The folk wisdom that Filipinos are a gay-friendly people must have first been mouthed by a wide-eyed tourist one lazy orange afternoon, assaulted by the vision of flamboyant transvestites sashaying down Manila’s busy sidewalks in broad daylight. Swiveling their hips from side to side, nothing seemed to threaten these chirping damsels except their heavy pancake makeup, which could run at any moment under the sweltering tropical sky.
When visitors to the Philippines remark that Filipinos openly tolerate and/or accept homosexuality, they invariably have in mind effeminate, cross dressing men (bakla) swishing down streets and squealing on television programs with flaming impunity. This is sadly misinformed. To equate Philippine society’s tolerance for public displays of transvestism with wholesale approval of homosexual behavior is naive, if not downright foolish.
While cross dressing exists in the Philippines, it is allowed only in certain social classes and within certain acceptable contexts, among entertainers and parloristas (beauticians) for instance, and during carnivalesque celebrations and fiestas. In fact, Filipinos have yet to see transvestism as legitimate in ‘serious’ professions – male senators filibustering from the podium wrapped in elegant, two-toned pashminas, or CEOs strutting around open-air malls wearing power skirts and designer leather pumps. Second, and more importantly, cross dressing is very different from homosexuality: the one does not necessarily entail the other. Observed more closely, the two have very different stories to tell.
If their society was truly tolerant of (male) homosexuality, then Filipinos would see not just flaming transvestites shrieking their heads off in TV sitcoms and variety shows, but local men, sissy or otherwise, frenching and erotically manhandling each other in steamy ‘gay telenovelas’. There would be as many gay pick-up bars as straight bars, and both the femmy pa-girl and butchy pa-mhin would be able to display affection in public.
At the heart of the idea of homosexuality is sex, no matter the sartorial style of the persons indulging in it. Thus, to historicize homosexuality in the Philippines, we must recognize the fundamental difference between gender and sexuality. More specifically, we need to disarticulate the presents and commonsensical connection between gender transitive behaviors and the identities of bakla, bayot, agi, and bantut on the one hand and the discourse and reality of homosexuality as typically ‘gay’ same-sex orientation and/or identity on the other. The history of the former stretches into the oral past not only of the Philippines, but the whole of Southeast Asia. The latter is a more recent development, a performative instance and discursive effect of the largely American-sponsored bio-medicalization of local Filipino cultures.
We know from Spanish accounts of encounters between conquistadores and the archipelago’s various indios that gender crossing and transvestism were cultural features of early colonial and thus, presumably, pre-colonial communities.
Local men dressed up in women’s apparel and acting like women were called, among other things, bayoguin, bayok, agi-ngin, asog, bido and binabae. They were significant not only because they crossed male and female gender lines. To the Spanish, they were astonishing, even threatening, as they were respected leaders and figures of authority. To their native communities they were babaylan or catalonan: religious functionaries and shamans, intermediaries between the visible and invisible worlds to whom even the local ruler (datu) deferred. They placated angry spirits, foretold the future, healed infirmities, and even reconciled warring couples and tribes. Donning the customary clothes of women was part of a larger transformation, one that redefined their gender almost completely as female. We may more properly call them...