Philippines and Homosexuality: From Babaylans to Charice

After I read “A revealing map of the countries that are most and least tolerant of homosexuality” by Max Fisher where the writer said that he doesn’t know why Philippines has a high level of tolerance toward gays even if it’s a conservative Catholic country, I decided to write to Mr. Fisher in order to explain the interesting parts of Philippine culture and its treatment of gays. I just sent it last night, so I don’t know if he’ll reply. Anyway, here are the parts of my e-mail (I kind of revised it a bit for this blog):

Remember that the Catholic religion wasn’t the original religion of the Filipinos. It was brought by the Spaniards and imposed on the people. Even if many consider themselves Catholic, there is a phenomenon called split-level Catholicism wherein the individual retains non-Catholic beliefs even if they identify themselves as Catholic. These pre-Spanish beliefs could be one of the reasons why there is tolerance when it comes to gays. Why is that so? Let me talk about the babaylans.

It is often explained to us (in school or in lectures, I came from Catholic schools by the way) that the Philippines is tolerant toward gays because of the babaylans. In the olden days, the datu or the political head of the baranggay or town is assigned to males, while the babaylan or the spiritual head of the baranggay or town is assigned to females.

The role of the babaylan is passed on to her daughter. In the event that the babaylan does not give birth to a daughter, it is passed on to her son, but when the son does the spiritual rituals where he will talk to the gods, he must wear female clothes and a wig. Thus, cross-dressing became acceptable in the Philippines, and this attitude extended to tolerance toward gays.

Gay celebrities and politicians

Gays have a large presence in the entertainment business. They are often comedians and talk show hosts. Gay comedians are also found in comedy bars in the city.

Some of the prominent gays in the Philippines are Boy Abunda (a talk show host who interviews high profile celebrities), BB Gandanghari (also known as Rustom Padilla; the first male action star, previously married to a famous Filipino actress, who came out on TV and became a transsexual), Aiza Seguerra (was once a darling of a kiddie beauty pageant and was the first celebrity who came out as a lesbian) and most recently Charice (a signer who was featured on Oprah, Ellen, and Glee before she came out as a lesbian).

There are male actors though who are rumored to be gay, but are not coming out because they often star as the leading man in a romantic film or TV series. They have throngs of female fans who like them because they are handsome, so admitting that they are gay might kill their fan base and thus their source of revenue. They are made fun of in social media and are the butt of jokes in everyday conversations for being closeted.

Independent Filipino films often involve gay storylines and there’s a lot of sex involved. When the Da Vinci Code came to the Philippines there was an uproar from the Catholic Church, and it was even banned in several cinemas, but when Brokeback Mountain came to the Philippines, no one complained.

Even in Filipino telenovelas there are some gay characters. In a popular love drama Pangako sa Iyo (My Promise), there was a side story about two gay lovers and there was a sex scene.There was no uproar.

Now there will be a new TV series called My Husband’s Lover where a wife finds out that her husband has a male lover. I don’t know how that story will play out, but the Catholic Church is not commenting on it. However, when Charice came out, the Church said that she isn’t yet in the “terminal stage of homosexuality” and she can still change. Yep, they used the words “terminal stage”.

There is a political party called LADLAD which champions gay issues, and the members are gay politicians. Their founder, Danton Remoto is a professor in one of the top private schools in the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila, which is also a Catholic school run by Jesuits. In 2010, the Commission on Elections denied LADLAD’s petition to be allowed to run in the elections, but the Supreme Court reversed this order and allowed them to run.

Gays are often seen in parlors as they are regarded as experts in cutting women’s hair. Women haircutters are not as in demand as the gays are. If a parlor offers a female haircutter, the customer will say, “Wala kayong bakla? (You don’t have a gay one?)”. Many fashion designers are also gay.

The darker side

I remember seeing on the news that a lesbian was raped in order to “turn her into a woman”. The one who ordered her rape was her family.

The term “bakla” which is the Filipino word for gay is still used as a insult. The original meaning of “bakla” is “coward”, but now the LGBT community has embraced the term to mean “gay”. An often done prank by teenagers is to hack into their male friend’s Facebook account and to post something like “I’m gay” or “I like dick”, thus “shaming” the male person.

They are gays who still get beaten up, especially by fraternities. Although there was one case in the University of the Philippines where the gays won over the frats. When their fellow gay friend got beaten up in a bathroom and the frat members left the insignia of the frat to ensure that people knew who was responsible for beating the gay person, the gays in the school fought back. They were the xerox machine operators near the school, so whenever a member of the said frat needed to xerox his class readings, the gay operator would say, “We will not xerox your readings until you give up the people who beat up our friend”. Eventually the perpetrators were given up.

Gays are still disowned by families especially those who come from conservative Chinese families. When disowned, some commit suicide. As of this writing, Charice’s mother is still not talking to her because the mom hasn’t accepted the fact that her child is lesbian.

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4 thoughts on “Philippines and Homosexuality: From Babaylans to Charice

  1. Good read! I just want to point out a few points on the politics and the darker side sections. When it comes to politics, yes the country is tolerant to the LGBT community but is far away from granting them the same rights as the straight community, especially when it comes to marriage equality. During the RH debates one congressman pointed out that passing the RH bill would lead to other “immoral” bills, giving same sex marriage as an example. Yes the church may be silent on gays in TV and movies but won’t be should the topic of same sex marriage ever comes to the table. The Congress can’t even pass an Anti-Discrimination Bill because some representatives, like Sen. Soto, is against the section that protects the LGBT community. Allowing the LADLAD party list to run is definitely a step in the right direction for the country but it still has a long way to go.

    I completely agree with you on your points in the darker side section. There are numerous hate crimes happening and not all are reported because it involves the LGBT community (hence the urgent need for the COMPLETE Anti-Discrimination Bill). One thing I want to point out is that there is still a big misconception with the word “gay” in our country, at least based on my experience. A lot of people associate being gay with being effeminate, that being gay automatically makes you a “parlor gay”, that being gay means you want to be or act like a girl. Now, there’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with acting effeminate, if a gay man wants to be that way then he has every right to be. But not all gay men are that way, many are just your everyday guys: They watch basketball games, talk about cars, play video games. What defines a person’s sexuality is not the way they act or the things they like. One is gay because he or she is attracted to the same sex, simple as that. This misconception has to be removed for the country to truly move forward.

    Well that’s all. Sorry for the length but it’s a topic that’s very important and personal to me so I just had to put my thoughts out there. Again, great article!


    1. Hello! Thank you for sharing your insights! Those were really helpful points. Yes I do agree that the Philippines still needs to do more when it comes to giving equal rights to the LGBT community. Thanks for reading my blog!


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