Gone are the days when gays are equalled to low-income male homosexuals of exaggerated feminine dispositions, and whose potential stereotypically goes only as far as the number of customers his beauty salon can accommodate.
Time and again, gays, and the LGBT community at large, have risen up against discrimination in schools, the workplace, and the family. The best countermeasure is to ignore. A person’s value does not decrease when others are impaired to see his worth. That’s how Bruce Rivera, a lawyer, law professor, and LGBT member pulled it off.
The 43-year-old lawyer and San Beda College of Law professor was born and raised in Cebu but pursued Law in Manila to avoid the party-going lifestyle he once got used to. Before Bruce became the successful well-respected lawyer and professor as we know of him today, he was a regular boy in Argao—the kind you see helping his mother with the household chores, but eventually they noticed him to be different among other boys.
He was sent to San Carlos Boys High to “toughen up” but fate had another plan for him. It was when he took the degree course Physical Therapy in Cebu Doctor’s University when he first entered a beauty pageant—and won. He started joining barangay competitions and his wins, one after another, continued for some time.
After earning the titles, he decided it was time to finally pursue the Law profession. His success on both fields is quite a display of
his “beauty and brains” persona.
Bruce is content where he is now, and his next pursuit is to make a difference in his own ways, may it be in the LGBT community or
in the country. Not too long ago, he made headlines when he represented Janet Lim-Napoles,
alleged pork barrel scam mastermind. He was also on the social media hot seat because of his well-circulated contrarian take on the Valkyrie
issue when the high-end nightclub refused entry to transgender fashion designer Veejay Floresca. Many certainly want to hear his answers to
the questions, the personal and controversial. And as in all common human frailties, Bruce too has his own share of experience in the love
department—about loss and moving on. (BHQ)
What’s your fondest childhood memory?
I was born here in Cebu—at Chong Hua Hospital in 1972, nine days after Martial Law. We had a house in Visitacion street and my mom had to walk from Jones Avenue to Chong Hua. I asked her ngano wala ka ni-diretso sa nearby hospital, which is Community Hospital and she answered that she only wanted what’s the best for me. Drama kaayo siya! My family was based in Argao Cebu, in the barangay of Taloot, and I remember I used to play in our local spring called Liki. My grandmother would only allow me and my sister to play if we work on something, so mangguna mi. We were trained that everytime you want something you have to work for it. So after kindergarten, my grandmother decided that I should be schooled in USC-Boys High because they noticed that I am a bit hinayon or bayoton kuno.
When did you start joining beauty pageants?
For college, I went to Cebu Doctors and took up Physical Therapy pero that was the time when the country Liberia had
a civil war and my mother happened to be working there. For a time she was technically lost. Story was everyone from the family was evacuated except my mom because she had to go back for her dog… they were on the other side of the bridge that connects them to the mainland and it was bombed. So she was left and there was no communication and we didn’t know if she was still alive. So then we had nothing financially. My aunt who was with us here thought that my sister who was going fourth year high school should stop muna her studies. I talked it out with my aunt… I will take care of my studies to help out my sister. That’s when I decided to join beauty pageants.
How was it?
Well, it goes all the way back… being an Angels Platoon, you know, kanang sa ROTC nga patindahon mi og saging and all that, pero I was an officer as well. It was in one of our fundraising activity that I joined its pageant and won. Initially wala ra to. I didn’t think of it as a money making thing, and all of a sudden mga amigo nako nangutana ngano dili na lang daw ko moapil og contest. Habol ra gyud to akoang gamit sa una, tela nga gipada sa akong mommy gikan Africa. From there niapil na ko ug kanang barrio competition. Sa first contest I was the fourth runner-up. I badly needed the money then. My dad wasn’t around and my mom stopped sending money so having P100 as prize money during that time was already a big help. Later on friends helped me out with my gown and I grew my hair. I joined the Miss Baybay Leyte where all of the ungo nga kontesera sa Miss Gay nangapil. I won the crown.
How were you as a contestant?
I am very competitive. I don’t like it when I land just as first
runner-up. I am still competitive now… siguro that’s why I don’t like to join contests of any kind anymore because I’d really work hard for it, be too emotionally
invested to it. Sa last competition that I joined in 1997, I made it sure that I will get the crown because I couldn’t allow nga it will end just like that.
And then what made you decide to move on from being a kontesera to being a Law educated version of Bruce?
When I was doing full time gay pageants, I was also helping out my sister financially. She took up Physical Therapy and landed third place sa board. When she worked na sa States, she asked me what I wanted to do because it was her time to help me. I was already left out by my contemporaries. I told my sister
that I’m going back to school… not just go back but to have a really good education. I was pretty much left out na gyud sa akoang batchmates.
