.
In 1968 in California, a year before the Stonewall riots, Reverend Troy Perry put up an advertisement for a worship service designed for members of the LGBT community. Twelve people attended the service at Perry’s living room, launching what would soon become the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), the first (and oldest) church founded by LGBT people. In 2006, Filipinos joined the global MCC denomination, founding Open Table MCC, a progressive LGBT-affirming church that provides a safe space for LGBTQI+ Christians and supports LGBTQI+ and HIV advocacies.
The Mandaluyong-based church remained busy when quarantine started, digitalizing face-to-face worship services by holding an online service every Sunday, a kind of support group where people could talk about their pandemic experiences. They’ve also continued doing their weekly preaching podcast as well as started holding online classes on SOGIE and SOGIE Oppression. The tolls of shifting to an online platform, especially within a community for which physical proximity deeply mattered, aren’t lost on the church’s attendees. “Many of our members express how they miss being together in our Chapel and the after-worship dinners that we usually have. Safe spaces for LGBTs like our Church are sometimes the only places that LGBTs feel free to be as they are. We have a few people who are still closeted and being in our community gives them a sense of refuge and comfort. It is the only space where they feel accepted and are happy with people who have the same experiences and struggles as they have. It is here that LGBTs can worship, pray and sing…sometimes with their partners or lovers, free from judgment and condemnation,” shares Reverend Joseph San Jose, the pastor of Open Table MCC.
This church’s mere existence feels like a kind of fortunate (and necessary) anomaly—the Philippines is both pre-dominantly Catholic and insidiously intolerant of homosexuality. So where do the queer Catholics go? Reverend San Jose says that because devout Christians who are part of the LGBTQ+ community have been removed from their ministry (or worse, totally excommunicated from their church) for being gay, it makes all the difference to have Open Table MCC. In this church, he explains, people are encouraged “to be critical and to ask the hardest questions” as well as “reclaim and reconstruct their faith and spirituality in ways that are more loving, rational and relational.”
“Many young LGBTs are currently trapped in homes that have fundamentalist conservative families. One young lesbian started to attend our online Sunday gathering primarily because she is in that situation where her family is conservative and are homophobic. Her only outlet was being part of our online gathering. So there are situations where faith for LGBTs continue to be a source of comfort and hope in difficult times, but there are situations where some LGBTs are trapped in families whose faith causes emotional, mental and even spiritual harm to them,” says Reverend San Jose.
Nobody knows how long this setup will last (and how long some of Open Table MCC’s attendees will have to wait before they can worship in person again), but the pastor thinks that even after quarantine, things won’t be the same—virtual safe spaces will exist alongside their physical counterparts, with many LGBTQIA+ communities and organizations tapping into the potential of the former.
Obviously though, the digital revolution didn’t precede the pandemic. And even before we were forced to stay indoors and social gatherings became a dream, we were already headed towards an increasingly digitalized thought economy and sociopolitical landscape. Virtual safe spaces have long existed, and the pandemic has only emphasized their relevance.
MapBeks, an online community of volunteers helping the LGBTQIA+ locate queer safe spaces and HIV facilities in the country, has been particularly busy in the past months, holding a mapping party called LGBTQIA+ Safe Spaces last June 10, hosting free training seminars on mapping, and releasing two new interactive maps called “MapBeks Stories” and “Stories of Discrimination and Bullying” where people can share their personal stories as members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The pandemic hasn’t really changed MapBeks’ operations, and, despite not getting to hold in-person mapping parties at the moment, their community of volunteers and the people for whom they’ve created their maps continues to be strong. “Despite everything, I have seen a stronger community as everyone is doing their jobs to stay at home. Drag queens [have gone] online to do shows for their friends or better yet just share a good show for others who are alone or lonely. [During] th[is] pandemic, where everyone is anxious and worried or would need someone to talk to or to go to, the LGBT community needs to be there,” says Mikko Tamura, a GIS specialist and the founder of MapBeks.
The point is to let people know that there are queer safe spaces in the country, and then to give them practical information on how these spaces and services can be accessed. In the face of quarantine restrictions, MapBeks highlights both virtual safe spaces and temporary online initiatives helmed by establishments people often frequented before the pandemic. “We try to mainstream these support groups, businesses, and services so people would know that they are there for the community. We hope to provide safeguards to the businesses and services that are currently available,” says Tamura.
And then there’s also visibility. Tamura says that “being on a map is a show of power and evidence of the reality.” Seeing queer-friendly restaurants, bars, clubs, churches, and health facilities mapped out is in itself a form of consolation and representation. It’s good to be reminded that these places exist, and that we could one day go back to them.
The pandemic has given this online volunteer community a lot of work to do, which hints at how the future of queer safe spaces will look: still largely uncertain, but will involve a massive shift to online groups and communities. “Queer safe spaces will continue to grow, but not in the physical sense. We’ll reach out to more LGBT groups in the future [and] in the next couple of months, we will be recruiting more volunteers to help us validate the safe spaces and HIV facilities that we were able to data-mine,” says Tamura.
As for bars, clubs, restaurants, and churches, the near future seems to be especially bleak—at least for now. But the people behind them remain hopeful, meaning they’re working harder than usual, with a vision of a post-pandemic version of safe spaces in mind. “Bars and clubs thrive on closeness and affection. That’s why it’s incredibly challenging to envision the opposite as the ‘new normal.’ However, I also believe that we need to do what we can until we can finally operate the way we want to—to again have that level of physical comfort we all miss. For now, I would rather choose a window of opportunity than not have anything at all,” says Samonte, who’s already expecting and preparing for new safety protocols. (They’re also set to hold an online pride party on Jun. 27.)
The new normal. It wasn’t such a terrible euphemism months ago. Overuse had rendered it meaningless, but I don’t blame anyone for clinging onto the possibility of eventual normalcy. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other. Besides, we can’t be bothered with these terms for too long. The more pressing question seems to be, how do we go from the melancholic we’ve lost so much to the practical what can be done?
“We will definitely need to adjust. The door will be heavily involved with the screening of our patrons to ensure everyone’s well-being. [There will also be] temp checks and perhaps rapid testing if budget allows. QR Code scanning per guest for the collection of accurate information will be a major part of [our] venues. Signs such as ‘keep distance’ and ‘wash your hands’ will be seen. A no-PPE, no-entry policy will surely be in place at our venues. It is unfortunate that we have to have these measures but we must adapt for our survival,” says Ong.
Open Table MCC, on top of enforcing health protocols such as sanitizing before approaching the altar for communion, will be slightly stricter about the number of people who can attend their worship service. “We will not worship the same as we do before even if this becomes allowed. We will ask our members to register or inform us of their intention to attend a Sunday service ahead of time so we can determine how many and who can attend,” says Reverend San Jose. And how exactly would these worship services look?
“During our worship, LGBT people in our church normally hug each other and beso-beso. This will be prohibited. Wearing of masks would be required as long as they are inside the building where our chapel is located.”
I’ve read somewhere that after the pandemic, queer safe spaces will see an upsurge in attendance, owing to the fact that some queer people lack typical support systems at home and as a result seek community in tight-knit social circles or in safe spaces. “When safe spaces open, they may be the first to come running because they have been longing for love, acceptance and authenticity. They miss genuine places and people. It will be a sort of release for them, and I’d be happy to have Futur:st be that place to welcome them back with open arms and plenty of shots, hahaha! This I think will still be the future of queer spaces: Be that place to embrace them. The only difference would is how we will move forward, health and safety-wise,” says Samonte.
What would a post-pandemic 20:20 and XX XX look like, I ask Ong, who answers: “It will look like a scene out of Mad Max.”