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← The gender-fluid history of the Philippines

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Showing Revision 10 created 04/28/2020 by Brian Greene.

  1. I was an eight-year-old kid
    in the mid-1990s.
  2. I grew up in southern Philippines.
  3. At that age, you're young enough
    to be oblivious
  4. about what society expects
    from each of us
  5. but old enough to be aware
    of what's going on around you.
  6. We lived in a one-bedroom house,
  7. all five of us.
  8. Our house was amongst clusters of houses
  9. made mostly of wood
    and corrugated metal sheets.
  10. These houses were built
    very close to each other
  11. along unpaved roads.
  12. There was little to no
    expectation of privacy.
  13. Whenever an argument broke out next door,
  14. you heard it all.
  15. Or, if there was a little ...
    something something going on --
  16. (Laughter)

  17. you would probably hear that, too.

  18. (Laughter)

  19. Like any other kid, I learned
    what a family looked like.

  20. It was a man, a woman,
    plus a child or children.
  21. But I also learned
    it wasn't always that way.

  22. There were other combinations
    that worked just as well.
  23. There was this family of three
    who lived down the street.
  24. The lady of the house was called Lenie.
  25. Lenie had long black hair,
    often in a ponytail,
  26. and manicured nails.
  27. She always went out
    with a little makeup on
  28. and her signature red lipstick.
  29. Lenie's other half,
    I don't remember much about him
  30. except that he had a thing
    for white sleeveless shirts
  31. and gold chains around his neck.
  32. Their daughter was
    a couple years younger than me.
  33. Now, everybody in the village knew Lenie.
  34. She owned and ran what was
    the most popular beauty salon
  35. in our side of town.
  36. Every time their family
    would walk down the roads,
  37. they would always be greeted with smiles
  38. and occasionally stopped
    for a little chitchat.
  39. Now, the interesting thing about Lenie

  40. is that she also happened to be
    a transgender woman.
  41. She exemplified one of the Philippines'
    long-standing stories
  42. about gender diversity.
  43. Lenie was proof that oftentimes
    we think of something as strange
  44. only because we're not familiar with it,
  45. or we haven't taken enough time
    to try and understand.
  46. In most cultures around the world,

  47. gender is this man-woman dichotomy.
  48. It's this immovable, nonnegotiable,
    distinct classes of individuals.
  49. We assign characteristics
    and expectations
  50. the moment a person's
    biological sex is determined.
  51. But not all cultures are like that.
  52. Not all cultures are as rigid.
  53. Many cultures don't look
    at genitalia primarily
  54. as basis for gender construction,
  55. and some communities in North America,
    Africa, the Indian subcontinent
  56. and the Pacific Islands,
    including the Philippines,
  57. have a long history
    of cultural permissiveness
  58. and accommodation of gender variances.
  59. As you may know,

  60. the people of the Philippines were under
    Spanish rule for over 300 years.
  61. That's from 1565 to 1898.
  62. This explains why everyday
    Filipino conversations
  63. are peppered with Spanish words
  64. and why so many of our last names,
    including mine, sound very Spanish.
  65. This also explains the firmly entrenched
    influence of Catholicism.
  66. But precolonial Philippine societies,
  67. they were mostly animists.
  68. They believed all things
    had a distinct spiritual essence:
  69. plants, animals, rocks, rivers, places.
  70. Power resided in the spirit.
  71. Whoever was able to harness
    that spiritual power was highly revered.
  72. Now, scholars who have studied
    the Spanish colonial archives

  73. also tell us that these early societies
    were largely egalitarian.
  74. Men did not necessarily
    have an advantage over women.
  75. Wives were treated
    as companions, not slaves.
  76. And family contracts were not done
    without their presence and approval.
  77. In some ways, women had the upper hand.
  78. A woman could divorce her husband
    and own property under her own name,
  79. which she kept even after marriage.
  80. She had the prerogative
    to have a baby or not
  81. and then decide the baby's name.
  82. But the real key to the power
    of the precolonial Filipino woman

  83. was in her role as "babaylan,"
  84. a collective term for shamans
    of various ethnic groups.
  85. They were the community healers,
  86. specialists in herbal and divine lore.
  87. They delivered babies
  88. and communicated with the spirit world.
  89. They performed exorcisms
  90. and occasionally, and in defense
    of their community,
  91. they kicked some ass.
  92. (Laughter)

