Introspection

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I like to think of myself as a closet introvert. I know I may not seem it, but I’m actually very shy. Although shy may not be the right word to describe me; proper, perhaps. Reserved. Always in my head. This of course impedes me from opening up to new people. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about how, in many instances, I tend to overthink things and it comes off negatively on other people – both new acquaintances and even close friends. When jarring things happen, my tendency is to internalize the situation rather than to lash out. Don’t get me wrong, I have lashed out at many people in the past, all of which turned out rather ugly. So now, when these things happen, I tend to deal with the implications internally – by my self (and with the help of my very, very close friends).

I have recently begun to realize that I may come off to many people as intellectually superior and perhaps even condescending. This is not something that I do intentionally – believe me, I would be the first to tell you that if there’s one thing wrong with my the way I think, it’s that I am not capable of understanding far too many things (like Math!). I don’t know enough. I will probably never know enough, which is why I value learning so much. This is probably why I went into teaching, too. One of the best things about being a teacher is that every now and then you get a question from an inquisitive mind that you simply cannot answer. You get a question that forces you to rethink everything that you know, or examine all the latent assumptions you may have had. And I live for those moments.

The problem is when I start talking to other people. I work in the field of theory, and I believe firmly that theory should never be divorced from practice or practical use. So when I start talking theory and try to ‘intellectualize’ our discussions some people get turned off; they tune out. Even my friends make fun of me when I put on the ‘professorial voice’. And some people just don’t want to learn, or they don’t value learning as much as I do. They don’t even want to talk about things which go against what they think they know – and that’s basically how we learn, through discourse.

And that’s my least favorite kind of person.

I will ask questions which you may find uncomfortable.  I will talk and prod and give my opinions. I am an academic. I am an educator. Deal with it.

Not that I fully endorse the concept of a monolithic, stable sense of self.

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Eponine vs Bella Swan or What makes a text Feminist?

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I was surfing the net and stumbled on these two reviews of the film Les Miserables, which is yet to be shown here in the god-forsaken, culturally decrepit wasteland of a country whose idea of film culture centers around pointless, plotless, story lines which feature vapidly talentless stars whose sole redeeming factor is face value. I digress.

Both reviews read the musical along the lines of feminist ideologies; the first review trivializes Eponine’s suffering when compared to the other female characters in the text, while the second argues that Hugo’s original text was revolutionary in its time for being overtly feminist and extolling the suffering of women under patriarchal powers.

The second review mentions that Les Mis is an operatic musical, and since the operatic tradition is driven by the female star, the roles of Fantine, Eponine, and Cosette dominate the musical. But does that make it a feminist text? If we root the musical in its operatic context and allow the diva to dominate the stage, does this truly push feminist ideologies?

The history of women on stage is not much different from that of women on screen: Mulvey’s to-be-looked-at-ness can still be invoked here. The spectacle of the coloratura soprano, for example, still drives audiences into the opera house to this date. Mozart married a soprano, and composed incredibly difficult arias for his singers, only the most skillful, most talented singers could pull of a proper Queen of the Night or a Constanze. Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, allows the lead soprano to cross-dress and act as a man to disguise herself in order to save her husband. Wagner’s operas required the most powerful dramatic voices, big and loud and immense: Brunnhilde, Isolde, Sieglinde. The Bel Canto masters drove their sopranos insane and made them kill themselves or their husbands: Lucia, Elvira, Anna Bolena. Verdi and Puccini basically kill off their lead females: Violetta, Leonora, Aida; Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Liu. Diva Maria Callas has become the end all and be all of any soprano to come after her, a sort of impossible model of the ideal soprano.

It is spectacle that makes these women powerful. Fantine gets her own wonderful aria, the tragic I Dreamed a Dream e(sadly popularized today by that one-hit wonder, Susan Boyle). Many other singers have sung this to better effect: Patti LuPone, Ruthie Henshall, Elaine Paige, even Lea Salonga. Anne Hathaway gives an arguably more nuanced, more tragic version than many of these women, perhaps it is the film’s emphasis on the drama of the woman rather than her spectacle. The same can be said of the entire soundtrack; with perhaps Eddie Redmayne’s divine light lyric tenor as the exception, the singing in the film is incredibly nuanced, almost as if the singing were secondary to the plot. Even Samantha Barks’ Eponine falls short of my expectations. She was wonderful in the 25th Anniversary Concert, especially when partnered with that most horrible of Mariuses, Nick Jonas.

