Mourning the Loss of Indigenous Queer Identities

AAPI Heritage Month / Autostraddle

Welcome to Autostraddle’s AAPI Heritage Month Series, about taking up space as our queer and Asian/Pacific Islander selves.

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I recently came out as gender-fluid, straddling the Western gender binary like it’s about to give me the ride of my life. I grew up hearing that I looked more like a boy than a girl, all while being told how I’m too feminine to be a boy. For a while, I thought that was me just being bisexual, though I could never settle into that identity. It was somewhat right but ultimately wrong because labeling my sexuality didn’t feel like enough. I tried pansexual, and after that, I was just queer for a while. Nothing settled. I thought I could find myself somewhere in this rainbow of colors, but something just always felt off.

That bizarre feeling is something that’s a staple in my American life. I say this because there’s still a degree of separation there, like the dash between Asian and American. It’s a zealous reminder that I am somehow incomplete, that the words I’ve chosen to describe myself are not enough. In each moniker, be it bisexual or pansexual or queer, I searched for some ounce of truth to who I am. And as I grow older, I find it more difficult to truly accept myself because I don’t feel like I have the right words to describe myself. It’s taken me years to realize that I likely never will.

I am part of the Filipino diaspora, though my identity is entirely defined by a strictly Western perspective. I am an immigrant, my English is so good, and the words I’ve used to describe my gender and sexuality are words I learned from Americans. There are parts of myself, however, that cannot fit within the confines of Western language. Words have a history and language has connotations that go beyond definitions. English is a colonizer’s tool, so it does not always have the right expression for who I am. As an immigrant, I thought perhaps that looking back into the history of my people would give me a better way to express my identity.

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Growing up in the Philippines, words that meant “gay” and “weird” were always synonymous with each other, and bakla was used to describe the sinners who couldn’t be nailed down by “gay.” My mother and her mother, my Lola, were both devout Catholics. They taught me that Jesus hates The Gays and Probably the Baklas Too in tired monologues ripped straight from our local priest’s mouth.

Someone wrote about the word bakla in The Guardian and how maybe Western members of the LGBTQIA+ community could learn a thing or two from Filipinos. Bakla is our third option, they claim, but even then, it’s not a label: it’s a standalone concept, kind of a catch-all for anyone who isn’t strictly man or woman, gay or queer, and one that Western minds should embrace. And I might agree to that if I wasn’t still so incensed by the fact that we ourselves don’t have a better understanding of the term bakla at all. There is no need for the Western gaze to embrace that fact now because they never did in the first place. Why offer up more of ourselves when the rest of the world has already taken so much from us?

A pair of brown hands scoop up water, within the dark turquoise pool gathering in the palms is the reflection of a face.

Illustration by Leanne Gan

The Philippines is a beautiful country, but it is a world where nothing, not even our language, was nailed down or set in place because our people are so deeply traumatized from centuries of imperialist brutality. We spoke Tagalog with English and Spanish mixed in. Some of us knew other languages, such as my Lola’s Ilocano, though these languages were not widely taught. I was only told that Ilocano was an old language and that nobody except my Lola could speak it in our family. I learned about how wonderful the U.S. was for saving the Philippines from the Japanese during World War II. At the same time, I constantly heard about how unhappy we were that Americans continued to meddle in our government.

Our collective consciousness mirrors our country’s muddled history. The Philippines I knew was a mashup of the charming East and a forceful West. Lola would occasionally tell me stories about her father, about how the Spaniards were terrified of our people, about how I was one of the last of the Ibaloi Igorots. Our people, according to her, were simple farmers and warriors. We used every part of the animal, always prayed to the land and gave the Earth our respects. Apparently, when outsiders first came to our shores, we welcomed them with open arms.

But we were uncivilized. Lola would cite that marriages were not “sacred” to our people before the Spanish came. Our people were wayward. Our warriors were never strictly men, as they should have been. Women may have laid with other women in “unnatural” ways and so did men. There were probably even people “in between,” though that concept went beyond What God Intended. And though the Spanish tried to “correct” this through the word of their god on their muskets, we would kill them too easily when we felt threatened, which Lola would say was “unfair.”

Though we had taken them in, they always called us savages once they got back to their homelands. We were easy pickings since we were so naive not to see the value in our fertile lands the way that the Europeans did. Our soil was perfect for sugar and tobacco. They did not understand how we had so much gold in our mountains but did so little with it. They thought our mangoes and purple yams were the perfect exotic treats, served up on the backs of the few of our tribesmen they took back to their countries in chains. And the location of our islands were perfect for taking on the East Indies spice trade by storm.

The Spanish were the first to take over. The Dutch sent missionaries on Spanish naval vessels, aiding in the efforts to civilize us. Americans took part in their imperial games and proceeded to “steal” us away. By the second World War, we were finally called a “nation” by the Japanese and Americans who pillaged our homes. But by then, we were broken. Entire cultures that had coexisted for ages were wiped out within a century of constant war. Most were murdered in their homes. Some were dragged abroad in chains and cages to be shown off like animals at carnival exhibits. The Catholic God replaced all of our deities, especially the genderless and intersex gods. Buried alongside countless slaughtered natives were languages that no one cared enough to understand or preserve. The word bakla became an umbrella slur with a history no one can remember.

