Sunday, 22 June 2008

Sumer Is Icumen In?

It is the twenty second of June in the Philippines, just two days after Helios reached his zenith. How am I supposed to enjoy Midsummer with all this rain?

But then again, had I been in Sweden or Greece today, I would be missing the July rains all the same.

So this is the price one pays for being a bi-cultural miscegenate, eh? Emotional ambivalence for the seasons!

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Male Homosexuality (and Gender Crossing) in the Philippines: Shared History and Stark Differences

Homosexuality versus gender crossing. Why is it so bloody hard for this country to differentiate the two? Today I, once again, cross-post another person's wordiness into my own little niche of ramblings.

Whilst I am not too sure if we believe in the exact same things with regard to sexuality (I have yet to find out), I am driven by some sort of moral and/or intellectual obligation to nevertheless pimp his historical commentary below to all of you who may or may not have had the chance to stumble upon his writings.

Male Homosexuality in the Philippines: a short history

The folk wisdom that Filipinos are a gay-friendly people must have first been mouthed by a wide-eyed tourist one lazy orange afternoon, assaulted by the vision of flamboyant transvestites sashaying down Manila’s busy sidewalks in broad daylight. Swiveling their hips from side to side, nothing seemed to threaten these chirping damsels except their heavy pancake makeup, which could run at any moment under the sweltering tropical sky.

By J . Neil C. Garcia

When visitors to the Philippines remark that Filipinos openly tolerate and/or accept homosexuality, they invariably have in mind effeminate, cross dressing men (bakla) swishing down streets and squealing on television programmes with flaming impunity. This is sadly misinformed. 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, among entertainers and parloristas (beauticians) for instance, and during carnivalesque celebrations and fiestas. In fact, Filipinos have yet to see transvestism as legitimate in ‘serious’ professions – male senators filibustering from the podium wrapped in elegant, twotoned pashminas, or CEOs strutting around open-air malls wearing power skirts and designer leather pumps. Second, and more importantly, cross dressing is very different from homosexuality: the one does not necessarily entail the other. Observed more closely, the two have very different stories to tell.

If their 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, but local men, sissy or otherwise, frenching and erotically manhandling each other in steamy ‘gay telenovelas’. There would be as many gay pick-up bars as straight bars, and both the femmy pa-girl and butchy pa-mhin would be able to display affection in public.

At the heart of the idea of homosexuality is sex, no matter the sartorial style of the persons indulging in it. Thus, to historicize homosexuality in the Philippines, we must recognize the fundamental difference between gender and sexuality. More specifically, we need to disarticulate the presentist and commonsensical connection between gender transitive behaviors and the identities of bakla, bayot, agi, and bantut [1] on the one hand and the discourse and reality of homosexuality as typically ‘gay’ same-sex orientation and/or identity on the other. The history of the former stretches into the oral past not only of the Philippines, but the whole of Southeast Asia. The latter is a more recent development, a performative instance and discursive effect of the largely American-sponsored biomedicalization of local Filipino cultures.

Gender crossing
We know from Spanish accounts of encounters between conquistadores and the archipelago’s various indios that gender crossing and transvestism were cultural features of early colonial and thus, presumably, pre-colonial communities.

Local men dressed up in women’s apparel and acting like women were called, among other things, bayoguin, bayok, agi-ngin, asog, bido and binabae. They were significant not only because they crossed male and female gender lines. To the Spanish, they were astonishing, even threatening, as they were respected leaders and figures of authority. To their native communities they were babaylan or catalonan: religious functionaries and shamans, intermediaries between the visible and invisible worlds to whom even the local ruler (datu) deferred. They placated angry spirits, foretold the future, healed infirmities, and even reconciled warring couples and tribes.

Donning the customary clothes of women was part of a larger transformation, one that redefined their gender almost completely as female. We may more properly call them ‘gender crossers’ rather than cross dressers, for these men not only assumed the outward appearance and demeanor of women, but were granted social and symbolic recognition as ‘somewhat-women.’ They were comparable to women in every way except that they could not bear children. Cronicas tell us they were ‘married’ to men, with whom they had sexual relations. These men treated their womanish partners like concubines; being men, they had wives with whom they had their obligatory children.

Gender crossers enjoyed a comparatively esteemed status in pre-colonial Philippine society simply because women enjoyed a similar status. Women were priestesses and matriarchs who divorced their husbands if they wanted, chose their children’s names, owned property and accumulated wealth.