This brings us to the problem of Eponine. As the Funny Feminist points out: “But by the time “On My Own” comes around, the revolutionaries are about to fight in the battle of their lives, the battle that might determine the whole future of France, when the poor folk rally against the 1 percent and the Mitt Romneys – and the play has to stop so a street urchin can sing about the boy she likes who doesn’t like her back.” That’s the thing about the aria, the entire opera has to stop to allow the singer his/her time to shine. Callas also points this out: in the middle of the second act of Tosca, while her boyfriend is being physically tortured and she mentally and emotionally tormented by the evil Baron Scarpia, all the action must stop to accommodate the soprano’s complaint to God, Vissi d’arte. This is part of operatic tradition. They don’t call it a show-stopper for nothing.

The problem I have with the Funny Feminist’s reading of Eponine is that she is shallow because she is in love and her love is unrequited. Ms Magazine actually equates her with Bella Swan, which is blasphemy in my opinion. At least no mention was made of 50 Shades of Grey. Eponine and Cosette are two tied characters: both young women, both abused by the Thenardiers, both pinning for the same boy, who just happens to fancy one and not the other. Now, I do not hate Cosette, but I simply do not see her character as very important in the text. She was poor, she was abused as a child, but she grows up, becomes rich and happy, and her character fades behind all the drama of the text. Meanwhile, Eponine tries all she can to impress Marius and make him notice her.

Is either character feminist? Not really. One disappears behind her adoptive father and then later behind the man she loves, the other ends up dead for a boy who barely notices her. But I would not trivialize the tragedy of unrequited love, as does the Funny Feminist. Remember that there is power in tragedy, there is power in this kind of love: It is from this, for example, that Medea draws her drive to murder her own children to spite her husband. That may be a little too extreme, but there you go.

Wow this post has a lot of links.

Rap and the Martyrology of the Bakla

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Last week, a group of students reported on representations of Gender in the Media. One of their chosen media texts was Gloc-9’s Sirena. Their analysis of the video was quite impressive, but I do have some additions to their reading.

When the video first came out several weeks ago, it was posted and shared on Facebook by several of my friends touting it as progressive and positive for its depiction of the bakla and the violence we are forced to endure. They also seemed to enjoy the last part of the video that shows several prominent LGBT people, which included members of the Ladlad Partylist, several authors, and Boy Abunda. While I am hesitant to criticize these people for appearing in the video, I cannot help but question their motivations for doing so. Publicity, perhaps? Or did they genuinely want to show how the bakla can rise above oppressive situations and become empowered themselves? Do they fully endorse the video and the song? Did they not find anything problematic with the text’s depiction of the bakla? I do applaud the artist for bringing the issue of violence against the bakla into mainstream media discourse, however, I am left with the  above-mentioned questions as well as several others regarding the video/song’s portrayal of the bakla.

For one, the song treats the bakla as rooted in effeminacy and womanhood. There is nothing wrong with this image as, classically, the bakla is considered a woman-hearted male-bodied person. My contention is that in the video effeminacy is treated as superficial, comic, and trivial (refer to 2:10 of the video). Although alternate readings may code this as a semblance of empowerment: despite the violence the bakla suffers, our ganda remains intact. This is an important facet in the bakla identity. I am not saying that we are shallow and superficial, I am saying that the bakla’s kagandahan is an important source of the bakla’s socio-cultural power. Without the bakla, our world would be dreary and bleak and fall into dismal ugliness. As such, this is a bakla facet that should not be so easily brushed off and dismissed as it was in the video.

