On Thailand’s Boys’ Love series

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

A fortnight ago, publisher and writer Jun Matias asked writer Juan Miguel Severo and I to join his ‘Lock and Roll’ Facebook discussion on Boys’ Love, or the BL series. Produced in Thailand, the BL television series has taken South East Asia by storm, especially in the time of COVID-19.

The Boys Love TV shows deal with boys who fall in love with other boys. But they are radical in Thailand for the boys depart from the khatoey, or the stereotype of the gay man who is effeminate, swishy, and works in the beauty parlors or in entertainment. These boys are butch and good-looking; they play football and used to date girls; they live in beautiful homes and wear stylish clothes. It is almost like your slick television series of love and loss, except that here, the boys fall in love with other boys.

Hendri Go, my informant and tireless organizer of Cebu’s Literary Festival (Liftest), said that the Japanese yaoi culture influenced the Thai BL. The Yaoi are Japanese manga comics dealing with physical gay love. The fans of the yaoi are called fujoshi, and they are mostly young women. On the other hand, we have the sonenai, or manga gay comics that deal with gay love that is emotional and romantic.

In both varieties, music brings the boys together; the setting is usually a school; the city is another character in the unfolding of the tale. Social media run the characters’ lives: the world of likes and shares affect them on a daily basis.

This is most clearly seen in the series “2gether,” directed by Weerachit Thongjila, which ran from May to May 2020. The series is about Wat (Vachirawit Chivaaree, nicknamed Bright), a football player and musician, who meets Tine (Metawin Opas-iamkajorn, nicknamed Win), an aspiring musician. Wat is brooding and melancholy while Tine is bright and bubbly. The casting captures perfectly the differences in their character traits. There is charm and chemistry between the two boys, who sometimes wear similar jerseys, or just look deeply into each other’s eyes, or feel the pangs of jealousy the way other partners do.

Shown right almost when South East Asian countries were beginning to be locked down because of the pandemic, the series racked up more than ten millions views per episode on YouTube. Twitter comments hit through the roof and fan sites mushroomed on Facebook and YouTube. GMMTV of Thailand wisely uploaded the series, with English subtitles, at almost the same time it was shown on Thai television. The effect was electric: the chat lines that were opened as soon as the series was uploaded buzzed with the viewers’ reactions. And guess which country had the most passionate, the most emotional, reactions? The Latin Asian country called the Philippines.

Why did it hold a whole region in the cup of its hand? “2gether” and the other BL series showed what many gay men did not have when they were growing up at the university: groups of friends, both straight and gay, who were openly supportive. That, and a milieu where homosexual acts were not seen as bizarre, or in Catholic Philippines, as forms of sin. The series showed that homosexuality is as normal as breathing; that families can be accepting and loving; and that life is worth living even if you dare to be different. And that a gay character does not need to die in a TV series, or suffer from tragedy.

Writer Miguel Poblador said: “The simple fact that it was two boys living out such plain, yet saccharine moments had awakened something in me that I had put to rest so many years ago. I was compelled to watch because they were showing  moments that I fantasized about, but was starved of during high school and college. These over-the-top gestures of romance, like being serenaded or given small gifts for no reason, were things my straight friends did when we were younger, things I denied myself out of fear. I was vicariously living out the past I never had. I was making up for time I was never given. I wouldn’t have even dared watch something like this when I was in high school, let alone attempt to live it out in real life. And now I’m watching with tens of thousands of other people, like it’s normal. Because it is normal. At least more so now than it was when I was growing up.

“This show’s success and how passionately celebrated it is in the media is a testament to how far we’ve come in terms of acceptance. It makes my heart sing knowing we can have these stories in the mainstream. The cheesy ones that are senselessly happy and perfect, the ones that don’t end in heartbreak or death as they too often do. It reminded me that we are allowed to have nice things, too, despite what we were told growing up. We’re allowed to have simple joys and cheap thrills, just like everyone else.”

Writer Don Kevil Hapal concurs: “I take comfort in thinking that shows like this will at least help the community get non-LGBT folks to consume and appreciate queer media, which is still a step toward inclusivity. Both lead actors seem to understand the LGBT cause. In their recent ABS-CBN interview, they’ve even been clear to say that love has no gender, and that’s not something you hear straight men say on TV every day.

“That a show with two male leads has gained this much popularity – no, even just the fact that shows like this are now being watched on TV – also gives me some hope for the future. Living in the Philippines, there are days when I just cry out of frustration over how unfair the system can be for the gay community. The State does not only fail to recognize our right to be with the people we love; it also denies us protection from discrimination.”

Well said and I agree with my whole heart. And now that “2gether” is over, I have watched the other BL series: “Together With Me,” “Love by Chance,” and “Dark Blue Kiss.” It is a fantastic and parallel universe, yes, and it works wonders for one’s mental well-being as well.

(Danton Remoto is the Head of School and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. His website is: www.dantonremoto.com)

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