Therapeutically, and deeply attuned to context, Jaya Jacobo intimates spirits of transfemininity through the temporalities of the Philippines. Without spoon-feeding tangibility or timeline, Jacobo unsensationally invokes perseverance in its purest form. Following texts by Tamarra and Daniel Lie, Jacobo’s essay is the third and final commission in an editorial series, initiated by the C-MAP Asia Fellow, that speculates on transness as regionally specific methodology. A second sequence of renewal is forthcoming.
Enter the New, Unwelcome Trans
While I was doing archival work for a critical lexicon of the “modern,” “contemporary,” and “art” in Southeast Asia, I came across a peculiar term in Tagalog—“bagongtawo,” which translates literally as “new person.”1Thanavi Chotpradit et al., “Terminologies of ‘Modern’ and ‘Contemporary’ ‘Art’ in Southeast Asia’s Vernacular Languages: Indonesian, Javanese, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Myanmar/Burmese, Tagalog/Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese,” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 2, no. 2 (October 2018): 65–195. In Pedro Serrano Laktaw’s Diccionario Tagálog-Hispano (1914), published almost two decades after Spain relinquished the Philippines to the United States, “bagongtawo” is variously defined as “soltero” (young man), “joven” (youth), “mozo” (lad), and “célibe” (virgin); his gender, however, is curiously negated when he is described as “tila batayi at walang kabuluhán” (like a woman and without meaning).2Pedro Serrano Laktaw, Diccionario Tagálog-Hispano (Manila: 1914), s.v. “bagongtawo.” See also the entry for “baguhan,” the novice, which describes the newness of identity in worldly terms—“novicio en el mundo” accounts for a female form of the novelty in “novicia,” “novata,” and “bisoña” and names a gender-neutral agency in “principiante.” Woman emerges as “feminine,” and yet her arrival is rendered “insignificant.” Gender, in this instance, forecloses the possibility of difference: one can only be a man. After all, he is also a “muñeco”: a baby boy-doll, if not a man in miniature.3Ibid.
If this modernity is genderless—with the portrait of the Filipino as a young man foreboding femininity and, at the same time, forbidden to embrace a feminine countenance—to ask about gender in the history of Philippine art can only be a meaningless act, as far as the Tagalog patriarchs are concerned. This exclusion from modern time pursues an estimation of woman as ancillary to the true gendered body of the colony: a nonmasculine male who, in order to survive in the metropolitan patriarchy supported by colonial capital, must repress their potency as feminine and perform a maleness that they can never master or possess.
The bagongtawo may be a new person, but he is less a freshman than a sissy boy, or, in truth, a girl-child. This infantilization can only be paradoxical. In its disavowal of the possibility of difference opened by the feminine, the bagongtawo also intimates the “gender of modernity”4Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995). that can foment anti-colonial resistance. For the bagongtawo to become truly modern, to not remain a parvenu, he must embrace the feminine, and become woman. From the affectations of an amateur to the raptures of an arrivant, this new person’s emotivities may only be articulated in feminist terms. Their gender must abrogate that which denies them their existence in the first place: masculinity in its cisheteropatriarchal sense, manhood that lords over difference, maleness that turns women into things. While they must identify with women, that is, as one of them, they must also learn the terms that articulate their feminine becoming and the conditions that enable their female being. If they learn to love men, their own, some other, or none at all, the longing can only emanate from a deep sense of a new genre of womanhood arriving into the world as only itself, through her, albeit with others and also in spite of them.5I owe this sentence to the following comrades, with whom I’ve struggled to surmount the predicaments of the topic through interminable and often repetitive discussions: Leo Almero, Gayatri Lorenzana, Celina Hung, Hitomi Koyama, Carlo Pacolor, Wong Binghao, Viviane Vergueiro, Naomi Fontanos, Rica Paras, Ava Villanueva, Rain Villagonzalo, Adri Pangilinan, Yesha Tolentino-Rochus, Brenda Alegre, Mikee Inton-Campbell, Byron Qually, and most of all, Mariah Rafaela Silva. I thank them for their patience.