My primary problem with the video and the song is that while it shows the violence suffered by the bakla – an arguably common image in Philippine media – it does nothing to challenge this violence. In the video, while the macho father dunks his bakla son into a drum filled with water, no one attempts to help the bakla. No one even flinches; they all stand by and watch in amusement as the bakla is punished for not conforming to the binary of babae and lalake. The bakla is forced to endure years of this kind of physical and emotional abuse: he is forced by familial ties to remain with the ailing abuser in an apparent attempt to win him over and gain his acceptance. It’s incredibly Freudian, and also incredibly ludicrous. The bakla becomes powerless because his very sense of self is rooted in his father’s acceptance of his kabaklaan, and is unable to divorce himself from this abusive relationship because of this. At the end of the video, the bakla gains his father’s acceptance and is able to empower himself. This is a rather dated model for parent-child relationships and should be guarded against. Why would anyone want to stay in an abusive relationship? Why not just up and leave and find love and acceptance elsewhere?

The video also purges the bakla of his sexuality. His object of desire is the lalake (refer to 3:50 in the video), but he is frustrated when the lalake still chooses the babae over him. This frustration is, again, treated in the video as comic and funny. The lyrics also say that all his siblings have married and gone off to raise their respective families while the bakla remains single and celibate to take care of the elderly father. The bakla becomes a martyr, the classic tragic character, an echo of the disempowered woman from ages past.

One also has to question the role of the babae in this text. She is virtually invisible, peripheral, unimportant. Perhaps this is because the text is incredibly patriarchal and reinforces misogynistic beliefs. In the video’s introduction, a group of men call out to the father and the bakla saying: “Nag-aaway yung mag-ina!” The text justifies the violence against the bakla by equating the bakla with womanhood – and any  performance of femininity in a masculine body must be punished.

One also has to question if this kind of misogyny and the reinforcement of patriarchal standards is a matter of genre. Traditionally, rap is not a genre that the bakla will touch with a ten-foot pole. There are, of course, exceptions: Hip-hop artist Frank Ocean recently came out. However, locally, the genre is rife with stereotypical portrayals of the bakla, and as far as I know, there are no bakla rappers either, which leads me to question the motives behind Gloc-9’s choice of subject. Can an evidently straight artist properly give voice to an oppressed other without exoticizing him? Gloc-9 fails in this test. He even says, “I think this is the first time that a song about a gay man is presented in a first person’s point of view…” But my question is, by what right can he claim to give a voice to the bakla? Is he bakla himself? Was he subjected to the same kind of oppression that the bakla were in his song? If he is bakla and was subjected to this kind of abuse, why does this kind of abuse go unchallenged in his song? Why create a martyr of the bakla? Why not empower him, divorce him from abusive relationships, allow him to shine outside of patriarchal standards? All of these questions cannot possibly be answered by a person who was not, himself, subjected to the abuse and oppression that the bakla are forced to endure. It’s classic Orientalism, except this time in the area of gender representation. I digress.

If you look at wider musical phenomena, the bakla has only very rarely been depicted and when they are, it is often a negative stereotype. Blackjack’s “Modelong Charing” makes fun of the bakla and warns against being deceived by scheming, gold-digging cross-dressers and transsexuals and justifies violence toward them. Michael V’s “Hindi ako bakla” pokes fun at failed attempts to conceal effeminacy in favor of masculinity. Dagtang Lason’s misogynistic “Nagmamahal ako ng bakla” treats the bakla as an alternative to women but also the emphasizes the oppressive economic relations between the lalake and the bakla. It also calls the bakla “pangit” and “karumaldumal” – an attempt to take away the bakla’s ganda and therefore his power. Finally, Eraserheads’ “Hey Jay“, arguably the least offensive of these songs, advises the bakla to “ipagdasal na lang natin na balang araw ay… everything’s gonna be okay” and “kailangan ay magtiis ka.” Although at least the song questions why homophobes are “puno ng galit ang isipan… walang galang sa kapwa tao.”

Gloc-9’s Sirena ends with “minsan mas lalake pa sa lalake ang bakla” and simply reinforces patriarchal models of behavior by elevating the lalake as the standard against which other genders are compared. All of these things lead me to wonder if Harvey Fierstein’s motto (“Visibility at any cost!”) is still applicable. Can we still use that as a mantra if the images we consume are so highly problematic and if these images simply reinforce patriarchal control over other identities?

