When the volleyball coaches came calling, Vincent Magdaong’s first reaction was pleased disbelief. Coaches of four different universities were wooing him with scholarships and outbidding each other with stipend offers.
“I never imagined that I would reach a point where coaches would be fighting over me. I was going to study and play a sport that I love and be compensated for it,” said the 23-year-old Magdaong who still gushes over the memory.
For Magdaong, even going to college was a distant dream.
After finishing grade school, he was preparing to work to help out his parents. “Stop schooling. That’s what I was thinking at the time.”
His mother worked as an overseas worker and his father was a company driver and as the third of four children, Magdaong explained, “It was too much for my parents.”
Magdaong got through high school and college on a volleyball scholarship. As a setter for the University of the East Red Warriors, Magdaong graduated with a Tourism degree.
Volleyball became the way for Magdaong to finish his education and as a man who openly identifies as gay, the sport became his pathway to equality opportunity and gender equality.
“I’ve been gay since birth,” Magdaong chuckled. “My family has always been very supportive and accepting.”
As an athletic scholar, Magdaong enjoyed the respect and admiration of his schoolmates, teachers and coaches. He would get the usual question, “Oh, gay players are allowed?” but always took it as an opportunity to engage people in conversations and address negative stereotypes against the LGBT community.
In an interview with Fox Sports Asia, Ruel Pascua, coach for the UE Red Warriors, admitted that “there are definitely schools that do not accept gay athletes” but that and his own perspective has changed. “When I saw how productive and helpful they can be, I changed,” said Pascua.
That interview was four years ago. Since then, the meteoric spike of volleyball’s popularity and the visibility of star LGBT players like Magdaong have earned the sport a place on the podium for celebrating diversity and advancing gender equality.
Unwritten rules and biases
Cesael 'Shaq' Delos Santos head coach of the Philippine women’s volleyball team and former coach of Philippine Super Liga (PSL) one of the country’s most popular professional leagues, once thought of volleyball as a hobby—more like a recreational sport.
Like many Filipino boys, he grew up playing basketball. He doesn’t call it discrimination or anything more harmful, but there was a belief that was so widespread that it wasn’t questioned: “Gay men can’t play basketball. Gay men play volleyball.”
That didn’t stop him from playing either sport, but it was a bump of fate that cemented his career in volleyball.
“The basketball try-out was full. But the volleyball try out only had about 60 people who signed up. I decided to give it a try,” said Delos Santos.
That attempt scored Delos Santos an athletic scholarship from the Far Eastern University (FEU). With Delos Santos playing middle blocker, the FEU Tamaraws won a back-to-back University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) championship in 1996-1997.
He went on to play in the professional league playing for the national team and the volleyball team of the Philippine Army before before becoming a head coach.
“Actually, I wanted to go into business. I imagined myself working in an office where my uniform would be long sleeves and a tie,” Delos Santos laughed.
Delos Santos said there is no policy about LGBT players not being allowed to play—for any sport. “It’s really the discretion of the coach. As coach, you have to think of not only the Team’s image, but that of the institution you’re playing for and representing.”
So much of image is influenced by public opinion and when it comes to volleyball, sports fans say that “it’s ok to be different” and that gender doesn’t matter.
Apart from Magdaong, there are several openly LGBT players embraced by their legions of fans for both their athletic prowess and their gender identity. Sports aficionados have written blog posts about the diversity of players. Hardcore fans track the romantic lives of their favorite spikers with the same enthusiasm of tallying wins and game stats.
TV host and professional spiker Carmela Tunay’s more than 150,000 Instagram followers confirmed her blooming romance with volleyball powerhouse Kim Fajardo by piecing together her cryptic photos. Giddy fans followed their relationship and went wild when Tunay posted a photo of her and Fajardo together. The internet came out to show their support, tweeting well-wishes using the hashtags #lovewins and #fatunay, a combination of their surnames and a pun on the Filipino word meaning “proof”.
Sports blogs began collating their “sweetest photos”.
“I don’t recall being bashed. There were a few comments like it was a ‘waste’ for me to be with a girl and the occasional Bible verses but I didn’t pay much attention to it,” said Tunay, explaining that her previous relationship was with a man.
She was actually more concerned about how fans and coaches might feel considering that they were from different teams. Tunay didn’t really have to defend herself or her choice. The fans did it for her. The cheers of supportive fans was louder than the criticism.
“Times have changed. People are more open and accepting. Coaches will first and foremost look for athletic ability. Gender identity doesn’t matter,” said coach Cesael 'Shaq' Delos Santos.
Gender identity doesn’t matter—at least in volleyball. Other sports have not been as quick to catch up yet.
Where the Philippines sits on the gender equality and LGBT rights spectrum can be very confusing for many who are not familiar with the country’s culture.
The Philippines has a reputation from being “gay-friendly” country inked by the popularity of many LGBT celebrities, fashion designers. The twinkling lights and signages of gay bars line the streets of major cities like Quezon City and Manila. In just about every village across the country, gay and transgender beauty pageants are held in town halls just a few blocks away from a Church. In the evening, the same people who cheer and clap for their pageant favorites will bow their head in prayer and benediction the next day.
