Monday, August 4, 2008

Transgenderism: The Philippine experience

Transgenderism in the Philippines dates back to pre-colonial times. Thanks to the babaylan chronicles (accounts of Spanish friars), it is now known that transgender people called asog/bayoguin held socially prestigious occupations as priestesses and healers in pre-Hispanic Philippine tribes, villages and communities.

The asog/bayoguin although “genitally male” had the gender identity and/or expression of a female. She worked as a babaylan/catalonan/daetan/baliana and served as a religious leader, equal in status to the community’s political leader. This tradition of transgender shamanism can also be found in many other Asian countries such as Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, India, China, and others. Like their counterparts in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Africa, these transgender priestesses from ancient times were venerated as either a third gender or a female variant and were thought to possess knowledge ordinary people did not. It is not known if “genitally female” persons with male gender identity and expression were viewed in the same way by the same cultures.

The asog/bayoguin is considered the pre-cursor of the modern-day bakla or bayot (from the Visayas) and bantut (from Mindanao). It is important to note that asog, bayoguin, bakla, bayot and bantut were not originally meant as categories of sexual orientation but rather gender terms. This means that Filipino culture is amenable to the idea of gender variance or gender diversity, that there are not only two but instead possibly a variety of genders. Clearly, ancient Philippine culture adopted a supernumerary gender system and not just a binary one.

More than three centuries of European colonization sadly erased and invisibilized this interesting tidbit about our pre-colonial past. Today, because the discourse of homosexuality has become so deeply entrenched in Philippine daily life and due to a lack of understanding of transgenderism or gender variance/diversity in our country, the bakla, bayot and bantut have been misinterpreted as the local equivalent of gay identity. The same goes for the tomboy which I feel was originally ascribed to people assigned female at birth but looked and acted male. The tomboy was possibly not lesbian but transgender.

Instead of looking at them as patterns and proof of gender variation, they are now thought of as patterns of homosexuality. The same mistake has been made in the West in the past in fact when so-called experts classified behaviors that crossed the genders as extreme forms of gayness or lesbianism. Precisely because homosexuality itself was a gender-nonconforming behavior it was not difficult to make the connection. Many of those who exhibited these “gender crossing” behaviors, however, did not identify as gay or lesbian. They were transgender.

In the Philippines, it is now more common for Filipinos, assigned male at birth by virtue of genitalia, who grow up with a male gender identity and expression and are emotionally and sexually attracted to other males, to call themselves bakla or bayot. These indigenous terms are said to have now become homosexualized. People whose gender identities and expressions mismatch the sex they were assigned at birth must then use transgender, an admittedly Western term, for now to identify and distinguish themselves or create an entirely new one that resonates locally.

I like Pinoy/Pinay TG hence the site and blog name. My friend Sass who co-founded the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) likes Trans (short for transgender) Pinoy/Pinay. What do you think?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi PinayTG,

I've been meaning to comment just to say what a great blog you have. I was particularly struck and saddened by your discussion of a supernumenary gender system in the Philppines that was erased by colonization.

Have you read about the blog carnival over at Belledame222's?

She mentioned looking pieces from outside Anglophone countries, and I immediately thought of your post.