How the queer history of the Philippines inspires our struggle today

Cheng Pagulayan Gender, Influencing, Rights

In pre-colonial times, Indigenous communities respected the “babaylan”, or Filipino version of a shaman who sometimes crossed genders. Today, these healers are icons for LGBTQIA+ activists fighting to outlaw discrimination, says Cheng Pagulayan in our latest blog for Pride month

Couple hold hands
A same-sex couple at Metro Manila Pride a long-running Pride march in the Philippines
(Picture: Watsamon Tri-yasakda/Shutterstock)

Pre-colonial Philippines has always fascinated me because of its colourful cultural practices, interesting language, and fantastical myths. As a queer development communicator, my favourite figure has always been the babaylan, the Filipino version of a shaman, who was a healer, diviner, and priestess in Indigenous communities.  

While the babaylan was typically a woman – well-respected in her community for her ability to bridge material and spiritual worlds – historical accounts showed that there were also male babaylan who crossed genders, making them symbolic icons for the Philippine LGBTQIA+ movement today.

The Indigenous practice of having a babaylan did not last long during the Spanish colonisation, as the colonisers found this powerful class of Filipinos a threat. But over a century after the Spanish left, a vibrant modern LGBTQIA+ community keeps the memory of these pre-colonial icons alive.

From past respect to present discrimination and violence

From being well-respected babaylans in pre-colonial society, many members of the Philippine LGBTQIA+ community now face a more hostile context, with gender-based violence and discrimination. While queer people have a long-standing history in our country, there is today a glaring absence of national legislation to protect them.

Today, the LGBTQIA+ community faces alarming rates of gender-based violence and discrimination. From 2010 to 2020, at least 50 transgender or non-binary Filipinos were murdered. Studies showed that around half of transgender people and bisexual women would experience sexual violence during their lifetime.

I still remember how devastating it was for the Pinoy transgender community, when at the start of the year 2021, three transgender people were brutally killed and three kidnapped. There have also been other injustices that have impacted the community, such as a trans woman denied teaching opportunities. 

Micro-aggressions and the importance of language

Another type of violence directed at the LGBTQIA+ community is micro-aggressions, indirect or subtle acts of discrimination against marginalised groups in their daily lives.  It often manifests through conscious or unconscious discriminatory or transphobic remarks.  

‘The Filipino language, is largely gender-neutral… There are no direct translations of the words husband or wife as we use the gender-neutral term “asawa,” referring to a spouse

Since I started joining feminist and queer rights organizations, I have been more careful with my words. Even as a queer person myself, I acknowledge some of my past words may have come off as micro-aggressions against my own community.

This growing self-awareness has led me to appreciate our Filipino language. The Filipino language, is largely gender-neutral… There are no direct translations of the words husband or wife as we use the gender-neutral term asawa, referring to a spouse. Another example is the gender-neutral pronoun siya, which refers to a person.

But despite this gender neutrality in language, we are still confronted by different discriminatory experiences in public and private spaces. 

Positive signs in the fight for legal protection

While the country ranked as the 10th most gay-friendly country in a 2013 global survey by Pew Research Center, the LGBTQIA+ community are still at risk because of the absence of a national law to protect them from discrimination and hate crimes.

The first bill seeking to end gender-based discrimination was filed in Congress in 2000.  More than 20 years later, that anti-discrimination bill also called the SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity and Expression) Equality Bill has yet to overcome opposition from various groups and become law.

However, there are positive developments at the local level. So far, 30 municipal and provincial governments have passed local ordinances to end gender-based violence and abuse. But these are not enough as these local legislations only protect around 25% of the population.

Successful activism – but there’s a long way to go

These early victories have been won with the help of movements led by LGBTQIA+ activists. The Philippine Anti-Discrimination Alliance of Youth Leaders (PANTAY) is at the frontline of the LGBTQIA+ movement in the country rallying for gender-inclusive and responsive legislations at local and national levels. With its wide network of activists and advocates all over the Philippines, they have successfully lobbied for local ordinances through campaigns and progressive programmes.

And Oxfam Pilipinas, with its partner organisations, is also advocating for gender justice by supporting programmes and policies that address the elimination of violence against women, girls and people with diverse SOGIE.  Now we need more allies to fully recognize the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community amid the multiple challenges of the global economic recession, shrinking democratic spaces, and disinformation.

It will take a village to fully realise the liberation of the LGBTQIA+ and end the cycle of gender-based violence, and discrimination against them. To genuinely recognize that LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights requires the passage of a gender recognition law, a hate crime law, marriage equality, social protection, and much more. We hope our young and vibrant movement of LGBTQIA+ can make this happen.

From the babaylan to the modern queer icons and individuals of today, equality and freedom are deeply rooted in our Filipino values and history. We will continue to fight to reclaim our rightful spaces and ensure that we are all equal and free from discrimination and violence. 


Cheng Pagulayan

Cheng Pagulayan is a queer climate activist, development communicator, licensed environmental planner and gender justice advocate. Currently, he is the advocacy officer for climate change and energy transition of Oxfam Pilipinas and the director for policy and campaigns of the Philippine Anti-Discrimination Alliance of Youth Leaders (PANTAY)

This is the third in a summer series of blogs about LGBTQIA+ rights around the world that started off in Pride month. All the blogs will be published on Oxfam’s Views and Voices site aimed at development professionals. Subscribe here to keep up with the latest posts and also follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn