Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 19, February 2009
J. Neil C. Garcia

Philippine Gay Culture:
Binabae to Bakla, Silahis to MSM

Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2008 (1996)
xxv + 564 pp. Includes Index
ISBN: 978-971-542-577-3. $US 17.

reviewed by Gwénola Ricordeau

  1. What are the male homosexual identities that constitute Philippine gay culture? Why is there no gay liberation movement in the Philippines? These are the two main questions engaged by The Philippine Gay Culture and its author, J. Neil C. Garcia.[1] Scholars should pay a tribute to the University of the Philippines Press for the reprint of this unique (up until now) academic inquiry into Philippine gay culture, since it is a very useful resource (its bibliography is prolific) and its diverse range of perspectives should spur LGBT Studies in the Philippines. The uniqueness of Garcia's research lies also in the author's own experiences as a bakla (see below), although he admits to have generally been influenced by his readings on the gay movements in the United States and Europe.
  2. The book consists of nine chapters, essentially organised into two sections (Philippine Gay Culture and The Early Gay Writers: Montano, Nadres, Perez), with a challenging afterword (Philippine Gay Culture: An Update and a Postcolonial Autocritique). Part 1 is the history of gay culture. It focuses on the popular and academic writings about homosexuality which were written during the three decades of the 1960s to 1990s in the Philippines. In comparing and analysing such texts, the author come up with a new, more justifiable narrative of the homosexual life which he has been enacting. Part 2 focuses on the early gay writers, namely Severino Montano, Orlando Nadres and Tony Perez and is an attempt to come up with a gay biographical reading that will recuperate and reinstate their homosexual politics. Since Garcia is at his best while discussing expressions of the male homosexual identity since the 1960s (and I admit my lack of knowledge on literary criticism), my review focuses on the book's first part and afterword.
  3. Taken as a whole, Philippine Gay Culture challenge us to think about sexuality and gender construction without resorting to the essentialism inherent in many idealised models. While homosexuality, as a specific form of sexual orientation, doubtless originates historically in the West and is therefore an offshoot of modernity, Garcia poses the question: 'What should the cultural critic's attitude be toward its appearance in post- and neocolonies (for example, the Philippines)?' (p. xix).
  4. All that the local Philippine cultures have in order to address issues relating to sexuality are gender terms for maleness (pagkalalaki), femaleness (pagkababae) and the mixtures of both (bakla, binabae or bayot for the anatomically male; tomboy and binalake for the anatomically female). There is nonequivalence between the terms bakla and homosexual—and between tomboy and lesbian—mainly because bakla and tomboy as terms are specifically denotative of the identity of the effeminate/mannish and/or cross-dressing male/female, bakla/tomboy connotes a certain comportment in the same-sexual act.
  5. Since it is inner identity (kalooban), and not external action, that largely determines sexuality (p. 251), a man who commits same-sex acts with another man remains 'heterosexual' (that is, not homosexual) so long as he does not act effeminately, dress up like a woman, and so long as he is 'emotionally detached' from his bakla partner.
  6. Juxtaposed with the homo-hetero distinction, these identities confirm the Philippine-specific genderisation of sexual desire, by which homosexuality is confined to the effeminate and mannish personhoods of the bakla and the tomboy respectively. Categories of sexuality like homo/hetero, gay or straight are specifically Western: 'Bakla is not homosexual' (pp. 62–74), since bakla and homosexual are terms belonging to two different knowledge systems.
  7. If realities like homophobia or gayness can be found in the Philippines (particularly in a 'global city' like Manila), it is by virtue of westernisation.[2] Therefore, Garcia criticises the universalist and nativist positions. Misreadings of the Third world can be found in writings that merely reproduce versions of an hegemonic Western knowledge, especially when bakla is said to be equivalent to homosexual such as Joseph Itiel's 1989 text.[3] He also targets writings imbued with orientalism[4] that characterise the works of Fenella Cannell (1995, 1999)[5] or Mark Johnson (1997),[6] or with essentialism, like Frederick Whitam and Robin Mathy's cross cultural study (1986).[7] Because they failed to inquire into the colonial history of the Philippines, they did not critically examine the concepts they employed.
