Fairer times: A glimpse of the precolonial gender-crossers

From the babaylans to the Tedurays, our indigenous ancestors believed gender expression cannot be simply boxed within biological conditions.

Social constructs have always dictated what role or conduct people have to do in their respective communities to be “ideal,” interfering with different aspects of being human, including one’s biological sex, gender, and sexuality. Gendered expectations, for one, have varied across different cultures and historical periods.

From the precolonial to contemporary eras of the Philippines, perception and social constructs regarding gender and sexuality have long evolved to accommodate the different sociocultural and political contexts that the country and its citizens have experienced. And while past cultures will forever remain in the past, they can sometimes serve as inspiring visions of the society we want to foster in the future.

In our country’s colorful precolonial days, Filipinos were free to cross traditional gender boundaries.

An unbridled choice 

In many precolonial cultures of the Philippines and Maritime Southeast Asia, gender was shaped by culture and mythological beliefs rather than sexual orientation. Dr. J. Neil Garcia, a researcher and writer on gender in precolonial Philippines, emphasizes this, as the concept of gender at the time differed from the contemporary understanding influenced by modern Western ideas.

An illustration of this precolonial gender concept is found within the Teduray, an indigenous group in Mindanao. They identify themselves as mentefuwaley, which in their Tiruray language means “one who becomes.” This refers to the path of an ungendered Teduray to become a libun (woman) or a lagey (man).

“They are free to decide whether they will be a mentefuwaley libun or [a] mentefuwaley lagey,” says Bahaghari-Metro Manila representative Reign Montoya (II, AB-POM). She notes that the Teduray “perceive their people based on character and personality rather than their sex characteristics.” 

In everything and in between

Gender-crossing was embraced within the egalitarian society of the time, where neither men nor women were below or above the other, as noted by both Montoya and Dr. Garcia. Both men and women had the “freedom to wear gender-affirming clothes and even marry their fellow sexes,” Montoya adds.

This is also because many precolonial societies perceived the world in dualities rather than rigid binaries. Concepts like day and night or old and young were understood as interconnected rather than strictly divided. Dr. Garcia explains, “There was always this contact zone and this permeability between these dichotomies,” which he highlights is demonstrated by gender-crossers as proof of the fluidity between male and female.

The animistic beliefs of Philippine precolonial cultures and religions also emphasized the presence of spirits infused in all aspects of existence. As such, in these cultures, the role of the babaylan—shamans who were mostly women but sometimes gender-crossers—exemplified a connection to the spiritual realm.

Dr. Garcia adds that gender-crossers symbolized a unification of the energies of nature—of both man and woman—which gave them a position of “prestige and reverence.” He likens them to “spiritual healers” who helped people with problems, much like in the capacity of a psychiatrist. “[They] were close to that spiritual truth or reality. And so they were identified with the offices of spiritual mediumship,” he says.

Meanwhile, Montoya refers to the babaylan as spiritual leaders, noting that “they [had] a higher status [in society] since they [could] communicate with the spirits.” Both Montoya and Dr. Garcia affirm that because of the role of the babaylan as spiritual leaders and healers, they were venerated and enjoyed prestigious positions in precolonial societies.

A solidified dichotomy

Once colonizers stepped foot in ancestral lands, precolonial societies found their culture gradually eradicated by foreign forces with their unique norms and traditions that had no place in the colony and its new social constructs. Unfortunately, colonialism caused our ancient traditions to disappear.

The egalitarian gender worldview that celebrated all genders and gender-crossers was replaced by Western dualism. Dr. Garcia clarifies, “Sexuality as we understand it now would be very specifically rooted in the epistemology of Western modernity.” He adds that the concept of homosexuality and the understanding of sexuality as it is known today originated from Western modernity. “The arrival of Western dualism through coloniality displaced the idea of the harmonious whole that our ancestors believed in and lived in,”Dr. Garcia discloses.

The concept of Western dualism also introduced patriarchal values, shifting the course of Philippine culture. The rise of patriarchy solidified the divide between male and female, with the belief that the former is superior to the latter, leading to them being excluded from their former positions in society and oppressed. This meant that our ancestors became limited in terms of their gender identity and expression. 

Society reinforces gender roles for men and women. Those who do not conform to such archetypes are subjected to shame. It “disregards the existence of gender expression, and it excludes the queers. This kind of society treated queers as [if they were] nonexistent entities,”Montoya declares.

Paving the way for all

While the country’s precolonial history gave a glimpse of an ideal society for both women and gender-crossers, cultures must continually evolve with the times. Dr. Garcia notes, “They (gender-crossers) belong to a different time and they were another kind of humanity in a way.”

Because of this, any semblances that Filipinos can find in the present to precolonial culture are merely “residues” of the past. “There are problems now that would not have been understandable or comprehensible to them. [It] wouldn’t have made sense to them,” Dr. Garcia emphasizes, referring to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC)-based discrimination.

As Montoya describes the current youth as “more accepting of queers than previous generations in terms of awareness,” she and Dr. Garcia strongly urge for the passage of the SOGIESC Bill, which they lament has been in limbo in Congress for the past two decades. 

The bill sanctions SOGIESC-based discrimination, as Dr. Garcia asserts that all Filipinos need to be protected from discrimination, adding, “The SOGIESC [Bill] that passes will become a door opener…not just [for] the LGBTQIA+ sector…but for other bills to protect the rights of all the minorities of the country.

With this, Dr. Garcia concludes with a reflection on what the country’s precolonial gender history means in the ongoing fight against discrimination: using what we have now to make a fairer, more egalitarian world. “Because that was what they (our precolonial ancestors) had.”

This article was published in The LaSallian‘s March 2024 issue. To read more, visit

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