Pura Luka Vega / Photo via Instagram

Where Drag Can Land You Behind Bars — and Worse

Editor’s note: The author intentionally uses “Filipine” in reference to Pura Luka Vega instead of the more commonly used “Filipino” because it is more neutral than the Spanish masculine “-o.”
Are there places on this globe of ours where drag performance has been rendered effectively illegal? Where television offers drag franchise competitions, but drag performance outside screens is criminalized?
One might ask Pura Luka Vega (PLV), a Filipine national who ran afoul of the high-strung and powerful “Religious Reich” entrenched in the Philippines. By the time the U.S. booted out the Spaniards following the Spanish-American War, Catholicism was firmly entrenched. In fact, in 2020’s national census, 78.8 percent of the population reported themselves Roman Catholic, with another five percent other Christian.
How did this nonbinary drag entertainer, born Amadeus Fernando Pagente in 1990, commit a heinous, jailable crime that brought the swiftest opprobrium?
A little background …
PLV began performing in 2017, with friends teasing that they should take the name Pura after the Carnival Queen of Manila. In 2022, they became one of the televised “Mudras” on Drag Den and was the nation’s first televised drag queen to feature bearded drag. On the show, they were known for making statements like, “I’m so used to being thrown shade at, ’cuz I’m not the ‘normal’ type of queen! I can walk on water … I can turn water into wine.”
After PLV was knocked off the show, people thought 2023 would be the year when they would blossom. Instead, it proved to be the year of living dangerously.
As in much of the globe, deeply conservative forces within the Philippines resist the adoption of ideals that promote notions such as freedom of speech, freedom of and from religion, and adoption of nontraditional/voluntary gender, sexual, and relationship statuses.
It’s not that people haven’t been working on these issues. In fact, the constitution adopted in 1987 guarantees freedom of expression. But the pre-World War II penal code still has Article 201, which prohibits “immoral doctrines, obscene publications and exhibitions and indecent shows.” Article 133 criminalizes “offending religious feelings.” Convictions for each offense can range from six to 12 years, as well as fines.
PLV made a post on X (Twitter) that rained hellfire down upon them. This may seem incomprehensible unless one looks at the intersection of religious fervor and history.
For over four centuries in the Philippines, The Black Nazarene (El Nazareno Negro) at Quiapo Church in Manila has been the nationally venerated life-sized, carved wooden statue of a Black-skinned Jesus Christ bearing the True Cross on the way to his crucifixion. Amid processions and visitations, people believe that touching the figure cures diseases and works miracles. Any perceived aspersions meet fanatical denunciations and judicial persecution.
In the video shared to X, PLV was garbed in robes and a tiara that appeared to mimic those of the Nazarene figure, while lip-synching to a rock n roll version of “Ama Namin” (Tagalog for “Our Father”) in a bar, performing motions that might lead one to think perhaps Christ was gay.
Within two days, the denunciations came fast and furious.
PLV went into hiding for a bit before being arrested in October 2023, charged with eleven counts of Article 201 violations in three jurisdictions. Bail money was raised, and PLV walked out after a weekend. One prosecutor dismissed some charges because “taken as a whole, the performance in question has serious literary, artistic or scientific value.”
Other jurisdictions are not bound by this ruling, and charges have not been dropped. In fact, concern lies in the fact that the performance has appeared on TikTok — meaning an additional charge of cybercrime is still possible.
Harassment has continued, and PLV was arrested again on February 29, 2024, for allegedly ignoring a court summons they say was never served: three more days in a Manila prison.
The Institute for Crime and Justice Policy rates only the jails in Congo worse for overcrowding than the Philippines. This means that if family or associates do not provide food to a prisoner, they will go hungry. PLV purchased as much bread as they could and fed everyone they could that weekend, according to Rappler.
“For countless of times, as a queer person, I’ve had people use the bible as a weapon against us, and now we have laws that are used, same thing, as weapons against us,” Pura told Rappler.
Human Rights Watch and others have called for the cessation of harassment in what is clearly their right to live unfettered. They contend that the important thing here is for the Articles to be overturned and for the art of drag to be appreciated.