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Living History: Gender non-conformity in Phl pre-dates Spanish arrival in 1521

In the Philippines, gender non-conformity pre-dates the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521. Based on Spanish accounts of encounters between conquistadores and the archipelago’s original inhabitants, gender crossing and transvestism were cultural features, exemplified by the babaylan.

All rise the gender-benders.

In the Philippines, gender non-conformity pre-dates the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521. Based on Spanish accounts of encounters between conquistadores and the archipelago’s original inhabitants, gender crossing and transvestism were cultural features, exemplified by the babaylan. Also called bayoguin, bayok, agi-ngin, asog, bido, binabae (Garcia, 2004), balian, balean, babay and balayan (Melencio, 2013), the babaylan was a spiritual leader, similar to a religious functionary, ancient priestess or shaman in the English-speaking world.

Note that the word babaylan is often used to connote a woman; but there were also male babaylans – called asog in the Bisayan society during the 17th century, for instance – who did not only put on women’s clothing but also pretended to be women so that the spirits listened to their prayers (Melencio, 2013). These men, however, did not only wear the clothes customarily worn by women but also assumed the demeanor of women; and they were also granted social and symbolic recognition as “somewhat-women”. Some were even “married” to men, with whom they had sexual relations (Garcia, 2004).

Yes, they were accepted and even revered by pre-colonial societies. But to the Spanish, the babaylans were not only bewildering but were also threatening because of their powerful positions.

The babaylan eventually disappeared (particularly in mainstream consciousness) with the Spanish takeover of the Philippines.

That is, until their more recent re-entry into our awareness.

Sources:

Garcia, J.N.C. (2004). “Male Homosexuality in the Philippines: A short history”. IIAS Newsletter (#35).

Melencio, G.E. (2013). “The babaylan lives in her story.” The Herstorian (Tagasalaysay). https://gloriamelencio.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/the-babaylan-lives-in-her-story/

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UNDP, USAID (2014). “Being LGBT in Asia: The Philippines Country Report.” Bangkok.

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