Shades of Grey: Transgressing and Transforming - Glenn Q. Maboloc

Glenn Q. Maboloc

The concepts of ‘self’ and ‘autonomy’ have often been raised in feminist discourse. Fairly recently, breaking away from liberalism’s autonomous self, Marxism instated the concept of self as social. All meaning – of work, of equality, of happiness itself to the individual – is achieved socially.

Traditional Philippine valuation of the self was one step ahead of Marxism. Anthropologist F. Landa Jocano posits that Filipinos ‘by cultural orientation…are relationists, not individualists… [They] always want to be part of a group and to be noticed as such. This is why [they] disdain kanya- kanya (each to his/her own self-interest) as a trait.’ Jocano laments that Filipinos’ ‘current claim to individualism is derived from Western-influenced formal education… (and is) reinforced by exposure to Western-influenced media.’ (Jocano, 63)

This relational Filipino self finds its most ardent expression in familism, or ‘the concept (having) to do with our concern over the well-being of our families or that of our kinsmen.’ (Jocano, 64) Belen Medina notes: ‘The family as the basic unit of Philippine society is very significant to the Filipino. It demands his interests and loyalty more than any other institution in the larger society. Its influence is far-reaching for it pervades every aspect of his life, be it social, political, religious, or economic.’ (Medina, 12)

Damdamin or emotion plays an important role in maintaining Filipino social relationships. An especially sensitive people, Filipinos make decisions around the feelings of others. Hiya (shame) and delicadeza and amor proprio (proper behavior and self-esteem) are two of the norms that are followed so that ‘damdamin is not hurt and conflicts are minimized, if not avoided. [Hiya] is often invoked to effect conformity to local mores and practices in order to prevent embarrassment, shame or conflict. [Delicadeza and amor propio] are part of [the] cultural shield intended to protect the self from being embarrassed or shamed through public exposure. The face must be protected at all times, by all means, and at all costs…Losing face is losing personal dignity, integrity and honour as an individual and as a member of the group.’ (Jocano, 73)

Transwomen (and transgenders in general) disturb these cultural norms, more so than other sexual minorities by managing to be spectacles in an intensely conformist society. In fact, the probable shame prevents many transwomen from expressing their real selves. Transwomen also experience discrimination right in the hands of the ‘same’ people who’ve experienced it: gay men.

In fact, J. Neil Garcia posits that one of the reasons why the LGBT liberation movement in the Philippines has not taken off is the schism between the parlorista (literally, working in a beauty parlor, often transwomen; loud and vulgar) and the pa-men (straight-acting; circumspect). In this sense, transwomen not only challenge the Filipino heterosexual conception of propriety, but Filipino gays’ as well.

Transwomen transgress these cultural norms because they unsettle the broader concepts of heternormativity introduced by colonialism and religion.

The Filipina transwoman was regarded with respect in many parts of pre-colonial Philippines. Called babaylan (priestess), she often presided over important spiritual ceremonies of her then animist society, and was found to have married and lived with men.

But history would change her status in Filipino society. Colonial powers would reach her shores. Sam Winter describes thus: ‘Serena Nanda has described the ‘sexualising’ and masculinising of the Filipino culture by successive Arab, Spanish and American dominations…(Carolyn) Brewer [also] paints a vivid picture of the way in which Filipino gender and sexuality were regulated to conform to the colonisers’ norms. These norms arose from Hispanic machismo (the idealization of stereotypic gender roles and the repression of deviance from them), and from closely related Christian (predominantly Catholic) attitudes towards sexual and gender diversity.’

Winter believes that because of Catholic doctrines ‘Filipino transpeople are left vulnerable to accusations of immoral conduct on several levels: cross-gendered dress, abuse of body and homosexuality. As one might expect, religious- inspired transphobia percolated into broader society.’ Catholicism’s heteronormativity is based on its insistence on the procreative function of sex and marriage. As such, the identity of a woman is configured according to her role and/or ability to conceive.

The history of colonial and religious enslavement impacts the social perception of the Filipino transwoman. Although research has surfaced a few labels with which Filipinos identify transwomen, Marc Johnson has devised an identity model (based on his study of transgenderism in Southern Philippines) that encapsulates the general Filipino valuation of transwomen: impotent men and unreproductive/defling women. This construction corresponds to the historical (patriarchal) and religious precepts that have led to the disenfranchised status of the Filipina transwoman.

The foregoing describes the historical-religious and cultural context in which the transwoman struggles for self and autonomy. But while she faces undue hardships because of her identity, she can look to present trends that presage some form of emancipation.