Spanish machismo
This was the state of affairs when the Spanish arrived. Over the centuries, as the status of women progressively deteriorated, gender crossing in the traditional sense became more and more difficult, with the gender crosser suffering from the ridicule and scorn which only the Spanish brand of medieval Mediterranean machismo could inflict. From being likened to a naturally occurring species of bamboo called bayog, the native effeminate man (bayoguin) in the Tagalog-speaking regions of Luzon slowly transmogrified into bakla, a word that also meant ‘confused’ and ‘cowardly.’ Unlike his formerly ‘destined’ state, kabaklaan was a temporary condition away from which he might be wrested, using whatever persuasive, brutally loving means. Nonetheless, despite Catholicism – with its own sacramental frocks worn by its ‘men of the cloth’ – and three-hundred years of Spanish colonial rule, cross dressing, effeminacy and gender transitive behavior never really disappeared in Philippine society.

Western sexualization
The American period, in which arguably the Philippines remains, saw the expansion of the newly empowered middle class, the standardization of public education, and the promulgation and regulation of sexuality by means of academic learning and the mass media. This discursive regulation inaugurated a specific sexological consciousness, one that was incumbent upon a psychological style of reasoning hitherto unknown in the Philippines.

We can reasonably surmise, following academic accounts of how Western psychology took root in the Philippines, [2] that this ‘sexualization’ of local mentality, behavior and personality accompanied English-based education in America’s ewly acquired colony at the eginning of the twentieth century. The force of this imported ‘psychosexual logic’ has grown and become entrenched since then; present generations are subjected to levels of sexual indoctrination unheard of in previous decades. In other words, by virtue of American colonialism and neocolonialism, Filipinos have been socialized in Western modes of gender and sexual identity formation, courtesy of a sexualization that rode on different but complementary discourses of public hygiene, psychosexual development, juvenile delinquency, health and physical education, family planning, feminist empowerment, gay and lesbian advocacy, and the corporally paranoid discourse of AIDS.

The next sexual order
The result is a deepening of sexuality’s perverse implantation into the local soil, accompanied by the exorbitation of the ‘homo/hetero’ distinction as the organizing principle in the now heavilyfreighted sexual lives of Filipinos, especially those in large urban centers where Westernized knowledges hold sway. Thus, the effeminate bakla is also the ‘homosexual’: a genitally male man whose identity is defined as a function of his sexual desire for other men.

Nonetheless, it’s important to qualify that residual valuations of gender persist, and have simply served to modify the new sexual order. For instance, though the bakla has sex with the lalake (‘real man’), for many Filipinos it is only the former who is ‘homosexualized’ by the activity. This means that the process of sexualization, while increasing in alacrity and perniciousness, has not been consistent. In fact, the process has been skewed towards the further minoritization of what had already been an undesirable, effeminate, ‘native’ identity: the bakla. While the terms bakla and homosexual are far from congruent, many Filipinos use them interchangeably because they entail the same social effect: stigmatization.

While his effeminacy and transvestic ways place him in a long line of exceptional and ‘gender anomalous’ beings in Philippine history, the present-day bakla is unlike any of his predecessors in at least one respect: he is burdened not only by his gender self-presentation, but also, and more tragically, by his ‘sexual orientation’, an attribute capable of defining his sense of self.

During the Spanish period, a religious discourse of ‘unnatural acts’ grouped under the rubric of sodomy was halfheartedly propagated through the confessional. Such acts were nevertheless temporary and surmountable, a weakness to which heirs to Eve’s original transgression were vulnerable. Sodomy was not a discourse of identity but of acts: non-procreative, non-conjugal and ‘non-missionary’ acts that were committed by men with men, women with women, and men and women with animals. Even so, the gender crosser’s sexual predilections for and acts with men simply attended – and did not determine – her redefined status as ‘womanlike.’ This status denoted what was more properly a gendered rather than a sexualized form of social being.

By contrast, as though coping with his swishy ways in a helplessly macho culture was not enough, the bakla must now contend with the private demons of pathological self-loathing, primarily on account of his intrinsically ‘sick’ desire. Nonetheless, the pathologizing of the bakla into and as a homosexual has resulted in encouraging narratives of hybridity, appropriation and postcolonial resistance from ‘politicized’ Filipino gay writers and artists. These ‘gay texts’ demonstrate how the very people who have been pathologized by the American sexological regime are ironically enabled by this very stigma.

We may therefore conclude that ‘gay identity’ and ‘gay liberation,’ as Filipino gays currently understand, live and champion them, are as much the ascriptions of these histories of cross gender behavior and homosexuality as the expressions of the various freedoms and desires these selfsame histories have paradoxically conferred.

