To mean no harm: How the Filipino language reflects the country’s perception of gender

Art by Sean Eidder

My first exposure to the concept of gender in the Philippines, like most others, was through a silly children’s game that I would play with my classmates during recess. “Girl, boy, bakla, tomboy, butiki, baboy,” we’d chant, and depending on how old we were, we were one of these things. I was seven — I was a girl. But one of my friends was nine, and was not particularly pleased about having to be called bakla. We all laughed, out of good-natured ignorance, but the connotation was that anything other than a girl or boy in the most traditional sense was not an ideal thing to be.

Over the last few years it’s become glaringly obvious to me how small the understanding of Filipinos is when it comes to gender and sexuality. Worse, the primarily Catholic culture has pressured us and conditioned us to maintain an attitude of condescension, apprehension and even disgust toward what it is that we deem “abnormal.” If it’s not condemnation, it’s an indifference that suggests, “You don’t matter.” And somehow, this is worse.

Such a culture manifests itself in many forms, but its most obvious and most basic marker can be found, of course, in the language used to refer to the non-binary — or, in this case, the lack thereof. Here lies the most pressing hurdle to equality and inclusion: it’s a concern that’s so new and so overlooked that our native languages don’t even have real, proper, politically correct terms to describe ideas related to it. We don’t have words for “lesbian,” for “transgender,” for “bisexual,” for “queer.” None for the more complex “gender fluid,” “pansexual” or “asexual.” No translation, even, for “straight,” out of what I assume is the idea that it’s the “default” setting for people, so it doesn’t need to be contextualized.

In their place are words like bading, bayot, beki, tibo, and many other slang terms and colloquialisms. When they’re not punchlines to a joke (to make fun of and to belittle) they become insults and put-downs (to shame and to degrade): “Bading naman ‘yan, eh.” And I would hear these terms, bandied about on national television by journalists and news anchors without a second thought, chuckling among themselves as they launch into mocking imitations of stereotypical “gay” mannerisms after segments about Ms. Gay pageants or same-sex marriage. And when the LGBT — never LGBTQ, nor LGBTQIA — is mentioned, it’s with a tone that doesn’t mask the fact that it’s an entirely foreign, “theoretical” concept to them.

No wonder people who identify as queer are not being taken seriously.

“There’s still a lot of negativity being thrown around with the words ‘bading’ and ‘tibo’ and it really sucks that these words are enough to torment a child for a very long time,” Gab says. “I just hope that the coming generations are more understanding and supportive so nobody else would feel this way.”

I asked people I knew for their opinions on the matter, as queer Filipinos who have experienced this treatment directly. “I personally don’t identify as ‘bakla’ (or) ‘bading,’” says Jao. “I prefer ‘gay,’ although it’s the same thing. Bakla or bading doesn’t sit well with me.” He mentions the negative connotation: “I feel like it boxes everyone into the ‘parlorista’ stereotype,” referring to the way most Filipinos tend to picture a gay man — flamboyant, effeminate, the type you would encounter at a beauty salon, a caricature.

“In the office people often get confused when I tell them I have a girlfriend because hindi daw halata na ‘tibo’ ako,” Nichole, a bisexual woman, says. “Even if I identify as bisexual, people still press na tibo ako. It hurts when it feels like they’re degrading my identity. Even though they say it not because they want to offend someone but because of ignorance, it’s still an offensive thing to say.” It’s also very indicative of the limited perception of the gender spectrum in the country. “I’ve had the experience of opening up to someone about me and my girlfriend,” she adds. “And that person told me, ‘Alam mo, nasasayangan ako sayo.’ Nakakawalang gana.”

Nadeefa, also bisexual, agrees. “Personally, I’ve never been called (any of those) terms,” she tells me. “But I’ve been vaguely insulted by my friends when I say something gay, and they go, ‘Lesbian ka?’ like it’s a dirty thing, which it’s not.” She says that the use of these colloquialisms needs to be reclaimed by queer youth. “Especially in a predominantly Christian conservative country like the Philippines,” she elaborates. “I think non-queer people should be more mindful of stuff like this, where lots of queer Filipinos lose (so much) due to the bigotry and homophobia.”

Growing up, “I was often reprimanded for picking Princess Peach and Chun-Li whenever I played video games with my cousins,” says Gab, who is gay. “Even today, (my family’s) words still echo from the recesses of my mind, saying, ‘Bading ka ba? Walang bading sa pamilya natin.’” This, however, taught him to “accept that fact — that I am different and I shouldn’t feel any shame in it.”

If we really want to take big leaps toward the welfare of our LGBT citizens and getting rid of discrimination, then we have to tackle the most basic aspects of respect. “Name-calling is only just a microaggression and not really our biggest worry right now,” Nadeefa offers, “but it’s a good place to start with.”

“There’s still a lot of negativity being thrown around with the words ‘bading’ and ‘tibo’ and it really sucks that these words are enough to torment a child for a very long time,” Gab says. “I just hope that the coming generations are more understanding and supportive so nobody else would feel this way.”

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