Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve been fascinated with superheroes. I loved to watch Spider-Man save the day, and I knew every word to his theme song about how “he catches thieves just like flies.” I was a Marvel fanboy when it wasn’t cool to be one, obsessing over the adventures of the Fantastic Four and the uncanny X-Men. Still, in the back of my mind, I’d wonder why no heroes ever looked like me.
When I entered adulthood, I found such a hero in boxing champ Manny Pacquiao. Like Bobby Agbayani, the protagonist of my debut novel, Chasing Pacquiao, I was a Pacquiao superfan. As a Filipino growing up in America, there were few role models I could admire who looked like me, who shared the same cultural heritage, and made me proud of who I am.
Manny made me feel seen.
I cheered him on in his epic trilogy of matches against Erik Morales, I marveled at his one-punch knockout of British champ Ricky Hatton and was amazed as Manny dominated his own idol Oscar De La Hoya in the ring. Pacquiao’s boxing talent wasn’t the only reason I rooted for him. I was also impressed with his charity work and kindness toward those who are less fortunate. Whenever Manny would donate hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys or send relief funds for disaster survivors, I cheered him on even more than after his latest triumph in the ring. All the while, I rocked Manny T-shirts and jerseys like they were the uniform of a superhero I strived to emulate. I reveled in my fandom like a geek cosplaying at Comic-Con.
As an aspiring author, I mulled over a story idea about a bullied teen who learns to defend himself by studying the boxing matches of his hero, Manny Pacquiao. It was a story I was excited to write.
And then February 16, 2016 happened.
In an interview to promote his candidacy for elected office, Pacquiao made homophobic statements, calling gay people “worse than animals” and setting off a storm of controversy that divided the Filipino community worldwide. He even went so far as to quote bible verse that justified the killing of queer people. Like many of my friends and relatives, I was shocked at Pacquiao’s irresponsible, hateful words. How could this be the same man who had shown such generosity and kindness to others? I was faced with a harsh reality: my hero was a bigot, and I could no longer support him. I trashed my Pacquiao fight DVDs and T-shirts and vowed to never watch another match of his again.
After my anger eventually faded into disappointment, I revisited my story idea and realized it would be much more poignant with a queer protagonist. I imagined Bobby Agbayani, a bullied gay teen who learns to defend himself by studying the fights of his idol, Manny Pacquiao, only to become disillusioned when his hero turns out to hold the same homophobic beliefs as the bully who torments him. I dove into the research, and the story poured out of me. Much of Bobby’s voice and reactions mirrored my own thought process regarding Pacquiao. But there was more. Writing Chasing Pacquiao made me question and confront my own sexual identity. I found myself recalling boyhood crushes on baseball players that I had long forgotten, and my writing was informed by every playground bully who taunted me with a gay slur. Slowly, I began to realize why I’d always been such a strident queer ally, and why I was so upset about Pacquiao’s homophobia. His betrayal was more personal than I’d realized. Writing Chasing Pacquiao was a cathartic and revelatory creative endeavor unlike any I’d ever had before.
After a great amount of soul-searching, I came out as bisexual in my essay “Late to the Party.” It details my experiences with bi-erasure in the book industry, which prevented me from finding a publisher for Chasing Pacquiao. While Bobby Agbayani’s voice reflected my own reaction to Pacquiao’s bigotry, like Bobby, coming out forced me to endure the cruelties of homophobia in everyday life. First, art copied life, then life imitated art. Longtime friends shunned me, and family members gossiped about how my “sinful soul” was condemned to hell. It was perhaps the loneliest, most difficult time of my life. I persevered by finding inspiration in the fictional character I’d created. I channeled Bobby’s tenacity and did my best to ignore my detractors and focus on my goal of becoming published. After over a year and a half on submission, I finally found a publishing home for Chasing Pacquiao with Viking Children’s Books.
Bobby Agbayani’s story and my journey in embracing my bisexuality are intertwined. One would not exist without the other. Bobby’s determination and path to becoming his own hero helped me become my own hero as well.
Rod Pulido earned his B.A. in film production from California State University, Long Beach. His movie The Flip Side became the first feature by a Filipino director to have a world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Chasing Pacquiao, his debut YA novel, is due out May 2 from Viking.