New Books | The Pink Line

Mark Gevisser explores how globalised notions of LGBTQIA+ rights marks a new line of conversation – for instance in the Philippines, where gender is more fluid than in the West.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Mark Gevisser’s The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers (Jonathan Ball, 2020).

The New Pink Line: Gender Identity

If I had stayed in the Philippines, I don’t think I would have transitioned, because there’s space in the culture for gender-nonconforming people. But when I came to the US to study in the 1990s, I found only a binary. And because I didn’t fit into the male, I chose the female.” 

These words were spoken to me by the writer Meredith Talusan in late 2018. Even in the unflappable Brooklyn café where we met, Talusan turned heads. A part-time model with Asian features, freckles and blond hair in a boyish side-part, she confounded both racial and gender categories; she was an albino, too. 

We were discussing how ideas about gender identity were shifting across the world in the globalised 21st century, in particular between her native Philippines and the United States, where she had lived all her adult life. Back home, she might have found a way to express her femininity without becoming a woman. But when she arrived as an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard in 1993, she had made landfall in a society where there were only two genders, male and female, and also where there was a particular faith in medical “solutions” and in a rights-based approach to identity. These factors – the cultural, the medical, the political-legal – played their role in Talusan’s own transition in 2006. 

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A decade later, she was a leading voice in a second wave of trans thinkers, disrupting earlier ideas about the inherent and immutable binary nature of gender identity. “I’m not the type of woman who believes that there is something unchanging about me that makes me a woman,” she told an interviewer in 2017, shortly after being appointed executive editor of them, Condé Nast’s new online LGBT magazine, in 2017. “Mainly, I’m a woman because there are huge parts of me that have come to be coded in this culture as feminine, and that this culture makes so difficult to express unless I identify as a woman.” 

I asked Talusan if she would have made different choices had she been a generation younger and arrived in the United States today, in 2018, now that there was a nonbinary option in American culture. 

“I’m not sure if I could have resisted the pull of being attractive,” she replied. “If you are gender nonconforming, you are not attractive to anyone. You sacrifice your desirability. You might have political capital, but you have no sexual capital.” 

Talusan’s perspective was provocative: not only because it insisted on the binary nature of sexual desire, but also because of how it explored the role of context, and of desire itself, in the formulation of gender identity. This view had been roundly rejected by earlier trans activists because it suggested psychopathology, and thus the possibility of remedial therapy. But now Talusan and others were reclaiming – as another second-wave writer, Andrea Long Chu, put it – an understanding of “transness as a matter not of who one is, but what one wants”. The point of these writers was that even if gender identities were mutable, or object-related, they were no less valid for that. 

When we met in Brooklyn in 2018, Talusan said that she felt increasingly free to play with androgyny. The tentlike overalls she was wearing were a case in point: she had picked them up in a thrift store, and who knew if they were made for a man or a woman. They seemed to acquire a gender all their own on their current wearer’s body. This, too, was a feature of the second wave: an increasing drift into fluidity from people of Talusan’s generation, who had initially crossed the gender binary from male to female, or vice versa. 

We chatted about the way nonbinary people in the US were referencing the gender-fluid categories of precolonial societies to understand themselves, from “two-spirited” Native Americans to the bakla of her native Philippines: the word is an abbreviation of “man-woman” in Tagalog, and bakla Filipinos have their roots in the precolonial babaylan, shamans who presented as female but could be either male- or female-bodied. 

In the West, the effect of the transgender movement as it progressed through the decade was to blur the boundaries between male and female that Talusan had found to be so rigid two decades previously. Activists, journalists, doctors, therapists and social scientists spoke of a “gender spectrum” rather than a “gender divide”, and young people in places like the United States found their places somewhere along it, sometimes with and sometimes without medical help. But back in the Philippines – as in many other societies where there had always been third-gender identities – the effect of the global transgender revolution could be exactly the opposite. The increased access to information about transgender rights and medical options meant a sharpening of more fluid cultural conceptions of gender and sexuality into the binary of male or female. In places all over the world, digital and medical technology now enabled broader access to a whole new set of social and biological possibilities. At the same time, the new global LGBT rights movement came into contact with societies that had age-old ways of accommodating people who did not fit neatly into one gender or the other. 

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In these societies, there were new debates and new politics: about who was male and who female and whether one could be neither or both; about the rights to self-determination of people to select their own genders, and whether – and how – the state had a duty to respect this and the health system to facilitate it. In the early 21st century, this conversation became a new global human rights frontier, sometimes running alongside the Pink Line staked over homosexuality and sometimes traced directly over it, in societies where gender identity and sexual orientation were not separated out, the way they increasingly were in the West. You might have previously been bakla, but now there was the possibility of being either transgender or gay. 

In the Philippines, the advent of a globalised LGBT movement – and specifically a transgender movement – heralded the beginnings of a change in the bakla subculture, and in the place of bakla in society. In this way, it may have worked to limit the gender nonconformity that was so much part of bakla identity, and to assert a more rigid gender binary. 

