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  • I was an eight-year-old kid in the mid-1990s.

  • I grew up in southern Philippines.

  • At that age, you're young enough to be oblivious

  • about what society expects from each of us

  • but old enough to be aware of what's going on around you.

  • We lived in a one-bedroom house,

  • all five of us.

  • Our house was amongst clusters of houses

  • made mostly of wood and corrugated metal sheets.

  • These houses were built very close to each other

  • along unpaved roads.

  • There was little to no expectation of privacy.

  • Whenever an argument broke out next door,

  • you heard it all.

  • Or, if there was a little ... something something going on --

  • (Laughter)

  • you would probably hear that, too.

  • (Laughter)

  • Like any other kid, I learned what a family looked like.

  • It was a man, a woman, plus a child or children.

  • But I also learned it wasn't always that way.

  • There were other combinations that worked just as well.

  • There was this family of three who lived down the street.

  • The lady of the house was called Lenie.

  • Lenie had long black hair, often in a ponytail,

  • and manicured nails.

  • She always went out with a little makeup on

  • and her signature red lipstick.

  • Lenie's other half, I don't remember much about him

  • except that he had a thing for white sleeveless shirts

  • and gold chains around his neck.

  • Their daughter was a couple years younger than me.

  • Now, everybody in the village knew Lenie.

  • She owned and ran what was the most popular beauty salon

  • in our side of town.

  • Every time their family would walk down the roads,

  • they would always be greeted with smiles

  • and occasionally stopped for a little chitchat.

  • Now, the interesting thing about Lenie

  • is that she also happened to be a transgender woman.

  • She exemplified one of the Philippines' long-standing stories

  • about gender diversity.

  • Lenie was proof that oftentimes we think of something as strange

  • only because we're not familiar with it,

  • or we haven't taken enough time to try and understand.

  • In most cultures around the world,

  • gender is this man-woman dichotomy.

  • It's this immovable, nonnegotiable, distinct classes of individuals.

  • We assign characteristics and expectations

  • the moment a person's biological sex is determined.

  • But not all cultures are like that.

  • Not all cultures are as rigid.

  • Many cultures don't look at genitalia primarily

  • as basis for gender construction,

  • and some communities in North America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent

  • and the Pacific Islands, including the Philippines,

  • have a long history of cultural permissiveness

  • and accommodation of gender variances.

  • As you may know,

  • the people of the Philippines were under Spanish rule for over 300 years.

  • That's from 1565 to 1898.

  • This explains why everyday Filipino conversations

  • are peppered with Spanish words

  • and why so many of our last names, including mine, sound very Spanish.

  • This also explains the firmly entrenched influence of Catholicism.

  • But precolonial Philippine societies,

  • they were mostly animists.

  • They believed all things had a distinct spiritual essence:

  • plants, animals, rocks, rivers, places.

  • Power resided in the spirit.

  • Whoever was able to harness that spiritual power was highly revered.

  • Now, scholars who have studied the Spanish colonial archives

  • also tell us that these early societies were largely egalitarian.

  • Men did not necessarily have an advantage over women.

  • Wives were treated as companions, not slaves.

  • And family contracts were not done without their presence and approval.

  • In some ways, women had the upper hand.

  • A woman could divorce her husband and own property under her own name,

  • which she kept even after marriage.

  • She had the prerogative to have a baby or not

  • and then decide the baby's name.

  • But the real key to the power of the precolonial Filipino woman

  • was in her role as "babaylan,"

  • a collective term for shamans of various ethnic groups.

  • They were the community healers,

  • specialists in herbal and divine lore.

  • They delivered babies

  • and communicated with the spirit world.

  • They performed exorcisms

  • and occasionally, and in defense of their community,

  • they kicked some ass.

  • (Laughter)

  • And while the babaylan was a female role,

  • there were also, in fact, male practitioners in the spiritual realm.

  • Reports from early Spanish chroniclers contain several references

  • to male shamans who did not conform to normative Western masculine standards.

  • They cross-dressed

  • and appeared effeminate

  • or sexually ambiguous.

  • A Jesuit missionary named Francisco Alcina

  • said that one man he believed to be a shaman

  • was "so effeminate

  • that in every way he was more a woman than a man.

  • All the things the women did

  • he performed,

  • such as weaving blankets,

  • sewing clothes and making pots.

  • He danced also like they did,

  • never like a man,

  • whose dance is different.

  • In all, he appeared more a woman than a man."

  • Well, any other juicy details in the colonial archives?

  • Thought you'd never ask.

  • (Laughter)

  • As you may have deduced by now,

  • the manner in which these precolonial societies conducted themselves

  • didn't go over so well.

  • All the free-loving, gender-variant-permitting,

  • gender equality wokeness

  • clashed viciously with the European sensibilities at the time,

  • so much so that the Spanish missionaries spent the next 300 years

  • trying to enforce their two-sex, two-gender model.

  • Many Spanish friars also thought that the cross-dressing babaylan

  • were either celibates like themselves

  • or had deficient or malformed genitals.

  • But this was pure speculation.

  • Documents compiled between 1679 and 1685, called "The Bolinao Manuscript,"

  • mentions male shamans marrying women.

  • The Boxer Codex, circa 1590,

  • provide clues on the nature of the male babaylan sexuality.

  • It says, "Ordinarily they dress as women,

  • act like prudes

  • and are so effeminate

  • that one who does know them would believe they are women.

  • Almost all are impotent for the reproductive act,

  • and thus they marry other males and sleep with them as man and wife

  • and have carnal knowledge."

  • Carnal knowledge, of course, meaning sex.

  • Now, there's an ongoing debate in contemporary society

  • about what constitutes gender and how it should be defined.

  • My country is no exception.

  • Some countries like Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Nepal and Canada

  • have begun introducing nonbinary options in their legal documents,

  • such as their passports and their permanent resident cards.

  • In all these discussions about gender,

  • I think it's important to keep in mind

  • that the prevailing notions of man and woman as static genders

  • anchored strictly on biological sex

  • are social constructs.

  • In my people's case, this social construct is an imposition.

  • It was hammered into their heads over hundreds of years

  • until they were convinced that their way of thinking was erroneous.

  • But the good thing about social constructs

  • is they can be reconstructed

  • to fit a time and age.

  • They can be reconstructed

  • to respond to communities that are becoming more diverse.

  • And they can be reconstructed

  • for a world that's starting to realize

  • we have so much to gain from learning and working through our differences.

  • When I think about this subject,

  • I think about the Filipino people

  • and an almost forgotten but important legacy

  • of gender equality and inclusivity.

  • I think about lovers who were some of the gentlest souls I had known

  • but could not be fully open.

  • I think about people who have made an impact in my life,

  • who showed me that integrity, kindness and strength of character

  • are far better measures of judgment,

  • far better than things that are beyond a person's control

  • such as their skin color, their age

  • or their gender.

  • As I stand here today, on the shoulders of people like Lenie,

  • I feel incredibly grateful for all who have come before me,

  • the ones courageous enough to put themselves out there,

  • who lived a life that was theirs

  • and in the process, made it a little easier for us to live our lives now.

  • Because being yourself is revolutionary.

  • And to anyone reeling from forces trying to knock you down

  • and cram you into these neat little boxes people have decided for you:

  • don't break.

  • I see you.

  • My ancestors see you.

  • Their blood runs through me as they run through so many of us.

  • You are valid, and you deserve rights and recognition

  • just like everyone else.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

I was an eight-year-old kid in the mid-1990s.

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The gender-fluid history of the Philippines | France Villarta

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/04/06
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