Such a figure seems auspiciously queer and hence appropriately transfeminine. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is for me as a herstorian of art looking at the disjunctures of time through nonbinary narratology.6I owe this powerful practice to Wong Binghao’s “Non-Binary Methodology: A Review of Contemporary Arts as Political Practice in Singapore,” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 3, no. 1 (March 2019): 217–26. This intuition is my response to Filipina feminist art historian Flaudette May V. Datuin’s notion of the “feminine as feminist elsewhere,”7Flaudette May V. Datuin, Home, Body, Memory: Filipina Artists in the Visual Arts, 19th Century to the Present (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2002), 19. existing in “the interstices and liminal spaces that have yet to be charted.”8Ibid., 292. I daresay that the feminisms of the queer, the nonbinary, and the trans are most emergent in these feminine atopologies, and such an “elsewhere” recuperates from the paradoxical premise of the bagongtawo as “like a woman and without meaning.”9Serrano Laktaw, Diccionario Tagálog-Hispano, s.v. “bagongtawo.” Imagining the revolutionary potential of their gender, I am now entitled to queerly narrate and describe a postfeminist vision of the post-colony, and in transfeminist terms.
The Emergence of Transness
I would like to propose the emergence10Ruth Pearce, Kat Gupta, and Igi Moon, “Introduction: The Many-Voiced Monster: Collective Determination and the Emergence of Trans,” in The Emergence of Trans: Cultures, Politics and Everyday Lives, eds. Ruth Pearce, Igi Moon, Kat Gupta, and Deborah Lynn Steinberg (London and New York: Routledge, 2020), 1–12. of this figure of transfemininity from the complex binarism of interiority and exteriority, and the possibilities of a dialectic from such a tension. In the Filipino language, the inside and the outside are made visible by the terms “loób” and “labás.”
The eminent Tagalog philosopher Albert E. Alejo describes interiority through a tropology of the loób: “Sa alingawngaw ng salitang loób ang larawang gumuguhit kaagad sa ating isip ay isang uri ng espasyo na may bahaging nakakulong at may bahaging nakalabas. Maaaring unang ginamit ng ating ninuno ang ganitong kategorya sa kanilang pangangalakal. ‘Loób’ ang binigkas nila upang pangalanan ang loób ng palayok na kanilang hinuhubog, habang ang hinlalaki nila ay nasa bahaging labas ng nabubuong sisidlang putik at ang ibang daliri naman ay katapat ng pumipisil mula sa loób. At dahan-dahan, nabubuo nang sabay ang loób at labás ng palayok.” (The word “loób” instantaneously echoes an image of a kind of space that has one part concealed and another exposed. Our forebears might have first employed the said category in their economic exchanges. They uttered “loób” in order to name the interior of a piece of earth that their hands were molding into a jar, while the thumb was in the exposed part and the other fingers were in front of that which was pressing from the inside. And slowly, the inside and the outside of the jar were formed at the same time.)11Albert E. Alejo, Tao pô! Tulóy!: Isang Landas ng Pag-unawa sa Loób ng Tao (Quezon City: Office of Research and Publications, School of Arts and Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University, 1990), 69. My translation.
Alejo instructs us on an understanding of the loób that encloses the figure within a worldly arrangement, where an object is crafted from things within nature, or a piece of equipment is made from one’s surroundings. This world transfigures the chamber into infinity—the loób, enclosure, into kaloóban, or interiority. Furthermore, a container is conjured, and yet it is not only containment that is created in the extension of metaphor. What is also generated is a procedure that delineates an act of making: a poetics. It is upon the trope of loób that the architecture of interiority is built, and what emanates hereon is an infinitesimal possibility toward the labás, a space of externality, where further phases of autogenesis can originate.
