“I teach my child
how to survive
with words first
Called by reviewers as “one of Brocka’s most delicate creations” and “one of Dolphy’s finest performances”1, Lino Brocka’s 1978 film Ang Tatay Kong Nanay puts forward two positions: first, parental love and child-rearing do not essentially pre-require a specific gender; and second, motherhood, as both an act and an expression, is not anatomically innate in women as society believes and claims it to be.
To answer the question, what does it take to be the parent to an abandoned child, the film presents us an absent biological father, a repenting biological mother, and a gay man who adopted their child and raised him in both “motherly” and “fatherly” ways.
Dioscoro Derecho a.k.a. Coring (Dolphy) is a gay beautician who continues to hold a torch for his lover, Dennis (Philip Salvador). One unexpected day, he finds his beloved standing on his doorstep. Dennis is holding a baby, his son from a prostitute who, without a word, abandoned him and their child. Without Coring’s consent, Dennis, too, left his son to the gay man’s care. Opting to take in the child, Coring, with the help of his aunt, raises the boy as his own. In spite of keeping his being a binabae, a secret from the child, in a belief to give the latter a “normal” childhood, Coring creates and shares with Noynoy (Niño Mulach) an affectionate, even if far from the idealized, family. Some years later, the boy’s mother, Marian Jimenez (Marissa Delgado), in a pang of loneliness and guilt, returns to get the child; and it is in this part of the film, from the words of Coring’s aunt (Lorli Villanueva), who lays the women’s claim to motherhood, where we clearly see how society supersedes. Considering all the odds stacked against him, Coring decides to bring his son back to the mother.
The characterization of Coring as a person is not difficult to understand. He is a tender-hearted, cheerful, hardworking, and an all-out effeminate gay man who lives alone, manages his own beauty parlor and, occasionally, joins balls with his friends. Like many effeminate gay men in the Philippines, he admits to having suffered both beatings as a child in his parents’ attempts to “straighten him out” as well as ridicule as a child and as a grown-up by the world-at-large for his being “different”. He fell in love with Dennis and during their five-year relationship, he sent the young man to school. He lost Dennis to a woman; but continues to regard him as his beloved.
As a person, Coring stands in no complicated position filling in the practical definition of a parent; that is, an adult, mother/father or guardian, who cares for the child. Recent discourse may already have problematized the limiting concepts separating mother from non-mother or father from non-father – that “motherhood” and “fatherhood” may, to some extent, be now taken as a gray area. However, when we look away from academic discourse and into the daily cultural practice as shown realistically in the film, we may observe how Coring’s being a binabae poses a difficulty in his identification with either of the set mythical binaries of a parent: nanay or tatay. Because Coring oscillates in what is generally held feminine and masculine, it becomes impossible for him to firmly identify with one or the other; he is neither nanay nor tatay – and yet both.
In the affectionate relationship of Coring and Noynoy that may, in part, be contributed to Noynoy’s good and adorable temperament as a child, we see how identification with the mythical binaries may not be necessary, if not for what seems to be a cultural imperative. In one of the scenes of the film, we notice how the school, as one of the ideological state apparatuses, function on this insistence: on his son’s first day at school, Coring’s fatherhood is doubted because of his obvious effeminacy; accordingly, the teacher pointedly asks him the child’s mother, a position which Coring also has to claim as his.
The identification of, and consequently the identification with, the “proper” genders calls for compliance as a way towards the individual’s acceptance into society. A lesbian, transgender, or gay man’s refusal to comply with this identification results to being a subject of ridicule and isolation for “difference” and non-conformity. Practical knowledge tells us that the child of a non-conforming parent inevitably suffers a spillover of the social stigma; and so we understand, in light of this knowledge, why Coring volunteers to act on the performance insisted by culture so his child may, as seamlessly as possible in the given circumstances, enter and be admitted unnoticed into society.
In complying with this compulsory identification, Coring follows the rudimentary criteria set by society; that is, he decides to use his labelled anatomy as the basis for his identification and its performance. This is not unlike being on a stage where he makes a benefit show for his son, who is his audience: Coring dresses and acts on the part of a “man” to be able to publicly claim the title tatay.
We must carefully note, however, that there is a significant difference between an act/s as a show and action/s as a reflexive expression of one’s personhood. Being merely a put on, an act may have its beginning and end. An act may also be viewed as one among the list of many other acts which are socio-culturally associated with or categorized to a specific gender. For instance, part of Coring’s act to claim the title tatay is to show a rigid manner. In several scenes of the film, we see Coring relieve himself from this act whenever the child, or the audience, is no longer within sight. He stops the show and returns to his effeminate self.
What we may consider as expressions of Coring’s personhood are his consistent actions towards his son and the persons around him regardless of the known or unknown presence of anyone perceived as audience. From these consistent actions we can observe a manifestation of Coring’s attitude and traits – gentleness, nurturing kindness and industriousness among others – not only as a person, but also as a parent. \The consistency of these actions entire may be considered as reflexive, in contrast to the conscious show of an act.
