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The Rainbow Connection

Al Esguerra and Paul Cortez relive the highs and lows of their relationship and how it has influenced their style and manner of reacting to boy’s love (BL) series

Over dinner and a much-needed catchup with Al Esguerra and Paul Cortez two weeks ago, the former was joking about how he does all the work for the Boys Love (BL) reaction videos that they make as a couple.

“I set up everything, do much of the talking, and edit the videos myself. And this guy—” Al glared at Paul. “Well, he comes in with his snacks, sits all pretty in front of the camera, doesn’t say much, and goes straight to bed after we record!”

Paul wasn’t having it. “That’s because you talk too much, Bok.” (“Bok” is their pet name for each other.) “I have so many things to say too, you know. You just don’t give me enough air time!”

I chuckled as they continued to bicker and tease each other. No thanks to the pandemic, it had been quite a while since I saw the couple and their sassy antics—something that I got used to seeing ever since I met the two through a volleyball community in 2014. 

If memory serves me right, they were the first openly gay couple that I got to be friends with—I was 17 and quite reclusive at the time, after all. I remembered my teenage self feeling inspired and empowered by seeing them so joyful, honest, and unapologetic about their lives. Somehow, having them in my life opened a world of possibilities. 

As they are entrepreneurs by profession—they run a few clothing and accessory shops—Al and Paul also felt the standstill and struggles that most business owners faced at the beginning of the pandemic. In the early weeks of lockdown back in 2020, they turned to rewatching their own travel vlogs to ease their boredom.

“Al began vlogging our travels back in 2017. While he did it for fun, I was quite uncomfortable at the beginning, because I used to dislike being in front of the camera,” Paul admitted. “However, I’m glad that he kept at it, especially now that we’re stuck at home. It’s nice to have something to return to and relive fondly.”

Al never intended to take up regular vlogging seriously. “I was already happy whenever our videos reached a hundred views. Only then would I upload more, but there wasn’t any pressure to chase the likes or subscribers. It was purely for fun,” he shared. 

The couple didn’t expect that their vlogging hobby would soon become a passion project. The spark? The Thai BL craze of early 2020. Someone had recommended “2gether: The Series” to them. Before they knew it, Al and Paul got swept by the tide. From that, they moved on to shows like “Tharntype,” “SOTUS,” and “Dark Blue Kiss.”

“At first, Paul and I would talk about the different characters, analyze their relationship dynamics, and gush over the handsome actors,” Al said. “But I was just overflowing with so many ideas—and I wanted to talk to people other than Paul—so I thought of using my YouTube channel as a way to air my thoughts out.”

What began as a simple way to let their ideas out soon became a whole production—Al and Paul would watch various episodes of different BL shows and record their reactions in real time—every laugh, tear, kilig moment, and bouts of irritation caught on camera. Much like their travel vlogs, it was all done in pure fun, and they were happy if their videos got hundreds of views.

Queer Beginnings

“We felt seen and understood by shows like ‘Tharntype,’” Al notes, pointing out that the shows that got them hooked depicted not only the ‘chase’ or the heart-fluttering moments of a budding romance, but also the challenges, realities, and blissful moments that gay couples experience as they work on their relationship. “It’s either we saw ourselves in the characters, or we got reminded of certain friends who went through the same things.”

“It’s been a long time coming, really—to see our life stories and our community’s realities on platforms with such a wide reach,” Paul added. “How we wish we had these kinds of shows when we were younger! We could have accepted and loved ourselves earlier on in life.”

While Al and Paul enjoy much love and support from their respective families and closest friends now, they shared that their journey to self-love and acceptance was anything but easy. 

As the only son among three siblings, Al recalled that his father expected him to follow in his footsteps. “My dad was your typical tough and macho man. He was also a professional basketball player back in the day. Meanwhile, I knew from an early age that I liked boys, but I was still denying it. I also pursued volleyball instead of basketball back in high school, so basically I pursued the opposite of what my dad wanted me to become.”

An awkward twist of fate back in the early 2000s led Al to slowly accept that he was gay. “I was a junior or senior back in high school then. We were preparing for a late-night trip from our provincial home in Lucban to Manila. My mom, who was waiting with my sisters in the family car, asked me to go back inside the house and call my dad, who was talking to one of his friends.” 

