At 23 years old, I have been an altar server in my parish for 14 years now—more than half my life. In fact, I’m the oldest active member in my ministry. Yet whenever I bring this up, whether in a casual conversation or in a public tweet, I often elicit a variety of reactions ranging from amusement to amazement. Maybe it’s because of my age, or because my college friends think it’s so out of character for me. Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that I’ve been openly gay for the past three years, so some may see it as rather paradoxical.

Although I don’t always feel that my queer and Catholic identities clash, my journey towards self-discovery was nonetheless an interesting one. Growing up in a predominantly Catholic environment like most Filipinos, I would admit that I had little exposure to the LGBTQIA+ community, save for the unfortunate stereotypes perpetuated in mass media. I was never the most masculine boy in the room; in fact, I was often asked by my classmates if I was gay. In their defense, none of us probably fully grasped the concept of queerness, myself included. In my high school years, though, I did realize (but actively brushed off) that I was somewhat physically attracted to the cute guys in school, but I didn’t know how to process those feelings. I didn’t know many gay people—in fact, I can only count three people who were openly gay or bisexual in my high school batch (at the time)—and I rarely had the chance to learn about queer lives and queer stories. All I knew was that queer people in general couldn’t live as freely as most people because they were misunderstood and frequent targets of hate, and in retrospect, that may have been why I never dared to question my identity and open up.

My formative years were deprived of opportunities to fully understand queerness, yet these feelings were developing on their own, with no “trigger” to speak of. That said, imagine my bewilderment when Eddie Villanueva said this in a 2019 interview:

It appears this is just an imported template from Western countries. That’s why it disregarded the culture of the Filipino people… Sasagasahan nito ang parental authority and responsibility ng mga parent in rearing their children accordingly as provided by the Constitution na ang moral and spiritual values ng kabataan must be protected.

The evangelist turned congressman was asked about the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill, which essentially seeks to protect Filipinos from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender identity and expression. Unsurprisingly,

Villanueva accused the bill of being a Western import, but what bothered me was the argument that it goes against Filipino culture. He went further and dared to say that it would take away parents’ rights to raise their children in accordance with moral and spiritual values. One could wonder what a “culturally correct” SOGIE Equality Bill might look like, if Villanueva could even conceive of such a thing. After all, he did say in 2019 that in his view, the bill “imperils freedoms of speech and religion,” and also co-authored a Magna Carta of Freedom of Religion, which was approved by a House panel last December 2020.

It’s crystal clear that the moral and spiritual values he’s really referring to are Christian values—at least, from his perspective. While it’s true that the Philippines is predominantly Christian, the very same Constitution that Villanueva cited also declares that our country is a secular state. To be fair, it’s quite easy to forget this, considering how Christian practices have nonetheless pervaded so many aspects of Filipino life. For example, some government offices prominently display Catholic statues in quasi-altars, while others even have their own chapels. The separation of church and state could be more accurately depicted as a mere line in the sand. But anyway, I digress.

Taking my experiences growing up into account, it feels weird to hear that my identity as a gay man was somewhat a product of Western culture. But is it, though? To answer that, let’s zoom out for a bit and go back in time. History will show us that various cultures around the world have actually recognized SOGIE outside the well-established cis- and heteronormative conceptions of sex, sexuality and gender today, with a few examples here below.

In what is now the United States and Canada, various indigenous peoples have different variations of gender identities that transgress the gender binary; collectively referred to as two-spirit people, they are seen to possess both masculine and feminine spirits, “to allow for the reality of diversity in gender and sexual identities”. The Navajo people call them nádleehí, and the Lakota people, winkte.

Historical records also suggest that sex between two men was acknowledged in ancient India: the Kama Sutra, a classic written sometime during the first millennium, has an entire chapter dedicated to homosexual sex (with instructions!). South Asian cultures also recognize a third gender, hijra: generally assigned male at birth, but possessing male and female elements. Hijras served an important role in ancient India and even up until the 19th century, held religious authority and other key positions in society.

Things changed, however, when the British began to rule over India in the 19th century, bringing with them “a strict sense of judgment to sexual mores, criminalizing ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature.’” Hijras, now seen to deviate from the cisheterosexual norms propagated by the British, then became an ostracized and vilified group. This discrimination towards the community has persisted until today, although some progress has been made in recent years to reverse this ostracization, notably, including India’s legal recognition of hijra as a third gender.

Diversity in gender identities and practices were also evident in pre-colonial societies in the Philippines. The terms used to describe gender-variant people were as diverse as the ethnic makeup of the islands, owing to the Philippines’ nature as an archipelago. One of the more well-known terms is babaylan, which refers to powerful female shaman-like leaders that mediated with the spirit world, but the term was also used to refer to feminine men who also performed these spiritual roles in their communities. In Luzon, they were known as bayoc or bayugin, and in Visayan islands, pre-colonial societies had the asog who, as shamans, also “[assumed] the tone of voice, mannerisms and dress of females.”

