One Friday afternoon when I was in college, one of my friends invited me to hit the gym. That idea made me feel exhilarated. I wanted to have a strong, well-chiseled physique. Besides, aerobic exercise promotes a healthy life, both mentally and physically. I was about to take the invitation when another friend of mine, who had been sitting a meter or so across from us, suddenly said, “Bakla ka naman e” (but you’re gay) in a swift, dry tone, just as she hefted herself up to stretch her body.
What she meant was plain enough: A “masculine” activity like working out is not for people like me, a bakla. I could not blame her, though. There is a general perception that bakla like me have effeminate mannerisms and clothing, identify themselves as women, and have a female heart (“pusong babae”), whatever that means. We are the hairdressers, makeup artists, couturiers, stand-up comedians in gay bars, and so forth.
In the Philippine context, the umbrella term “bakla” is a mixture of gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression, and thus encompasses a broad spectrum of identities, such as transgenderism, homosexuality, and bisexuality, among others. Because of their similar colors, and because they have been utilized interchangeably in reference to bakla for the longest time, some people often confuse or associate one identity with another. There are still many people I know who regard bisexuals as bakla, in the same way they regard transwomen as bakla and not as women, when in actuality there are varying differences between identities in the queer community.
This deep-rooted societal construction is problematic. Not only does it weaken those distinctions, therefore ignoring the uniqueness of each identity, but it also promotes sexual stereotypes. When I was in sixth grade, for example, one of my teachers asked me, rather forcefully, to pluck gray hairs from her head using a puller (a well-known task girls, and sometimes my openly bakla classmates, would do for our teacher during lunch—her favorite pastime, I remember), just because the class regarded me as bakla for being soft-spoken. Even people in my community would tell me that one cannot be a “true bakla” if one did not consider joining a Miss Gay pageant, which, to them, is some sort of baptism. Generally, in the words of professor Michael Tan, “one could not be bakla, or gay, if he was not effeminate.”
There is no doubt that the image of the bakla has been entrenched in our society for centuries. What is largely unrealized, however, is that this rigid categorization has long resulted in—and will in fact perpetuate—discrimination against sexual minorities, especially those whose gender expression is not associated with effeminacy. This is most apparent when they go beyond social boundaries—for instance, performing traditionally heterosexual activities (e.g. boxing, playing basketball, and so on), something seen as contradictory to what is expected of them. More particularly, as a result of this transgression, people refer to them as “paminta,” a Filipino derogatory slang word derived from the Tagalog-English “pa-men,” meaning “trying to be like men,” which soon became paminta.
Stereotypes, you see, are major societal problems. They are vehicles for marginalization and oppression, and they have far-reaching effects on the LGBTQIA+ community. These prejudices are damaging to their mental health, self-perception, well-being, and how they function in society. It is thus imperative to reshape the landscape of bakla identity. This is achieved by first acknowledging that identities have corresponding colors with designated terminologies for each of them. Knowing the disparities between identities associated with the term bakla, and applying proper labels to these minorities for specificity, can help extinguish the ambiguity brought about by bakla as an all-encompassing term for gender identity and sexual orientation.
It is also of huge significance to note that sexual orientation is not, and should not be, associated with gender expression at all, since they are two different things. While sexual orientation refers to what gender you are attracted to, gender expression refers to how you present your gender identity through your appearance, which includes styles of clothes, interests, and mannerisms or behaviors. In other words, just because you are a homosexual or bisexual, for example, does not mean you ought to be “feminine” in terms of activities, actions, clothes, etc. Having a particular sexual orientation does not require you to have a fixed gender expression based on socially constructed norms.
Knowing how stereotypes shape our perspective and how they influence our behavior toward these minorities—in ways that are sometimes discriminatory and devaluing—can also help us battle these social constructs. In this way, we build inclusive spaces and a safe environment for non-heterosexual people, where they can feel validated and embraced regardless of their gender and sexual orientation.