A guide to throwing tantrums

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As a modern incarnation of divas of the past (ie. Maria Callas, Nellie Melba, Kathleen Battle – all famous for throwing hissy fits worthy of three-year-olds), I have thrown my own share of tantrums over the years. Here now is my own personal guide to throwing tantrums properly.

First, make sure that everyone knows you are throwing a tantrum, otherwise what’s the point? Go ahead and raise your voice, loudly exclaim that you are a diva and you refuse to be treated like a commoner. For example, at one performance at the CCP, I had to pick up a few laggard friends outside the theater and hand them their tickets. I burst out of the theater doors, tickets clenched in my up-raised fists and loudly proclaimed: “I have never been late to the theater!” I then proceeded to hand out the tickets to my friends. I considered dramatically throwing the tickets on the floor for my friends to pick up, but I thought that would make me look like too much of a diva. On hindsight, perhaps I should have.

Remember that the silent treatment does not work. You are diva, you do not suffer in silence like those understudies (who, if you perform your diva-hood correctly, will never be able take the stage away from you). Be loud, comment on everything, be sarcastic (all the time!). And most importantly, only speak in English. If you can muster an old rich American-British accent a la Norma Desmond, your tantrums will become even more effective.

Second, work on your facial expressions. Pout, scowl. Channel the roles of Medea, Abigaille, and Amneris when throwing tantrums. I was raised by an overbearing mother who always told me, Makuha ka sa tingin.” So today, I practice what my mother taught me and I make sure that people will know I am throwing a tantrum just by looking at them. Now augment this rabid, enraged look with loudly enunciated statements like, “I am far too important to be standing in line!” or “If this event involves more than ten people, I refuse to participate!” and your tantrum will have achieved its intended effect.

A tantrum works best when you wear heavy eye make-up.

Third, learn the art of the diva walk out. Puff out your chest, hold your head high. Make sure you look properly enraged. Pause for a dramatic effect. Fluidly walk out and never look back.

Finally, throw a tantrum regardless of who you’re with. Close friends, family members, acquaintances, students, random people standing on the platform waiting for the next train. Strangers most especially, since these people do not know who you are, you must tell them that you are a diva with a fiery temperament not to be reckoned with. You must announce your divahood to the world.

This is what a proper tantrum should look like.

Talackova (aka. What is a ‘natural’ woman?)

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So the Miss Universe Organization is changing its rules to allow transgender women to compete in it. I wanted to write this article just to put in my two cents.

As of right now, I still have mixed feelings about this change.

Being transgender myself, I know people would expect me to think highly positively about this change. But I have my reservations. I also have a friend who is an avid fan of the pageant circuit, to say the least, and I asked him his opinion on the change. He’s gay, so I expected him to say that it was a good thing. However, he pointed out that there are other pageants out there for transwomen, why not leave Miss Universe to biological women? He has a point, but there lies the difference in our reasons for not liking the change: Biology.

My main reason for not liking the change is that I don’t think the Miss Universe pageant is the right avenue for pushing transgender rights. (But then again, what is the right avenue for this?!) Ok, news like this is great for getting transgender awareness out there. And while I appreciate the value of spectacle and artifice as espoused by the pageant circuit, I am also very much aware of the deep-seated hegemonies and misogynistic discourses perpetuated by such pageants. For one, instead of celebrating the whole range of womanhood and the diverse experiences of “being” a woman, these pageants celebrate only one phase: the Virgin phase. (Insert Ancient Greek models of womanhood: Virgin, Matron, Crone.) The rules of the Miss Universe pageant are openly misogynistic: a woman must be of a certain age (no older than 27), must have never borne children, must have never been married, and the winner must remain unmarried until the end of her reign.  And second, these pageants create an oppressive model of womanhood – one that is unachievable by ‘ordinary’, lower/middle class, biological women, let alone transgender women. My take on beauty pageants is this: go pageant crazy for a few weeks a year, then move on with my life and forget who won the title. I can always refer to my friend for his expertise on this topic.

