The moment that MMK announced that Anne Curtis, a heterosexual and cisgender woman, would be playing transgender man Marrz Balaoro in an episode depicting his life story, my hope for having accurate representation quickly dissipated.
After the news broke out, my trans brothers and I were quick to discuss our thoughts. A main concern was that this single episode would undo years of doing talks about SOGIE and respecting LGBTQ+ community members in the workplace. Some of us were hoping for the best, the rest of us were expecting the worst. I was among those expecting the worst. Despite the anxiety, I decided to watch it anyway because deep down, I wanted to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, it had a couple of redeeming points, but was damaging just the same.
In case you’ve been out of the loop, Marrz Balaoro is a 62-year-old transgender man from the Philippines. He was arrested in 2017 for performing same-sex unions in Hong Kong. He’s been known for fighting for the acknowledgment and respect of Filipino LGBTQ+ OFWs.
When the teasers for the MMK episode about his life were revealed to be using the term ‘tomboy’ it felt like a large red flag for misrepresentation. Despite there being existing divisions between the different labels in the LGBTQ+ community, in the Philippines, they are usually segregated into two boxes: ‘bakla’ and ‘tomboy’ regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
According to Marrz himself, the reason why they used tomboy was because that was the term he used when the events actually occurred in his life. He admits that the language that exists now did not exist in 1976. In present day, Balaoro identifies as a transgender man, but not once did they mention the term in the episode.
This brings into question what is more important in dramatizing someone’s life: accuracy or impact. It is accurate that Marrz called himself a tomboy early in his life but the truth is that that is not what he is. MMK had every reason to clarify that Balaoro is in fact a transgender man, but the reason for this misrepresentation may not be as malicious as it seems.
Despite this being the perfect opportunity to finally make a clear distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity, that seemed to not be the goal of this MMK episode. I am not defending MMK nor am I trying to paint the show’s decisions in a good light. I am against the decision to cast Anne Curtis as Marrz. I am against using the term tomboy for someone who is known to be a transgender man. I am against the dangerous misrepresentation that MMK blatantly aired to its thousands of viewers.
I also understand that rather than focusing on making their viewers understand the LGBTQ+, MMK wanted their viewers to be able to relate to them. Despite Balaoro’s life advocacy being about fighting for the rights of the LGBT+ Filipino OFWs, more than half of the MMK episode’s run time was spent focusing on his upbringing, romantic relationships, and struggles as an OFW. The events that were universal experiences to all Filipinos regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Like any Filipino, Balaoro experienced having a difficult relationship with his father. He experienced heartbreak. He experienced discrimination as an OFW.
It is accurate that Marrz called himself a tomboy early in his life but the truth is that that is not what he is. MMK had every reason to clarify that Balaoro is in fact a transgender man, but the reason for this misrepresentation may not be as malicious as it seems.
Balaoro’s experiences with young love was portrayed the same way they would a heteronormative romance. The same cheesy music, slow motions shots, and romantic clichés. May it be intentional or not, this showed their viewers that the members of the LGBTQ+ community experience love the same way they do. Despite our differences, at the end of the day we are all human.
Despite its failings, the MMK episode tackled experiences that are unique to being a transgender man. It showed Marrz Balaoro’s journey with medically transitioning. In one scene Balaoro learns about taking testosterone pills to alleviate the gender dysphoria he feels towards his body. As he says in the episode “Babae lang ang katawan sa akin.” However, the pills caused health problems for Balaoro and he was forced to stop taking them. This was then concluded with an important message: “Hindi kailangan mag transition para patunayan kung sino at ano ako.”
Although Filipinos don’t want to admit it, there is still discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ in the Philippines. MMK failed to utilize the impact it could have made on how the Filipino masses view their LGBTQ+ peers. They were capable of performing proper research for the episode. A simple scene where Marrz acknowledges that being transgender and being a tomboy are not the same would have made all the difference.
As a transgender man myself, I can only hope that this is the start. I am thankful for MMK communicating that the members of the LGBTQ+ community deserve the same rights and respect as any other Filipino. But I believe that there needs to be a call for the media to do better. It is no longer enough for us to be tolerated. We deserve to be understood and accurately represented in media. We deserve for our stories to be told truthfully and accurately. Cast transgender men to play transgender men. Use the resources you have to support the changes that need to be made in society.