It can feel like being in a time machine that takes you from the 18th century to the 21st in a matter of hours.
In legislation, there is the Ladlad Political Party whose platform is gender rights and equality and three years ago, the country elected its first transgender congresswoman.
Underneath these outwards displays of representation are persistent stereotypes and cultural norms. A 2012 study on transgender, lesbian and bisexual women by the advocacy group Rainbow Rights Philippines shows that LGBT rights and gender diversity are slow to gain recognition in the places where it matters the most: family, religious institutions and law enforcement.
Sports like volleyball are an equalizing factor, serving as a safe space for the LGBT community.
LGBT volleyball leagues have emerged and have their own following. Quezon City, the country’s biggest metropolis, has sponsored a Volleyball Pride Cup and another province has the Rainbow Volleyball League.
From a regional perspective, there is The Straits Games. The annual sports event was formed in 2002 to promote friendship and a healthy lifestyle in the LGBT community across southeast Asian countries. The three core sports of The Straits Games include badminton, bowling and volleyball.
Team Prima Pilipinas, the country’s representative to The Straits Games, beat seven-time gold winner Thailand in 2016.
Others remain skeptical and say that the LGBT Teams serve to further compartmentalize players into gender boxes.
“Guys play basketball. Gays play volleyball. Everyone knows that. It’s an open secret,” said J, a basketball fan who plays friendly matches in his neighborhood league.
“Basketball is a contact sport. Guys don’t want to be touching other guys who might be gay. When I go in for a dunk, my crotch is going to be in some other guy’s face—what if he’s gay?” explained J who spoke candidly on the condition that he not be named.
He is fully aware of how loaded his statement is, but remained unmoved. “I know it’s wrong and it’s 2020 and all that, but you asked me how it is. I’m telling you the truth.”
For Mark, a gay basketball player, this is only partly true.
His teammates know he is gay and so do his coaches but he is remains cautious and discrete. He knows that not everyone may share the same view and is always cognizant about not taking this acceptance for granted.
“I also coach basketball for young kids and well, I cannot assume that all parents are as open-minded as my teammates and coaches,” said Mark who asked that only his first name be used.
Volleyball, a community sport
“We still have to contend with the stereotype of gay men as being predatory,” sighed Jacs Sampayan, who put together a community volleyball club with the help of his friends.
On Saturdays, groups in a mix of spandex jerseys, knee pads, and brightly colored ponytails and headbands gather together to bump, set, and spike the ball over the net in no more than three hits.
A chorus of cheering, jumping and high fives are shared across a group of men and women in their 20s all the way up to their 50s. The youngest player is a 12-year-old whose parents also play. Snacks and drinks brought in by players line the bleachers and are shared like an open buffet.
“The spirit of volleyball is community. Everyone is welcome to play,” said Sampayan.
Basketball may be the Philippines’ national sport, but volleyball is the country’s community sport. Both are sports that can be played on any street and with a minimum investment of a ball and a net, making it accessible for anyone to play.
While community is the spirit of volleyball, for basketball, it is fraternity.
The alpha male character of basketball mirrors the global masculine image of the sport. In the Philippines, the most popular basketball teams, San Miguel and Ginebra are named after beer and gin brand respectively.
However, there are definitely indicators that volleyball is catching up with basketball’s popularity and bringing its gender equality values with it.
BusinessWorld, a Philippine daily newspaper, cites ticket sales and television ratings as a gauge for the sport going mainstream across the collegiate level and in the professional league.
At the UAAP collegiate games, volleyball is a marquee event. Volleyball is the second most watched event in the UAAP and though there are no official tallies for the viewership of a particular sport, BusinessWorld said that volleyball TV ratings are “phenomenal” with volleyball matches televised at prime time slots supporting that.
Corporate allies have jumped on the bandwagon. The rise of women’s volleyball is credited to the Shakey’s V-League which began as a women’s inter-collegiate league. More recently, Rebisco crackers threw in their financial support to have their brand name and their wholesome family image printed on volleyball jerseys.
Women’s volleyball, its players sometimes referred to as “volleybelles”, has the bigger share of the pie when it comes to the marketing machinery of sponsorships but the odds are poised to quickly tip in favor of the men’s volleyball team.
In the December Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the men’s volleyball team seized the silver medal, claiming a podium finish after a 28 year wait. The historic win put the men’s team on radars of fans. Men’s collegiate volleyball matches, once televised during the limbo hours of the morning are now scheduled during prime TV time slots, alternating with the women’s team.
Volleyball Community Giving Back
True to its spirit of inclusivity, volleyball players have used their visibility and celebrity status to help out its community. The Facebook group “Volleyball Community Gives Back” has set up donation drives for various relief efforts during natural disasters. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, the group went into action again to raise funds for medical and essential service workers serving at the frontlines of the public health crisis. The sports star players across five major leagues contributed personal items like jerseys, shoes, training shirts, and their favorite books packaged as “bundles” which fans can win by purchasing a raffle ticket.
Tunay, women’s volleyball star, and her girlfriend, Fajardo have contributed their own bundle of jerseys which is called The #Fatunay Bundle.
Whether on or off the court, volleyball continues to open hearts and minds to the true meaning of community and gender equality: inclusion.