For one, the grip of the family over the individual is loosening as Filipino society transitions from a traditional to a modern-industrial system. ‘The traditional system is kinship-oriented where one’s personality is subordinate to the interests of the kin-group… where interaction is characterized by particularism or emphasis on how persons are related to one another… [or] where priority is given to the expressive and integrative needs of the group. The modern industrial system, on the other hand, is characterized by differentiation in values, interest, and goals… [or] where priority is given to the instrumental needs of the individual.’ (Medina, 240)

Transwomen can thus hope to carve out a place in society through personal achievement. (Some critics have forwarded that gays have a tendency to compensate for their second-class citizenship by over-achieving.) Many have found employment in the entertainment and fashion industry, in public relations and publishing, and especially in the fast-rising call centre industry. In fact, transwomen who experience family animosity migrate to urban centres or even abroad, especially Japan, in search of a better life and meaningful relationships.

Because while many transwomen have a hard time securing long-lasting relationships, a surprising few have found love in the most unexpected places. The Christian religious society, the Order of St. Alreid, has officiated over many trans-unions in the last fifteen years. Many of the unions are between transwomen and male foreigners usually from the United States or Europe. Same-sex marriage has also been sanctioned by the Communist Party of the Philippines since the 90s. In general, same-sex or gender-variant relationships are short-lived and uncommon because they are not sanctioned by the family, the Filipino’s primary source of social security (Fernandez). In this sense, the transwoman needs to re-evaluate again the connection between her self and her family and society.

Feminist Marilyn Freidman offers a solution in preserving autonomy in social relationships: ‘Feminists tend to share with communitarians the view that selves are inherently social…This perspective on the self leads easily to the view that autonomy should also be conceptualized relationally. At the same time, a little reflection on everyday life reveals that autonomy sometimes results in severing of relational ties – that it does sometimes disconnect us from others, including those who are closely related to us…The conclusion has to be that relationships of certain sorts are necessary for the realization of autonomy, whereas relationships of certain other sorts can be irrelevant or positively detrimental to it.’ (Friedman, 55-56)

The Filipina transwoman today then needs to re-define the place of familial and social acceptance in her conception of self – to achieve real autonomy. While Filipino culture does not effectively ostracise her from the public sphere, she might need to re-assess just how much what her family and society thinks of her should affect her life.

The ideal would be that her family accept her as she is (as many families have done); but when it doesn’t, she needs to rely on her own esteem. Chucking the family, as suggested by some feminists years back, may not be a viable option as the Filipino family still is and can be a source of social protection especially in the Third World context of economic insecurity.

As can be attested by some transwomen who have been embraced by their families, Filipino culture is not a patriarchal-feudal or homophobic monolith. Filipinos also do follow another cultural norm that suggests better conditions for all transwomen are possible. If hiya and delicadeza/amor propio ensure that feelings are preserved in maintaining relationships, awa is another important norm. Awa means ‘compassion, mercy, charity, kind heartedness, and sincerity…It expresses both [the Filipino] understanding of the situation another person is in and [his] feeling of empathy for (another’s) misfortune.’ (Jocano, 79) This norm has accommodated somewhat the perceived transgressions of transwomen of social mores concerning gender and sexuality, and highlights the important role of consciousness-raising in trans-liberation. Filipinos, in the end, are pusong mamon or soft-hearted.

To be compassionate to the Filipina transwoman is Filipino society’s test; to insist on her self and autonomy in Filipino society is the Filipina transwoman’s challenge. Indeed, social and individual transgressions pave the way for each other’s transformation as well.

Works Cited:

Fernadez, Doreen. ‘The Gay.’ Being Filipino. Ed. Gilda Cordero- Fernando. Manila: GCF Books, 1969. Friedman, Marilyn. ‘Autonomy and Social Relationships.’ Feminists Rethink the Self. Ed. Diana Tietjens Meyers. Oxford: Westview Press, 1997.

Jocano, F. Landa. Filipino Value System: A Cultural Definition. Manila: Punlad Research House, Inc., 1997.

Johnson, Marc. Beauty and Power: Transgendering and Cultural Transformation in the Southern Philippines. New York: Berg, 1997.

Medina, Belinda T.G. The Filipino Family. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1995.

Winter, Sam. ‘What Made Me This Way? Contrasting Reflections by Thai and Filipina Transwomen.’ Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in an Asian Context. Vol. 4. Nov. 2006.

Glenn Q. Maboloc studied english literature at the ateneo de manila university and is pursuing a master’s degree in women and development at the university of the philippines, diliman. She is the president of a young and youth-led NGO, knowledge and rights with young people through Safer Spaces.(KRYSS)