Kabaklaan: transwomen in the Philippines

Transwomen in the Philippines are classified locally as ‘gay’. The specific word used might be ‘bakla’, ‘beki’, ‘bayot’, ‘bading’ or any one of several others, depending on location and dialect. Note that here, ‘gay’ does not mean what it does in the West. It means you are male but not a man; that you have ‘green blood’. In Luzon, the most popular local term is ‘bakla’. Their lifestyle is called ‘kabaklaan’.

Unmasculine

‘Bakla’ has been translated as ‘coward’ but a better and more sensitive translation might be ‘timid one’ or perhaps ‘sissy’. Its sense as homosexual is almost secondary. Rather, it signifies ‘feminised male’ or even just ‘unmasculine male’.

Bakla is social role that involves performance: in this case, the performance of beauty. So another way to describe baklas might be ‘males who perform beauty’. But beauty is a gendered concept, though this is often forgotten. It is feminine and the masculine equivalent is ‘sublime’. So the performance of beauty necessitates the performance of femininity. More important is the purpose of beauty: it is how women make themselves attractive to men. By performing it, therefore, baklas make themselves attractive to men too.

The Western view is clouded because of the obsession with anal penetration. This derives from the Biblical injunctions against it, especially the Christian ones, and also from the English laws that were disseminated into all of the country’s colonies. These made anal penetration — called ‘sodomy’ or ‘buggery’ — into a capital offence. Although the English stopped hanging men under this law in 1835, the ‘Buggery Laws’ remained in force until 1967. The point of this was to preserve male honour, since a man who was penetrated lost all he had. So catamites were punished for accepting this loss of status, but their penetrators were also punished, for taking their masculinity.

Oscar Wilde

Note that Oscar Wilde was prosecuted not for ‘homosexuality’ but for ‘Gross Indecency’, an offence created because it did not attract the death penalty. He had buggered the son of a peer of the realm — who was a catamite. Yet in this case, only the penetrator was punished; the penetrated, on account of his noble status, was not. One law for them…

kabaklaan-Angel

The proscription of anal sex has carried on as a social taboo, even to the present day. This tends to make Westerners single out anal sex — either as the penetrated or much more rarely, the penetrators, as the principal defining characteristic of baklas. But this is false. That characteristic is, instead, the fact that they are not men, but they seek to attract men. There is absolutely no doubt that baklas enjoy being penetrated anally, but some leeway has to be given; after all, where could the poor girl put it, other than her anus?

In south-east Asia, outside those areas where the British Empire held power, there was never any such prohibition against anal sex. Although there are social consequences for being a bakla in the Philippines, these are not because of the way baklas have sex, but because they reject manhood.

The Roman catamite

The bakla is exactly equivalent to the Roman catamite, the pueri delicatii, so beloved of Roman men as the recipient of anal penetration; she suffers exactly the same social consequences as the catamite did, the loss of all male status. It is not the act of anal sex that causes the loss; it is that of being the recipient in it. The penetrating male loses none at all. But baklas do this with enthusiasm.

It is axiomatic, throughout the world, except in the Western Anglo-Saxon zone, and since but recently, that being penetrated makes a man into a woman. This has been the case since Roman times and long before and applies even if the penetration was forced. In other words, just because it was rape doesn’t mean it didn’t count. A Roman man would have been expected to defend his anal virginity to the death and failure to do so would just confirm the judgement — he was actually a woman. This is why anal rape, using a slave, a large vegetable or piece of wood, was a formalised humiliation meted out to those who had most severely betrayed the laws of Rome — including, specifically, traitors. It was also, less formally, used against political and business rivals.

Although we can safely assume that Roman historians painted other cultures as darkly as they could and so must approach their descriptions with caution, we have no evidence at all that Roman taboos against anal sex existed in the Middle East or in the Celtic or Germanic worlds. The finger of suspicion must therefore point to the Romans themselves.

