The 1960s gay life in the Philippines: discretion with tolerance.

Author:Foe, Jonathan


Today, the international gay movement, coupled with AIDS prevention projects, has put male homosexuality into the public discourse in most South East Asian nations. This, along with the Internet, social networking and pornography sites, allow many Asian gays to see themselves as part of an international culture. Many heterosexuals are now aware that homosexuals want equal rights. Yet this was not the case in the 1960s Philippines. Back then homosexuality was not openly discussed. Despite a lack of a gay movement, gays were accorded much tolerance.

This issue has hardly been studied before. There have been only a few articles indicating that the Philippines was tolerant of gays in the 1960s and 1970s, that is, before the Stonewall rebellion in New York in 1969. For original research there are only two studies; Hart in1968 and Lopez in 2007. Hart's study was confined to a village, while Lopez's work focused on Tondo, a small district in Manila in the 1950s. Hence, by utilizing interviews of older gay Filipinos who recalled the 60s, this research uncovered a hidden past in an era and in a country untouched by strict homophobia.

Tolerance was indigenous

The evidence suggests that this relative tolerance of Philippine homosexuality was not the influence of either the Spanish or American colonizers. Instead the toleration was indigenous. Spain was, after all, home of the inquisition, and executed hundreds of males who were caught having sex with each other during the 1500s (Berco, 2008, p. 336); about the time when Magellan landed in the Philippines. Although strict enforcement of sexuality slowly died away, there was still a stigma attached to homosexuality in Spanish culture.

The Spanish model of homosexuality is different from the Philippine. Spain was a firmly patriarchal culture (Berco, 2008). The culture valorized males, including their sexual practices. Although homosexual relations were definitely stigmatized, a segment of the Spanish culture seemed to allow it (Berco, 2005). Tolerance was also dependent on the roles played by the participants in the act of homosexual sex itself.

Scholars of sex have called the Spanish model Mediterranean. It goes back at least as far as the ancient Greece. In this, the "top" or active partner in sex is the male, while the "bottom" or passive partner is the female. Since females were less regarded, the bottom is looked down upon more than his "male" partner (Sigal, 2003). The active male partner was in control, and for some, it might have increased his feeling of masculinity. The active would be perhaps married, a priest, or a man of high standing. He was termed machista meaning male or a real man.

The passive bottom partner often suffered more shame for being woman-like. He was frequently a slave, an adolescent boy, effeminate, or poor. The passive younger man was called maricon, an insulting term meaning sissy, faggot, callboy, or puto, meaning a callboy wishing to be penetrated. (Sigal, 2003a). Being called a puto was perceived as a horrendous fate. In this sense, the passive male was not being shunned not so much because he had sex with another male, but because he had allowed himself to be penetrated and thus was weak and feminine (Sigal, 2003b). Sexual morality of this sort followed the Spanish into its colonies in the New World.

America arrived in the Philippines in 1900. Strangely no law was passed prohibiting homosexuality (Carale, 1970); although during this time, the United States was beginning to actively prohibit homosexuality within its own shores. During their occupation of the colony, American gays were increasingly harassed (Kaiser, 1997), yet there seemed little impact overseas. In 1946, the Philippines declared independence, but the American influence remained strong, partly because of the shared experience in the liberation of the islands from the Japanese during World War 2.

The post-war brought the Cold War and McCarthy witch-hunts in America. Thousands of gays lost their jobs, and thousands more were the victims of blackmail and harassment by the police. It was during this time that the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey claimed that the United States was the worst place in the world for homosexuals (Canaday, 2009). These anti-homosexual campaigns did not reach Philippine shores.

If this tolerance of gay men evident in the 1960s did not come from either of the colonizers, then it must have been part of the Philippine culture itself. This toleration may have come from pre-colonial culture.

The Philippines was the northern section of Malay culture. Women in this culture were well respected, reported Barbara Andaya in extensive research done in 1994 and 2006. Thus, since women were accorded near equal status with men, the effeminate males probably suffered no loss of status for assuming the roles of women.

