The “Filipino GBF”: Puzzle Pieces of a Rich Filipino History

Again, the question popped up. If gender fluidity was present in the Tagalog language and the pre-colonial Philippines, why then do the majority of the older generation Filipinos lean towards homophobic mindsets? It’s simple, really. Colonisation.


Content Warning: Homophobia, Transphobia


Growing up, my Filipino parents tended to mix up pronouns—a lot. I’d be sitting at the dinner table, listening to my mum or dad telling our dinner guests a story about me from years ago. And when they did that, there was a 50/50 chance that they would mix up my pronouns and refer to me as he/him when I go by she/her.

My parents are not misgendering on purpose. Their first language is Tagalog, one of the major languages spoken in the Philippines. And the thing about Tagalog is that the language doesn’t have gendered pronouns! The equivalent of ‘he’ and ‘she’ in Tagalog is ‘sya’, but a more accurate translation of this would be ‘they/them’, which explains why my parents get them mixed up frequently (I wonder how they would react if I ever explained gender fluidity to them and taught them about, they/them, ve/ver, zie/zim, etc.).

I wondered then. Since gender fluidity seemed to be present in the Tagalog language, why then does the current Philippines seem to have reasonably homophobic or homophobic leaning—usually found in the older generation—people? You would think that the majority of the country, whose many languages didn’t have gendered pronouns, would be pretty open and accepting.

I found the answer through Bretman Rock, the YouTuber, and Vice Ganda, a prominent TV personality in the Philippines. And the many gay hairdressers in Filipino teleserye (Filipino soap operas or dramas). And the Filipino GBFs (Gay Best Friend).

Bretman and Vice Ganda are textbook examples of “bakla”. Bakla is used more generally to describe homosexual men and is the definition that has been embedded into society, including me (the female equivalent of this is Tomboy). However, upon research, I found that the word was not always used in this way, nor was it made for this.

Bakla is a mixture of babae and lalaki, the Tagalog words for females and males, respectively. The more accurate meaning of the word is ‘someone who was born male at birth who had adopted an effeminate gender expression’. This could be through the way they dress or speak. The meaning of bakla didn’t focus much on whom these men were attracted to but more on how baklas behaved and expressed themselves. That’s why baklas in TV shows and movies differ from GBFs in a Western sense.

I found a TED Talk on gender fluidity in the Philippines from France Villarta. Villarta introduced me to Babaylans from the pre-colonial Philippines: individuals who performed shamanism and were highly regarded in society then. Villarta emphasised that Babaylans were predominantly female, females who assumed a societal role that was well respected and highly regarded. The only males that took up this role were—you guessed it—baklas: assigned males at birth who adopted feminine gender expression.

Again, the question popped up. If gender fluidity was present in the Tagalog language and the pre-colonial Philippines, why then do the majority of the older generation Filipinos lean towards homophobic mindsets?

It’s simple, really.


It was hard for me to find much about the history of the pre-colonial Philippines in general. There’s not much-written material I could find or easily access on the pre-colonial Philippines, let alone the history of gender in the pre-colonial Philippines. But you know what there are TONS about? Colonisation. Fair enough. We have a deep history of colonisation. We were occupied by, like, so many people.

What I can do is look at the smaller puzzle pieces and try to construct a picture of what gender was like in the pre-colonial Philippines.

Here’s one puzzle piece.

A diary entry from a Spanish soldier. There’s only a tiny section dedicated to their encounters with shamans and Babaylans. Perhaps they didn’t care much to investigate further. Perhaps, they were satisfied with only writing about shamanism in how their Catholic Church spoke against it. Maybe, privately, they talked about the beautiful women that worked as shamans. Perhaps this, perhaps that. Perhaps, if I cared enough about Western colonialists’ opinions, I would look more into their perspectives and add my commentary on a group of people already heavily present in schools and history books.

These reports emphasised the way the male Babaylans did not conform to what they—the Western colonialists—believed in. To the Western colonialists, baklas adopt femininity and act and dress in a way that men should not dress and behave. Their own Western traditional beliefs were then implemented into Filipino society.

The reports from these soldiers on baklas are puzzle pieces created from the eyes of a colonialist who most likely viewed these baklas as unnatural or perhaps even abhorrent and disgusting. Moreover, they do not know the difference between biological sex and gender. The singular scholarly reading I was able to find on this topic claimed that many of these Spanish reports failed to distinguish between the two meanings of sex and gender.

There’s another puzzle piece. I treasure it more than scholars—my lovely Filipino mum, who took her education and studies very seriously.

Upon asking my mum about the pre-colonial Philippines, she said while blowing on her chai latte, “We have a bunch of tribes and lots of ethnic and racial history that’s connected to Malays and Indos and some other neighbouring countries.”

“Anything else? Did you learn much about it in school?”

Mum finally stopped blowing on her chai latte. “Well, now that I think about it. No. Maybe, like one page about it in our textbooks.”

And then I asked her the million-dollar question, “What did you learn about, then? What was taught during your high school years when it came to Filipino history?”

She finally sipped on that chai latte and answered without missing a beat, “Spanish colonisation from 1521 to 1898. The brutal Japanese occupation during the 1900s. And then about America liberating us from those evil Japanese troops during WWII.”

Learning about Babaylans in pre-colonial times has helped me to make some sense of the Philippines as a nation. Because, to me, the Philippines has always been a complicated country that often seemed to contradict itself. On the one hand, the Philippines is reportedly one of the most tolerant Southeast Asian countries toward LGBTQ+ people. On the other hand, the Philippines has had some of the highest numbers of transgender murders/deaths in Southeast Asia. And though the Philippines has passed bills disallowing bias based on gender and sexuality, no law prohibits actual discrimination against these groups. There always seemed to be pushing and pulling around discussing these topics. And now, I sort of understand why.

I found all this out by simply asking questions about baklas and the pre-colonial Philippines and researching myself. But from what I can see, this information doesn’t seem to be easily accessed or talked about enough. The textbooks discuss how America liberated the Philippines from the evil Japanese troops. They talk about how in the 1800s, the nation defeated its 300 year-long colonists.

But where are the baklas? The Indigenous tribes from pre-colonial times? Where are the racial and ethnic beginnings of the Philippines? Don’t get me wrong; all this colonisation is a BIG part of what makes the Philippines what it is today. They’re still essential sections of the giant puzzle that is Filipino history.

They’re just not the only puzzle pieces. I know it sounds cliché, but I genuinely believe that young people have a responsibility to seek these puzzle pieces actively. Learning about your history is valuable because it sheds light on important matters that have been lost or smothered over the years, and this is a prime example of it. What it means to be bakla is still being negotiated and challenged to this day, just like many ethnic identities and gender identities. I think that looking at the original meaning of bakla can open discussions on gender and sexuality.

I hope that this article will work as another puzzle piece. The male Babaylans and female Babaylans found in the early Philippines were highly regarded. They were equals in society, and colonisation tainted that, and now, they seem to judge the population for believing in values that THEY introduced to the country. I think it’s still possible for us to undo all this. Or at least try. We must continue to research, continue to ask questions, and continue to seek those fading puzzle pieces.


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