The rest of the world

On the other hand, right across the world, from southern Europe going eastwards through the Middle and Far East, India, Asia, China, Japan, southeast Asia, Pacifica and the whole of the Americas, anal sex between males was and remains normalised. In fact, in many, possibly most cultures it was a part of the process through which boys became men; here, the relationships are pederastic in nature.

Pederastic homosexuality presents a timeline. Boys are introduced to the system by being pedicated by older males; when they get older, they themselves are expected either to pedicate younger males and so reacquire their masculinity, or to emasculate themselves surgically, in order to prevent themselves from masculinising, in which case they became eunuchs, in the ancient world; today, the emasculation comes in strips of pills or injected hormones. Baklas and their equivalents consume them with enthusiasm.

The New Gay Man and twinks

New Gay Man culture is an undiluted patriarchy. In it, young catamites are known as ‘twinks’. Apocryphally, the term is derived from the name of a sweet confection which is filled with cream; the bawdry should be obvious. Gender roles are firmly preserved: the younger boy is the girl and the older, masculine male the man. New Gay Man culture actually reaffirms the masculine/feminine binary and indeed might be the only male culture where ‘toxic masculinity’ is actually found.

Outside of the West, social systems like this persist. For example, in New Guinea, where, in the ‘Sambian’ people (the name is actually an invention designed to protect them,) boys as young as 7 or 8 begin to ingest the semen of older males, either anally or orally. The Sambians believe that the ‘seed of manhood’ is contained in semen and that by taking it inside himself, a boy becomes a man. In other similar cultures, the semen is inserted anally. When the process has taken effect and the boy grows a beard, he passes on the favour to a younger male.

Public Schools

Cultural norms like this are widespread. An illustration comes from boys-only English Public Schools. In a typical paradox, these are not public at all, but private, fee-paying schools where boys are boarded. Pederastic behaviours, naturally, are rife in these testosterone-fuelled pressure cookers. Older boys frequently describe younger ones in sexualised terms more usually applied to girls, praising their buttocks and thighs, for example and a genuinely pretty boy will be hotly pursued. Junior boys called ‘fags’ (from the menial chores they ostensibly are chosen to perform, which is where the USican epithet actually comes from) are selected by senior boys, that is, those in their last two years of school, to act as maids and to provide sexual services. When they become seniors themselves, they will do the same and so reacquire their masculinity.

This is all considered quite normal and no dishonour associates either to the penetrator or the penetrated. But woe betide any boy who, on reaching the appropriate age, continues to seek to be penetrated instead of taking a younger lover for himself. Such a boy will be shunned — not for having received anal penetration, but for continuing to desire it. He has defied the cultural norms of the society, because in pederastic cultures — which the Anglo-Saxon, despite any protest it might make, definitely is — being penetrated is a function of immaturity. With maturity, one is expected to eschew it, even if one finds it pleasurable, and become, in one’s turn, a penetrator: a man.

So if there is no specific taboo about anal sex and indeed, there is at least the cultural echo of it being ‘just a part of growing up’ then where does the opprobrium, such that it is, towards baklas and their equivalents come from?

Simple: baklas are those males who do not grow up into men. Instead, they remain girls.

Refusal of manhood

It’s one thing to be the willing recipient of a penis, and then accept the responsibility of a man — including penetrating a younger male — but it’s altogether different to refuse to accept manhood completely. Even within New Gay Man culture, this is condemned.

Baklas and those like them, kathoeys in Thailand, warias in Indonesia, travestis across Latin America — are the product of two-group societies wherein one group is made up entirely of masculine men and the other is everyone else. The latter is founded on the mothers, but it includes the children and, crucially, all others who either cannot or do not wish to join the ‘men’ group. Bakla culture, or kabaklaan, gives those boy children who, for whatever reason, are not part of the men group, a social space and an identity. It is a system through which they are protected from abuse by the ‘men’ group, by being given a role equivalent but not identical to that of a woman and so acquiring the protection of the women around them.

