TACLOBAN, Philippines — When Filipino hotel manager Jerick Florano used to open Grindr on his smartphone, the same four or five faces always greeted him on the dating app for gay and bisexual men.
There was practically no gay scene in Tacloban, a provincial city of 220,000 people in the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, where Florano lives.
“There wasn’t much going on, but all that changed when lots of foreigners came to Tacloban to help with the reconstruction after the typhoon,” the 27-year-old said, referring to Super Typhoon Haiyan which devastated the city two years ago.
“Suddenly, my Grindr became the United Nations,” Florano said in an interview at the trendy city center hotel he has been managing since 2012, when he moved to Tacloban from the capital Manila.
Haiyan was the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall, killing more than 6,300 people, uprooting 4.1 million, and damaging or destroying 90 percent of buildings in Tacloban.
Thousands of aid workers, volunteers, and fellow Filipinos arrived to help with the recovery, and while many have since left, Tacloban’s restaurants and bars are still buzzing with foreigners two years after the disaster.
Grindr, which locates other men logged on to the app in the same vicinity, became the tool of choice for those looking for discreet sexual encounters, Florano said.
But it was also used to forge platonic friendships between locals, humanitarian workers, and other visitors, which was probably more significant in changing how gay people expressed themselves, he said.
“Many visitors started to use it just to socialize and hang out with locals, like a sort of relief from dealing with the disaster all the time, and for us it meant all of a sudden there was lots more to do socially.”
Florano said that these days he is more likely to find between 20 and 40 men on Grindr, still not a large number but offering him more choice over who to spend his spare time with.
A New Openness
Tacloban’s LGBT community has had a public face in Jom Bagulaya, the city’s first transgender councilor, but few LGBT people felt accepted before the disaster, said Jonathan Corpus Ong, a lecturer at the University of Leicester in England.
“Spending time with foreign aid workers has helped local gays to become more open and expressive in everyday life,” said Corpus Ong, co-author of a study of the relationship between local people and aid workers after Typhoon Haiyan.
LGBT people interviewed for the study did not express a need for specific support after the disaster because of their sexual orientation, but benefited from a new open-mindedness brought on by the aid workers’ presence, he said.
“They could finally be themselves in Tacloban as the city shed some of its small-town mentality thanks to the presence of a group of people generally perceived to be more tolerant of sexual minorities,” Corpus Ong said.
The benefits appear to have been larger for middle-class professionals than for poor gays struggling to make a living in a region that even before the typhoon was among the poorest in the Philippines, Corpus Ong said.
Unlike those who have felt more accepted and liberated after Haiyan, some working-class gays and transgender people have had to make less welcome changes to their lives, the study found.
“We met low-income femme gay men in hairdressing work who switched jobs to more lucrative macho construction work after Haiyan,” Corpus Ong said.
Florano said the fact that many gays pitched in to help their neighbors after the typhoon may also have contributed to their growing acceptance.
When Typhoon Haiyan struck in the early hours of Nov.8, 2013, Florano was trapped in total darkness in his apartment building, which had been inundated by a massive storm surge brought on by the typhoon.
With water rising above his belly, he managed to escape via a staircase literally at the last minute, an experience he described as the “start of his second life.”
“So many people were pushed to their limits because of the typhoon. In situations like that you just think about survival and not whether it’s OK or not that the person next to you is gay. You just fight for survival and help other people.”
The lasting impact on Tacloban’s LGBT community has yet to be measured, said Corpus Ong.
Also, as many international aid agencies wind down their recovery operations next year, it remains to be seen whether the spirit of openness will survive.