Martin F. Manalansan’s article “The Borders between Bakla and Gay” discusses the ways in which the identities of bakla and gay are usually defined and their relation of immigration and modernity. The dialogue around these identities and labels shows how the Global North turns ideas of queerness in other parts of the world into Western ideas and ways of thinking about queerness.
When thinking about migration we often think about modern vs. traditional, especially in the Global North. We tend to consider immigrants from outside the GN to be more traditional and backwards, and that they’d be better off transitioning to a life of modernity, as we believe we live. This immigrant narrative is tied into the progressive narrative, thinking that being modern involves progressing to a certain point, improving our way of life. Manalansan suggests that the bakla in the Philippines may be part of an alternate modernity that we have disregarded through our tendency to see the way of the GN as the most correct and progressive way of seeing things.
Bakla is a word used in the Philippines that may describe someone who is effeminate, a cross-dresser, a transvestite, queer, or homosexual. Although homosexuality is a part of the bakla identity, the word is highly tied with gender identity and performance. The word gay is used in the United States, and now in many places around the world, to mean a man who has sex with other men. The word has a white and more masculine association and is not only a category of sexuality but also a cultural and political category, which the bakla are not.
Some people see the bakla identity as less desirable than the gay identity, connecting the bakla with backwards tradition and gay with civilized modernity. They think there should be a move in queer Filipino identity from bakla to gay, seeing this through the progressive narrative. Traditional people are seen to have many barriers in the modern world, and therefore the bakla are thought to have barriers because of their identity.One of these barriers is effeminacy, rather than masculinity. This is yet another example of the feminine being rejected and devalued while masculinity is considered more superior. It also implies that our way of seeing gender and sexuality as completely separate from one another is a better perspective than seeing them as intrinsically connected and interacting.
Manalansan discusses Perez’s writing on the issue. He says that Perez “provides a kind of call-to-arms to eradicate the stereotypical notion of the bakla…” and “transform the image of the bakla into the gay man.” Because this stereotype portrays the bakla as gossips, unambitious, bitchy, and effeminate queens, he believes this must be changed in order for them to attain any rights. Although I can see why this stereotype is a negative one and might hinder the bakla when it comes to legal rights, I do not think that taking on a different identity and way of living is the answer. I think social change is necessary but to replace a culturally specific identity with another would hide their differences and create a racialized hierarchy. Looking at the bakla through this lens of modern progression in the Global North promotes a colonial idea of tradition and modernity and sets up hierarchies instead of allowing diversity.