Lesbian and gay identity in the Ayta tribe in the Philippines

Discrimination based on social constructs like sexual orientations and gender identities are sharply called to light in the case of those discriminated on the basis of being both an indigenous person, and at the same time gay or lesbian.

History shows that the perceived invisibility of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) indigenous people in the country impact the increasing tolerance among them, which may then be representative of how the early Filipinos stand on the issue of homosexuality and its practice.

The dearth of literature about the existence of LGBT people belonging to Filipino indigenous groups has increased the interest of LGBT advocates in proofs of early cultural lifestyles and practices regarding treatment of LGBT members, as understanding of it interrelates with many socio-cultural dimensions.

There are a number of articles and stories about the beliefs and culture of indigenous groups, as well as the primary issues usually associated with them, like fights over their ancestral domains, mining, abuses, and land developments. However little has been written–if not little has been publicized–about their sexuality, sexual orientations and gender identities. Sexual orientations and gender identities (SOGI) is one of the issues seldom discussed while the above mentioned issues are highlighted as priority, thus, given more awareness.

Layers and layers of non-recognition

The Ayta tribe is among the most well-known indigenous groups in the Philippines, a country with over 110 major ethno-linguistic groups. The publicity is due to the number of television programs as well as award-winning stories relating their experiences of discrimination in school, in the workplace, and other public venues.

In addition, the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 led to their fleeing to nearby provinces, while others tried their luck in the metro working as house helpers and baby sitters, furthering the enculturation process.

All this has put the Ayta as one among the top tribes that can be named by someone raised in the Metro. However, mere identification of groups does not show how knowledgeable one is about their way of life, valuations, and beliefs. The same can be true in the understanding of the self-images that are being created when they face oppression and non-recognition.

For instance, the identity crisis being experienced by an LGBT Ayta is difficult to take care of as he/she first needs to deal with the discrimination that he/she faces because of being an Ayta. The individual also simultaneously experiences deepening layers of discrimination due to sex, gender, ethno-linguistic group, aesthetic value and so on and so forth. These layers take on different values, and sexual orientation and gender identity, more often than not, is set aside.

Acceptance and tolerance

The existence of lesbians and gays among the Ayta tribe is considered a non-issue in the sense that they believed that the tribe has nothing to do with it should a member of their tribe come out.

“If there are gays in the community, we let them be if that is what they really are,” said Ayta Tribe leaders Rosendo Robin and Roland Popatco in an interview.

They affirmed that sexual orientation is a matter that should be discussed within the family and the tribe does not hold any customary belief that deals with the encouragement or discouragement of one’s sexuality.

Arnel Valencia, Treasurer of PAGKAKAISA (a duly-organized indigenous people’s group in Barangay Camias, Porac) also said that the tribe does not collectively hold any position as to the presence of lesbian and gay Ayta. He also said that the issue is within the domains of the family and the tribe has no authority over a person’s choice of life partner.

However, their economic activities are found to be in conflict with this, as they would not actively enjoin a gay Ayta in their activities. The function of men in the community considering their primary sources of living in conflict with being gay.

“We do not enjoin the gays when we go out for hunting because the other might just shout at them,” they said. Instead, gay Aytas are asked to stay in the house and perform household chores regularly ascribed for girls, and taking on the gender roles assigned for females. Since economic activities are primary for Ayta, lesbians are more preferred than gays as they, on the other hand, perform the roles assigned for males.

Only lesbians and gays–bi and trans unknown

Stereotypes such as manner of clothing, short hairstyle, choice of household chores among others are used by Ayta to characterize lesbian and gay people.

For Ayta, identification of lesbians and gays in the community are left to the those who manifest the stereotypes, while nothing is publicly confirmed up until one identifies as either lesbian or gay and bring in his/her partner in community gatherings.

Ginny Calayan of Brgy. Osmena, Jose Panganiban, Camarines Norte claimed that she knows no gay, but knows of numerous lesbians. “There are no gays among us but we have a number of lesbians,” she said.

She then shared the partnership of her elder relative, Liza, who is in a relationship with an unat or lowlander. Their relationship, according to Ginny, is not considered extraordinary as the lesbian couple both perform activities necessary for their survival. The couple is said to move to the lowland because of work.

On the other hand, Anita La Madrid, around 60 years old from the same tribe in Camarines Norte claimed after some description and explanation about bisexuality and transgenderism, that these two words have no equivalent in their language. Bakla and tomboy are more predominantly used to describe all possible ranges of sexual orientations and gender identities. She, however, claimed that both might exist or have existed but were identified using the more known terms. “They probably exist, I don’t know,” she explained.

Arnel of PAGKAKAISA gave as an example one of their members, named Mama Damaso, who although now around 50 years of age, had from the beginning lived as a female. Mama Damaso now holds a good job in the urban area as beauty stylist. While some Ayta are proud that Mama D was able to live with the lowlanders amidst the multiple levels of discrimination, others were oblivious of this story.

To be the better me

Compared to other ethno-linguistic tribes in the country, the LGBT Ayta probably has had to contend with less layers of discrimination as their cultural beliefs and the stands of their tribal leaders do not aggresively run contrary to the celebration of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In some known Indigenous Peoples (IP) communities, members found to be LGBT are hanged or mauled until their homosexuality is ‘cured’, with the level of discrimination increasing as more human rights are violated.

This vicious cycle of beating and mauling continues to happen today, despite numerous declarations of forging peace and love among all classifications. In life, where one chooses not to be born with the many complex labels attached to one’s value, choosing to be unproductive, apathetic, or ill becomes an option. Ignorance results to discrimination and it is education that can cure the same.

Eva Callueng

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