British Columbia·MABUHAY B.C.

How non-binary Filipinos reconcile their identities with their language's lack of LGBT terms

Non-binary Filipino are pushing for more discussion on how the Tagalog language can develop to be more inclusive of LGBT people.

For many, umbrella words in Tagalog don't accurately represent who they are

Nelson Agustín (left) and Tin Lorica are non-binary Filipino-Canadian artists in Metro Vancouver. Non-binary Filipinos are pushing for more discussion about how they can identify in the Tagalog language. (Gian-Paulo Mendoza)

When Nelson Agustín took up drag for the first time, they realized they did not identify with masculine pronouns — and that they were, in fact, non-binary. 

But it took years for Agustin to realize their true identity, which happened after they immigrated to Canada from the Philippines, where the Tagalog language has no apt word for non-binary people.

"It's a little bit difficult to identify myself in Tagalog, because I don't think there's any specific words that equate to being non-binary," said Agustín.

"The closest would be the Tagalog word for gay, which is bakla."

A bakla typically refers to a cisgendered man who adopts a traditionally feminine gender expression, regardless of whether they are homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. 

The inverse of bakla is a tomboy or binalaki — often used to describe lesbian Filipinos — which translates to "made a man." Gay, bisexual, or non-binary Filipinos can identify as bakla or binalaki.

Others reject these terms because they hinge on gender binaries. Many struggle with reconciling their identities with the lack of terms in their mother tongue. 

WATCH | Filipino Canadians talk about the challenges Tagalog poses to some in the LGBT community:

Non-binary Filipino Canadians discuss how Tagalog could be made more inclusive

2 years ago
Duration 4:18
The most common Tagalog labels for queer are contingent on gender binaries, which is leading some non-binary Filipino Canadians to call for more discussion on how the language can evolve.

For Agustín, these limited terms show how Tagalog falls short of being inclusive to LGBT identities. They feel the essence of the word bakla is rooted in patriarchy.

"For a person to be called bakla, it means they are not masculine enough or not macho enough," explained Agustín. "The connotation is that someone who exhibits feminine qualities or feminine mannerisms is considered weak."

Nelson Agustín's drag persona, Marzi Pants. Agustín has done drag before in the Philippines, but fully fleshed out the persona of Marzi Pants when they arrived in Canada. (Courtesy: Nelson Agustín)

'An entry point into Filipino queer'

Tin Lorica also identifies as non-binary but, unlike Agustín, they are comfortable with identifying as bakla. For Lorica, a comedian and poet who immigrated to Canada in their early teens, the term distinguishes being queer and Filipino.

Having been away from the Philippines for most of their life, Lorica said they came to understand themselves as queer first before they understood themselves as Filipino. 

For Lorica, bakla is a starting point.

"It's kind of like an entry point into Filipino queer. Obviously, there's more than one way to be queer, though I understand that the term in itself is kind of a bit limiting," they said.

May Farrales, an assistant professor for gender, sexuality and women's studies at Simon Fraser University, says the choice to embrace the bakla term is more nuanced. She says the ways in which baklas and binalakis express themselves have evolved beyond rigid binaries. 

Some consider the bakla label as a nod to the term's precolonial origins, she says. 

"There's this fluid kind of movement between femininity and masculinity that I think hasn't been expunged by colonialism in the Philippines," said Farrales.

"It's something that people continue to embrace, even in the diaspora."

Precolonial bakla were revered

Before the arrival of Spanish settlers in the 1500s, the bakla was characterized as a "shaman" revered for adopting both male and female qualities

That gender fluidity was in stark contrast to the culture introduced by Spanish colonizers. 

"They brought with them a very binary language, Spanish, which is further reinforced by a very patriarchal Catholic church," said Agustín. 

"There's no middle ground with that. You're either a man or a woman, and everything else in between is a sin."

Baklas during precolonial times was revered as spiritual and community leaders for being able to adopt both traditionally masculine and feminine traits. (Wikimedia Commons)

"What used to be an archipelago of very different languages and peoples in the making of the Philippines … became this making of a gendered way of understanding what a proper Filipina is and what a proper Filipino is," said Farrales.

For Lorica, being non-binary and non-gender conforming is a way of reclaiming his culture's gender fluidity from Western colonization.

"It's a resistance because Spanish and American colonialism probably thought they had [gender fluidity] thwarted. It's definitely a way to be proud of being Filipino and non-binary," said Lorica. 

The bakla identity in Western LGBT spaces

While people like Agustín reject them, the bakla and binalaki terms take on a more nuanced meaning for LGBT Filipinos who immigrate to Canada, Farrales says.

Some feel the language in Canada does not capture the queer Filipino experience. 

"People in the landscape of the city of Vancouver feel that queerness is very white," Farrales said. "People turn to the figures of the bakla and the tomboy to distinguish themselves."

"Growing up, when I was kind of understanding myself as queer, the queer people in the media I was seeing were all white." 

Lorica tries to break down some of those barriers whenever they take to the comedy stage, by introducing themselves as a non-binary Filipino. 

"I think it's just like a way to just let people know that we're out here," they said. "... I know there's probably someone like me who's just glad that I'm up there talking about stupid, mundane, everyday things." 

Agustín is hopeful the Tagalog language can evolve to be more inclusive. They said they have been noticing more queer Filipino people who are more open to understanding gender as a spectrum — much like they realized when they began doing drag.

"Wearing women's clothing and being in a different persona made me realize that gender is simply a social construct," they said.

"My hope is that the newer generation would actually further the conversation and bring it into the future."

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We want to explore the people, cultures and perspectives in the province's Filipino community and we need your help. Our coverage will be led by three CBC journalists of Filipino descent. (CBC)