Pasuquin is arguably one of the most backward municipalities of Ilocos Norte. It is economically slow, unprogressive, and stagnant. The town’s tourist attractions, if any, are not as well-known as the mindless bickering of its political families. Its Biscocho, though good, has never made it big on a national or regional scale. Salt-making, once a pride of this town, is no longer exactly traditional as the rock salt they use is now imported by bulk from Australia. The town could have made it big if only they supported the idea of setting up a dragon fruit farm first broached by resident Editha Dacuycuy, but she instead set up her now-famous farm in adjacent Burgos town after Pasuquin officials showed little interest.
These said, Pasuquin may not exactly be a model town, but there is, dear karikna, one thing the town is proud of. Such is little known, little emphasized, but is actually huge: its gay pride.
The Manila Pride March bills itself as the “oldest gay pride march in Asia.” Its first edition was staged in 1994. But did you know that an organized gay parade is being held in Pasuquin for forty two years now, starting in 1975?
A group of successful gay professionals formed the Sunflower Organization in the 1972. Its first project was the Sunflower Festival, a drag parade that celebrates pride in gay identity and fosters camaraderie among its members. Surprisingly, the people of this small and tightly Catholic town welcomed the idea. Mothers and fathers were supportive of their gay sons. Town folks watched the festival participants not with ridicule or contempt, but only with respect and admiration. It was such an extraordinary phenomenon that led American filmmaker Shawn Hainsworth to produce the documentary “Sunflowers” which earned critical acclaim in the 1997 Chicago Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and other film fests in North America. The film brought the Sunflower Festival in the international gay radar.
It’s a puzzle, dear karikna, how gay empowerment has become ingrained in the culture and consciousness of Pasuquenos, but Benly Agudelo Academia, current Sunflowers Organization president, offers this insight: “Sunflowers was started by successful professionals who were respected members of the community.” That is why, he said, “at the end of the day, people looked at our talents and contributions, and not on our gender.” Truly, the organization, through its yearly parade, has shown everyone that success and honor is no monopoly of heterosexuals and so no gay must be forced to linger in the dark. Aptly, the organization is named after the Sunflower which is known to face the sunlight. Members call themselves “sunflowers.”
In the absence of any record that would prove otherwise, Sunflowers is the oldest gay organization in the Philippines, if not in Asia. The University of the Philippines Babaylan, the largest LGBT student organization in the Philippines, was oranized only in 1992 while Progay-Philippines was formed in 1994.
I was invited, dear karikna, to serve as judge in this year’s Sunflower Festival held on May 4. There were almost fifty participants, half of whom are from Pasuquin. Actually, this is only the second year that the festival opened its doors to non-Pasuqueños. “This event, if it were to continue being relevant, must evolve,” said Benly. It was not an easy process though, with Pasuquin natives experiencing some difficulty adjusting with the invasion of bekis from the rest of Ilocos Norte. But it did not take long until they realized that “the more, the merrier.” In fact, the festival, which has been included as one of the activities in the province-wide La Virgen Milagrosa Festival, now enjoys support from the provincial government headed by Ms. Imee Marcos, a most gay-friendly governor. Surprisingly, the usually myopic-minded Catholic Church does not openly oppose the festival. In Hainsworth’s documentary, the parish priest says he gives gay people “the benefit of the doubt” while a gay interviewee felt that the church embraces them as “children of God, too.”
I personally witnessed and was thrilled at the immense joy brought by the event. Many high-profile gays from Ilocos Norte—including doctors, businessmen, artists, and more—flocked to Pasuquin to show solidarity. Sunflowers who are now working abroad also come home to participate in the activities. But what really struck me most was the support extended by everyone—from the town mayor to little children. There was a strong feeling of ownership and a strong sense of pride among everyone, something my sister Helen and sister-in-law Gina, who accompanied me, also observed.
Every year, a Sunflower Festival Queen is identified and crowned. The queen is someone who has been successful in his field and has made significant contributions to the community. This year’s royalty is Amor Albano, Ilocandia’s top fashion designer. She made a name in the national scene by being a finalist in Project Runway, a television reality show.
This year, a Miss Ilocoslovaklush was also chosen among the participants based on beauty, grace, and charm. The honor went to Richard Bumanglag, aka Kristina Cassandra, who is a key figure in a Laoag-based hotel.
I loved what I saw, and I could only hope that the Sunflower Festival will continue to make itself relevant by keeping attuned to the issues and concerns of our time. Now that pride and equality has been significantly established for and among gay people, it would be in everyone’s best interests if the festival could take a step further by espousing relevant advocacies that affect not only gay people, but also the rest of the community. This idea has been broached by provincial officials to the Sunflower Organization, but it has not been done this year. We are optimistic though that it will be given serious thought in the coming years. Surely, this enormous sense of pride generated by the event cannot and should not stop with mere pageantry, but must be taken as an opportunity to pursue collective action, for instance on health, environment, peace and order, and the like. Given the boundless creativity and imagination of gay people, serious issues could be tackled without sacrificing revelry and fun.
I so look forward to future editions of the Sunflower Festival, a pioneering movement in the Philippines and in Asia. Truly gay. Proudly Ilocano. A vibrant wealth of the sleepy town of Pasuquin.