Show featuring Jesus Christ in drag causes uproar in Philippines

Camille Elemia
2023.07.14
Manila
Show featuring Jesus Christ in drag causes uproar in Philippines Equal rights advocacy supporters wave rainbow flags as they mark Pride Month at a rally in Quezon City, Philippines, June 2, 2023.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

A video of a drag queen dressed as Jesus Christ and singing a punk rendition of The Lord’s Prayer has gone viral online and caused a public uproar in the staunchly Catholic Philippines.

It even spurred concern among supporters of the LGBT+ community here that the performance could undermine their efforts to pass a gender equality bill. 

Politicians, bishops, and citizens have come out on social media as well as radio and TV talk shows to denounce what they called a “blasphemous” act by Filipino drag queen Pura Luka Vega, whose real name is Amadeus Fernando Pagente. 

In a video posted on Twitter, Pagente wears a Black Nazarene costume while dancing to the up tempo Filipino version of The Lord’s Prayer inside a club. 

The Black Nazarene is a statue of an ebony Jesus Christ with the Cross that dates to the early 1600s when the Philippines was a Spanish colony. The statue is revered and paraded around Manila during an annual spectacle, which draws millions of Catholic devotees.

The icon is believed to be miraculous, and the faithful jostle with one another to wipe the statue with a handkerchief. Legend has it that the statue was charred but survived a fire aboard a galleon that brought the Nazarene to the Philippines from Mexico in 1606.

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Catholic devotees jostle to get close to and touch the statue of the Black Nazarene as a carriage transporting the religious icon makes its way through Manila, Jan. 9, 2020. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

In the video, Pagente is seen wiping her face with a handkerchief, apparently mimicking devotees of the Black Nazarene.  

On Friday, Father Jerome Secillano, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said the drag queen’s display was a “mockery” of Catholic beliefs. 

“Sacred elements of religion should not be used for secular purposes,” he said in an interview on DZBB radio. “We saw that it was used in merrymaking, dancing in a performance that was cheered on by the people around him while they were recording it on video.” 

What Pagente did bordered on blasphemy and sacrilege, said the official who represents the politically influential Catholic Church.

“For these kinds of incidents, it’s enough for now that we have spoken about it and we have addressed the public. I believe that legal steps are not yet on the horizon,” Secillano said. 

In a separate statement, Secillano said the public should be “extremely prudent in their actions, especially with regard to using elements of religion and faith for secular purposes.” 

“Dancing to the tune of a sacred and biblical prayer, with matching sacred costume to boot, is completely disrespectful not only of people and institutions practicing such faith but of God himself. Faith and sacred objects are not for entertainment purposes. They are useful for channeling our deepest desire to have recourse to the Divine,” he said. 

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Equal rights advocacy groups and supporters hold up signs during a demonstration to mark Pride Month in Quezon City, Metro Manila, June 2, 2023. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]

Via Twitter, Pagente defended the show, saying “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” 

“I understand that people call my performance blasphemous, offensive or regrettable. However, they shouldn’t tell me how I practice my faith or how I do my drag. That performance was not for you to begin with. It is my experience and my expression, of having been denied my rights.” 

Political fallout

While the Philippine constitution specifically calls for the separation of church and state, the Catholic Church – to which more than 80 percent of the country’s 110 million people belong – plays a major part in shaping public opinion. 

The church had a key role in removing two presidents, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986, and Joseph Estrada, in 2001. More recently, it spoke out against Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war that killed thousands of alleged addicts and pushers. 

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A woman prepares a replica of the Black Nazarene on the eve of a grand procession of the religious icon across downtown Manila, Jan. 8, 2019. [Luis Liwanag/BenarNews]

On Thursday, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said the performance offended religious beliefs and warned that Pagente could be charged with a criminal act for violating Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code. The law punishes those who offend any race or religion in the performance of “indecent or immoral plays, scenes, acts or shows.” 

“I believe this is the worst form of abuse against our freedom of expression because while we are watching the video, it’s like we were witnessing a crime. This was too disrespectful to our Christian brothers and sisters and made a mockery of the faith of millions of Filipinos,” Zubiri said in a statement.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III also slammed the performance and called on people to not let Pagente profit from the“despicable work.” 

“Let those interested in suing him study their legal grounds. Creativity is not about being brave enough to offend people. Hence, we should not let this guy profit from his despicable work,” Pimentel told reporters. 

‘Each one of us carries the rainbow flag’

Rep. Geraldine Roman, the first transgender woman to be elected to the Philippine congress, expressed dismay over the “disrespectful” performance and added that it could work against the whole LGBT+ community. 

“Always remember that each and every one of us carries the rainbow flag, so let us always do good. The entire community would suffer as a result of a single mistake we make. Let’s comport ourselves properly. We have everything to gain if we do well or even better,” Roman said in a Facebook post.

The lawmaker is a key proponent of the bill seeking to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE). 

Roman said the proposed SOGIE Equality bill cannot be used to justify the controversial show.  

“I repeat, the bill is a simple anti-discrimination bill that only aims to fight discrimination in the work place, learning institutions, in the delivery of government services and access to public spaces and accommodations,” she said. 

While the bill has cleared the committee level in the House, its future remains bleak in the Senate as Majority Leader Joel Villanueva continues to block it.

Commenting on the controversy, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chairwoman of the committee on children and women and a proponent of the SOGIE bill, said: “I know that there are many members of the LGBTQIA+ community, persons of faith among them, find this regrettable,” Hontiveros said in a statement. 

“However, I also caution against the use of this incident to deny rights and protections to a community that has long been marginalized and excluded. I wish for self-reflection, compassion and healing for both the religious and LGBTQIA+ communities. The struggle for SOGIE Equality [bill] continues,” she said.

Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.

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