In May 2013, five years before I met Meredith Talusan, I had been to the Philippines myself, to follow a remarkable election campaign: a transgender woman named Bemz Benedito was running for Congress, heading the list of what was hailed as “the first LGBT party in the world”. The party was called Ang Ladlad and had been registered as a special interest party in the country’s arcane party list system. If the party garnered 300 000 votes nationwide, Benedito would be elected to Congress specifically to represent LGBT Filipinos, and would become the fourth elected transgender official in the world: after a Polish parliamentarian, a Venezuelan congresswoman and a Peruvian councilor. 

The Philippines was famously “gay friendly”: 73% of those polled in 2013 agreed that “homosexuality should be accepted by society”, the highest score by far in Asia, according to the Pew Global Attitudes & Trends survey. And yet anti-discrimination legislation had been languishing in Congress for over 12 years due to opposition from the church in this fervently Catholic country. Ang Ladlad had constituted itself around this single issue: it had tried to register to run in the previous election, in 2010, but was initially barred after the election commission ruled that it promoted “immorality”. The party went to the Supreme Court and won the right to contest; thanks to sympathetic media coverage and some outrage at the commission’s homophobia, the party won 120 000 votes despite barely campaigning. 

Now, three years later, Bemz Benedito headed the Ang Ladlad list. In her mid-30s, she had a telegenic beauty, as well as a master’s degree from the country’s top university and a decade of work as a congressional aide behind her: she projected diligence and sobriety on the campaign trail, rather than the exaggerated hyperfemininity people usually associated with bakla. Still, Ang Ladlad had a novel get-out-the-vote strategy: to hit every beauty parlor in the vast archipelago. 

The Philippines’ bakla run the country’s ubiquitous hairdressing salons and the annual Miss Gay Pageants that take place in almost every neighborhood. “The parloristas are our backbone,” Benedito explained to me as we entered yet another of these kitschy jewel boxes, in the city of Baguio, staffed by a bustling claque of beauticians at various points along the gender spectrum. “These are the nerve centres of the community, and also the place where bakla come into contact, as professionals, with the broader community. Every Filipina woman has a bakla hairdresser!” 

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But one of Benedito’s explicit missions was to make sure that bakla were no longer limited to working in the beauty industry, or as entertainers. And this is what made her campaign – and the Philippines’ transgender movement – so interesting: it staked a Pink Line, as elsewhere in the world, between the established but limited place in society occupied by traditional third-gender people, and the possibilities of a new, Western-style transgender identity, such as Benedito’s own. 

Benedito was a leading member of STRAP, the very assertive Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines. Another STRAP leader, Mikee Nuñez-Inton, recounted to me her experience when she first joined the organisation: “The first thing they told me was, ‘You’re not a bakla, you’re a woman!’” Initially, she understood this as a wish for transgender women to distance themselves from a word often used pejoratively, but later she came to see it as a matter of class, and aspiration. 

Nuñez-Inton was lecturing in gender studies at De La Salle University in Manila when we spoke in 2018. “While our Babaylan ancestors were treated with respect and performed essential ritualistic functions in pre-colonial societies, which were taken over by the Catholic priests during the Spanish era,” she said in a 2015 interview, “the contemporary bakla has become relegated to the relatively lower-class beauty industries.” 

And so, Nuñez-Inton said to me, “really, it is economics that separates the bakla from the transgender”: you needed resources – and the English language – to access the internet and globalised notions of transgender identity, not to mention surgery, which would require a trip to Hong Kong or Bangkok. 

The word bakla is capacious, and encompasses anyone who is assigned male at birth but presents in a feminine way: a campy guy is bakla; so, too, is someone who has gone to Bangkok for breasts. Some bakla use male pronouns, some female, some switch according to context. But now, in the 21st century, transgender activists were urging bakla to claim their rights, and their bodies, as women: If they did so, they would be able to compete in society for all the things that women did. They could break free from the constraints of their muddy identities, and the walls of their beauty parlors. They could cross the gender divide rather than languishing within it. They could even run for Congress! (Benedito lost her bid to become the country’s first transgender congresswoman, but three years later, another succeeded, when Geraldine Roman inherited her father’s constituency.) 

In the Philippines, bakla spoke of having pusong babae, “a woman’s heart”. In South India, similarly, kothis described themselves in Tamil as pen manaam konda aan: “a woman’s heart in a man’s body.” For indigenous Asian trans people, Mikee Nuñez-Inton told me, “the seat of identity is not in the mind, as in the West. It’s in the heart, the spirit, the interior self.” The significance was that “in the West, where it’s seen to be in the mind, it’s treated as a pathology and something that can be cured, with therapy or psychiatry or by changing your body. Whereas if it’s in the heart, it’s just who you are. There is no pathologising function.” 

I was struck by the similarity of these self-definitions to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s pre-Freudian description of the urning as a female soul within a male body, or Edward Carpenter’s third-sex uranian, whom he described in 1908 as having the emotions of one sex in the body of the other. Being defined through the heart or the soul rather than the mind had another effect, Mikee Nuñez-Inton said: “Because there’s no diagnosis of body dysmorphia, and the expectation that healing can come with the body being manipulated and changed, gender identity is not about the body. It’s more about expression and behaviour as an outward manifestation of the interior rather than an alignment of the body with the mind.”

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