By Harriette Chan
"We are tolerated, but not accepted. Tolerated is more of, 'We have to endure you... but only up to here.'" — Ging Cristobal
This article contains mentions of colonization, transphobia, and murder.
The Philippines is one of the most LGBT friendly countries in Asia. A 2014 poll found that 73% of Filipinos said that gay and lesbian people should be accepted by society—a shockingly different opinion from other nearby Asian countries with Malaysia coming in at 9% and Indonesia at 3%. This is surprising in a majority Roman Catholic country like the Philippines. There is a long history of acceptance for queer people in the Philippines, dating all the way back to pre-Spanish colonization and conversion to Catholicism. In Filipino mythology, there was always a queer presence.
Prior to colonization, the Philippines was a polytheistic nation. Deities differed between tribes and regions, and the myths included here were handed down generation after generation through oral tradition.
There is a pre-colonial Visayan myth that tells the story of how two gods fell in love. The tale talks of the God of Death, Sidapa, who lived alone on Mt. Madjaas. From there he could see the seen moon gods, each of who represents a phase of the moon. Many were captivated by their beauty, including Sidapa and Bakunawa, the sea dragon. Sidapa fell in love with the seven moon gods. He asked the birds and mermaids to sing his praise to the moons. He ordered the flowers to make sweet perfumes that reached the skies. He asked for the fireflies to light a path in the sky so the moons could find him.
One of the moon gods, Libulan, came down on this firefly path to meet Sidapa, who showered him in love and gifts. But as their romance bloomed, Bakunawa grew furious; it rose from the sea and devoured the moons. But Sidapa saw it attacking and saved Libulan from its wrath. It is said that afterwards, they resided as husbands on Mt. Madjaas. Some LGBT Filipinos today use Libulan as a symbol and refer to him as the patron god of homosexuality.
Transgender women were also a part of our mythology. Lakapati (or Ikapati) is the goddess of fertility and good harvest. She was also described as an androgynous, intersex, or transgender goddess. According to myth, she was one of the kindest deities, giving man the gift of agriculture. Pre-colonial Filipinos would offer sacrifices to her before planting a new field. The ceremony was described by a Franciscan missionary who said he saw, “a farmer paying homage to this fertility goddess (he) would hold up a child before saying “Lakapati pakanin mo yaring alipin mo; huwag mong gutumin” (Lakapati, feed this thy slave; let him not hunger).” In some versions of the myth, Lakapati is the consort of Bathala, the creator of the world. Bathala can also be considered to be intersex as the name means “Man and Woman in One”.
Myths are a reflection of the people who believe in them and the presence of transgender women was not confined to Filipino mythology. There are Spanish accounts of trans Filipino women living among society during pre-colonial and early colonial times. The Tansug people of the Southern Philippines believed in a third gender that was essentially women who were born as men. From a western standpoint, we can view them as transgender women though early Filipinos referred to them as "bakla".
Trans women could live in Filipino society as women; dressing in feminine clothing, marrying men, and taking up the women’s duties and social status. Filipino women had a comparatively high status as opposed to other cultures at the time. They could divorce from their husbands without his permission, own their own wealth and land, and name their children. But transgender women were still thought to be different from other women in two ways: they could not have children and they were considered to be more spiritual. They held power within society as religious leaders, as described by Neil J. Garcia in “Male Homosexuality in the Philippines: a short history”:
“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”
Queer acceptance did not last long, however. When the Spanish came in the 1500s, they brought Catholicism with them. When the Philippines was conquered, the people were converted to Roman Catholicism and that is still the most widely practiced religion in the country to this day. Spanish colonization put an end to traditional Filipino mythology and with it the rights of transgender women in the Philippines.
While it is true that the Philippines is one of the most tolerant Sian countries for transgender people and the history suggest the same, the Philippines is still no haven for LGBT people. The majority of Filipino citizens may be tolerant of queer people, but tolerance only goes so far. As Ging Cristobal put it, “We are considered second or third class citizens. We are tolerated but not accepted. Tolerated is more of, ‘We have to accept you but only up to here.’”
The Filipino government still refuses to pass anti-discrimination laws for the LGBT community that would allow for trans women to use the correct bathroom. 41 trans people were still killed between 2008 and 2016. In 2014, a Filipino trans woman named Jennifer Laude was brutally murdered by a US Marine. When people found out she was trans, her gender was denied by the public. Catholic and evangelical groups are still protesting against the rights of trans people. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, announced last year that he opposed gay marriage stating, “That can’t apply to us, because we are Catholics.”
It is sad to think that perhaps thousands of years ago trans women had better rights than they do today, but unfortunately, that is the case. Homophobia, the invasive disease brought on through colonialism, has not yet been wiped out in the Philippines. Still, there is hope. The people of the Philippines can look back at their own past and see why transgender people need to be accepted. Acceptance for queer people is a part of the Philippines’ roots, and hopefully, a part of the country’s future.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Almendral, Aurora. (2018, April 29). A Transgender Paradox, and Platform, in the Philippines. The New York Times.
Gancayco, Stephanie. (2016, November 20). Lakapati, Transgender Tagalog Goddess of Fertility & Agriculture. Hella Pinay.
Garcia, Neil J. (2004). Male Homosexuality in the Philippines: a short history. IAAS Newsletter, pp. 13.
Gutierrez, Natashya. (2017, May 17). LGBTQ activists: We are tolerated but not accepted in the Philippines. Rappler.
Pew Research Center (2013). The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
Villamor, Felipe. (2017, March 20). Duterte Opposes Gay Marriage in Philippines, Reversing Campaign Pledge. The New York Times.