In order to comprehend that turn from inside to outside, prominent Filipino art historian and curator Patrick D. Flores proposes that we look at palabás: “It speaks of an outward thrust from an interior, and so is both inclination and intimation (saloóbin). There is a deliberate agency at work in a gesture of performance or the process of making something appear and making it appear in a particular way (papalabásin or pinapalabás). . . . It is theater and it involves acting, diversion, pedagogy. It is (dis)guise and it is manifestation. It is a matter of conjuring, tricking the eye, catching the feeling, concealing the device of drama. And because it is tactical, it is also corruptive: semblance is always elusive.”12Patrick D. Flores, “Palabas,” Ctrl+P: Journal of Contemporary Art, no.11 (March 2008): 8, http://www.ctrlp-artjournal.org/pdfs/CtrlP_Issue11.pdf.
Note that it is not labás, or the outside, that is referred to, but rather an action toward it, palabás. The choreography begins with an action intuited from within an edifice; the “outward thrust” is a momentous gesture indicating a disposition at the cusp of repose and motion. One decides to take leave from a chamber where one has introspected the exit. Since the gesture is motivated from an inner sanctum, the intent clarifies its vector as only the outside. From here, one is entitled to an account of the visible and offered the conditions to perceiving it. The visible exceeds itself either to intimate the real or to disavow theater altogether.
If loób conjures a place where the self may be incepted, and from where they can perceive the world, palabás demonstrates the gesture where thought intends to proceed into the field and labor through its difficulties. And yet, one should not confine oneself to treating the loób as intentionality and palabás as activity, for both grooves refer to more intricate gradations of ideation and corporeality. They constitute the instructive coordinates where origination and dissemination may meld as they are delineated—at the same time that the artifice behind the structure and the movement is made immanent.
Upon this conjuncture, the bagongtawo emerges as confident as they can be, and even more entitled to their place in the sun, as they must orient themself from one point to another in a non-selfsame manner. Their orientation is not from loób to labás, from inside to outside, nor is it from paloób to palabás, from an orientation inward to an orientation outward, but rather from loób to palabás, from inside to outward. Between neither two locations, nor two intentionalities, but rather between a place and an act of leave-taking from that place. In dialogue with Sara Ahmed’s theorizing,13Sara Ahmed, “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ: Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 12, no. 4 (2006): 543–74. the pedagogy of performance enacted from this phenomenology can only be queer in its orientation toward things oblique and not straight, objects out of place rather than well situated. The choreography is clear: the transfeminine is always already oriented outward, and her pathways to depart from where she is can only be diverse.
As mediated by the bagongtawo, this relation between loób and palabás disrupts the binary discourse between inside and outside, and ultimately, between consciousness and embodiment. Rather than situate its emergence as a recognition of misalignment of mind and flesh, the trans personhood that may be premised from this choreography articulates itself through a route of freedom, because one has, at the outset, emancipated oneself from within. Yes, the inside and the outside may seem incoherent, but this shift from source or site to the repertoire of performative possibilities entitles the bagongtawo to engender themself as transfeminine, in a procedure that unfolds and articulates her becoming woman. The incongruence between phenomenon and perception is not denied, but one is not fixated on the interruptions that such a disjuncture can instantiate. Rather, what is allowed is a recognition of contiguity. If the loób can engender the palabás, the inside and the outside may also co-create the transness. Both are metonymic of each other’s secrecies and disclosures. The socius may react to this emergence violently, effecting in the bagongtawo, who is merely dismissed as an enfant terrible, what Susan Stryker articulates as “transgender rage,” an affect that “originates in recognition of the fact that the ‘outsideness’ of a materiality that perpetually violates the foreclosure of subjective space within a symbolic order is also necessarily ‘inside’ the subject as grounds for the materialization of its body and the formation of its bodily ego.”14Susan Stryker, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 253. The transfemininity that emerges from this performance of a pride from within instructs us, however, on the possibilities within language in which the feminine herself can speak beyond the binary and proclaim the terms of her own emergence.