“Right when I entered the living room, I overheard him telling his friend: ‘I think Al’s gay.’ He didn’t realize that I was already within earshot. My dad saw me, and I got all defensive and angry,” he continued. “You would think I’d feel happy now that he ‘knew,’ but I didn’t confirm anything yet at the time. I was so mad that we didn’t speak to each other at all during the trip back to Manila.”

In young Al’s mind, since his dad already “knew” that he was gay, he didn’t see the need to come out and have the talk with his parents. “I started bringing the boys I dated home, not really caring anymore what my family thought. I just toughened up at the time, thinking that if they already had a hunch about my being gay, what was there to hide?”

Similarly, Paul went through a long phase of denial. “My family and friends kept teasing me that I was gay, which I always denied back then. I acted as ‘straight’ as I possibly could back in high school and college—I even had girlfriends and was branded as a flirt!” 

Uncannily, a weird accident back in 2007 also led to Paul becoming a bit more comfortable with his sexuality. “I was looking for a pair of sunglasses online. One of the links I clicked suddenly took me to this website called Downelink. Apparently, it was an LGBT-oriented social networking website, similar to Friendster—God, am I revealing how old I am now?” Paul laughed. 

“So anyway, I looked around the site and I decided to create an account. I began adding up girls at first, but eventually I started adding and talking to the guys on the platform. I think that’s when I slowly started to get comfortable with myself.”

Unlike Al, however, when Paul started inviting his dates over to their house, his mother initially disapproved of having people over. “There was this time when an ex-boyfriend got sick, and I proposed to take care of him at my house. When we got home, my mother asked him to leave,” Paul shared. “It took a while—well, it took Al—for my mom and the whole family to be comfortable with having someone else in the house.”

By the time the couple met in 2011, Al previously had a six-year relationship with his first boyfriend, while Paul already had three boyfriends before Al. As they shared in this anniversary vlog, the two met in a volleyball game organized by some of their friends. After a few pleasantries, a series of Facebook messages, and a drunken episode in Puerto Galera, Paul decided to make the first move and ask Al to be his boyfriend. 

And yes, the proposal also happened within the volleyball court. 

Mystery of Love

“We understand that we’re lucky in a sense that, when we met each other, most of our loved ones and close friends already accepted us for who we were,” Al shared. “But of course, as with most couples, the early stages of our relationship were some of our most difficult years.”

A few months into their relationship, Al moved into Paul’s place after the former got into a scuffle with his dad. “One night, I came home late from a date with Paul. My dad was drunk when arrived, and he got pissed at me for staying out for too long. ‘You always come home late! Get out of this house!’ He shouted at me.”

Instead of retaliating, Al nonchalantly agreed. “I was already quite prepared for this possibility, so when he told me to leave the house, I said, ‘sure, I’ll live with Paul. I’ll leave now.’”

As Al hurriedly packed his bags, his dad gave him some pocket money and the keys to their car. “He must have come to his senses and realized that his son meant serious business,” Al reminisced. 

As all of this drama was unfolding at the Esguerra household, Paul had no idea that he was going to live with his boyfriend from that day on. “Of course I was panicking while he texted me about what happened! Immediately I had to prepare the house and think about what to say to the people at home. My mother already knew Al and was fond of him but how was I going to explain that he was going to live here with us until… God knows when?”

Al was steadfast and stoic as he drove to Paul’s place. It was only when he got to the Cortez household and settled inside that he began crying. “It all sunk in at that moment—I left my family, and I was not going to return. All the emotions rushed in, and I just started bawling.”

Al eventually got to live harmoniously with Paul’s family, but only up until Paul’s father returned from rehab. “My father knew Al because he would accompany me to our occasional visits at the rehabilitation center. However, when he came back home, he wasn’t aware that Al was already living with us. 

“Suffice to say, it wasn’t the most comfortable situation we found ourselves in,” Paul shared, recalling how his dad gave the two quite a hard time at the beginning. “Al and I had already begun working from home even back in 2011 or 2012, so we’d wake up later than everyone else at home. My dad used to barge in our room and make a ruckus, slamming doors and cabinets just to vent his frustrations out.” 

