Discreetly, the campaign came up on my news feed.

I don’t remember who posted the Stylebible.ph article. A friend who works for the online magazine maybe, but I can’t find it on their timeline, so I’m not so sure now. I was fleetingly scanning through Facebook, so it could’ve been anyone.

What I remember seeing that day when it came out was that Bench released its new ad, in time for Valentine’s Day. Across four images depicting various relationships—grandmother Gloria Romero hugged by her grandson Chris Gutierrez; actress and model Solenn Heussaff being embraced by her fiancé Nico Bolzico; creative director Vince Uy holding hands with events organizer Niño Gaddi; and makeup artist Ana Paredes being squeezed from behind by her girlfriend interior designer Carla Peña—were the words “Love All Kinds of Love.”

Yes, it was a campaign meant to tug your heartstrings—the kind of ad that would infuriate my feminist friend who I imagine would say, “They’re manipulating our emotions to sell us stuff.” Because manipulate our emotions the ad does. It’s cute. It feels warm and good, like hot chocolate on a cold December day. It’s meant to tell you that Bench is a brand that believes in human relationships. It wants to show us that Bench believes that true love has never been more fashionable.

Perhaps what makes the “Love All Kinds of Love” campaign more novel (and transgressive?) is that Bench came under fire for its fashion show “Naked Truth” just last year, when actor Coco Martin walked a woman wearing a leash on the runway. (From that incident we have gleaned that displays of sadomasochism infuriate people, if it doesn’t stipulate that the act is consensual role-playing, and even more so if it’s done in a country where machismo culture still prevails.) Bench was accused of promoting the abuse of women and further entrenching inequality of the sexes.

Looking at Bench’s new campaign superficially, you would say that there’s nothing depraved about well-dressed people hugging each other—quite a departure from what the sexy ads have done previously. So, is Bench finally going normcore? Going basic? Losing its edge to make the militant censors happy?

You would think that Bench is finally taming itself down, except.

Except when you look at the last two photos, of the two men and the two women, you will realize that these are not about friends being all cuddly and fuzzy but about gay people brazenly displaying their relationships.

And therein lies the transgression.

Because: Gasp—gay people! Real, actual, existing gay people in normal relationships like straight people, being paraded in front of everyone! What a disgusting thing! What an aberration!

1 A normal heart

During the recent papal visit which my friend, photographer and fellow LGBT & HIV advocate Niccolo Cosme, and I “gatecrashed” with our rainbow flags, a woman approached us and said that she liked how we were standing up for the “third sex.”

Politely I asked her: “Why do you call us the third sex? Who is the first sex? Who is the second?”

And she was stumped.

I knew that she meant well. She was unfortunately misinformed, but it was a forgivable mistake.

All this time, the media painted caricatures of us and relegated us into a position below straight men and women. We were merely wannabes: gay men wanted to be women, and gay women wanted to be men. We were conditioned that, according to the order of nature, the best place to be was to be a straight man; the second-best, a straight woman. To be gay was to aspire to be somebody else.

Thus, gay people were portrayed as weird cross-dressing people. All gay men were pigeonholed as effeminate, like Vice Ganda; all gay women were masculine, like Aiza Seguerra (never mind that she’s actually a transgender man). Again, it upheld the ideal that there was only one way to be a sexual being and that sexual attraction was closely tied to one’s fashion preference and/or choice of industry. (This dismal portrayal by mainstream media also denied the reality of transgendered people, whose identity didn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth.)

But that isn’t how the way to world works. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are different things. Orientation is about who one is attracted to—what makes one straight, gay, or bisexual. Gender identity, on the other hand, is about the gender one identifies with—male or female. This is you looking into yourself and seeing what you really are deep inside—what you think, feel, and know you are.

Aside from those two, gender expression is about how you express yourself to the world and adopt the roles or traits that people associate with genders. For example, you grow a beard because that’s how you think men should be. Or you wear a skirt because you believe women should wear skirts. Gender expression is very complex because it reveals a lot of the stereotypes/beliefs we ourselves hold and just goes to show that there is really no perfect way of being a man and a woman. Some straight men cry and some gay men don’t. Some gay women like makeup and some straight women hate it.