  8. In chapter 3, Garcia traces some of the precolonial concepts of gender and sexuality, to demonstrate the historical and cultural specificity of the discourse of homo and heterosexuality. For example, in studying sodomy and early colonial 'homosexuality' (pp. 168–74), Garcia informs the reader about the claim of many priests and missionaries that the natives had no knowledge of sodomitic activity prior to the influx of the Sangleyes (migrant Chinese) during the first century of Spanish colonial rule. The study makes it clear that the damning attitude of the Catholic Church in the Philippines toward homosexuality may have initially been conflated with xenophobic issues of races. As an attempt to relate gender systems and the phenomenon of male-to-female gender-crossing in the Philippines, Garcia also questions babaylanism[8] (during pre-Hispanic and Spanish eras).
  9. Using both academic and popular texts, Garcia traces, catalogues and analyses the different expressions (self- and ascribed) of the male homosexual identity in the Philippine metropolitan gay culture since the sixties. Especially, the author's explanations about swardspeak[9] are fascinating. The sixties may be taken as the relative time frame in which the conceptual history of Philippine gay culture begins. By the 1960s (as well as the early 1970s), homosexuality was made to belong under the aegis of psychological science and as a consequence of this intensified psychopathologisation of the bakla as inversion's homosexual, like in Victor Ganmboa and Henry Feenstra (1969)[10] or Lee Sechrest and Luis Flores (1969).[11]
  10. By the seventies, the 'prestigious' reputation of the bakla in the arts and entertainment was solidly in place, especially in fashion design and hairstyling. Simultaneously, the seventies marked the time at which the bakla become homo/sexualised as an identity—what begins to distinguish him from the other is his sexual desire and/or practice (whose nature has come to be defined as 'same'). As well, Garcia highlights the popularisation of the discourse on the 'third sex' (and how it included lesbians) during the seventies. The author's descriptions of the eighties and nineties are both compelling, especially when they are discussed in relation to a famous columnist's discourses (Margarita Go-Singco Holmes, 1993)[12] or the appearance, with the AIDS pandemic, of the MSM label ('Men who have Sex with Men').
  11. In addition, Garcia's aim is to account for the absence of gay liberation movement in the Philippines. He underlines how the socialist dismissal of homosexuality as a form of 'bourgeois decadence' has been exhibited by the leaders of a number of progressive groups in the Philippines since the 1970s up to now (p. 260). But according to him, the absence of gay liberation movement can be explained by the 'crisis of coming out' and by transvestophobia. Because inner identity (kalooban) essentialises desire into either male or female, it denies the possibility that desire can be both or something else. The most popular conception of homosexual love remains fiercely defined within heteronormativity. Regarding transvestophobia, Garcia underlines how the allied institutions of colonial modernity have implanted the new sexual order of 'homo/hetero' and then minoritised what had already been an undesirable, because effeminate, local identity (bakla).
  12. Since Garcia recognises a romantic picture of a gay-friendly pre-Spanish Philippines is not entirely tenable, there is no choice, for the gay historiographers but to address the more relevant and urgent concerns of current-day homosexual oppression rather than to harken back to a perfect past. According to him, the three most important questions a Philippine-based gay theory should address are the cultural incongruity, the gender oppression and the class struggle. The last question is a challenging one, since it is known that semifeudal and capitalist class structures have guaranteed the oppression of homosexuals and, in the Philippines, bakla is a signifier for a lower class status (which is embodied by the caricatured figure of the parlorista).
  13. But Garcia's literary text critique of Montano, Nadres and Perez demonstrates that there do exist encouraging narratives, that are 'narratives of hybridity, appropriation and postcolonial resistance' (p. 435). Moreover, one may observe that the last decade has seen ever-increasing kinds and degrees of public visibility, media astuteness, social organisation and politicisation among Filipino LGBT groups and individuals. His advocacy for a more constructionist perspective on the entire issue of gender and sexual oppression has already been heard, since recent LGBT essays— some even written in Filipino such as Eugene Y. Evasco, Roselle V. Pineda and Rommel B. Rodriguez' edited text [13] can be noticed.
  14. Philippine Gay Culture, in summary, is a detailed and compelling book, clearly written and very readable, and has much to offer readers who want to reflect on the gender and sexual oppression's construction, as well as to readers who seek to know more about different expressions of the male homosexual identity in Philippine metropolitan gay culture.[14] It deserves to be widely read, not only by scholars, but by all individuals fighting against gender and sexual oppression, since it paves the way for actors' empowerment. And let us hope that we will not wait too long for an equivalent book about the expressions of tomboy and lesbian identities.[15]