The Teduray people from Mindanao have also recognized the mentefuwaley libun (“one who became woman”) and the mentefuwaley lagey (“one who became man”). American anthropologist Stuart Schlegel narrated his account of Teduray society in the 1960s in his 1998 book, Wisdom from a Rainforest: The Spiritual Journey of an Anthropologist. Schlegel wrote that he was surprised by the Tedurays’ perception of gender, gender roles, and “this willingness to let people decide on their own gender.” He continues:

“…the notion of freedom to change genders began to seem quite logical. So many features of Teduray life—their very positive attitude toward erotic pleasure, their concern for families as the context for economic viability, their strong commitment to the bearing and raising of children, the often-stated belief that people who chose to change genders were excluded from and irrelevant to marriage because they were irrelevant to procreation, and the total absence of gender politics—provided a social and cultural climate in which anxious concern about gender role-switching had no need or reason to exist.”

Schlegel concluded that this openness could be credited to the Tedurays’ egalitarian society, where women were considered equal to men. By no means were these attitudes exclusive to the Teduray people—babaylans were mostly women, evidence that pre-colonial societies in the Philippines held women in high regard.

Needless to say, things changed when the European colonizers began to arrive in the 16th century. After Magellan’s “discovery” of the Philippines in 1521, Spain gradually took possession of these islands for their king after whom we were eventually named. What set Spain apart, however, was that unlike other European powers in Southeast Asia at the time, Christianizing the natives was a primary objective of their conquest. It turned out that the most powerful weapon they wielded to control the indios was not a gun, but a cross.

The Spanish friars were powerful and influential figures in a colony where church and state often overlapped. The Church spared no effort to destroy the native Filipinos’ pagan practices—this included the persecution of the babaylans, whom they branded as witches. Ultimately, the colonizers succeeded in subduing the relatively egalitarian culture of the colonized, thereby passing on patriarchal Catholic attitudes towards sex, sexuality, and gender to us.

This 2021, the Philippines officially commemorates the 500th anniversary of Magellan’s arrival, albeit reframed to avoid an implicit endorsement of colonialism and “espouse a Filipino-centric point of view.” Instead, the celebrations will revolve around three key events: Lapu-Lapu’s victory in the Battle of Mactan; the Philippine “leg” of the first circumnavigation of the world; and the arrival of Christianity. There is no doubt that the third one has more cultural and social relevance to ordinary Filipinos: The Catholic Church has remained strongly influential in the Philippines for centuries, perhaps longer than any other institution, and most queer Filipinos today have also been raised in predominantly Christian environments. And like I said, I, myself, have been active in my parish as an altar server for 14 years, the past three years out of the closet.

All that said, this is also the most difficult to disassociate from our colonial past, knowing now that Western colonialism was complicit in suppressing our ancestors’ understanding of sex, sexuality, and gender. Add to that the fact that the Catholic Church has still seemed incapable of opening its arms to the LGBTQIA+ community. Just last 15 March, the Vatican said it could not bless same-sex unions, subtly referring to “homosexual inclinations” as a “choice.” As a gay Catholic Filipino, I have to admit that the Church’s quincentennial is not easy for me to celebrate, and I don’t know if I can. While I’ve always maintained that my gay and Christian identities should not be necessarily mutually exclusive, we have to acknowledge the hurt that has been inflicted on our community, both yesterday and today.

Indeed, the age of colonialism has contributed to the suppression of indigenous cultures, including those of our ancestors. It left behind a legacy of homophobia, transphobia, and more broadly, intolerance for anything thought to deviate from the colonizers’ concept of morality; this is the Western import that the Philippines suffers from, not queerness. There were now “right” cultures and “wrong” cultures, and this is a mindset that must be unlearned.

Now, this isn’t to insist on any specific view of what should constitute Filipino culture or values. After all, the Philippines has always been diverse throughout its history, and that’s what makes our country so beautiful. No single group—neither the Tagalogs nor the Teduray—can claim to represent Filipino culture as a whole, but in the same way, neither can the homophobic and transphobic version of Christianity espoused by a select few, including Eddie Villanueva.

The Philippines’ LGBTQIA+ community should not be denied equal rights that other Filipinos enjoy because of misguided ideas of what a Filipino should be, now that we know the painful reason why and how these ideas took root in the first place. Some may insist that advancing LGBTQIA+ rights violates freedom of religion. Although they are entitled to their opinion, this can’t be used to prevent queer Filipinos like me from fully participating in society (and truth be told, what bigots fear is losing their freedom to discriminate). And why should we still be prevented from living our lives freely, when a 2019 survey already shows that 73% of Filipinos think that homosexuality should be accepted? Attitudes are changing around the world, so much so that the cause for LGBTQIA+ equality over the decades has been more strongly championed, ironically, in the West. In fact, Spain is the third country in the world to legalize marriage equality in 2005, after the Netherlands and Belgium. (All three are former colonial powers.)

Advancing LGBTQIA+ rights in the Philippines isn’t simply about fighting for the equality of all Filipinos regardless of SOGIE. This is also about correcting historical injustices. The call for us, religious or not, is to continue fighting for a more equal society where one can live and love just as freely as the people in these islands once did, because it is okay.

May we make our ancestors proud.

Paco Santiago, 23, graduated from UP Diliman with a BA in Political Science in 2018, and has been working for a humanitarian organization since then. He joined Metro Manila Pride in late 2020. In his spare time, he watches Drag Race, studies French and hoards non-fiction books.

Paco is also a Gemini sun, Taurus moon and Leo rising. He has no idea what any of those mean.

Art by Allie Mañalac.