Toleration vs Equality

The Philippines has a very open attitude when it comes to sexual a certain extent.

One of the first things many visitors to the country notice are the seemingly numerous openly gay individuals.  Called locally as "bakla," they are feminine biologic males who act like women, and many even dress like women to greater or lesser degrees.  The Philippines of course is not entirely unique in this regard; "ladyboys" can also be seen practically everywhere in Thailand (called kathoey), in Cambodia (called kteuy), and to a slightly lesser extent in Indonesia as well (called waria and banci).

The vast majority of so-called ladyboys in the Philippines are actually transgendered males, not homosexual men.  The terms can get clouded though.  I say this for two reasons:  1)  Filipino stereotypes dictate that gay men and ladyboys are one in the same; i.e. if you're gay you're giggly and effeminate, if you're giggly and effeminate you're gay.  And 2) Because, from my own observations and discussions on the subject I've found that many Filipinos are unfamiliar with the many variations of human sexuality.

Humans are not simply broken into two groups:  macho straight men and effeminate gay men, nor merely feminine straight women and macho lesbians.  This grossly over-simplifies the myriad complexities of human sexuality.

There are transvestites (men who wear women's clothing and women who wear men's clothing) who may or may not be homosexual.  There are intersex individuals, formerly called hermaphrodites, who have combinations of genitals and chromosomes that do not match the majority pattern.  There are also transgendered persons, who are not homosexual because they identify as having been born in the wrong body (i.e. a female born in a male body, or vice versa).

Some transgendered individuals wish to undergo hormone therapy to help their physical transition from male-to-female or female-to-male.  Some also opt to undergo GCS, or gender confirmation surgery, to complete the physical sex change.  If either of these are the case they are referred to as transsexual rather than transgendered.  (Transgender is more of a state of mind; a transsexual person is one who acts on that state of mind to bring about physical changes, either hormonally or surgically.  Someone who is transgendered may or may not be transsexual, but a transsexual is of course always transgendered.)

There are also bisexuals, persons attracted to both sexes to varying degrees.  Very few bisexuals are so-called "perfect bisexuals," that is to say that very few have a perfect 50/50 split attraction to both males and females.  Most bisexuals are attracted to one sex more than the other.

And of course there are homosexuals, those who are attracted exclusively to members of the same biological sex.  You cannot tell who is or is not a homosexual based on their outward appearance.  Homosexual men and women typically do not practice transvestitism, they do not feel as if they were born in the wrong body, and they do not wish to become the opposite sex.  If they do they are not homosexuals, they are rather transgendered, transsexuals or transvestites.

These three words (transgendered, transsexual and tranvestite, henceforth abbreviated as TTT) are rarely heard in the Philippines, pointing to an apparent lack of understanding of the vast paradigm of human sexuality, and a lack of scientifically-grounded information on the topic.  I have even heard so-called "straight-acting gay men" being referred to as "bisexuals," which again points to confusion among lay persons as to what these terms actually mean.

This brings us to the topic of the apparent openness toward TTTs in the Philippines.  Many foreign visitors to the country are taken by surprise at the tolerance given to TTTs in such a socially conservative country.  But if you scratch the surface, the acceptance is in fact only skin deep.  There may not be a lot of public, confrontational discrimination, but there is a degree of mockery and disapproval of sexual minorities below the surface.  

Toleration or Equality?

There may be a great degree of toleration for TTTs in the Philippines, but it is important that we do not confuse toleration with equality.  The two are not synonymous.

Toleration, by sociological definition, means passively negative.  To tolerate something or someone means that you may not approve or agree, and you may even look down upon that person or group, but it's not an active negativity, i.e. it's not something you publicly fight against.  You don't like it, but you choose to simply ignore it and 'let it be.'  That is being passively negative; that is toleration in a nutshell.
Equality is a whole different thing.  When a group has equality, it means they are treated on an equal footing with everyone else by society and by the government.  Rights are guaranteed and discrimination is illegal and actively fought against.  Anyone who says the LGBT community in the Philippines has equality, is delusional.