    [1] Currently teaching creative writing and comparative literature at the University of the Philippines, Garcia is the author of numerous poetry collections and works in literary and cultural criticism. His latest critical work, Postcolonialism and Filipino Poetics: Essays and Critiques (2005), is a revised version of his PhD dissertation. He has also published Postcolonialism and Filipino Poetics: Essays and Critiques, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2005.

    [2] Comparing Martin F. Manalansan, Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora, London: Duke University Press, 2003—a study of Filipino gay men in New York—and Garcia's book, especially the latter's discussion of the former, is really worthwhile.

    [3] Joseph Itiel, Philippine Diary: A Gay Guide to the Philippines, San Francisco: International Wavelength Inc, 1989.

    [4] J. Neil C. Garcia, 'Performativity, the Bakla, and the Orientalizing Gaze,' in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 1 (2000):265–81.

    [5] Fenella Cannell, 'The power of appearances: beauty, mimicry and transformation in Bicol,' in Discrepant Histories: Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures, ed. Vicente ., Rafael, Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1995, pp. 223–58; Cannell, Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    [6] Mark Johnson, Beauty and Power: Transgendering and Cultural Transformation in the Southern Philippines, New York: Berg, 1997.

    [7] Frederick Whitam, and Robin Mathy, Male Homosexuality in Four Societies: Brazil, Guatemala, the Philippines, and the United States, New York: Praeger Scientific, 1986.

    [8] Babaylan or baylan refers to religious leaders, mostly women or men dressed as women. See: Carolyn Brewer, 'Baylan, Asog, Transvestism and Sodomy: Gender, Sexuality and the Sacred in Early Colonial Philippines,' in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, 2, May 1999, online:, accessed 12 January 2009.

    [9] Also called gayspeak or baklese, the swardspeak is the "subcultural lingo" of urban gay men, that uses elements from Tagalog, English, Spanish and Japanese, as well as celebrities' names and trademark brands.

    [10] Victor Gamboa and Henry Feenstra, 'Deviant stereotypes: call girls, male homosexuals, and lesbians,' in Philippine Sociological Review,vol. 7, nos 3-4 (1969):138–48.

    [11] Lee Sechrest and Luis Flores, 'Homosexuality in the Philippines and the United States: the handwriting on the wall,' in The Journal of Social Psychology, no. 79, (1969):3–12.

    [12] Margarita Go-Singco Holmes, A Different Love: Being Gay in the Philippines, Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1993.

    [13] Eugene Y. Evasco, Roselle V. Pineda and Rommel B. Rodriguez (eds), Tabi-Tabi sa Pagsasantabi:Kritikal na mga Tala ng mga Lesbiana at Bakla sa Sining, Kultura, at Wika, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2003.

    [14] See also Bobby Benedicto, 'The haunting of gay Manila: global space-time and the specter of kabaklaan,' in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 14, nos 2–3 (2008):317–38; Dana Collins, 'Identity, mobility, and urban place-making: exploring gay life in Manila,' in Gender & Society, vol. 19, no. 2 (2005):180–98.

    [15] Resources about it are definitely too scarce. See Kale Bantigue Fajardo, 'Transportation: translating Filipino and Filipino American tomboy masculinities through global migration and seafaring,' in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 14, nos 2-3 (2008):403–24. Two other recommended readings on this topic are: Michael Tan, 'From bakla to gay: shifting gender identities and sexual behaviors in the Philippines,' in Conceiving Sexuality: Approaches to Sex Research in a Postmodern World, ed. Richard G. Parker and John H. Gagnon, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 85–96; and 'Survival through pluralism: emerging gay communities in the Philippines,' in Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 40, nos 3/4, (2006):117–42.


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