No one wrote down what happened to the people before my Lola. She didn’t have a birth-certificate because that’s how turbulent things were in her childhood. No one knows who my ancestors were, if they believed in genders, or what their sexuality was. Now my Lola is long gone. I can’t ask her.

But the death of our people, our cultures and the true history of our people is a slow and painful process.

But the death of our people, our cultures and the true history of our people is a slow and painful process. Many miles north of where my Lola and I said goodbye for the last time, tourists drive up the mountains to meet Whang-Od Oggay. She is the last of the Kalinga mambabatok, a tattoo artist within her old tribe, and the tattoos she puts on these tourists were meant for the Butbut warriors who fought to defend our people. Those warriors are long gone, but these travelers will go back to their home countries to complain about the smell of our food. They will return West, where they scoff about immigrants stealing their jobs. Those tattoos are just reminders of an adventure that never happened and a people they will soon forget. History is not kind to the losers, but modernity is worse.

This is the legacy of colonization. It is far more painful than knowing just how many millions were murdered because they weren’t good enough for others to accept. It is the mass extinction of identities and languages that can no longer exist because someone else said they were bad.

We only vaguely remember our ancestors being warriors and forget that they died in horrific ways. Their efforts to save their countrymen or fight for their freedom will be watered down to tactical studies for soldiers and myths of bogeymen hungry for blood. No one will bother to spell their names correctly, if at all, let alone remind the world that many among our ancestors were people who were beyond “queer.”

Children are born into their people’s slow and steady massacre and are given “better” names. They are told they are either boys or girls and that’s all there is to it. Schools teach them that their ancestors were barbarians. The society cobbled up around them tells them that their desires must adhere to the rules of their colonizer’s beliefs. They learn that their nation is in ruins, and that it’s better to live somewhere else. When they do live elsewhere, they stop speaking their language. Ilocano is ugly, after all, and so is Tagalog, so it’s better to speak English.

Our identities are built on the graves of perspectives that would have better embraced who we truly are. We gladly spit on them when we leave, but look back with sorrow only if we realize just how much we’ve lost and continue to lose.

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I was taken away from my homeland so my mother could find “better opportunities” for us in the States when I was seven years old. In elementary school, white classmates would pick on my “smelly food” and spread vicious rumors that I ate the neighborhood cats. The Philippines was mentioned once in only one of my history classes my junior year of high school. If I ask my friends now what they know about my home country, they ask me how to say “Duterte.” My spouse will tell me about how his mother has traced their family’s name back centuries. And if I google my name, the Brazilian singer I was named after pops up. At home, we only occasionally eat Filipino food because some dishes are almost impossible to make without an hour-long trip to the nearest Filipino store. If my elders speak to me in Tagalog, the best I can do is shake my head and enunciate that I can’t speak it anymore.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve become less Filipino. I am part of a diaspora. This is supposed to be “normal.” Immigrants are bound to naturalize themselves in their new countries. We work on our accents by speaking our colonizer’s languages more than using the tongues we were born to speak. We form better relationships with the “natural” citizens of our foreign homes. We move forward, we continue to forget, and we cannibalize ourselves even more to fit into molds that were never intended for us.

In the Philippines, a large part of our identities are defined by the gender binary of the West. Many in my home country, just like my Lola or my mother, believe we were “saved” by their civilization. It took me years to realize that salvation was just slaughter. The right words for who I am died along with our people, our cultures and who we could have been. We were whittled down to little more than a passing mention in a history book. I’ve already lost so much before I was even born, so there should be comfort in the cold logic of assimilation and taking part in the agonizing death of a people.

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I am non-binary. I am queer. I am one of thousands of Filipinos who have left the Philippines. When labeling my sexuality, I still write “queer” because I don’t know what else to say and bakla feels like a slur. I suppose I have the vague luxury of separating my gender and sexual identity from my race if I don’t think about it too much.

This is the best that the West has to offer me after all this devastation. For this identity and language, I am not content. I never will be.

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Gender-fluid, they/she/he.

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18 Comments

  1. As a fellow queer Filipino person, I’ve also been thinking about all of this quite a lot lately. Thank you for putting all of these thoughts and feelings into words. This definitely needs to be acknowledged and discussed more.

  2. Thank you for your fierce heartfelt sharing of ur story with the virtual world. It’s heartbreaking that ur traditions n ways were demonized n lost ;It’s so ugly that’s what colonization defines as wrong of peoples, cultures. I’m honored by ur voice n tiny glimpse of ur culture, the traditional flavors n ways of being. Your words called to me though; a familiar feeling coursed along my spine when I read ur desire to name urself within the Holy Beauty of ur traditional language. Glad/sad to be included in non-binary/queer/genderfluid n also missing a name/way of being that no longer has a name, (they/them Zapotec/Finnish).

    • Ah, yes, because the words of some article on wikipedia, which doesn’t necessarily have the most accurate sources, trumps the real, lived experience of an actual, Indigenous Pilipinx.

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