Formations of Feminist Solidarity
How was the transfeminine constituted in Filipino discourse? We trace her emergence in language. By discourse, I can only summon Michel Foucault’s description of its procedure, in which “practices . . . systematically form the objects they speak.”15Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (London: Tavistock, 1972), 49. In this section, I closely read and translate dictionary entries from the first decade of the American empire in the Philippines in order to trace how signifiers of woman and womanhood structured modes of becoming feminine and states of being female, as well as their interdictions. Reading against the grain of what can be called the grammar of imperial gender that can be derived from its vocabulary of identities, I seek to reconstruct a herstory of the transfeminine from this feminist philology.
Pedro Serrano Laktaw’s 1914 lexicon equates “babayi” with “mujer” and “hembra,” but then defines “ang tanang babayi,” or woman herself, as “el bello sexo” and “sexo feminino,” the fair and feminine sex.16Serrano Laktaw, Diccionario Tagálog-Hispano, s.v. “babayi.” The entry classifies things related to woman (“náuukol sa babayi”) as “mujeriego,” “mujeriega,” and “mujeril.”17Ibid. Womanhood, or “pagkababayi,” however, is attached to an essence, to “virginidad” or “pudor,” virginity or chastity.18Ibid. One is exhorted: “Ingatan mo ang iyong pagkababayi, guarda tu virginidad o pudor.” (Protect your feminine purity.)19Ibid.
When an assigned male at birth embodies such a comportment and acts like a woman, a “parang babayi,” he is deemed a coward and his heart rendered weak like a woman’s, “duag ó mahinang loób na parang babayi.”20Ibid. He is a “marica” or a “maricón”—a “binabayi.”21Ibid. Furthermore, the term encompasses those whose form is feminine, but who exhibit masculine attitude (“babaying anyô at ugaling lalaki”) and intersexuality (“hermafrodita”).22Ibid. The “binabayi” is also called “babayinín”: “may ásal, anyô at pagmumukhang babayi,” that is, possessing the habits, form, and countenance of a woman.23Ibid., s.v. “babayanín.” The “binabayi” and the “babayinín” are variously described in Spanish as effeminate: “adamado, afeminado, amujerado.”24Ibid., s.v. “babayi.”
We can analyze the kind of violence that the colonial lexicon does to the feminine, particularly to what emerges as trans from within its discourse, in terms of what Alex Alvina Chamberland calls “femi-negativity” and “trans-misogyny,”25Alex Alvina Chamberland, “Femininity in Transgender Studies: Reflections from an Interview Study in New York City,” lambda nordica 21, nos. 1–2 (2016): 109. or optics of discrimination that, targeting transfeminine bodies, stem from the inherent misogyny of cisheteropatriarchal language. Because women are relegated to the spaces of the home and the convent in the colonial Philippines, any mode of nonconformity or deviance from this set of gender expectations is seen as femi-negative. This includes hyperfeminine assertions of knowledge and desire, performances of masculinity within womanhood, and feminine comportments and intersexual conditions among male-assigned bodies. Paradoxically, this femi-negative condescension toward woman produces the binabayi as a form of waywardness within Filipino femininity itself. The binabayi is not only as feminine as the babayi, but also as objectionable as her deployments of self-determined femininity itself. Her autonomy from colonial gender roles is seen as inauspicious, just like womanhood outside the family and religion. What cisheteropatriarchal discourse misses here is that it is along this path of waywardness that the female discovers herself becoming more feminine, the babayi finding herself in solidarity with the binabayi.