A few months back I read through some comments on a Filipino blog post that dealt with gay rights.  One man commented that "homosexuals are co-equals in the Philippines," and that the Philippines is "way way way ahead of the United States [on this issue]."  Yes he wrote the word "way" three times.  Apparently he feels pretty strongly about this.

I think this is a case in point of confusion between toleration and equality.  The Philippine government does not, by any stretch of the imagination, treat the gay and lesbian community as equals. There are no anti-discrimination laws protecting the rights and dignity of homosexuals, and same-sex partnerships are given absolutely no legal recognition. Certain members of the government have even made crass and degrading comments about the gay community, such as references to gays and lesbians as being “immoral” and “a threat to the youth.”

It is also, I believe, grossly incorrect to claim that the Philippines is “way way way ahead of United States” when it comes to gay equality. I have been to the US, and while it has its pitfalls on the issue of gay rights, and it is behind Europe, it cannot be realistically argued that the Philippines has more progressive laws concerning homosexuals than the US. This is mainly because the Philippines has absolutely no laws upholding or protecting the rights of gay and lesbian Filipinos – not in housing, not in education, not in hate crimes legislation, not in workplace discrimination, not in partnerships or marriage.

There are currently six states, in addition to the capital, Washington, D.C., where same-sex couples can marry in the US, and another nine states where they can enter into civil unions, which convey most of the same rights and benefits of marriage. Nothing comparable can be found in the Philippines I'm afraid.
Toleration has definite limits. Filipinos are willing to tolerate transvestitism and giggling fun-loving ladyboys, but I'm not so sure they could handle seeing two average men walking down the street holding hands and being affectionate the way straight couples do. As long as gay people fit the Filipino stereotype of what gay is, Filipinos will tolerate it. For us in Norway it is quite the opposite; a lot of flamboyant ladyboys might make some Norwegians uncomfortable, but it's normal and common to see same-sex couples walking around hand-in-hand, whether they are dating or married.

I know several gay and lesbian Filipinos who have had to aggressively hide their sexuality from potential employers during job interviews. Others have been fired from positions for their sexual orientation, while the company of course gives other falsified reasons for their termination. Filipino same-sex couples have been denied housing by landlords who refuse to allow “those kind of people” to live on their property. Gay couples are denied the right to make life-saving medical decisions for their partners. Gays on TV shows and in movies are portrayed purely as cross-dressing and nymphomaniacal clowns who are commonly derided, mocked, and poked fun of, and rarely taken seriously or shown as being capable of real love or true, meaningful relationships. They're shown as flamboyant social misfits who choose to lead an unnatural lifestyle.

Even if we look at the word bakla, which is today synonymous with gay, an undercurrent of disdain is found.  The traditional native Tagalog word for the effeminate/transgendered male was bayoguin.  After the coming of the Spanish and their machismo culture in the sixteenth-century, this word slowly morphed into bakla, a word that also meant "confused" or "cowardly."  (ref. Neil Garcia.) 

In fact, according to Garcia, “to equate Philippine society’s tolerance for public displays of transvestism with wholesale approval of homosexual behavior is naive, if not downright foolish.   While cross dressing exists in the Philippines, it is allowed only in certain social classes and within certain acceptable contexts."

He goes on to state that "if [Philippine] society was truly tolerant of [male] homosexuality, then Filipinos would see not just flaming transvestites shrieking their heads off in TV sitcoms and variety shows [...] and both the femmy pa-girl and butchy pa-mhin would be able to display affection in public."

Homosexuals, transvestites, transgendered persons, and even transsexuals may be tolerated in the Philippines (in that they're not stoned or jailed), but they are neither equal nor treated as full first-class citizens by their government.

Related post in this blog:  The third gender in the Philippines and beyond

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