Let’s mimic a pageant Q&A and ask me ‘What is the relevance of byukons to the LGBTQIA+ community?’ This is my answer
By Jontie Martinez
They call us konteseras or byukoneras, a play on the words beauty contest. We reigned in every nook and cranny where a stage could be erected, whether on the street during a town fiesta, at a basketball court, on a campaign sortie for a running politician, in hotel ballrooms, or prestigious venues like the PICC, on the very stage where the 1994 Miss Universe pageant was held.
We reigned in the ’80s and the ’90s, long before the internet and social media, where surgical enhancements were still at their infancy, and sex-change operations were only a pipe dream for Filipino gays.
The term transexual wasn’t coined yet, and “Gay Pride” was going through its birthing pains at bars and clubs of Malate. A quick Google search puts 1994 as the year Gay Pride March began in the Philippines, while others argue that it was, in fact, in 1996. Whichever it was, we “konteseras” were initially unaware of the movement, focused as we were on which pageant to join next.
I first started joining byukons in 1986, egged by my best friend Norie, a beautiful chinita I went to high school with. She (I’ll be using the female pronouns as gender-markers) introduced me to Mama Louie, who had a beauty parlor in Malabon, and would later turn out to be our mentor and manager of sorts. Mama Louie would do our makeup and bring us to small contests around Malabon, Caloocan, and Tondo. The precursor of beauty pageants as we know it now is the mujeran (from the Spanish word mujer, meaning female), a social event held on streets they would close off for the occasion. We would be dolled up in cocktail dresses, music would play, and the menfolk would ask us to dance. By midnight, the program would begin, and we would parade and model our dresses. Later, awards would be given for the Prettiest Face, the Best Dressed, the Most Feminine Look, and the Star of the Night. Prizes consisted of mundane things like a wall clock, placemats, or hair-rollers.
These clans are usually location-based, and are known by made-up surnames they use in competition. In my time, there were the Hilarios of Malabon, the Artadis and Montecarlos of Caloocan, the Arcaches of Pasig, the Gabrielas of Marikina, the Fairview Girls of Quezon City, and the Brunei Beauties of Manila.
Then, there were the actual pageants, again in makeshift places (once, two 10-wheelers were parked end to end to make the stage), or gay bars, clubs, and classier venues. The pageant ran the whole gamut, from costumes, to swimsuits, to evening gowns, to the question-and-answer rounds (talent presentations were optional). At first, we competed for trophies (some taller than five feet) and crowns, but later organizers discovered they could attract more candidates with cash prizes. It started from P1,000 (remember, this was the ’90s, when P1,000 went a long way) to a high of P5,000 (usually given during campaign periods where local politicos used the Miss Gay pageants to lure crowds. Byukons soon spread from Manila to nearby provinces, and I got to compete as far as Baguio City and Tabaco, Albay in the Bicol Region. On a good weekend, I could bring home as much as P10,000 to P15,000 in prizes, enough to cover travel expenses, treat my “clan,” and have some leftover to make new gowns or for other personal expenses.
Speaking of “clans,” these too mushroomed as byukons gained popularity. They are your “family”—the prettier ones competed, the younger ones helped out as aleli (gayspeak for alalay or personal assistant, sometimes sidekick), while the senior ones became the “mothers.” These clans are usually location-based, and are known by made-up surnames they use in competition. In my time, there were the Hilarios of Malabon, the Artadis and Montecarlos of Caloocan, the Arcaches of Pasig, the Gabrielas of Marikina, the Fairview Girls of Quezon City, and the Brunei Beauties of Manila. We competed against each other in often friendly, sometimes ferocious rivalry, but in the end, we were a sisterhood under the skin, united by our love of the game and our fantasy to become beauty queens, even for just a moment.
To paraphrase a popular question often asked in the Q&A portion, “What is the relevance of byukons to the LGBTQIA+ community?” Well, aside from the earlier mentioned fulfillment of almost every gay’s childhood fantasy, beauty pageants give us a sense of unity and camaraderie. Outside the pageant stage, solid friendships are formed. Long after we have retired our high heels, and our rhinestone tiaras have dulled, my clan has remained closely-knit, and has even withstood the challenge that is this pandemic. Our sisters who are based abroad generously extend a helping hand to those here who have lost their jobs or means of livelihood. We support and promote each other’s small businesses, whether it is baking goodies or making tie-dyed shirts. We keep in constant touch through chatgroups and Zoom calls, making sure everyone is all right. Beauty contests may not be as relevant as it was pre-pandemic, but it has given us a support system during these trying times. Transgender women, who make up a huge part of the kontesera community, might just be a stripe of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow, but this stripe is arguably the most vivid, if not the most gorgeous!
Happy Pride Month, everyone!