There is surface, and then there is depth. It was the 1950s when gay-themed films that so often saw portrayal from the King of Comedy Dolphy permeated every television of every household. Back then, the Filipino gay man only bifurcated into one-dimensional roles: the loud and flamboyant parloristang bakla who works in cheap salons, and the closeted, macho gay. Such films latently left a lasting, warped impression of what a Filipino gay man is which, by turns, condemned them to mockery and ridicule.
The year was 1988 when Lino Brocka came out with Macho Dancer, a film so unorthodox that it precipitated an elevation in LGBTQ+ discourse and media characterization. Realistic and unblemished, the film tackled severe issues such as sexual slavery, drug abuse, and abject poverty. Finally and justifiably, the Filipino gay man was stripped of his stereotypical, comical sheath held into the light in all his convolutions and nakedness.
They say not all Filipino gay men are parloristas. Granted. These days, the parloristang bakla is held in contempt—a biting sourness in the mouth—and independent films may just be well on their way in stamping out such stereotype. The parloristang bakla, however, continues to persist unapologetically. Braver still, for he persists beyond the blinkers of film: in real life.
Within the unknowing recesses of Manila Residences in Taft is a nameless beauty parlor. Here in this parlor is where Ericka cuts, styles and colors hair day in and day out. Some say behind every adult is a child whose dreams have come to naught. For Ericka, life in the parlor wasn’t his first choice. He wanted to a teacher, but his financial situation couldn’t afford him that dream. And so, for a while, he was a high school graduate working a string of odd jobs. He waited tables, assisted in video stores. He’d take these jobs, these little grindstones—taxing and routine, sometimes menial—anything that could assuage financial pain and then, finally, hairdressing.
It’s not exactly what one would call a dramatic shift in career, wasn’t anything like a sharp vicissitude left him jarred and jaded. It was more a decision that sprung from many realizations, most of them pragmatic and accepting of a reality that still somehow ran parallel with things he had always held dear. After all, he had enjoyed dabbling with cosmetics child; beauty was a hobby, a preoccupation that would soon bloom into a twelve-hours-a-day commitment.
“Gusto ko lang talaga, walang tulak. Kasi parang bata pa lang ako, gusto ko na. Kahit taga-walis, taga-shampoo. Mura lang enrollment kaya nakapag-vocational ako.”
Despite the precariousness of his situation, however, one thing remains to him: his gayness. “Grade three, alam ko na,” answers Ericka when asked about when he discovered he was gay. Today, Ericka is what one would call a parloristang bakla. Some might even say that he fits the stereotype perfectly—make-up and dyed hair and all—but Ericka is so much more, so much more.
His journey in becoming a parlorista wasn’t as linear as he thought it would be. Although he was able to take a vocational course in hairdressing, there were still bouts of doubt, and nervousness and fear. For a time, Ericka avoided hairdressing, and confined himself in cleaning, sweeping, and washing the towels out of fear of doing a bad job and upsetting the clients. It almost seemed funny—a hairdresser afraid of hairdressing—but it rang true for Ericka, who takes his job seriously.
Taking flak and credit
The consistent fact was that none of it came easy. The compliments, the fleeting flashes of affirmation, the cash advances and the loans and the tips—they all take their toll at some point. Ericka was well aware of this. If some days saw clients thanking him for doing impressive work, it wasn’t unlikely that the next few days meant taking flak from clients who were unimpressed this time. And if because of a cash advance, he gets to pay all the bills at one point, it wasn’t so absurd for him to anticipate a dramatic salary reduction the next pay day.
What made things worse is that there didn’t seem to be any pattern behind all this. These sudden shifts of fortune weren’t part of some criss-cross cause and effect scheme: It just happened that sometimes, despite his eagerness and his commitment, Ericka would still be faced with rejection—the kind that was frustrating in its perversity and painful in its predictability.
“May mga dumating na ganun. Merong mga clients na hindi na lang nagsasalita, lalabas lang. Meron ding magtatanong ‘Wala na bang iba? Pwede babae na lang.’”
But whatever this awareness of circumstances suddenly going awry resulted to, stopping to wallow wasn’t one of them. At least that seemed to be the case. Whatever apparent contempt or indignation he held against receiving bountiful criticism and hardly any tips were graciously offered by temperance, were always outweighed ny some heavier reality.
“Sinusuportahan ko nanay ko, tsaka mga pamangkin ko na maliliit pa. Yung sweldo ko kasi naka-save yun…pambayad ng bahay, pambayad ng mga utang na rin, pero syempre bibigyan mo mga magulang mo, mga pamangkin mo,” shares Ericka.
And so he takes this inconvenient truth for what it is: A fact of life. Perhaps one that closely resembles a cynical plot device so often in telenovelas, but one that nevertheless carries enough force and grit and weight to push him to work and to take on a role of resilience.
Breaking the stereotype
The parloristang bakla. A gay man working in a cheap parlor. Loud and brash and a gossipmongering. Perhaps there is some truth to this stereotype—but the thing about generalizations, about fitting people into boxes and trying to view them from lens that is familiar is that it tells an incomplete story about them. Ericka is a gay man working in a parlor He is a bit reserved when he talks. He once thought about becoming a teacher, but now he is a hairdresser who dreams.
“Sana someday magkaroon din ako ng salon. Sariling salon.”
While in some ways the trajectory of his story may have followed a certain plotline so frequently devised in films, this says nothing about him. And so audiences remain to be the clueless onlookers that they are; spectators of a movie that can only hint at depth and offer nothing but cut-paper shadow of a person, an ephemeral view of a character that no can seem to get right.
The average haircut from a cheap parlor may cost well below five hundred pesos, and a thousand or more for color and highlights. The true cost of pretty hair, however, is so much more than that. It’s another person being cut at the knees for being born in a world where schooling cannot be afforded, of sacrificing one’s dreams for the sake of family, and ceaseless fits of self-deprecation and insecurities. It is a twelve hours of work a day, meager pay weighty debts, and zero government benefits. But dreaming knows no dividing lines and so Ericka continues to dream, his feet grounded firmly by the necessity of money and concrete plans, by an almost calculated awareness of the wicked lie that to dream would cost him nothing.
“Mag-ipon talaga dapat talaga. Makaipon kasi pag sweldo mo pa lang, babayaran mo na ang bahay. Andiyan yung mga bills mo, andiyan yung family mo. Hindi pa sapat. Siguro mag-abroad, baka makapag-ipon pa talaga.”
Nowadays, the parlor where Ericka works in is stripped and completely undone, awaiting occupation from the next establishment. There is a disconsolate air to it, for what was once filled with light and customers has been deserted by its tenants. The parlor is now an empty space, a void to show what is no longer, and where Ericka may be remains unknown. Perhaps, out there, still enduring.