Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

How ‘Bakla’ Explains the Struggle for Queer Identity in the Philippines

The Tagalog word eludes Western concepts of gender and sexuality—and offers a window into LGBTQ+ Filipinos’ quest for acceptance.

By , a writer who lives in Pasig, Philippines.
bakla-philippines-tagalog-decoder-queer-ari liloan-illustration
bakla-philippines-tagalog-decoder-queer-ari liloan-illustration
Ari Liloan illustration for Foreign Policy

Pride Month in the Philippines this year was decidedly spirited: Emerging from one of the longest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world, tens of thousands of people flocked to events organized by advocacy groups throughout the country to protest abuses against members of the LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities, stand up for human rights, exchange ideas, watch speeches and performances, provide mutual support, and revel in one another’s company. “Happy Pride, mga bakla!” (“Happy Pride, queers!”) was a common refrain, charged with a celebratory energy that has not always been present for queer Filipinos.

But despite being home to the first Pride March in Asia and some of the largest pride celebrations in the region since, the Philippines has a long way to go in terms of ensuring the safety and dignity of LGBTQ+ Filipinos, who have few legal protections and are often targets of aggression, even brutality. An anti-discrimination bill has languished in the legislature for around two decades. Police periodically conduct raids, without warrants, of venues frequented by queer people, who are then subjected to verbal abuse, extortion, and unlawful detention.

The Tagalog word bakla might be seen as an index of the struggles that LGBTQ+ Filipinos still deal with. Although it serves as a marker of identity and as a potential means of forging community, the term is also burdened by an oppressive past that shapes its unsettled present.

Pride Month in the Philippines this year was decidedly spirited: Emerging from one of the longest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world, tens of thousands of people flocked to events organized by advocacy groups throughout the country to protest abuses against members of the LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities, stand up for human rights, exchange ideas, watch speeches and performances, provide mutual support, and revel in one another’s company. “Happy Pride, mga bakla!” (“Happy Pride, queers!”) was a common refrain, charged with a celebratory energy that has not always been present for queer Filipinos.

But despite being home to the first Pride March in Asia and some of the largest pride celebrations in the region since, the Philippines has a long way to go in terms of ensuring the safety and dignity of LGBTQ+ Filipinos, who have few legal protections and are often targets of aggression, even brutality. An anti-discrimination bill has languished in the legislature for around two decades. Police periodically conduct raids, without warrants, of venues frequented by queer people, who are then subjected to verbal abuse, extortion, and unlawful detention.

The Tagalog word bakla might be seen as an index of the struggles that LGBTQ+ Filipinos still deal with. Although it serves as a marker of identity and as a potential means of forging community, the term is also burdened by an oppressive past that shapes its unsettled present.

There have been efforts to reclaim bakla from its pejorative past—resembling, to some degree, efforts to transform “queer” from a slur into a badge of affirmation.

Variously translated as “drag queen,” “gay,” “hermaphrodite,” “homosexual,” “queer,” “third sex,” and “transgender,” bakla shows how in the Philippines, as in many places around the world, gender and sexuality are imagined and lived out in connection with concepts and categories that Western lenses can’t fully account for. Even as LGBTQ+ discourse has taken root in the Philippines, providing queer Filipinos and their peers around the world with a shared language to build solidarity with, it is inevitably inflected by local understandings of personhood. In his landmark study of Philippine gay culture, literary critic J. Neil Garcia notes that the defining characteristic of the bakla has been—and, to a large extent, continues to be—effeminacy rather than the object of the bakla’s sexual desire. Thus, bakla refers more to gender than to sexuality. However, in popular usage, it is liable to encapsulate both. 

Among Filipinos, bakla likely first conjures up the image of a man who wears clothes and makeup meant for women and is predisposed to flamboyant speech and mannerisms. This figure of the effeminate man has long been present in the Philippines. Documents dating back to the 16th century during Spanish colonization allude to people known as, among other things, “asog”: men who assumed the appearance and behavior of women to such a degree that an observer would have difficulty distinguishing between an asog and a woman. 

Asog and their ilk throughout the archipelago engaged in what might be most accurately described as gender-crossing. For all practical purposes, they were treated as women, and they married and had sexual relations with men. Like women, asog were well respected in early colonial—and, presumably, pre-colonial—Philippine society. Only women and asog could take on the prestigious role of “babaylan,” mediating between the human and the spirit worlds, treating the sick and wounded, and acting as religious and political leaders.

In spite of Filipinos’ subversion, resistance, and hostility, agents of Spanish subjugation endeavored to overhaul Indigenous people’s ways of life. Notably, members of the Catholic clergy branded sexual acts outside of marriage between a man and a woman as sinful and unnatural. Over some 300 years, babaylan lost their spiritual authority to the Catholic Church, women were relegated to the confines of the home or convent, and asog found themselves demeaned by society and ridiculed as bakla.

Some of the definitions for “bacla,” an earlier spelling, in an 1860 Tagalog-Castilian dictionary are telling: to beguile or deceive with luster or beauty, to heal with feigned words, and to be frightened of a new thing. In Tagalog writings from the 19th century up to before World War II, bakla signified a passing phase of confusion, cowardice, fear, indecision, or weakness. Although the word is no longer used in these ways, bakla still bristles with a host of negative connotations, especially following its conflation with the (male) homosexual. Following Garcia’s account, this conflation can be traced back to around the turn of the 20th century, when the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain and imposed new modes of thought about gender and sexuality—such as the concept of homosexuality and its pathologization as a disorder. 