1. These are culturally comparable words for ‘effeminate homosexual’ among the Philippines’ Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilongo and Tausug ethnic communities.
2. See: Alfredo V. Lagmay, 2000. ‘Western Psychology in the Philippines: Impact and Response’ in Journey of a Humanist. Quezon City: College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines, 163-180.

The article was originally posted here:

And yes, I do agree with him a lot.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Save the Kalash

Quote begins:

ON THE north-west tip of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan's Nuristan province, Chitral has long been thought a possible refuge for Osama bin Laden.

Rendered almost inaccessible by the high peaks of the Hindu Kush range and narrow valleys, its secret mountain routes make it easy to dodge between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This district of North-West Frontier Province is the home of the Kalasha, a unique pagan community that has lived in the area for 2,000 years or more, and it is boxed in by an increasingly militant Islam. Thinly populated, Chitral covers 15,000 sq km, with war-torn Afghanistan to the north and west, and the extremist strongholds of Swat and Dir to the south.

This week, Afghan intelligence sources again named the area as a probable hiding place of the al-Qaeda leader. According to locals, bin Laden sheltered with a Kalasha family for some time during his first Afghan jihad, against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. With his now much more severe ideology, he would not be able to live easily among these polytheistic people, whose men and women mix freely.

Earlier this month, the Kalasha celebrated their spring festival, Joshi, with a verve and passion that few cultures, ancient or modern, could match. Men and women danced tirelessly to a pounding, primeval drum beat, haunting singing and rituals so old that their meaning is almost lost.

The women wear long black dresses with vividly coloured embroidery, their hair in long plaits and regal headdresses decorated with shells. Garish belts and layers of brightly coloured necklaces add to their exotic appearance. This is not a special costume for Joshi – it is what they wear every day. On their cheeks are painted dots and tattoos.

There are only about 3,000 Kalasha left now, pushed into three tiny valleys within Chitral by the advancing tide of settlers. There, they struggle to keep alive their faith and way of life, with creeping technology, poverty and the spread of Islam pushing their culture to the edge of extinction. But last week's Joshi showed Kalasha traditions remain strong and utterly unlike anything seen in the rest of Pakistan – perhaps unlike anything anywhere in the world.

"This is a religious ceremony. It celebrates spring. It is not a festival, it is much more than that – there is a spiritual meaning behind it," said Tach Sharakat, a Kalasha man, who is one of the few members of his community to receive a foreign university education.

One legend has it the Kalasha are the descendants of the army of Alexander the Great, who invaded India in the third century BC. No-one really knows their origins. Their religion may, in fact, be one of the early beliefs of the Indo-Persian area, embodying an early Hinduism and pre-Zoroastrian faith. They are known as kafirs – infidels – to most Pakistanis, but call themselves Kalasha.

Mr Sharakat thinks he is in his late twenties, but, as the Kalasha do not record birth years, he and other members of his race can only guess at their age. They do not have a written language, so all knowledge has been handed down by word of mouth.

That is why celebrations such as Joshi are so important to the Kalasha. It is a way of passing on their culture to younger generations. While it is easy to be mesmerised by the joyous dancing, round and round, the really important message is coming from within the circle, where old men in long golden coats sing and chant the Kalasha beliefs and narrate their history. The dancers then take up the song.

These are a people who love drinking wine – banned in Islam – and who can freely choose their husband or wife: arranged marriages are the norm in Pakistan. The women make no attempt to hide their faces and dance with gaiety in public, a sight now so rare in increasingly conservative Pakistan that it is shocking for most of their countrymen.

Bewildered Muslim tourists from other parts of the country, typically groups of men, stare at the festivities, seemingly unable to fathom that this, too, is a religion. Islamic culture is totally dominant in Pakistan and religious minorities are few. It seems it is lurid tales of the Kalasha women that have brought them here, confusing the women's freedom for free love.

"We marry who we like," said Gul Shaheen, a young teacher. "And there are no class distinctions in the marriage match. It does not matter if you are rich or poor. If a girl is ill-treated, she can leave for another man."

The three-day festival moves from valley to valley, with the Kalasha all gathering in one place each day, for the singing and dancing.

One reason the culture has been preserved is its geographical isolation. But that is coming under threat from domestic tourism – few foreigners venture to Chitral since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Much more serious disruption will follow, from the opening of a simple land route into Chitral, through the Lowari Tunnel, which should be completed by the end by next year.

This article was originally posted here.

More pictures and information on the Kalasha at wiki, BBC News, and Picture It.