“I somehow understood that it was also difficult for home to adjust not only with life at home, but also with someone new—and his only son’s boyfriend, at that. However, Al and I just endured it all,” he added. Fortunately, things have eased within their respective families over the years, and both Al and Paul have since enjoyed healthy relationships with their parents and family members. 

However, the two have also candidly admitted that they both weren’t strangers to stupid and hurtful decisions. Around two years into the relationship, they almost broke up. “Long story short, I caught this man red-handed. He flirted with another guy and went out to see him,” Paul sighed. “I was deeply hurt and I didn’t know what to do then.”

Plagued with guilt, Al apologized not only to Paul, but to his boyfriend’s whole family. Al was overcome with remorse that he chose to move back to his own house for the time being. However, Paul’s mom didn’t want them to break up. “It was his mom who approached me and convinced me to work things out with Paul. Even she begged her son to forgive me!”

While Al moved back to his place, Paul went AWOL. (To this day, nobody knows—not even Al—where he went.) “While I was on my solitary trip, of course I was still seething with anger. But I also kept asking myself if I could handle a life without Al,” Paul said. 

“I was feeling all these emotions simultaneously, but I realized during our time apart that I couldn’t imagine not spending the rest of my life with him. So there, I forgave him. And here we are, in front of you, telling our story.”

However, Paul frankly admitted that he wasn’t purely free from any faults. “I’ll admit that I also had my fair share of mistakes, one of which was flirting with someone out of retaliation when I saw Al flirt with someone again, years after that first one.”

“I don’t know, really—the universe has this twisted sense of throwing certain people into our lives when Al and I are already enjoying a happy and healthy relationship. Yes, we admit to these faults that we committed when we were younger, but now, we’re just so happy and secure with each other. I mean, we’ll be celebrating our 11th anniversary this year!” Paul exclaimed. 

The Rainbow Connection

It’s the rollercoaster ride that is Al and Paul’s 11-year relationship that allows the two to create BL reaction videos that go beyond gushing over handsome boys and cheesy moments. “More than the usual kilig, I think what we bring to the table is that wealth of experience as a couple. When we talk about the relationship dynamics of certain characters, we really go in-depth. That’s something that some of our viewers have also pointed out.”

There’s also the fact that Paul and Al themselves are beacons of representation in their own way: two gay men in their late thirties, enjoying a loving and long-lasting relationship, getting to enjoy what they love, showing the world how they’re in love, and sharing their life stories, about love and the hurt that comes with it.

“We’re still in disbelief about how our vlogs exploded in popularity, really,” Al and Paul admitted. It was only after Al noticed that there were many BL reactors posting on TikTok and enjoying a solid audience that he got the idea of crossposting. The day after he uploaded his first BL TikTok reaction video, Al had to spend over three hours replying to comments of love and appreciation from fellow fans. 

“Honestly, we never expected complete strangers to tell us that they love and support us, that we make them happy, and that they always look forward to the content we put out,” Al shared. 

It has gotten to a point where some of our subscribers get disappointed when they don’t post as much, so they’ve already standardized their schedules for videos: watch and record from Monday to Thursday, and upload content from Fridays to Sundays. (And yes, they do all this on top of their business responsibilities.)

One of the amazing things that came out of Al and Paul’s BL reaction videos was that they were able to become part of many BL reactor and fan communities. Not only were they able to interact and discuss with fellow fans online, but they were also able to find kindred spirits who shared similar life stories with them. 

In fact, Al became an ambassador for one of the leading Thai BL communities in the Philippines, Raikantopeni Philippines. More than a gathering of fans, the group actually provides opportunities for fans to meet the actors, purchase BL merchandise, and get the latest updates on upcoming shows and fan activities. With over 150,000 fans and subscribers across their social media platforms, it’s a thriving community that Al and Paul are proud to be part of.

But beyond the numbers, subscribers, and perks, Al and Paul are just simply happy that they could celebrate their love and inspire people along the way—especially queer folk. 

“We’ve never been happier, now that we accept who we are fully and live our truth out and proud, both as individuals and as a couple. Through our content, we hope that people like us feel that they are not alone, and that their lives—through all the love, hurt, happy moments, and challenges—are definitely worth celebrating.”