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Under Bright Lights is an extraordinary and accomplished book that makes a poignant and thoroughly geographical argument about the privileged gay scene in Metro Manila that existed from roughly 2003-2009. The scene was not defined by a street or a district; it was a series of nodes (clubs, bars, commercial developments and private homes) linked through travel in private cars, at an insistent remove from the poverty so evident on streets throughout the city.
As much as a concrete experience of these places and this mobility, this scene was defined by a time-space imagination of modernity, progress, escape, newness, nowness and connectedness to global gay culture. The poignancy of the narrative emerges as the story unfolds, as we learn that those who travel to gay capitals as eager participants in gay globality are often subjected to racism once they arrive. This experience is rarely discussed when they return home to Manila; it is hidden as shame. “Travel,” Benedicto writes, “…becomes paradoxically an occasion when the subject is put in his place” (page 130). This is a place, he argues, of marginality within gay globality. In the end it is at home, in Manila, where the dream of being global can be most convincingly performed. “The privileged third-world subject,” Benedicto writes, “for whom staying ‘at home’ is both a drudgery and a humiliation, can only be global at home, away from the gaze of the other who judges, in the third-world city that simultaneously threatens and impels dreams of globalness” (page 131).
This book is one of the finest instances of writing the city that I have read. What the author calls immersive fiction might also be thought of as creative non-fiction, given the rich ethnographic and auto-ethnographic detail on which it is based. The theoretical apparatus, skillfully deployed, tends to emphasize signs, text and visuality but the writing is much more fully sensual that this: it invites the reader – not only to see, but to feel, smell and touch different spaces in this immensely complicated city. Trips driving through the city, various clubs and gated communities all emerge in vivid detail to tell the story of a city of “improvised responses” that effectively keep separate “the relentless crumbling together of privilege and marginality” (page 101). The airport, one site of investigation, is a place where these strategies of bordering temporarily collapse and privileged Manila residents and working class Overseas Filipino Workers are thrown into uncomfortably close contact; Benedicto describes this painfully and wonderfully well. The book vibrates with astute observations of urban life and form. For instance, Benedicto reasons that the barren new development of Global City acts more effectively to stage the fantasy of gay globality than does the area of Cubao because the latter is too full of memories to be filled with fantasies of elsewhere. This is an important book for all urban geographers, those with and without an interest in sexuality and urban space; it is a book in which one complex city is astutely and elegantly observed.
The gay scene that Benedicto describes is an elite one, defined not only by sexuality but also competency in the English language, attendance at elite schools and universities, particular dress code (jeans and tee shirt), shared cultural references and proximity to gay globality. It is a rigorously monitored social world of inclusion and exclusion, of bordering and othering that reproduces violent hierarchies of gender and class. By my reading it is not only hyper-masculine but seemingly misogynist as well. Misogyny is interwoven with class distinction and emerges in the book in relation to two abjected feminized figures: the bakla, a male homosexual associated with low class standing, a particular dialect, cross dressing and effemininity, and the overseas migrant domestic or care worker. The anxiety elicited by the latter stems from her ubiquity worldwide and the perceived risk both of being misrecognized as a care worker when travelling abroad and actual downward social class mobility. The figure of the nurse is particularly threatening to the gay men with whom Benedicto spoke, “not simply because of what the nurse is but because it offers a portrait of what the privileged might become, a depiction of how class boundaries collapse in the act of travel” (page 110).
Benedicto makes clear that he has been a participant in this scene and that his access as an ethnographer was contingent on this. He writes himself into his narrative in order to implicate himself in the process that he critiques, to “treat the theme of complicity as an ethical injunction.” The tone of his writing, he states, is “more critical than empathetic” (page 23). As a reader with a deep commitment to overseas care workers, I was eager to hear more clearly this critical voice and learn more about the complexities of complicity, ethics, and the limits and possibility of narrative tone. As Benedicto notes, experiences of racism when traveling away from Manila do not take shape as identification with abjected others (the bakla and overseas careworker). They are preserved as a “crystallized shock” (page 116) and hidden as shame and, rather than building empathy and alliances across difference, they activate and energize these men’s elitism in Manila. Though the yearning for globality written about so eloquently in Under Bright Lights resonates with the production of desire described by Robyn Rodriquez and Anna Guevarra in relation to the OFWs who migrate abroad, the global gay men described in this book do not find common cause with these transnational migrants; quite the opposite. Nor could I detect much empathy in the author’s voice or tone. I would like to learn more from the author about the challenges—as an insider—of critiquing the scene that he studies, and of finding the tone and substance of critique in a book that will likely be read by those he studied.
I am similarly curious about the relationship between the world presented in this ethnography and other points of identification and investment. Benedicto is explicit that the world he describes exists apart from the world of queer activism. These worlds overlap but once a year, at the Manila Pride march. What understanding of sexual (and other) politics and political commitment make sense within the group that Benedicto writes about? I was also curious to know more about the class and other social positioning of those who participate in the scene. How old are they? Are they financially dependent on their elite families or are they employed? What kind of work do they do? The themes of global racism and the marginalization of Filipino gay men within the global gay circuit propel the narrative about the intensification of class exclusivity and femme-phobia in convincing and provocative ways and I was left wanting to know more about other facets of their class positioning and how it intersects with other elite worlds in Manila.
This book makes a compelling argument about the intersection of racism, class and gay globality. Beyond this, it is a must-read for all urban geographers and should be put in the hands of undergraduate and graduate students to inspire more vivid and engaging modes of writing the city.