Like most of them were settled na with jobs and others were married, and there I was… just an MG-goer (Miss Gay-goer).
I had two options— medicine or law, and I was more inclined to the latter. I have many friends who were doctors, and I have an aunt who took up law but didn’t finish because kadtong mag-
Bar exam unta siya she had meningioma and she got pregnant so she had to skip it. And then we had another one in the family who also almost became a lawyer. My thinking was na dapat there should be a lawyer in the family. My grandmother’s two sisters who married lawyers became rich, while she married a school teacher and was poor.
Which do you prefer, being a lawyer or teaching?
I wanted to become a lawyer—pero when I became one, I was offered to teach and mas full time ko now being a member of the academe as I am a prefect of student affairs at the San Beda School of Law, and I also teach law subjects in San Beda Alabang and in Mendiola. So I guess I’m a lawyer by profession, but a teacher at heart. I’ve been teaching for more than 10 years now. It’s not all about the money—it’s being content with what you have.
How was the entire process?
It was not easy. I enrolled in Southwesten University… and good thing that our dean back then, who was also an openly gay person and who is one of my heroes, welcomed me in the school. I was apprehensive because I had long hair and I was not really comfortable switching back to my old full male persona. I was honest
to my dean and he told me to just temper my appearance, don’t be too open… Okey lang, I’ve always preferred T-shirts and kanang mga long skirts. I’m not into skimpy outfits—I don’t have the body for it in the first place. I graduated nga binabaye lang gihapon akoang outfit, pero my journey was good because I was
elected by the students as student governor and I graduated Magna Cum Laude.
How do you handle criticism?
I don’t really care. People will criticize you— that’s a fact of life.
Why did you pursue Law in Manila and not here in Cebu?
It was a conscious decision. I want to focus and study Law in San Beda. If I studied here in Cebu… kanang I would be in the same crowd and couldn’t give it my
all since I will keep on going out.
What’s next for you?
I want to make a difference. When you reach a certain age, you realize that you don’t need a
lot of things. I was very materialistic before.
In fact, when I was the spokesperson of Janet Napoles and as she was scrutinized by the media, people were judging
me as well because they think I was in it for the money. Honestly, I was not paid. She didn’t have money then—whatever she had was frozen and
if there was anything,
it was difficult for her to get it because she has lots of cases. Also, I knew her before I became a lawyer.
How did you meet?
I was reviewing for the Bar exams then. Especially if you come from a Catholic institution, it’s a big deal for you nga magpa-good shot ka ni God. So every Sunday I would go to church and then help out sa feeding program didto sa Quiapo Church. Janet has a foundation there feeding street children. Manghatag mi og lugaw. There she saw me and said “Sino ang maputi na yan?” She asked kung taga asa ko and I said taga-Cebu. She happens to be Bisaya and is more fluent in Bisaya than Tagalog, and dili man sad siya mag-English kaayo. We started to talk and nalingaw siya sa akoa and so she nvited me to her place. Didto na.
It was all pro bono for you?
When I became a lawyer she asked me to become part of her team and I said no. I said no because one, dili ko kasabot sa iyang business and I did not want to
ask. Two, I wanted to do litigation, not corporate. I want to try my own thing. My end goal was to not become an employee of a law firm forever. That’s the reason why when I stopped being an employee of a law firm I still do private cases, if kaya sa akong schedule… and most of it are pro bono. It’s the only way I can give back because San Beda gave me a lot—they’re giving me a good salary, so I really want to help out troubled people, as well as abused women.
It was a high profile case. How was the Napoles experience?
The good thing about me is I don’t manifest stress in a way that it would destroy me personally, my work ethic, and stuff like that. It’s
being aware that you are representing “the most hated woman” and knowing that you are already prejudged… There are stories. Some of it are true, and some are an exaggeration… like maligo ug gatas, nga ang kwarta naa sa bathtub, na she has a submarine, and she has 43 houses… those are not true. I cannot say anything more Napoles issue because I am not the one handling the ombudsman case. I am not going to talk about her or her family na because I told her I won’t. But that was a stressful time…
Why is that?
Personally, I was going through a stressful time. My partner was dying during. He died May 8, we buried him May 13, and I had to come back for
media interviews. When I was interviewed in “Aquino and Abunda Tonight” that was three days after siya gilubong, and I was interviewed for “Bandila” siguro a day after his burial. People were telling me that I did okay, that I looked happy. They did not know that I was in mourning and crying most of the time. Of course you have to keep up with your media persona because you are representing someone else.