On the other hand, this change openly challenges our preconceived notions of what being woman/female is. Is it a mere question of biology, and if it is, which body part makes a woman, a woman. Is it genitalia? Is it the brain? Is it a chemical thing, hormones, chromosomes? Or is womanhood, as with anything we have been conditioned to accept as natural, simply a social construction, which Butler argues is created and reinforced based on the repetitive performance of actions coded as male/female (masculine/feminine) (heterosexual/homosexual) and the policing of actions which transgress these poles? Allowing transgenders (post op transsexuals) to compete in the pageant for ‘natural-born’ women exposes the superficiality of the naturalized category of Woman – that is, I think, why people have been so aggressively arguing against the change. Just read the comments section of the article I posted above and see how powerfully negative most of them are.

By undoing the naturalness of the sex/gender categories of male/female, masculine/feminine we basically destroy the world and its purported sense of order. If we get rid of these categories – and the subsequent hegemonies brought about by these categories – then we get rid of discrimination and social imbalance based on sex/gender/sexuality. Now imagine that: a world with no gender. Of course, I digress.

Jenna Talackova’s bid to run against ‘natural’ born women in Miss Universe Canada is courageous, yes. But it also gives her, and other future transgender contestants, an unfair advantage over other contestants. If not for anything, her story has already given her quite a lot of press leverage: if she doesn’t make it to at least the semi-finals, the organizers will be accosted for being transphobic. And we all know how affirmative action isn’t really affirmative. Also, allowing only post-op transsexuals compete in such pageants simply reinforces heteronormative/heterosexual discourses: as if to say that even within the transgender community, post-op transsexuals occupy the higher rungs of the hierarchy with pre-ops and non-ops occupying the lower levels. Talackova is opening doors for other transgenders, yes. But one might have to ask if she’s opening the right doors. When so many transgender women are denied access to medical care, education, legal protection, and other human rights, is joining a beauty pageant enough for our advocacy? The obvious answer is no. It’s a good start, it challenges people’s preconceptions of womanhood, and is a great medium for transgender awareness and education. But it shouldn’t stop here. There is a long way to go.

 

PS.

Coincidentally, Talackova’s name is perfect for Filipino Gay Lingo: Swardspeak. The Tagalog word ‘talak’ means to nag, to scold, or to verbally abuse. Used in a sentence: Shutanginmez! Na-Talackova na naman ako ni mudrakelles!

A defense of today’s Gay Icons?

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It’s been a while since I posted on here, so here goes. I read this article the other day, and got to thinking about today’s new gay icons. Basically, the article is about how today’s gays don’t appreciate (or even know) the pioneers of gay iconography and how little they value the history behind these icons.

But how does one create a gay icon? When I was brainstorming for thesis topics, I actually proposed one that centers on how the media create gay icons, or rather how audiences create queer subtexts out of non-queer texts. Way too difficult, so I went in another direction. Nevertheless, when I was doing research for that topic, I  read that St. Sebastian was technically the first gay icon. And he was literally an icon. Renaissance masters used the saint to code queer subtexts into religious iconography by integrating his image with that of Apollo, twink god of light, emphasizing his suffering while glorifying the beauty of young male virility at the same time.

Flash forward to the early 20th century and we get Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, played by the glorious Judy Garland. I’m not going to lie – the first time I saw the movie, I was already taking my MA and I was totally freaked out by the munchkins and Glinda’s perky sadistic smile. I totally didn’t get the whole queer thing from it. Except for the part where she sings Over the Rainbow. You see, today’s queer people live in a very different social climate – and I’m one of those people who firmly believe that in order to fully understand the meaning of a certain phenomenon, you must be able to correctly situate what you’re trying to understand in its proper setting. In the early 1940s, the gay rights movement was virtually non-existent. People barely talked about sex, let alone deviant forms of sexual behavior (which was very heavily policed). So, if you look at the lyrics of the song, it’s basically a metaphor for a better place, hence the queer subtext. It was then that gay men started referring to each other as friends of Dorothy – pity the straight man who actually had a friend named Dorothy.

This gave rise to the tragic Gay Icon: the diva who was fabulous in public and a total wreck in private, which mirrored how gay men felt about their own lives. If you were a gay man during these times, you had to do everything you could to keep your sex life secret, which I would imagine, lead to a great amount of depression and perhaps even suicides. The tragic diva gave gay men and outlet on which to project the tragedy of their own lives: Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, and today Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, and Whitney Houston.