The above tells us that, at root, there are two types of male homosexuality: pederastic, which is what we are most familiar with in the West, where boys are ‘turned’ by first being pedicated and later becoming pedicators. The more extreme forms, as described by Benedict Friedlaender and expressed by the modern New Gay Man, are hostile to any expression of femininity. Yes, the New Gay Man is fundamentally misogynistic.

‘Transgender’ Homosexuality

The other we might call ‘transgender’ homosexuality. In this, males perform the behavioural patterns and social norms of girls, in their culture. They never mature into men and even if they present in a masculine fashion, with male clothes and hairstyle, they will always consider themselves to be ‘women inside’. Baklas are of this type.

kabaklaan-jellyNearly all baklas are to some extent androphilic in sexual practice; but it is not just being homosexual that makes a boy a bakla. Refusal to adopt male status does, and the most obvious manner through which this can be expressed is being sexually attractive to men. Baklas attract men in exactly the same way as natal women do: through the performance of beauty.

Unlike the Public School or the New Gay Man, which are absolute patriarchies with no related matriarchy, Filipino culture is a two-group society wherein a matriarchy operates in tandem with a patriarchy. Within the matriarchal sphere, males may follow kabaklaan, the nature or way of the bakla. The culture thereby provides a way in which the defiant person, the male-not-man, may be allowed a social space and an identity.

Kabaklaan is available only to males. It is a manner through which baklas can express themselves and relate to the culture they live in. Homosexuality is a part of that, but it is by no means the only part. More central is the expression of femininity and the performance of beauty. Kabaklaan is ‘the way of the bakla’ or, perhaps, of the girly-boy. In some cultures — for there are equivalents everywhere — this is considered a ‘third gender’ or ‘second type woman’.

Feminine Gender

Nevertheless, while baklas enthusiastically adopt feminine gender, they know they are male and can never be ‘real’ women. Why? Because they can never be mothers and motherhood is the foundation of female status in the matriarchy. In mythological terms, natal women become Ereshkigal when they have children, whereas baklas remain locked forever in the form of Inanna. More simply, women become matrons but baklas are always maidens. One consequence of this is that baklas make the most they can of their charis, their performance of beauty. However, they always defer to ‘real’ women.

Kabaklaan separates baklas from the group of men and associates them with the home-group, the matriarchy. This happens more through behaviours than appearances, although the two are related. Baklas will be artistic, sensitive, good dancers, enjoy looking after younger children and performing basic household duties and so on. (And they are just as prone to complaining about their couch-potato male partners as other women are.) Baklas are all identified in childhood or adolescence and so, after years of apprenticeship may make a highly passable fist of it; but they never, ever lose sight of the fact that they are not ‘real women’ but instead, feminised males. When a bakla says ‘I’m a girl,’ she means it in social and behavioural senses, in particular her sexuality, which is female/passive. She knows perfectly well what she is and she’s proud of it. She’s a bakla: male but not a man, woman but not female.

I am Woman

More, every time a bakla steps out on the stage in a pageant, or catches a man’s eye in the steet or in a bar or in a million other situations and feels that visceral response as he is mesmerised by her, she wins. She is affirmed. ‘Yes! I am Woman! Behold my beauty! I am Inanna incarnate and you will dash yourself at my feet!’

Behind every ladyboy is a batang bakla; a cute, sensitive, gentle, artistic, sweet, daydreaming boy who either could not be a man, or just didn’t want to be one. A boy who dreamed of being kissed by older boys and whose hot gaze followed the young men of the village. A boy who danced his charis before his reflection in his mother’s mirror or the windows of the mall, who wore a towel on his head to simulate long hair when he was five. A boy who grew up to be a very special kind of woman, one whose womanhood does not depend on motherhood but on her sheer, wild, sexuality. And there are literally millions of them.

The domestic space

Within ‘two group’ societies, the domestic space is entirely matriarchal. Women are in charge of the home, the household budgets, discipline, educating the younger children and so on. Outside the domestic space, the world of work, toil, hunting, war and hurt, is the men’s domain. Here there is an operational patriarchy. But that patriarchy does not regulate the home. The spheres are complementary but separate. This is how humans are evolved to live and still do, in most of the world.