One can go further and deeper into gender studies to understand more about the complexities of human sexuality, but in the end, my good artist friend, quoting Shakespeare, tells me what truly matters most: “If you prick us with a pin, don’t we bleed? If you tickle us, don’t we laugh? If you poison us, don’t we die? And if you treat us badly, won’t we try to get revenge? If we’re like you in everything else, we’ll resemble you in that respect.”

We are people, just like everybody else. We dream to live happy lives, like straight people. We aspire to become better people for our communities. And we also feel betrayed when people lie to us, or manipulate us.

2

Moving beyond #PaintTheirHandsBack

The campaign which was featured on Stylebible.ph was starkly different from the one that was put up on the EDSA billboards, where Niño and Vince’s hands had been blackened out. This sparked an outrage led by LGBT advocate and friend Thysz Estrada, who started the online campaign #PaintTheirHandsBack together with artist Rob Cham, to denounce what appeared to be blatant censorship.

Gathering her artist friends to draw a new pair of hands on the defaced billboard image, Thysz rallied the LGBT community against the Ad Standards Council, who was said to have ordered the defacement. However, Bench eventually admitted that it was their own doing.

Through a statement released by the company through Stylebible.ph, Bench said: “The approved version with hands obscured is the billboard that Bench had printed and that now stands on EDSA. A digital mockup of the EDSA billboard showing the unobscured hands of Uy and Gaddi had been disseminated to press and is what likely led the public to assume the billboard had been defaced.”

Because of this, Thysz was accused to have been in on what seemed to be a marketing ploy from the very start. In a Facebook post, she admitted: “In my anxiety I came to despise #PaintTheirHandsBack. Yep, tears were shed on the insane negativity I had to face online. But looking back now, I’m proud I stood up to that bullying. LGBT have [sic] faced worse and some paid with their own lives. I still think Rob and I did a good thing no matter how people have claimed otherwise.”

It’s not a secret that companies and marketers are beginning to realize the power of the so-called pink peso. In an interview by BusinessWorld, Philippine Survey Research Center’s Associate Account Director Andrea M. Dizon shared her insights on “Project Pink,” PSRC’s 2011 study on the LGBT market: “While LGBTs have as much purchasing power as the heterosexual population, there are many high earners among the segment. Interestingly, bisexuals and transgendered individuals have significantly higher purchasing power than straight people.”

Bench is not the first company to have realized the potential of LGBT consumers. And they will certainly not be the last. With feminist and LGBT rights issues getting a lot of attention today, more brands will try to pounce on these growing trends and try to join in the conversation.

Personally, I think getting the support of more allies is not an issue. But as part of the LGBT community, I know that I, along with my brothers and sisters, should recognize who are our true friends, and who are just in it to wheedle money from us.

Yes, these brands might put gay people in their ads (tokenistic as some attempts may be.) They will probably even sponsor an LGBT-themed party or throw one themselves.

But the LGBT community should ask: Will these companies be truly there when the community needs them the most? Will they lobby for issues that guarantee our freedom to love or our right to work without discrimination? Will they help address the issues that the community confronts, like the rise of the HIV epidemic, or transgender people being denied services?

Time and again, some of us hear our own families and friends tell us that they are here for us. Having brands tell us the same is nothing new. But what do those words mean if they are not backed up by actions?

If you are truly here for us, then you will support our cause and fight beside us as we strive for equality and justice.

If you truly love the kind of love that we have, then you will not just be there when it’s expedient for you but stick with us until it hurts.

You will risk something from your end and invest in our cause because you believe that we can offer something better for you in return.

That is, after all, how a relationship goes; otherwise, it’s purely transactional. And poor attempts by companies to engage us will always be viewed with a suspicious side-eye.

About The Author

Evan Tan

Evan Tan is the administrative head of The Red Whistle, a pioneering HIV advocacy organization which collaborates with artists and businesses in the fight against the rise of HIV and AIDS in the Philippines. He is also the regional director for Southeast Asia of Freelancer, the largest freelancing marketplace in the world which provides access to online jobs to professionals. Visit his website, www.writerinmanila.com.