That must be so difficult…
The doctors told us that they could no longer save my partner Henry and that he was dying. So we had to wait for him to die na lang. There was a talk
between me and his parents… that time I wanted him to die where he grew up. I was with him for three years lang, while they were with him for 27 years… so I am going to give them, his parents, that honor. And dili nako kaya… if he dies to just tell me because I had everything ready, everything is in place…. That was the most difficult part. Kadtong ihatod na siya sa probinsya nila in Nueva Ecija, I was in Capitol Medical Center, at the same time Janet Napoles was in Hospital ng Makati. At that time, someone alerted the media that they saw me in Capitol Medical Center and they thought that Janet Napoles was transferred there. Going out I was crying na because that was the last time I will be seeing my partner alive. I said my goodbyes and I had to be honest to him na dili nako kaya. So when I went out, the media was there. I was in my shorts. I was not ready to face them, naka-sando pa ko. So I just gave a brief statement na this is different… my friends saw the entire thing on TV and they said that ang “muscles” ko daw.
How did you cope?
You don’t really move on… bisag gibiyaan ka, bisan namatay siya…, you just really learn to accept things. To say that you’ve moved on, it’s as if you
forgot what happened, and if you forget, you will never learn. Pain happens for a reason and it’s supposed to make us learn, make us stronger.
What is your take on death and spirituality?
As a Catholic, I have my own notion of death, and the concept of heaven and hell. However, the death of my grandmother in 2013 and my partner in 2014 taught me that for the ones who love the person who passes on, death is about new beginnings. It is not easy to be the one left behind. To pick up the pieces, to fill the void, to do what is left undone. Acceptance is the hardest
part of death. People often tell me to move on, that moving on is easy. But the reality is, you do not move on from a place of love. You do not forget the people you love just because they die. You accept and continue with your life—that is the best expression of your love to the one who left you.
Who do you think should be the country’s next President?
My personal choice is not running. And the present crop of candidates have their own serious flaws. At this point, I still have no particular choice. However, my ideal President is someone who acts like a disciplinarian parent. We need a leader who will not only inspire us but we should fear him as well. Someone who we know will punish us if we do something wrong, force us to follow the laws, someone who has no tolerance for corruption and not
selective tolerance, someone who does not pander and patronize, but say what is wrong with us.
Your beauty contest stories—what made you decide to write about them?
A couple of months ago, I was unexpectedly reunited with several of my batch in SuperSiReyna 1996. All of us have evolved, leading different lives, but the stories of strength and struggle are the same. So, I started one post and it got a lot of likes on Facebook. I reached No. 32 and then I stopped, thinking I’ll just write a book about it I got numerous suggestions even from legitimate writers. So please do watch out for it.
What are your fondest memories from joining beauty pageants?
A lot. But there’s this funny in incident. Along with other contestants, we were housed with this lady in Medellin here in Cebu. It was obvious na halatang mababa ang tingin ng hostess sa mga bakla. She served us food pero poor talaga was her service. Hindi kami kumain pero sinabi lang namin na diet kami. After the pageant, the hostess… kulang na lang she would drive us out of her house, and she was kinda bastos. It turns out that she was a separada, that her husband left her for a man. Here’s the catch—sa bus on our way home, I noticed that one of the contestant’s bag was moving, as if there’s something inside. I called the attention of our fellow contestants and, lo and behold, one of the contestant who has “magic hands” stole
a piglet and placed it inside his bag. Halos na-suffocate ito sa loob ng bag, and there were spangles at sequins sticking on the face of the pig from
the gown that’s inside the bag. I don’t condone thievery pero I understand that the contestant was pissed because of how we were treated.
What’s your advice to MG-goers now?
It’s just a pageant. It doesn’t make who you are. It will not define you. The problem with today’s beaucon (beauty contest) mentality… divisive sila. During the 90s mag-away-away mi pero somehow we stay together. We would argue often about sa result sa contest pero magdungan gihapon mi og pamahaw og noodles ngadto sa
Carbon. It was more of a brotherhood or sisterhood, as we know it. Now I realize nga mura na sab sila og mga babaye… naa sila’y grupo. It’s the diva attitude that I really don’t like… because it does not say something about the LGBT as a society. My point is that a pageant is not the be-all
and end-all of life. You do it when you’re younger… and if that’s the only story you will be telling, then it’s sad. You mean you tell me that you
only peaked at the age of 22 or 25, that’s it? Don’t you have other stories to tell? You win one pageant, don’t make it a big thing. What really matters
is how you affect people. That’s what makes you special.