Bringing LGBT out of the closet of history | Inquirer Opinion
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Bringing LGBT out of the closet of history

At the vice-presidential debate last Sunday, all the candidates raised a thumbs-down sign when asked for their stand on same-sex marriage. A pity that the candidates were limited to a yes-or-no answer to a question that begs lively debate and that would have provided voters with an insight into their thoughts and convictions. Leni Robredo was quick to qualify that she was for civil union, but she was cut off. If we are to go by the difficulty encountered by the sponsors of the then reproductive health bill, it is obvious that divorce and same-sex marriage are eons away from reality in the Philippines even if these are pressing issues that matter to the 21st-century Filipino as much as traffic and slow Internet connection.

A handful of same-sex couples I know have gone abroad to get married, and it is unfortunate that their marriage will not be recognized in the Philippines, where one partner can be ignored by the other’s next of kin when crucial decisions are needed in a medical emergency or, worse, usurped of a fair share in the estate. While same-sex marriage is a long shot, a civil union should be an option for LGBT couples.

If we look back at 16th-century friar accounts of the Philippines and Filipinos, you will find references to the babaylan, an indigenous (or, as Kidlat Tahimik says, “Indio Genius”) religious leader who provided healing and divination to a community. The babaylan was often a woman, but there were male babaylan, too.

In 1589 the Franciscan Juan de Plasencia drew up a list of 12 “ministers of the devil” in the Philippines from which we can easily recognize the: aswang, manananggal, and mancocolam. The last on the list was one of the earliest historical LGBT references: the bayoguin, defined as “a man with the nature of a woman.”


LGBT refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The initials are used in the West to define identity based on gender and sexuality, but in the Philippines, one candidate defined LGBT as: lesbian, gay, bakla and tomboy.

How do we bring LGBT out of the closet of Philippine history? For example, Jun Terra, an expatriate Filipino writer in London, while reminiscing on the First Quarter Storm, recalled a time when a group of boisterous gays in drag joined a Kabataang Makabayan rally and lustily taunted the truncheon-armed police with the rude verse “Pulis, pulis, ang t*t* mong matulis!” Everyone else chanting “Makibaka! ’Wag matakot!” kept a discreet distance from the gay group.

Terra’s account made me realize the silences in history, or how the limp-wristed do not appear in the rather macho retelling of student activism before martial law.

While researching on the Filipino-American War many years ago, I came across a curious LGBT reference in the Manila Times of Aug. 16, 1899, that reads:


“An insurgent spy has been captured and now languishes in the Anda street police station. His name is Baldomero de Leon, [or] at least that is what he calls himself. De Leon was captured yesterday by Corporal John Moore and Private Thomas of the 24th Infantry while he was endeavoring to pass through our lines near Mariquina, disguised as a woman and in company with two females.

“The trio carried baskets upon their heads containing salt, cigarettes and rice. The arrest was made because the soldiers had reason to believe the trio were endeavoring to smuggle contraband articles through the lines. The salt especially aroused the suspicion of the guards which at the time they believed to be salt-petre.” (Known to cooks as salitre, it is the ingredient that makes pork tocino red. It also happens to be an ingredient in making gunpowder.)


That item does not indicate whether De Leon was straight, gay or a cross-dresser, but it reminded me of references to Katipuneros on the way to Balintawak in August 1896 dressed as women. When they were asked why they carried bolos, they replied that they were on their way to the fiesta of San Bartolome in Malabon, birthplace of the famous locally forged blade, the sangbartolome. Then, of course, there was the Balangiga Massacre (1901), where Filipino revolutionaries passed through enemy lines dressed as women off to early-morning Mass.

Returning to the Manila Times report:

“De Leon is an adept at playing the part of a Filipino woman. So cleverly does he imitate her manners that even the keen eye of the Chief of Police found difficulty in assuring himself of the sex of the prisoner. If Baldomero only had smaller feet and not such large swollen hands, he could pass for a woman on the strength of his outward appearance any time.”

Poor Baldomero was displayed like a circus freak to the curious usiseros who flocked to the Anda jail to see him. The Manila Times concludes: “Naturally, the soldiers had considerable rude fun at Baldomero’s expense, but he took it well and smiled so sweetly back and was so decidedly feminine in all his actions that he completely won the crowd to his side.”

There is a feminist school of thought that argues that his-tory is male and therefore there must be room in the world for her-story. Surely our LGBT friends want their story out, too. The first step will be for a dedicated historian to dig up all the LGBT references in libraries and archives and, yes, bring LGBT out of the closet of Philippine history. The hard part will be making LGBT part of mainstream history.


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TAGS: babaylan, Balangiga Massacre, Elections 2016, First quarter storm, LGBT, same-sex marriage, vice-presidential debate

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