When I was starting my advocacy work on trans issues in 2001, a time when “transgender” was an “exotic” term in the Philippine lesbian and gay movement, one of the critiques I received was “transgender” was a Western concept. As a teenager, I didn’t take it well. But the beautiful thing about life is our ability to learn and eventually see things with much more insightful eyes. I have learned to consider this critique as an invitation to ground my advocacy in the vocabulary rooted in the culture of our people.
But I, and a lot of women like me, have an uneasy relationship with the word bakla, the word used by Filipinos to refer to both gay men and trans women. Also, bakla is often used as a slur like faggot. Unless bakla is used as a term of endearment, a trans woman being called bakla entails the invalidation and delegitimization of her womanhood: She is not a “real” woman because she is a bakla. In other words, she is “really” a man like the gay men who are also called bakla. Because one of the goals of our advocacy is for society to recognize and respect that our girl- and womanhood are as real and valid as the girl- and womanhood of girls and women who were assigned female at birth, we in the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), decided to coin an identity that would symbolize this advocacy: transpinay. It is a combination of trans and Pinay (a Filipina woman). We launched the term in 2008 as we participated in the LGBT Pride March. The banner we carried during the 2008 Manila Pride March boldly declared: Transpinay: The other Filipina woman.
Nonetheless, I still continued my search for affirmative vocabularies that are rooted in our culture. The lack of gender in our pronouns also lead me to reflect further on my development from being a baby assigned male at birth into a young child who never doubted her female identity into a fierce woman. Did I transition? Or did I unfold?
As I wrote earlier, I feel that “he becomes a she” does not capture what people like me has gone through. Tagalog is one of the very few languages in the world that do not have gendered pronouns. He, she, and it are just “Siya/Sya”. Hence, he or she becoming or changing into another pronoun does not have an equivalent in Tagalog. It’s just “Sya becomes Sya (Sya ay naging Sya).” I feel this is a better starting point in understanding, explaining, and reflecting on the experience of women like me. I am not a he who became a she. I just became I and I unfolded to the outside world the reality contained inside me. Thus, if you are going to describe this experience it’s not a “he who becomes a she” but “Sya ay naging sya at patuloy na nagiging sya (Siya becomes siya and continues to become siya).” I did not transition, I unfolded.
Recently, I stumbled upon the Facebook page of HAPI – Humanist Alliance Philippines, International . I was intrigued by their post on the 17th of May, in celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. It said: “Did you know? The Teduray tribe of the Philippines has a concept of transgender: “mentefuwaley libun” for “man who became woman” and “mentefuwaley lagey” for “woman who became man.” I went on to research on the Teduray people living in Southern Philippines in Mindanao. What I discovered made me glow.
The translation from HAPI doesn’t fully capture what the term means. There’s no man in mentefuwaley libun, and there is no woman in mentefuwaley lagey. According to the Facebook page of UP Mindanao Mentefuwaley the LGBT organization of University of the Philippines – Mindanao, “mentefuwaley” means “transformation.” Meanwhile, libun means woman, and lagey means man. Thus, literally, “mentefuwaley libun” means “transformation woman” and “mentefuwaley lagey” means “transformation man.” The translation “man who became woman” and “woman who became man” are analogous to the sensationalizing “he becomes she” and “she becomes a he.” This is a translation that takes the gender and knowledge-system of the English language as its guide for translation rather than the gender and knowledge-system of the Teduray people from which these terms come from.
To support my argument, let me point to the conversation between some Teduray people and Stuart Schlegel, a cultural anthropologist and specialist on the Philippines, Indonesia and California. Below is an excerpt from Wisdom from a Rainforest: The Spiritual Journey of an Anthropologist (1998), Schlegel’s reflections on what he learned from living with the Teduray people in the 60’s. The full excerpt is available on the Website of the book.
One evening I was listening to my next-door neighbor, Ideng-Tong, play her zither, and I commented to Mo-Tong how lovely I found his wife’s music. He said to me, “Mo-Lini, you should hear Ukà (SEE ACCOMPANYING PHOTO BELOW) from LangeLange (a place several mountain crests away from Figel). She is the best of all Teduray zither players. Perhaps, she will come and play for you, and you can put that on your radio.” He used the English word, but was referring to my tape-recorder.
I said, “Just-right, cousin. I would love to hear her play.”
I might have known when I made that reply that word would get to Ukà and she would come when she had a chance. About two weeks later, one of the Figel men told me he had been in Lange Lange and that Ukà said she would come play for me. Not long after that, the celebrated musician came to Figel, and we had a most memorable bamboo zither festival. Ukà stayed for ten days, every evening playing for a couple of hours to those of us gathered around the still-burning cookfire under the big house. Ukà played several different kinds of pieces. Some were slow tunes of well-known love songs; others were fast, intricately repetitive traditional melodies. Some were her own compositions. Other people played their zithers or other instruments from time to time, and there was a bit of singing and dancing, but for the most part people knew that they were hearing the finest zither player of their day, and they urged her to play piece after piece. I made tape recordings and took some photographs, but mostly I just joined my companions in total enjoyment of her music.
One evening as Ukà was playing I asked the man next to me if she was married, because she had come to Figel accompanied by her brother, and her name didn’t indicate any children.