A Filipino protester holds up a painted sign at dusk that reads “Fight 4 Intersectional LGBTQ” during a Pride parade and protest in Manila, Philippines, on June 28.
A Filipino protester holds up a painted sign at dusk that reads “Fight 4 Intersectional LGBTQ” during a Pride parade and protest in Manila, Philippines, on June 28.

A Filipino protester holds up a painted sign at dusk that reads Fight 4 Intersectional LGBTQ+ during a Pride parade and protest in Manila, Philippines, on June 28.Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Thus, it is not surprising that bakla today is still used as an insult. Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for his penchant for violence, has denounced several of his critics as bakla, from a rival candidate for president to the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights to the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines. Duterte has also remarked on a number of occasions that he used to be bakla but “nagamot ko ang sarili ko” (“I cured myself”)—giving voice to the conventional belief in the country that being bakla is similar to having a disease.

This stigma manifests in other forms. Consider how the relationship between two celebrities, comedian Vice Ganda and model Ion Perez, has played out in the public eye. Ganda has referred to herself as bakla and nonbinary, with no pronoun preferences. Perez has described himself as a straight man and responded with anger when tagged as bakla. In 2021, to mark their third anniversary as a couple, the two underwent a commitment ceremony in Las Vegas. Regardless of their open expressions of love, Vice and Perez have had to weather persistent rumors that Perez is just bilking his wealthier and more famous partner. It is a common stereotype that the bakla must purchase the affections of a man and will be abandoned once the bakla has been drained of funds or the man has fallen in love with a woman.

There has been a variety of responses to bakla and its adverse history from the people it purports to designate, such as other members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, from adaptation to rehabilitation to rejection. These responses are nuanced by factors like socioeconomic status, geographical location, and access to information on developments in such fields as human rights, law, mass media, medicine, psychology, and public health—and how these bear on gender and sexuality.

Bakla is used matter-of-factly as a self-descriptor and between bakla and their friends as a greeting or a term of endearment. Diminutives, such as “baks” and “accla,” proliferate, as do alternatives like “badaf” and “bading,” which are seen as less demeaning. The English words “gay” and “queer” are also in use; these must be understood in connection with long-standing inequalities in Philippine society, in that bakla tends to indicate a person of lower class and status, usually caricatured as a swishy beauty parlor worker. (Many bakla pursue careers in the beauty, fashion, or entertainment industries.)

Transgender women, meanwhile, have sought to endow their existence with greater precision than bakla affords, with a group of advocates coining the term “transpinay”—a portmanteau of “transgender” and “Pinay,” the latter an informal word for “Filipino woman”—in 2008.

Moreover, there have been efforts to reclaim bakla from its pejorative past—resembling, to some degree, efforts to transform “queer” from a slur into a badge of affirmation. In the 1980s, gay and lesbian activists set up a group named BANANA, which stood for Baklang Nagkakaisa Tungo sa Nasyonalismo (“Bakla United Toward Nationalism”), and participated in protests against the government. In the 1990s, an LGBTQ+ student organization based in the state-run University of the Philippines, called UP Babaylan—a homage to the pre-colonial shaman—produced T-shirts for its members that said “Bakla ako” (“I’m bakla”) on the front and “May angal ka?” (“Any objections?”) on the back.

A watershed moment in the 2000s was the founding of Ang Ladlad, an LGBTQ+ party that sought to influence national politics by fielding candidates to run under the Philippines’ party-list system, designed to facilitate representation of marginalized sectors in Congress. It faced several challenges—including a ban, later overturned, on its participation in the 2010 elections owing to its alleged promotion of immorality—and was ultimately unsuccessful at its bids to win legislative seats, but it helped draw attention to LGBTQ+ issues and suggest the prospect of the “pink vote”: that is, LGBTQ+ people as a key voting bloc, though its power is yet to be demonstrated. One of the more interesting vote-gathering tactics of Ang Ladlad was to visit neighborhood beauty parlors and engage with the bakla employed there.

Various LGBTQ+ groups continue to play on bakla in their slogans and taglines as they stand up for their rights. The coalition Bahaghari often uses “Makibeki, wag mashokot!” as a rallying cry. “Makibeki” combines “makibaka” (“contend with us”) and “beki” (another diminutive of bakla) while “‘wag mashokot” means “have no fear” in gay lingo. The organizers of the Metro Manila Pride Parade also used makibeki as part of this year’s march theme: “Atin Ang Kulayaan! Makibeki Ngayon, Atin Ang Panahon.” A rough translation would be, “The colors of freedom are ours! Fellow queers, let us fight together. It is our time.” 

These, it must be emphasized, are not merely linguistic maneuvers. Rather, they represent individual and collective efforts from people who have long been disdained for being different, for defying the norm, to make themselves felt and heard, specify their experiences, and inaugurate modes of living and loving together. Even as the use of bakla remains contentious, LGBTQ+ Filipinos sustain their attempts to negotiate with its difficult history and pave the way toward a prismatic future where they will be embraced with full acceptance by their families and communities.

Jaime Oscar M. Salazar is a writer who lives in Pasig, Philippines.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.