  93. And while the babaylan was a female role,

  94. there were also, in fact,
    male practitioners in the spiritual realm.
  95. Reports from early Spanish chroniclers
    contain several references
  96. to male shamans who did not conform
    to normative Western masculine standards.
  97. They cross-dressed
  98. and appeared effeminate
  99. or sexually ambiguous.
  100. A Jesuit missionary named Francisco Alcina
  101. said that one man
    he believed to be a shaman
  102. was "so effeminate
  103. that in every way he was
    more a woman than a man.
  104. All the things the women did
  105. he performed,
  106. such as weaving blankets,
  107. sewing clothes and making pots.
  108. He danced also like they did,
  109. never like a man,
  110. whose dance is different.
  111. In all, he appeared
    more a woman than a man."
  112. Well, any other juicy details
    in the colonial archives?

  113. Thought you'd never ask.
  114. (Laughter)

  115. As you may have deduced by now,

  116. the manner in which these
    precolonial societies conducted themselves
  117. didn't go over so well.
  118. All the free-loving,
  119. gender equality wokeness
  120. clashed viciously with the European
    sensibilities at the time,
  121. so much so that the Spanish missionaries
    spent the next 300 years
  122. trying to enforce their two-sex,
    two-gender model.
  123. Many Spanish friars also thought
    that the cross-dressing babaylan
  124. were either celibates like themselves
  125. or had deficient or malformed genitals.
  126. But this was pure speculation.
  127. Documents compiled between 1679 and 1685,
    called "The Bolinao Manuscript,"
  128. mentions male shamans marrying women.
  129. The Boxer Codex, circa 1590,
  130. provide clues on the nature
    of the male babaylan sexuality.
  131. It says, "Ordinarily they dress as women,
  132. act like prudes
  133. and are so effeminate
  134. that one who does not know them
    would believe they are women.
  135. Almost all are impotent
    for the reproductive act,
  136. and thus they marry other males
    and sleep with them as man and wife
  137. and have carnal knowledge."
  138. Carnal knowledge, of course, meaning sex.
  139. Now, there's an ongoing debate
    in contemporary society

  140. about what constitutes gender
    and how it should be defined.
  141. My country is no exception.
  142. Some countries like Australia,
    New Zealand, Pakistan, Nepal and Canada
  143. have begun introducing nonbinary options
    in their legal documents,
  144. such as their passports
    and their permanent resident cards.
  145. In all these discussions about gender,

  146. I think it's important to keep in mind
  147. that the prevailing notions
    of man and woman as static genders
  148. anchored strictly on biological sex
  149. are social constructs.
  150. In my people's case,
    this social construct is an imposition.
  151. It was hammered into their heads
    over hundreds of years
  152. until they were convinced that their way
    of thinking was erroneous.
  153. But the good thing about social constructs
  154. is they can be reconstructed
  155. to fit a time and age.
  156. They can be reconstructed
  157. to respond to communities
    that are becoming more diverse.
  158. And they can be reconstructed
  159. for a world that's starting to realize
  160. we have so much to gain from learning
    and working through our differences.
  161. When I think about this subject,

  162. I think about the Filipino people
  163. and an almost forgotten
    but important legacy
  164. of gender equality and inclusivity.
  165. I think about lovers who were
    some of the gentlest souls I had known
  166. but could not be fully open.
  167. I think about people
    who have made an impact in my life,
  168. who showed me that integrity,
    kindness and strength of character
  169. are far better measures of judgment,
  170. far better than things
    that are beyond a person's control
  171. such as their skin color, their age
  172. or their gender.
  173. As I stand here today,
    on the shoulders of people like Lenie,

  174. I feel incredibly grateful for all
    who have come before me,
  175. the ones courageous enough
    to put themselves out there,
  176. who lived a life that was theirs
  177. and in the process, made it a little
    easier for us to live our lives now.
  178. Because being yourself is revolutionary.
  179. And to anyone reeling from forces
    trying to knock you down
  180. and cram you into these neat little boxes
    people have decided for you:
  181. don't break.
  182. I see you.
  183. My ancestors see you.
  184. Their blood runs through me
    as they run through so many of us.
  185. You are valid, and you deserve
    rights and recognition
  186. just like everyone else.
  187. Thank you.

  188. (Applause)