He replied, “Oh no, Mo-Lini, she can’t be married. How could she have children? She is a mentefuwaley libun.”
I had never heard that term before, but it was perfectly clear Teduray and meant “one-who-became-a-woman.”
I said, “Oh, so she is really a man?”
“No,” he said, “she is a genuine woman!” His word for “genuine” was tentu, which means “real” or “actual.”
But if she were really a woman, what did it mean that she became a woman? I was confused. (Remember that this whole conversation was in Teduray and therefore was without pronouns like “he” or “she,” “him” or “her.”)
I asked my companion, “Well, then, when she was born was she a boy or a girl?”
When he replied, I detected a slight in incredulity that I could be so dense concerning a perfectly clear situation. “She was born a boy, Mo-Lini. Don’t you remember? I just said that she is one-who-became-a-woman!”
“So then, cousin,”–I, the dense stranger in his world, forged bravely on–“she is really a man, just dressed like a woman!”
My friend’s disbelief at my inability to see what was right before my eyes seemed to go up a notch, edging toward a puzzlement equal to my own. He said, “Can’t you understand? She is really a woman! She is one-who-became-a-woman.”
So I played my trump card, sure it would clear up all this silliness: “Well, does she have a penis?”
“Yes, of course she has a penis,” he said. “She is one-who-became-a-woman.”
Finally I stopped quizzing him. In my world what identifies a man as “really” a male and a woman as “really” a female are their genitals, but evidently this was not so for the Teduray. In the months following this revelation, I asked several people about this phenomenon. I learned that in their view of things, what made you really a certain gender was the social role you played: how you dressed, how you wore your hair, what you did all day, how you were addressed by people, what gender you thought of yourself as being. And as far as Teduray were concerned, you could be whichever one you pleased. I later met a man who had been born a girl but who had chosen to be male and had lived a long life as a man. Most boys grew up wanting to be men and most girls grew up wanting to be women, but if anyone didn’t and wanted to switch, nobody cared a whit. He or she was not thought of as strange or eccentric and, except that marriage was considered inappropriate, was treated just like everyone else.
Seeing my interest and opacity with regard to these people who changed gender, someone asked me, “Mo-Lini, don’t you have ones-who-became-women and ones-who-became-men in America?”
“Well,” I said, “we have women and men who wear the other’s clothing, and we have men and women who would like to be the other gender.”
“So, you see,” he said, “it’s just the same with you.”
“No,” I had to reply. “Many Americans give such people a bad time. They despise them and consider them bad people.”
“Just because they want to be a different gender?” he asked, amazement on his face. And his next question still rings in my ears: “Why is that? Why are you people so cruel?”
One can gather from this story that mentefuwaley libun is not about a “man” becoming a woman but the ungendered “one” becoming a woman: “one-who-became-woman.” This is the same with mentefuwaley lagey: “one-who-became-man.” Schlegel might have translated it in this way because his conversation with the Teduray people was conducted in the Teduray language, which like Tagalog, has no gendered pronouns.
The rough Tagalog equivalent of the answer of the Teduray man to Schlegel’s question on why Ukà can’t marry might be: “Siya ay naging babae,” which is the Tagalog translation of “one-who-became-woman.” Replacing the word “one” with man or woman is wrong. The gender of “mentefuwaley libun” is “libun,” which is babae in Tagalog and girl/woman in English. Mentefuwaley only serves as a description of how Ukà’s womanhood came to be. She unfolded into a woman. Mentefuwaley refers to the path to being a man or a woman that the Teduray people recognize and respect and consider as valid and legitimate.
The Teduray people doesn’t consider Ukà’s womanhood as fake. Thus, when Schlegel, who is operating within the gender system of his culture, asked “Oh, she is really a man?” The Teduray man he was talking to told him “No, she is a tentu woman!” Tentu in the Teduray language means “real” or “actual.” More significantly, Ukà’s genitalia are not relevant to the Teduray people in determining her gender. She is a real woman even if she has a penis because she unfolded into being a woman. However, though Schlegel believes that these women have sexual partners, marriage is not necessary for them. “It was perfectly accepted, and I’m quite sure those individuals had sexual partners. The only difference was that they didn’t marry. Marriage was an economic unit for raising children, so there was no need for that among couples who weren’t going to have children,” Schlegel said in his interview by University of California, Santa Cruz in November 1998.
Besides the validity of Ukà’s womanhood, another striking feature of this story is the respected status of Ukà. She is “the best of all Teduray zither players” and the Teduray people celebrate her for that. This is far from the discrimination and violence experienced by trans people outside the Teduray culture.
The Teduray people are an inspiration. They have been respecting the right to determine your own gender long before the birth of the trans movement in the Philippines, long before the advent of gender recognition laws. This right is not a Western invention. The right to determine your gender identity is deeply rooted in the culture of our people, and the culture of the Teduray people serves as our light in reclaiming it.
I am mentefuwaley libun. I am a transpinay. And I stand in solidarity with my mentefuwaley sisters and brothers and the rest of the Teduray people in their struggle for the recognition of their identity, culture, and the full inclusion of their rights in the Bangsamoro Basic Law!