English Isn’t Enough: The Bakla, Two Spirits, and Hijra

In 2004 I decided to get a tattoo for my 25th birthday. During that time of my life --post-undergrad and pre-professional career-- I knew I was looking for a word that I would not only identify with, but I was looking for a word to keep me grounded and centered, and to always remind me who I was, who I am, and who I will become.

The difficulty I was running into was the word I was looking for does not exist in the English language. As some native Tagalog speakers might agree, the meaning of this Tagalog word does not adequately translate to English, so I knew I wanted the tattoo to be in Baybayin, the pre-spanish colonial script that was widely used up until the late 16th century.

Spanish colonialism forced a number of Spanish words into the language of the ethnic groups who would come to be referred to collectively as “Filipinos”. This is problematic on its face. When I consider that Spanish is grounded in a simplistic and inadequate gender binary--its insistence on “-o” and “-a” endings to put everything into a masculine or feminine gender binary--made this a rejected notion from the start. Romance languages, those derived from Latin, all share the same problem--non-inclusive, only seeing the world one way or the other, all via language.

I settled on the word bakla. I had grown up through my whole life being taught bakla, the Tagalog term for gay, had a negative connotation. It wasn’t until college where I learned a different interpretation of bakla, a term beyond sexuality and the gender binary. To understand bakla, you have to understand sex as the biological genome of male and female, gender as self expression from masculine to feminine, and sexual orientation is who you happen to love.

Here to the right is my tattoo of "bakla", written in Baybayin script.

To better understand the meaning bakla we have to break down each character and analyze what they represent. This goes a bit deep into the woods, so bear with me.

The first character in the picture shown above is pronounced “Ba” and can represent all things feminine. For example, the tagalog word for woman is babae (bah BAH eh), while the tagalog word for sand is buhangin (boo HA ngin).

The last character is pronounced “La” and can be represent all things masculine. For example, the tagalog word for man is lalake (lah LAH keh), while the tagalog word for strength is lakas (lah KAHS).

Scholars have even claimed the characters “Ba” and “La” are respectively feminine and masculine in shape and can be compared to the sexual organs of those born male and female.

The most prominent character in Baybayin script is the second character located in the center of the photo above. The symbol “ka” can roughly translate as “to identify with” (some root word). For example, “isa” in Tagalog means “one” in English. If we add “ka-” before  “isa”, the meaning changes to identify with one--“kaisahan” in Tagalog means “Unity”.

Looking at “Ka” as a symbol, it can be seen as two land masses (the top and bottom curves) that are separated by a body water; however, the two land masses are connected by a bridge, the center line in the character. Alternatively, “Ka” can be seen as two souls traveling through life never to meet like parallel lines; however, they have a connection that binds the two together. “Ka” not only can mean identity, but it can also be interpreted as having a connection.

If the symbol that represents identity (ka) is placed between the symbols that represents woman or feminine (ba) and man or masculine (la), the 3 symbols together create a unit that represents an identity between a man and a woman: bakla.

But English doesn’t understand that.

The term “homosexuality” didn’t appear in English until roughly the mid 19th century. The term bakla predates European colonization and the introduction of Catholicism the Philippines in the 15th century. Before then, the bakla was seen as someone who was able to see the world view in the eyes of both man and woman. They were considered to be of high regards and spiritual leaders in their community, like the shamans of Northern Asia. The bakla would often enter a state of trance during a ritual, and practice divination and healing. As this practice went against the Church, the bakla was often murdered leaving tribes without their spiritual leaders, and giving Church leaders an opportunity to convert the conquered to Catholicism.

We see this similar story play out elsewhere. Native American two-spirits were male, female, and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two spirits. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status. In tribes where male and female two spirits were referred to with the same term, this status amounted to a third gender. In other cases, female two spirits were referred to with a distinct term and, therefore, constituted a fourth gender.

We’wha was a Zuni Native American born in New Mexico in 1849. Born a cisgender male, she was indoctrinated into religious ceremonies for Zuni boys at the age of twelve; however, a few years later We’wha’s family members noticed her gender development and expression, and that she would identify with other Zuni girls in the tribe. She then practice Zuni gender roles and learned the skills of the Zuni woman, grinding and making corn meal, making ceremonial pottery, cooking, and various domestic tasks (Roscoe, 1991, p38).

More recently, in South India, Hijras are neither considered male nor female, but recognized as a “third sex” by their government as of 2014. Most Hijras are born cisgender males and then transition into their female form when entering their adult life. Hijras were accepted in society and were seen as reincarnations of their spiritual beings many times over, having gain power and knowledge of enlightenment during their journey. Evidence of Hijra culture can be found in Ancient Indian scripture; however, British authorities tried to eradicate Hijras by criminalizing them under the “Criminal Tribe Act of 1871” for breach of public decency. Hijras were subjected to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and stigmatized for a long time. Even after the Criminal Tribe Act of 1952 that repealed the notification (i.e., denotified the criminal tribal communities), Hijras are still victims of prejudice and ostracized from society keeping them from achieving equal opportunity in education and employment.

Evidence has shown transgender people have existed around the world and throughout history. The Bakla, the Two Spirit, and the Hijra were so much more than just being a part of our LGBTQ family; they were shamans, they were community leaders, they were sought after for spiritual guidance. The commonality with all 3 ethnicities wasn’t that they were “gay”, but that they were respected in their community; and when their views or culture did not align with those in government or the church, they were criminalized and persecuted for their differences.

The difficulty with misrepresentation of gender expression itself, and the transgender community in particular, is trying to identify and describe them using language that is limited to the gender bias of masculine and feminine or the binary of male and female. Remember what we said about the term homosexuality not existing until fairly recently despite the existence of gays? The same goes for not just sexuality, but for gender, and sex. Where is language, where is English, to validate us?

To put it another way: just because the word does not exist to describe us doesn’t mean we are not real.

Within the last 7 months of the current presidency, we have seen an administration repeating the mistakes of those who did not embrace our existence. On July 26, 2017, president Trump tweeted his views on banning the transgender community from serving in the U.S. Military, stating that we are a financial burden on Military spending. In just a couple of years, “sexual orientation” will be removed from the U.S. Census in 2020. The omission of “sexual orientation” from the Census means our community will not be identified for needs of funding for social services like trans health, mental health services, and the like.

Language that is not developed enough to describe something that is real does not mean we do not exist; and just like humans, language should evolve to accommodate the growth of our knowledge. Language matters. The transgender community, femme presentation, the various cultural expressions of these, will be around for centuries. And their presence should be embraced as it was before us, rather than erasing them from history.


Send questions and comments on this story to feedback@efniks.com