Queerness of identity in the Philippines in Edith Tiempo’s The Chambers of the Sea
Each society, community or tribe is unique with its identity. A myriad of factors make up the multifaceted surface and endodermis of a community. Norms, morals, culture, history, economics, hegemony and people, men and women alike, push and pull, affecting others. Often times, people who create and perpetuate volatile norms, morals, culture, and hegemony can emancipate or imprison people who make the same edict. Resistance to him or expulsion from him may mean ostracism or nasty insults. Anyone who goes against the grain becomes the victim of a tyrannical culture. Therefore, the culture becomes bipolar. It nourishes but also creates sore sutures. People are left to continue slavishly to belong or to fight unbearably to suffer. Or say, a rebellious person in an oppressive culture faces what Helen Cixous calls “castration or beheading” for not supporting the dominant culture.
One of the most common disgusting social constructions is human identity. In other parts of the world, people are divided, labeled, judged, and expected according to their anatomy, sex, and norms. The question of man versus woman. Each sex is stereotyped according to social expectations. Males are supposed to be strong, rational, logical, intelligent, provider, master, straight, muscular, while females are weak, irrational, illogical, idiotic, receiving, slave, sexual objects, emotional and even worse, abused, silenced and evil in different media and literatures.
But what if a person is neither male nor female? What if a person opposes the entire expected role or identity based on normativity and performativity dictated by society? Then we imagine the worst. The victim becomes vulnerable to criticism from society where they are hastily and harshly judged as evil, abnormal, strange, impure, immoral, or “queer.” This is where the writer positions his article to fully understand the very colorful and introverted life of Edith Tiempo’s controversial character, Uncle Teban, in the story “The cameras of the sea” (Tiempo, 2009).
Most of the time, queer is defined as anything abnormal, weird, strange, or anything that challenges or questions a dominant culture, norm, or behavior. In the Philippines, being queer amounts to being a weak, bland, different, strange, or even immediate conclusion to being gay or homosexual.
Many scholars believed that society’s notion of sex is deeply ingrained in people’s minds perpetrated and perpetuated by social institutions such as school, church, family, and others. Queer theory challenges these social formulations to understand and tolerate sexual or gender identities beyond misinterpreted and transmitted beliefs about sexual categorization.
The theory and practice of queer criticism is based on questioning or challenging, discrediting the categorization of sex and gender that leads to an individual’s identity. Identity cannot and is not fixed. Issues of performativity and normativity are also addressed in relation to sex and gender, resistance, and power relations.
In the Philippines, the family, school and church are actively involved in the creation, categorization and fixation of gender and sexuality. The choice of colors for children’s clothing would signify sexuality. Blue for boys and pink for girls. A color mismatch would mean malicious interpretations that would lead to labeling as gay or lesbian, as if colors and children were synonymous with their sexuality. When they grow up, boys are told that playing dolls is for girls and that soldiers’ toys are for boys. Children don’t cry, parents told their young children. Implicitly, they say that only girls cry. And these are transferred from generation to generation. There is always a strong categorization in the Philippines full of dos and don’ts for boys and girls as they are linked according to social categorization, sexuality and their performativity. Anyone who does not defend, anyone who deviates, anyone who does not support the dominant male culture is labeled gay or homosexual with Filipino varieties of bakla, bading, badaf, shoke, Darna, and other degrading names.
The tale Chambers of the Sea, by Edith Tiempo, subtly and delicately depicts a man named Teban Ferrer or Tio Teban (Uncle Teban), as approached by the narrator growing up from Bangan and his diaspora to Dumaguete, whose growth and eventual maturity are puts on a test, questioning, scrutiny and suspicion based on their sexuality or normativity and performativity. Thus, the haunting question of whether Uncle Teban is gay, homosexual, or queer focuses on the lens of queer theory and analysis.
Tio Teban finds himself in the midst of strong binary opposites where characters are expected according to performativity and heteronormativity. His Bangan family, with their massive land, on the left and his new family with his cousin in Dumaguete on the right. His family is made up of strong men: his father who hates Tío Teban’s womanly behavior, Antero, his brother-in-law who physically cultivates the land of the whole family and his sister Quirina who wants him to continue with the legacy of his father’s land. . The social expectation of Tío Teban’s family is high based on his supposed performance as a male and heterosexuality.