In the many scenes in the film that illustrate to us the difference between an act and an expression, perhaps the most significant is when Coring attempts to wean his child from his affection. He orchestrates an appearance of punishment and indifference showing a series of acts intended to transition and transfer Noynoy’s filial affection to the mother. Through the camera’s omniscient point-of-view, we see how Coring himself is emotionally hurt in performing these acts which run contrary to his personhood, but which he deems necessary to be done in order to prepare his son for their separation.
That the child belongs to and is best cared for by his biological mother, who “naturally” feels for her child, is a socio-cultural belief articulated by the only other woman-character in the film. Coring’s aunt becomes the mouthpiece of the culture’s authoritative voice that draws attention to Coring’s “improper” gender and lays down the woman’s claim to motherhood. The claim essentially limits the capacity of Coring’s parental love by pointing at his anatomy, literally translating it to his inability to provide “genuine maternal” love and to feel the depth of a “genuine mother’s” loss. Accordingly, the claim invalidates Coring’s parenthood in favor of the repenting biological mother and impels Coring to give Noynoy to the “rightful” parent.
The child’s mother, Marian, is presented in the film as an Eve-turned-Madonna woman. Initially a prostitute who once abandoned Dennis and their son, Marian marries an old rich man who dies two years into their marriage, leaving her his wealth. Wanting to fill in her loneliness and to make right the wrong she did, she seeks Noynoy and wins him back from Coring.
Arguably, the film’s point-of-view perceives the heterosexual and anatomically women as being in a socially privileged position. At the onset we see how the prostitute Marian is chosen by Dennis over Coring; we may read his choice as a manifestation of the dominant socio-cultural belief: that a woman, regardless of her low “moral” or class status, is the “proper”, therefore always better, mate for a man than a gay man. Marian is able to legally marry, which by default entitles her to the estate of the deceased husband. Her being Noynoy’s biological mother also socio-culturally guarantees her parental rights over the child.
While we take note of the film’s interested presentation, we can still make a commentary on Marian’s actions as expressions of motherhood on the basis of the claim that nurturing motherhood is innate in the anatomically-woman. Her interaction with Noynoy, when the child is already in her custody, reveals her lack of patience, empathy, and kindness. The lack of these expressions of “motherly” parental love is especially significant because it contradicts the claim of the anatomically-women as “essentially nurturing mothers”.
Noynoy, having been brought up in an affectionate family, becomes “lost” in his new non-nurturing environment and consequently runs away home. Coring, fully clad in her gown and make-up from a ball, finds the boy sleeping outside his doorstep. Their conversation in this scene echoes the previous instance when Noynoy, having sneaked out of the house to watch the ball, first saw Coring dressed as a woman.
In that first instance, the child, gazing up at his womanly-dressed tatay, had innocently asked Coring, “Aren’t you embarrassed?” Coring answered, “To you [Noynoy], I am embarrassed.” Immediately after he replied, Coring put on his act as tatay, telling the child that he was dressed as a woman that night to gain more customers for their shop.
We may note that in the first conversation, Noynoy was standing on the floor and gazing up at Coring, implying a child-adult relationship. In this second conversation, the child is standing on a bench, appearing taller now than the downcast-eyed gay man. Noynoy is presented as a child-judge looking at the ashamed Coring.
Like a judge considering evidence, Noynoy tells that he has been told his biological father is Dennis, implying he now knows that Coring is not at all related to him by blood. By implication, too, Coring’s identification as tatay is publicly exposed as a lie for two reasons: not only is he not blood-related to the child, but also, as Noynoy catches him again appearing in woman’s attire, his masculine-feminine negotiating position disqualifies him from claiming either of the mythical binary of a parent.
Stripped from his claim as tatay, Coring stands no longer as an act, but as a person in front of Noynoy. Even if heavily covered by make-up and the defamiliarizing women’s clothing, it is this person whom the child recognizes as his parent.
In what may be the most beautiful and heartwarming exchange in this already beautifully written screenplay by Orlando Nadres, Coring asks how Noynoy reached his place; to which the child replies, “Didn’t you teach me the way home for when I get lost?”
With Noynoy’s symbolic knowledge of his direction towards home, it may be of interest to know that in one of the Philippine languages, the word for a parent is, in Cebuano, ginikanan. Ginikanan is derived from gikan, which means “a place where one came from”. In this sense, ginikanan is a place or is a person where one belongs to.
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Charmaine Carreon completed her Masters degree in Creative Writing (Poetry) in the University of the Philippines Diliman, where part of her coursework was on gay literature taught by poet and theorist J. Neil Garcia. Her graduate thesis, travelbook, is a collection of poems on women-loving women. A number of her poems from the collection won the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 2012. Her short fiction on coming out, Birds, won a Nick Joaquin Literary Award in 2011. She was panelist on gay writing in the 2012 Taboan Philippine Writers Festival. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.