It was my first time in jail.

We were not brought behind bars, however, but to the roof-deck where yellow lights beckoned and a tarpaulin screamed Miss Gay Mandaue City Jail 2011. For somebody who sits regularly in the judging panel (and usually comes late for that needed drama), we were way too early evident by the lack of an audience. That was strange, I told myself. But before I could ponder on what normally transpires behind this barbwire-wrapped beehive, the ladies in yellow shirts silently came into view in single file, and sat right behind us. Then came the gentlemen in a straight line, like ants at work. The audience finally arrived in half-tiptoes.

A familiar voice announced that the show was about to start. There he was, as proud as ever without a hint of a checkered past, Manoy Rene, the quintessential host and organizer (a record third staging of Miss Gay Mandaue City Jail and counting!), himself a former resident in what he fondly calls “Bahay ni Kuya,” running the ropes and fulfilling two basic functions of a seasoned toastmaster — to instruct and to delight.

Like in a dream, a dozen bevy of beauties appeared from behind the tarpaulin and danced to Beyonce’s “Run the World” in their decent playsuits. Even Governor Gwen would have applauded. My eyes went misty, the sentimental fool that I am. The once very silent crowd went crazy and cheered for everyone. It was deafening, I tell you. For a second, I thought that I was a judging QUEEN because of such elegance and grace under the oft-repeated controlled pressure.

When the “ladies” introduced themselves one by one, everyone went berserk. I could have died laughing. In all Miss Gay contests, the self-introduction is a highlight in itself because you can’t predict what will come out from the mouths of babes. The candidate who “stand by the name” of Shamcey Supsup was clearly a favorite, but only for a few minutes because next number was, hold your breath now, Leila Lopes in all loveliness.

But the showstopper was the talent competition. Male inmates, so supportive of their own candidates, macho-danced, ate fire, and show-timed their way with dangerous stunts and stomps: as back-up dancers. One even realistically acted like the wife-beating paramour, kicking the candidate in the tummy so believably true that my heart stopped for a few seconds. My personal favorite, the ageing candidate who plaintively sang a worship song and, at the same time, hand painted the face of the messiah. It was not my first time to watch such a spectacle, but the truthfulness in which the candidate sang was like hearing a chorus of angels (I learned later that he used to be one of the best make-up artists in Mandaue City, unable to survive the trappings of success, resorted to substance abuse; A familiar true- to- life tale of sadness). There was felt joy in his singing and worshiping the ONE who frees his spirit and refreshes his soul.

It broke my heart that they were whittled down to just six in the evening gown. Then the semi-finalists battled it out in the Q and A. For once, I was pleasantly surprised; the candidates veered away from contrived answers and spontaneously responded to every question as best as they could. I loved their bravado to get a hold of themselves, to pick up shattered shards of their lives and to face the uncertainties of tomorrow. One candidate was supposed to be released the day before, but he begged off and extended another night just so he could compete with his sisters.

The reigning queen had the requisite farewell walk in a stunning white gown as real tears rolled down her cheeks. A new successor was crowned Miss Gay Mandaue City Jail much to everyone’s revelry. (Shamcey Supsup was crowned and Leila Lopes did not make it to the top three; now ain’t that amazing?)

Our tasks as judges were done and it almost made me weep that not all of the 12 ladies would wear the crown (even if I’d be chided O.A. by my dearest friends for revealing this wish). I took a last look at the tall fences and was reminded of Shawshank Redemption. That night, they all slept back in their cold cells happy knowing that they escaped the harsh realities of life even for a brief two hours, inside of which they celebrated the freedom to just be, no matter how fleeting it may seem. It doesn’t matter anymore that for some of them they’ll be counting days, weeks, years, or even a lifetime. There’s always next year to look forward to. And hope to cherish, cling on, and cuddle in dreamland. Even fantasies do come true. For once upon a time there lived a little boy in some distant past who dreamt many dreams ago to one day BE queen.


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