In Dumaguete, with its boundless sea, Tio Teban has more comfort in the softer and weaker environment. His cousin Amalia is a typical housewife who plays a social role according to her sexuality, the mother of four children. Most of the time, Amalia’s roles are extended to Uncle Teban when the former runs on family errands. His wife’s husband is a passive man who never questions his behavior because he exhibits a quiet man who provides.
Amalia’s honest rowdy children interrogate and criticize Uncle Teban’s different behavior. His grumpy laugh is like that of Uncle Teban’s immediate family, who harshly condemn his weirdness. Because he does not perform and is against the norm of a typical man, unsurprisingly, he was miniscule for a weak, slow and weird guy. Mentally, they are attacking him for his weirdness. His father, who is supposed to understand him for who he is, is the first to ostracize him. His judgment is based on Uncle Teban’s “feminine disposition” and he could not forgive his only son for being so similar to him in appearance, but very different from him in his ways (p. 103). Uncle Teban’s father despises his penchant for cultivating a rose garden, drawing and painting with watercolors, his walks in the fields, his perpetual reading of literature, his height, and his narrowed eyes. All of these are beyond your father’s acceptance.
But above all these artifacts, we see him retaliate against his family even if they offend, hate and even denounce him for being different for not “satisfying his selfish desire” to want him to be what he is not. He felt violated and exposed. From a “fight or flight” dilemma, he makes a calm and resolute decision to leave his family for postgraduate studies in Dumaguete, where he successfully completed a master’s degree in Political Science. It can be deduced from a psychological point of view that he displaced his silent rebellion against his family towards a school search where his family could not reach him on the mental and intellectual plane. Choose your battle with intellectual elegance against the rough furrows of the earth. His identity, although different, abnormal and strange to the judgment of his family and Amalia’s children, Tío Teban is happy with himself. Your identity for yourself is not a problem, it is not a question, it is not a problem, but rather a choice. His stature is only under siege when people question him again and evaluate him according to his gender and role. In this text, Uncle Teban becomes a role model for a positivist existentialist who finds happiness amid people’s excessive concern for his identity. Choose what you like without personal scruples. It has no identity crisis in contrast to the popular notion. His notion is also affected, influenced and enveloped also by socially constructed criticisms against not so typical men like Uncle Teban. The question of what he is doing in his Dumaguete room is more of a personal introspection in financial terms. He, with a master’s degree, remains docile at his cousin’s house. Again he is forced by society to work according to his heterosexuality. The choice is yours.
Suspicion of her identity in the face of her personal choice in opposition to social expectation and the labeling of her tarnished gender identity is put to a test that ends in a dramatic and crystalline ending to the story. He received a letter about his father’s passing. Uncle Teban turned into a two-faced person while running towards the sea. He summons his pain, but finds happiness in thinking about the death of a father who has many prejudices against him. Without his father, there is more to himself, freedom. The hegemony of power exercised and created by his family only oppresses him. Thus, with the death of his father there is more personal emancipation from the meddling family and social expectation rather than lamentation. Queer becomes clear. He rejoices in his true self. He is neither man nor woman; not a mythical merman or a mermaid but a person. He is happy that he is without a label. Its rarity, from people’s perception, is just a myth. Everybody is a stage and people have different roles to play. A man needs to be happy with either a minor or a major role in this vast world of identities only constructed by men and women. As the narrator assures, “At least Uncle Teban knew one thing for himself when he turned and walked quickly away.” Uncle Teban is “He is what he is” a fallow iron, a union of man and woman; not gay or homosexual but a person with a designated corner in heaven, with a niche on earth and his own “chamber in the sea” …
With Davis, Robert and Ronald Scheliefer. (1989). Contemporary literary theory: literature and cultural studies. New York: Longman, Inc.
Time, Edith (2009). “The Chambers of the Sea”. Edition: Anthology of Philippine Literature in English Manila: PNU Press.