Enter the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s and the new millennium and we get Barbra, Cher, Madonna, Mariah, Celine, the Spice Girls, and (as much as I hate her) Lady Gaga. So what happened? We jumped from tragedy to pure spectacle. Granted, I know how important spectacle, pretense, superficiality, glitter and camp are to queer culture. If you grow up queer, you understand the importance of artifice. But I also understand that we live in a very different time from when we first started diva worship. Today the world is more tolerant, perhaps even more accepting. And today’s gay icons reflect that.

Of course in this pantheon of Divas and gay icons, some stand out more than others. Barbra for her looks and also for her incredible voice, Cher is an exercise in superficiality and the powers of modern science, and Madonna for her uncanny ability to change her image and be effortlessly subversive. As for the others, well, I really don’t like Lady Gaga forcing herself into becoming a gay icon. Camp must be unintentional, not crafted – Katy Perry is also guilty of this, although I do think she pulls it off better than Gaga. And while Gaga’s music is relatively good (I wanna take a ride on your disco stick – bwahahahahaha!), I don’t like the way that Born This Way has become the New Gay Anthem and supplanted Over the Rainbow. Call me old-fashioned.

Today’s gay icon blurs the line between entertainment and politics. Lady Gaga forcibly pushes the Gay Agenda by arguing that we are born this way – an exercise in faulty logic and essentialism, granted, but it does have more political leverage than performativity, which argues that being is nothing more than a function doing (and if that is so, once you stop doing, than you stop being). Madonna’s new album critiques religious persecution and vilification of  sexual practice by reveling in (non-heteronormative) sexuality instead of shunning it, and challenging the concept of Sin (I’m a sinner, I like it that way).

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with today’s spectacle-based (content-lacking?) diva worship, it is of prime importance that we (at the very least) learn about divas of decades past. Even today, the Barbra-Cher fanbase is growing smaller, and fewer and fewer  baby fags are getting to know these great divas (perhaps they’re a little too busy with One Direction? – not that I blame them, Harry Styles is adorable). Of course, the tradition of the tragic diva is well and alive. We call her Adele. And she’s brilliant.

Isang trak ng bakla.

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A friend recently posted this video on Facebook.

It’s a short feature from a gag show called Wow Mali! They basically get a truckload of gays/transgenders/transsexuals and have them attack random men in public. With their battle cry of, “Ay! Lalake!” they grab hold of random men and excitedly call them “papa!” while screaming and shrieking.

Yes, it’s a funny phenomenon. Imagine a dozen effeminate gays shrieking at men, while they try helplessly to get away. A few of them even try running away, but to no avail.

However, it’s images on mainstream media like this that reinforce or create homophobic panics. Already, many heterosexual men feel uncomfortable with gays/transgenders because they think that ours is an identity based solely on sex – that all we think of is sex, and that all we do, we do for sex. Granted a fair amount of sex is involved in our lifestyles (then again, everyone should embrace and claim their respective sexualities), but being gay or transgender is more than just the sex. What the media do is exploit this aspect of the queer identity and make it seem that our very lives center around the practice of sexuality.

By coding the bakla as a sexual predator (watch the video and see just how predatory these gays are), Wow Mali tells its viewers, specifically its male audience, to be careful of the bakla, because we are sexual beings out to get them. This predisposes them to homophobic feelings, which may lead to acts of violence and hate, which further engenders the Filipino LGBT community because we have no Hate Crime legislation in this country.

I’m not saying that all the men who watch this video will go out and go gay-bashing after. Media effects don’t work like that. All I’m saying is that the media should be more careful in their portrayal of gendered identities, and that audiences must be more critical of what they see on tv or in the movies.

I’ll end here, but you can actually watch the clip and analyze the hell out of it further. For example, the bakla in the video also attack a straight couple, and separate the man from the woman – an indicator of the bakla‘s supposed need to supplant the babae? The men’s facial reactions which range from utter bewilderment to annoyance to anger, indicators perhaps of already extant homophobic tendencies?