Toward a Transsexual Eros
Nonbinary author Carlo Paulo Pacolor’s “Ang Natatanging Lamyos ng mga Bakla” (“The Incredible Tenderness of Faggots”)26Carlo Paulo Pacolor, “Ang Natatanging Lamyos ng mga Bakla,” and its translation, “The Incredible Tenderness of Faggots,” Project Global GRACE-UP National LGBTQ+ Writers Workshop, https://www.pinoylgbtq.com/fictionist-carlo-pacolor. Research for this essay was done when I was a postdoctoral fellow of the United Kingdom Research Innovation (UKRI)-funded GlobalGRACE Gender and Cultures of Equality project. I would like to thank the program co-directors, Mark Johnson and Suzanne Clisby, who continue to support my transfeminist scholarship in England, as well as Patrick Flores and Ian Harvey Claros for their interlocution from the Philippines. consists of vignettes in prose concatenating the tenderness among a group of young gender nonconforming people living in petit bourgeois and lumpen conditions in Manila as they traverse subjectivity, personhood, desire, romance, love, and mortality nonchalantly, as integral aspects of queer life. This anthology of affects and convictions constitutes what the author themself has called the “third,”27Carlo Paulo Pacolor, personal conversation with author, Café Adriatico, Cubao, Quezon City, Philippines, February 21, 2020. teaching us a lesson or two on the practice of gender as that which can only be recalcitrant and uncategorizable, aleatorily explored in rhythms that break through paradigmatic notions of a desiring person. In this emancipated world, the binabayi introduces herself and her avatars even beyond their representational habits, visible and eloquent with an armature of beauty and confidence ever so novel and fresh. The language that this figure enunciates, an idiolect that seems self-contained and almost solipsistic, may overwhelm at first, but it is precisely the density of speech and articulation that invites us to believe the body that is contoured is no longer mired in abjection, long free from its miserabilist orientation.
The trope that Pacolor employs throughout the vignettes is that of lamyos, which both tactile and vocal, refers to soft movements or a gentle voice in speech or song. What Pacolor does with this tenderness is to foreground skin and sound as organs of gendered sensations, as a way to rescue the body from genital fetish. Furthermore, with deft narrative description, lamyos also separates divisions from body to body and conjoins one to another, until the sensorium is magnified as some sort of a queer assemblage that has finally broken down boundaries of affect formerly set up by the binaries imposed upon sex and gender, especially as premised on hard and tough narrations of masculinity.
Coming from a Ferris wheel ride, Sen and Herman engage in a tactile moment: “Kinuha ni Sen ang kamay ni Herman at pinasapo kung saan wala siyang suso, at sa isa pa. Nakilala ni Herman si Sen sa Tinder. Himas sa kaliwa, himas sa kanan, ‘pag ayaw kaliwa, ‘pag gusto kanan, ‘pag gustung-gusto, pataas.” (“Sen then took Herman’s hand, and then placed it where her breast wasn’t there, and then the other. Herman met Sen on Tinder. Left stroke, right stroke, if you’re into them, right, if not, left, if simply irresistible, up that mother.”)28Pacolor, “Ang Natatanging Lamyos ng mga Bakla,” 6, 16. Emphasis mine. Breastlessness becomes breastfulness, transforming Sen into a feminine body. The tenderness turns her into woman. However, Sen returns to what isn’t there prior to touch: “Pag nagkasuso ako, Herman, gusto mo pa rin ba ‘ko?” (“If I wanted to grow boobs, Herman, would you still like me?”)29Ibid. Herman goes through his response in the mind: “Magugustuhan pa nga kaya niya si Sen kapag naging babae ‘to? Gusto niya lalaki. At lalaki pa rin si Sen ngayon, lalaking nagbebestida, mahinhin, mahilig sa singsing, maalon ang kulot na buhok. Lalaking mukhang babae. Babaeng lalaki. Lalaking babae. Hindi siya gwapo, maganda siya. Magandang gwapo, gwapong maganda. Pareho at lahat.” (“But would he still like Sen if she ever did choose to become? He liked guys. And Sen was still a kind of a guy somewhat, just that, Sen was Sen, Sen in a flowy dress, with a pubescent boy’s body, sure, but still it was Sen in a dress, soft-spoken, long fingers trimmed with mushroom rings, and a head of wavy hair, colors he can never seem to guess as it was always changing, or mismatched. Boy-girl. Girl-boy. Not handsome but exactly beautiful. Handsiful beautisome. All and the same.”)30Ibid., Emphasis mine. Pacolor transposes the tenderness into language, arguing that whenever lamyos is in place, a nonbinary feeling takes over and vanquishes previously entrenched predispositions in sexual orientation and self-presentation. What emerges is beauty itself, and the love that must be accorded to its apparition. The binabayi is ever affirmed in her transfeminine passage, although her love herself remains caught up in the genres of the body. Like other guys, Herman interrogates Sen on the transsexual status of her womanhood:
Pero tinanong na rin ni Herman, “Pa’no ‘yong titi mo, pababaliktad mo ba?”
