A step out of the closet

My Husband’s Lover is a necessary stage in Philippine television. It successfully hit the glass ceiling—it just failed to break it.

Paolo Villaluna

A bride gets off her car and rushes through the rain in slow motion. We cut to a close-up shot of her shoe as the stiletto hits the wet pavement to splash rainwater— the cut-away is so long it fails to underline any poetic meaning. Instead it feels shot by a director who suddenly discovered the high-speed settings of his camera.

The bride enters the church and we hear her voice-over as she tells her story. 

And so begins “My Husband’s Lover:” the top-rating GMA 7 prime time soap opera whose narrative centers on the story of two straight-acting, good-looking gay men. Finally, the revolution will be televised.

In a television landscape where homosexuals are relegated to either secondary roles or worse, to playing comic foils, GMA’s decision to produce a show that strikes down the gay stereotype and risk the ire of ultra-conservatives is truly groundbreaking. And monumentally progressive.

Unfortunately, the show itself is not. 

The love story of our gay men is told through the eyes of what appears to be the show’s point of view—Lally, played by Carla Abellana, the bride in the opening sequence. The premise is simple. Lally is married to Vincent, played by Tom Rodriguez. They have two kids. Vincent is a closeted homosexual who is still in love with Eric, played by Dennis Trillo, his high school boyfriend. Vincent and Eric continue to see each other despite Vincent’s vows to Lally.

The triangle is hardly an innovative twist. Given the soap opera format, and probably to make the show more sympathetic, the lead becomes Lally, not Vincent. She has to be a woman, has to be beautiful and poised and perfect, has to be a victim whose mother was an impoverished prostitute. Vincent’s father has to be a rich, gun-toting homophobic general with a disapproving socialite wife. Eric has to be effeminate, arms swaying, wrists soft, his voice meek, underlining Vincent’s relative straightness. These are not tropes, or archetypes. Hell, they’re not even stereotypes. They’re caricatures. And that is forgivable, even acceptable for local TV.

The show is undoubtedly a hit, a phenomenon talked about by everyone so much so that the country’s most irrelevant institution, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, has been vocal about its disapproval. The show is keen to enlighten viewers about the homosexual experience: your effeminates, your cross dressers, your straight-acting men who call each other bro. The show also exposes us to the different types of discrimination, both familial and personal.

Moralizing, limited understanding

In what is played out like a camp horror sequence, Lally walks down the corridor of the room she suspects is her husband’s love nest. The music plays, horror, suspense, heavy piano chords.

Lally inserts the key. Her fingers tremble. She opens the door, walks, slowly across the floor.

The music stops. Silence.

She sees Vincent and Eric, hands on each other’s faces, faces apart, leaning towards each other in the slowest possible non-kiss sequence in television history. Cut to a close-up of Lally’s bag falling in slow motion. Lipstick and phone and accessories explode out.

The men are stunned. They jump apart, embarrassed. Lally does not say a word, the tears well. Vincent moves towards her. She steps back. He walks to her. She faints. Eric and Vincent take her to the hospital.

No doubt discussions on homosexuality on a national level is important. Yet the show is about Lally, and her experiences as the wife of a homosexual man. She will learn about homosexuality. She will be accepting. She will discover that there is nothing wrong about being gay. And the show will educate its viewers about homosexuals, about love and acceptance. The show is Homosexual 101. Educational tours are very good. If it were 1985.

In 2013, we demand groundbreaking shows to be progressive.

We know what straight-acting gay men are. We know bigotry is bad. We are politically correct, carefully casual, and we know saying faggot is a social media crime. But we do not know Vincent, we do not know what drives him—is it love or lust or simply loneliness as the other. My Husband’s Lover needs to make this about him, his struggles and choices. To be revolutionary, the show must speak from his lens. The gay experience cannot be filtered through someone else’s eyes.

The show, entering its sixth week, is now mired in its attempt to moralize on accepting the otherness of homosexuality. Yet a truly progressive show produced in the time of Planet Romeo, aids awareness, BB Gandanghari, Proposition 8, Ang Ladlad and Steve Grand is not supposed to establish homosexuality as different and later on embrace it as normal. You know why?

Because it is normal.

TELEVISING THE REVOLUTION. Dennis Trillo, Carla Abellana and Tom Rodriguez in the groundbreaking "My Husband's Lover." Photo from the show's Facebook page.

We see Vincent standing over Lally as she wakes up in the hospital. “I’m so sorry. I don’t want to see you hurting.” He tries to appease her. She stares at him. Weeps. She says they have two kids. She says he has always acted like a man. We witness Lally break down. We see Vincent flustered. He attempts to hold Lally. She pushes him away.

He disgusts her, she says through her tears. She demands why he took a gay lover if he wasn’t poor enough to whore himself. She asks him why—why Eric, why not another woman?   

There is silence. Vincent weeps. Chews his knuckles. Raises his head, looks at Lally.

“Because I’m like him. Because I’m gay.”

It could have been the most pivotal point in the series, and yet it becomes the most concrete scene that underlines the show’s limited understanding of homosexual relationships. In this portrayal, Vincent is with Eric because they are the same. They are both gay. His answer is that he cannot help himself, as against he cannot help loving Eric. His answer should have been, “Because I’m in love with him.”

The show is so focused on homosexuality that it forgot its humanity. This show could have been about how love is possible and permitted regardless of gender, and that like anyone, it is that choice that changes lives, drives choices, bad or good—the same as it can for anyone else. That would have been revolutionary.

This is still an important show, no matter the missteps in its politics, awkward direction and vague messaging. But because it is a first, because it is on primetime and more importantly because it brings the homosexual into the everyday Filipino home, it must carry the burden of doing it right.

“My Husband’s Lover” is a necessary stage in Philippine television. It successfully hit the glass ceiling—it just failed to break it.

Paolo Villaluna is an Urian award-winning filmmaker whose full-length films have gained international acclaim. He is also the co-creator and director of the weekly documentary show Storyline, and is an in-house director for Filmex where he makes television commercials. – Rappler