How the Queer History of the Philippines Inspires Our Struggle Today

by Cheng Pagulayan | June 29, 2022
Background media: Two young Brown women embrace each other. The woman on our left is pressing her nose agains the cheek of the woman in our right whose eyes are closed while she smiles and raises one of her arms. Behind them is a rainbow flag.
Photo: Pandekate/Creative Commons

In pre-colonial times, Indigenous communities respected the babaylan, the Filipino version of a shaman who sometimes crossed genders. Today, these healers are icons for LGBTQIA+ activists in the Philippines fighting to outlaw discrimination.

Pre-colonial Philippines has always fascinated me because of its colourful cultural practices, interesting language, and fantastical myths. As a queer development communicator, my favourite figure has always been the babaylan, the Filipino version of a shaman, who was a healer, diviner, and priestess in Indigenous communities.  

While the babaylan was typically a woman – well-respected in her community for her ability to bridge material and spiritual worlds – historical accounts showed that there were also male babaylan who crossed genders, making them symbolic icons for the Philippine LGBTQIA+ movement today.

The Indigenous practice of having a babaylan did not last long during the Spanish colonization, as the colonizers found this powerful class of Filipinos a threat. But over a century after the Spanish left, a vibrant modern LGBTQIA+ community keeps the memory of these pre-colonial icons alive.

From Past Respect to Present Discrimination and Violence

From being well-respected babaylans in pre-colonial society, many members of the Philippine LGBTQIA+ community now face a more hostile context, with gender-based violence and discrimination. While queer people have a long-standing history in our country, there is today a glaring absence of national legislation to protect them.

Today, the LGBTQIA+ community faces alarming rates of gender-based violence and discrimination. From 2010 to 2020, at least 50 transgender or non-binary Filipinos were murdered. Studies showed that around half of transgender people and bisexual women would experience sexual violence during their lifetime.

I still remember how devastating it was for the Pinoy transgender community when at the start of 2021, three transgender people were brutally killed and three kidnapped. There have also been other injustices that have impacted the community, such as a trans woman being denied teaching opportunities. 

Micro-Aggressions and the Importance of Language

Another type of violence directed at the LGBTQIA+ community is micro-aggressions, indirect or subtle acts of discrimination against marginalized groups in their daily lives. It often manifests through conscious or unconscious discriminatory or transphobic remarks.  

Since I started joining feminist and queer rights organizations, I have been more careful with my words. Even as a queer person, I acknowledge that some of my past words may have come off as micro-aggressions against my community.

This growing self-awareness has led me to appreciate our Filipino language. The Filipino language is largely gender-neutral. There are no direct translations of the words husband or wife as we use the gender-neutral term asawa, referring to a spouse. Another example is the gender-neutral pronoun siya, which refers to a person.

But despite this gender neutrality in language, we are still confronted by different discriminatory experiences in public and private spaces. 

The Filipino language is largely gender-neutral. There are no direct translations of the words husband or wife as we use the gender-neutral term asawa, referring to a spouse.

A group of people from different genders and ages walk on the street under a giant pride flat, which some of them are carrying at the sides.
The Philippines has the region's largest Catholic population in Asia and the longest-running pride march in South Asia, the annual Metro Manila Pride March and Festival. Photo: Watsamon Tri-yasakda/Shutterstock

Positive Signs in the Fight for Legal Protection

While the country ranked as the 10th most gay-friendly country in a 2013 global survey by Pew Research Center, the LGBTQIA+ community are still at risk because of the absence of a national law to protect them from discrimination and hate crimes.

The first bill seeking to end gender-based discrimination was filed in Congress in 2000. More than 20 years later, that anti-discrimination bill, also called the SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression) Equality Bill, has yet to overcome opposition from various groups and become law.

However, there are positive developments at the local level. So far, 30 municipal and provincial governments have passed local ordinances to end gender-based violence and abuse. But these are not enough as these local legislations only protect around 25 per cent of the population.

Successful Activism – But There's a Long Way to Go

These early victories have been won with the help of movements led by LGBTQIA+ activists. The Philippine Anti-Discrimination Alliance of Youth Leaders (PANTAY) is at the frontline of the LGBTQIA+ movement in the country, rallying for gender-inclusive and responsive legislation at local and national levels. With its wide network of activists and advocates throughout the Philippines, they have successfully lobbied for local ordinances through campaigns and progressive programs.

Oxfam Pilipinas, with its partner organizations, is also advocating for gender justice by supporting programmes and policies that address the elimination of violence against women, girls and people with diverse SOGIE. Now we need more allies to fully recognize the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community amid the multiple challenges of the global economic recession, shrinking democratic spaces, and disinformation.

It will take a village to realize the liberation of the LGBTQIA+ fully and end the cycle of gender-based violence and discrimination against them. To genuinely recognize that LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights requires the passage of a gender recognition law, a hate crime law, marriage equality, social protection, and much more. We hope our young and vibrant movement of LGBTQIA+ can make this happen.

From the babaylan to the modern queer icons and individuals of today, equality and freedom are deeply rooted in our Filipino values and history. We will continue to fight to reclaim our rightful spaces and ensure that we are all equal and free from discrimination and violence. 

This piece was initially posted on Oxfam's Views and Voices blog on June 21, 2022.

Cheng Pagulayan is a queer climate activist, development communicator, licensed environmental planner and gender justice advocate. Currently, he is the advocacy officer for climate change and energy transition of Oxfam Pilipinas and the director for policy and campaigns of the Philippine Anti-Discrimination Alliance of Youth Leaders (PANTAY).

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