Hindi alam ni Sen. “Hindi ko alam.”
Pero hindi dahil hindi niya alam, alam niya: hindi ibig sabihin no’n, hindi siya sapat. “Sapat ka para sa ‘kin, Sen. Sapat ka kahit hindi ka pumili ng alin. Tingin ko, mas maaalagaan siguro natin tayo, hindi tayo magsasakitan ‘pag alam nating sapat tayo.” Hindi dahil do’n, hinalikan siya ni Sen. Hinahalikan naman siya ni Sen kahit wala lang.
(But Herman asked anyway, “Your cock, it’s going inside of you?”
Sen didn’t know. “I don’t know.” But not because she doesn’t know, she knew: to be enough. “You’re enough for me, Sen. Even if you don’t choose either. I think we’ll have a better chance, hurt ourselves less if we say, we are enough.” And just like that, Sen kissed him. Sen kissed him anyway, even if he didn’t say anything.)31Ibid., 6–7, 16. Emphasis mine.
The open-endedness of Sen’s reply elicits in Herman a self-assuring statement on sufficiency. This is where the transfeminine figure encounters a break from other gender-diverse possibilities within its range. The divergence is made clear with the crossings that transsexual somatechnics may offer to the woman who returns to her body as a terrain not of limit or boundary but of autonomy, particularly when emotional confidence and vestimentary performance no longer provide the female adequacy a woman desiring to become herself must explore and fulfill. While Pacolor proposes that queer bodies move as one tender body, they also respect the difficult motions transsexuals go through when the body isn’t there yet. The apparent lack of this non-place can only be inconclusive in its occupancy of a cusp—that is, while the becoming is not yet, the being is never not none anymore as the impasse wanes. The negativity serves as the premise of a chronotope of trans identity to come, or already arriving, as it crosses, from body to body, from gender to gender. Again, Pacolor: “There is a space that is designated as a ‘trans’ space where the transformation hasn’t happened [yet] but is also happening at the same time.”32Carlo Paulo Pacolor, email message to author, June 10, 2021. In the foregoing scene, the transfeminine is already woman enough, but her transsexual possibility extends the range of such womanliness. It intimates a female body upon feminine embodiment. She doesn’t have the body part and yet she may also possess a body that has it, on her own terms. Even if it isn’t there yet, she is enough. The transfeminine may remain on the cusp of where the transsexual female is also possible. Each may surpass the other, but both become women through their shared transness.
Hail, the Transfeminine
This critical exercise has traced the possibility of a transfeminine narrative within Filipino discourse through a trans reading of vernacular phenomenology and choreography, enabling us to deconstruct the binarism of interiority and externality that haunts both transgender phenomenon and the cisheteropatriarchal apparatus that misrecognizes transfemininity as effeminacy.33The misprision has also produced transfemininity as a mere variance within cis male homosexuality, a dispositif that has had grave consequences for the transgender female community in the cultural domain and various critical practices like activism and community work. Reading against the grain of the colonial archive, one makes audible the binabayi from rumors of wayward womanhood that imperial grammar seeks to repress. From this genealogy, which traverses both reactionary and radical responses to transness, we are given the confidence to locate trans emergence in the Philippines through the writing of an artist like Pacolor. We are reminded that in language, nonbinary imaginings of the feminine can only be incarnated, and that writing fulfills the remembrances and aspirations trans women may explore, in all their fabulous waywardness. The binabayi is a gender that has always been there, but as this genealogy of transfeminine knowledge tells us, she is now upon us, here and elsewhere.