All children grow up in the domestic space, where women are the authority figures. As they reach puberty, boy children are expected to move away from this space and gravitate towards the ‘men’ group. There might be rites of passage, for example, in the Philippines, circumcision. This is not carried out for religious reasons — most people are Catholic — but to signify that the boy has reached sexual maturity; his weapon is ritually unsheathed by having the prepuce sliced away. But the act also signifies the boy’s entry into the world of men, where hurt is the norm and pleasure tempered by pain.

kabaklaan-gay

In the domestic or home space, women, not men, are privileged. This culture is not focussed outwardly, but inwardly. Its function is to make babies and rear children. Women build their homes and families around themselves like nests. As girls, they are their mothers’ lieutenants, helping to keep the house and care for the younger children. As mothers they become captains, in charge of their own families. As grandmothers, they are the matriarchs of their clans, in absolute authority. And as they age past this, they become beloved arrière-grand-mères, repositories of wisdom and family history, always with a great-grandson or daughter on their knee.

Toil and sweat

Men, on the other hand, have to toil and sweat. They have long since foregone, in most cultures, the playful camaraderie of the hunt, the loss of which pleasure was lamented in cycles from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Genesis. Today, for them awaits only the backbreaking work of the fields, or the endless hours as tricycle or jeepney pilots. Perhaps they work in construction, giving their lives for a pittance. Or in faceless offices in faceless cubicles, where all individuality is removed. And don’t imagine it’s just the workers who suffer; stress is piled high on the managers, the engineers and lawyers. The potential rewards are thinly spread indeed and only those at the top of the hierarchy may access them.

Life, for most men, is about work and death, with an occasional pleasure snatched when they can. If they are lucky and survive into retirement, they can look forward to a corner in the domestic space, where they will be loved and respected but will have no authority. Perhaps they might congregate in some designated area outside the home — a bench at the crossroads, for example — to while away the afternoons with others like them.

Male society does not privilege men over women, since there are no women in it. It privileges a very small number of men over the others. It is a competitive, consuming system that takes in fit youths and, if they’re lucky, spits them out at the end as broken old men. Only a few will ever touch the wealth and power that it uses to attract them.

Policing

Members of the group of men are strictly policed in terms of behaviour and standards of dress, by the other men. A man who refuses the challenges of manhood will be shunned from the group. Similarly, one who contravenes the social rules; and amongst these, the most important of all is ‘no homo’. A man who enjoys being penetrated, if this is discovered, will find that his feet do not touch the ground on the way out. He has ‘green blood’ which is not only condemning but also contagious. He has to be isolated, quarantined.

By contrast, the home group, the matriarchy, is hardly policed at all. Nobody cares how you dress your hair or what clothes you wear. Whereas work is the focus of the men group, life in the home group is playful and tolerant. It’s okay to paint your nails, shave your armpits and legs and spend hours swooning over pictures of male film stars. It doesn’t matter if your wrist is limp, your elbow flexed or you mince when you walk. If your passion is dancing, dressmaking, cosmetics or any one of a long list of ‘feminine’ occupations, those are fine too. Kabaklaan gives a girly-boy who likes men almost complete freedom and more, will defend her and her choices.

Kabaklaan

There are few rules that govern a bakla’s behaviour. Other than compulsory respect for the matriarchal hierarchy, the main one is this: boys have sex with girls and girls have sex with boys. It is one a bakla must observe; it is the key to her freedom. In this context, lesbians or ‘tomboys’ always appear to be boys, just as baklas appear to be girls. The female partner of a tomboy is not regarded as homosexual, nor is the male partner of a bakla; only tomboys and baklas are. Two of the same — bakla with bakla and tomboy with tomboy — are not a match and will meet resistance in the group. The result is usually that, in such a pairing, one becomes conventionally feminine and the other masculine; thereafter they will be accepted and respected as a couple.

Homosexuality, to put that another way, is accepted, as long as it is transgender homosexuality, or appears to be so.

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