Michal Peletz in his book Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia Since the Early Modern Times (2009) identified a great amount of homosexual acceptance among the Malay. He states "that in the early modern period and earlier times as well many communities of Southeast Asians accorded enormous prestige to male bodied individuals who dressed in female attire and performed certain rituals associated with royal regalia, births, weddings, and key phases of agricultural cycles" (2009, p. 22). Peletz and others have brought out much information on Malay acceptance of homosexuality in the areas of Malaysia and Indonesia. These would include the Bugis and their bissu of Sulawesi (Boellstorff, 2005, p. 38) or of the Ibang Dayak and their manang bali of Borneo (Peletz, 2009, p. 42, quoting Roth 1896, 1980) or the Ngaju Dayak ethnic group and their basir, also of Borneo (Peletz, 2009, p. 46, quoting Scharer). These are just some of the Malay groups have had eyewitness anthropological observations of homosexuality, and thus offer more convincing evidence than what can be found in the Philippines.

Neil Garcia (2008) has carefully documented the accounts of Spanish friars that clearly indicate a parallel with other Malay communities in Southeast Asia. The native priests, who mostly were transgenders called babaylan were well respected, and engaged in sexual relations with men. These sources also indicate that there was some sort of native acknowledgment for homosexual behavior, and this tolerance may have persisted up through the modern era. However, after about 1625, Spanish investigation of Filipino culture generally stopped. Open discussion of sexuality was frowned upon. There are no available records for the next three hundred years!

Garcia makes two summary points: 1. There was sodomy--'unnatural acts,' including same-sexual activity--in the Philippines during the earliest periods of colonization. 2. Gender-crossing was institutionalized in many pre-and early colonial cultures in the Philippines (Garcia, 2008 p. 184).

The 1950 gay males in Tondo (a district of Manila composed primarily of urban poor) were described by Ferdie Lopez in a paper written in 2007. Interestingly, like today they had gay beauty pageants, although not so openly conducted as they are now. Some young men openly carried on relationships with gay males. There were a few daring souls who encountered light teasing when cross-dressing in public.

There is also a lengthy study done on Filipino gay life by an American anthropologist Donn Hart (1968). He concentrated on the small town of Siaton, described as a tolerant place for effeminate homosexuals at the southern end of Negros in the Visayas in the 1960s.

In this study, Hart wrote that some gay men claimed to have openly crossed dressed at the fiesta dances. Like Lopez's study, some males carried on rather open relationships with effeminate gays. Both Hart and Lopez noted that in an era where women's virginity was imposed, some males sought sexual release through neighborhood gays.

In a 1973 study, Sechrest and other researchers documented Filipino attitudes towards gays. These sociologists made a questionnaire with follow-up interviews of three groups of college students, one from U.S.A, another from Pakistan, and from the University of the Philippines. The Filipinos were likely to view homosexuals as different but normal, while Americans viewed the same as abnormal.

The key term is tolerance. The first definition will be the commonly understood term. Defined from the American Heritage dictionary "1.The capacity for or practice of allowing or respecting the nature, beliefs, or behavior of others" (Morris 1969). This is the definition that participants of this study probably thought of during the interviews.

The more academic concept of tolerance is less accommodating. From The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology: "It is the not an expression of benevolence, but embodies a sense of disapproval. Tolerance is the deliberate choice not to interfere with the conduct, beliefs, lifestyles and behaviors of which one disapproves. (Karstedt, 2007).

The classic definition of tolerance comes from the Latin root, tolerare or tolerantia. The first is a verb, meaning to endure, while the second means forbearance (Weissberg, 2008). "It involves recognition that a civil society must include a willingness to bear with people whose ideas and practices are not merely different, but believed to be wrong" (Bergen C., Bergen B., Stubblefield, & Bandow, 2012, p. 112)

For gays, the most intolerant time of life would be adolescence, when males are trying to gauge gender roles and sexual identity. This testing often can be light teasing, or can go so far as repetitive verbal or physical abuse, known as bullying.

Forty years after the birth of the lesbian and gay movement, one would think that there would be greater tolerance towards minority sexuality, yet anti-gay bullying remains. Ninety percent of gay teens have been the victim of verbal or physical harassment in 2006 in American schools (Espelage & Swearer, 2008). Over eighty percent of the kids do...

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