Monday, December 19, 2011

Gender Imperialism

Biyuti is a Bakla Filipina living on stolen Algonquin land. He works to sustain and increase the biyuti of the world through decolonization and through her explorations of the intersections of race with queerness/gender. He also blogs at The Biyuti Collective.

According the San Francisco Trans March’s about page, this was part of the original callout that started the march:
to encourage more trans and gender-variant people to come out; to build connections among ftm, mtf, bayot, crossdressers, sadhin, hijra, transvestites, bantut, drag queens, drag kings, mahu, transsexuals, bakla, travesti, genderqueers, kathoey, two spirit, intersex
Speaking from my particular Bakla experience, I find this list very troubling. The impression you get from this list is that Bayot, Sadhin, Hijra, Bantut, Mahu, Bakla, Kathoey, and Two-spirit are all trans identities (or refer to something gender non-conforming). Now, I do not know about the other identity labels in this list (nor would I want to speak on their behalf, although here is one Indigenous writer saying something similar about the Two-spirit identity, but I will say that I do not believe that Bakla is a trans identity. Or, at least, it isn’t necessarily a trans identity.

In my Filipin@ family ‘bakla’ was usually considered to be Tagalog word for gay. This means, within my family, that ‘bakla’ denoted sexuality and not quite a gender expression. Of course, being Bakla sexually did have some interconnected gender norms that would appear to the Western gaze as gender variance or non-conformance. In other words, being bakla was to be gay, but in my Filipina context what being gay meant was not the same as my larger Western cultural context.


When I started wearing skirts and make-up in high school, I was perfectly fine with my gender expression. I was also, to the surprise of everyone white person I’ve told, perfectly fine at home and with my family. I didn’t try to wear the skirts at my Catholic high school (but I did wear the make-up). And I actually got my dad to tell the school administration to stop bullying me about my gender non-conformance. Amazing, isn’t it? It is important to my experience as a Filipina that I never felt like my body and gender were mis-aligned, that my family accepted me and treated me just the same. I liked having this body. My gender expression was fine for bodies like mine. All was right in the world and with my gender.

It has been and continues to be a challenge for me to resist the Western, imperialist constructions of gender. This conflict has been my *only* source of gender confusion and dysphoria. Before I was kicked out of my dad’s house, I was perfectly comfortable with my gender. But as I became entirely surrounded by the white, Western gaze, and disconnected from my family, I began to feel discord with my gender and body. I have spent years struggling with my gender only to realize that the issue was not about my relation to my body or gender but my relation to how the West views my body. My gender dysphoria was the result of Western imperialism. I also began to experience expressions of hate and discomfort with gender variance. Eventually, these experiences (and a toxic friendship) convinced me to throw my skirts away (lovingly hand-crocheted by myself) and make up, so that I could be a ‘man.’

Trying to live up to this Western, gender normative notion of ‘man’ did a lot of damage to myself. I’m getting over it, but it hasn’t been easy. And as I exit this stage of my life I’ve been re-examining my relationship with the trans umbrella and the cis/trans binary (because I’m non-binary identified). Ultimately, I’m resisting this dichotomy too, partially out of mistrust and a fear that even trying out this better, but still Western, conception of gender will still do damage to me. And I think it would. Because accepting the trans label as a Bakla means that I’m defining and understanding my gender within a Western context. It is an acceptance of the imperialism and continued colonization of my body by the West.

My gender identity, and its expression, exist outside of the Western construction of gender. It is the product of a culture with its own social construction of gender, as well as the accompanying gender norms. I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to deny the validity or efficacy of the trans/cis distinction; rather, that I’m attempting to remind everyone that cultural norms are relative to societies and that there are more societies than the white, Western one. That we have our own languages and words to articulate and express our own realities and truths. That sometimes they can be translated and sometimes they can’t.

However, I do stand in solidarity with my trans cousins because we are, ultimately, fighting for the same rights (I want the freedom to express my gender without consequence, just as much as they do). And as I stand in solidarity with my trans cousins, I ask that they recognize that appropriative nature of things like the SF Trans March call out. That they recognize that trying to include non-Western identities under the trans umbrella is imperialistic and wrong, even when individuals from those cultures choose to stand under that umbrella. As a Bakla, I do not belong to a monolith and my community is diverse. Some of us are trans and some are not. And, ultimately, this is *our* decision, not yours.