The Philippines, an extensive archipelago that forms the Pacific barrier of the southeast Asian subcontinent, were colonised by the Spanish after Magellan’s ‘discovery’ of the islands in 1521. Prior to this, the islands had already been exposed to Islam, but the underlying culture was animist. This is a belief in nature spirits and deities. The Spanish brought with them, and eventually enforced, Roman Catholicism, which is now the religion of 95% of Filipinos.
Despite this, transsexualism has a long history in the Philippines too. We know this because the Spanish conquistadores were accompanied by priests. Their job was not just to minister to the unfortunate people who found themselves under the heel of the military invaders, but to report back, to the Pope, everything that was discovered. This was so that the Papacy would receive its due share of the spoils! Nevertheless, they also reported on cultural and other phenomena they found interesting. Amongst these was an understanding of gender that was much different from their own.
At least one insurrection was led against the Spanish by ‘men dressed as women’ and there were tribes where more than two genders were normal. These seem to have been similar to the present-day Bugis people of Indonesia, who claim five genders. In fact, however, these devolve to two, masculine and feminine. They are: man born male, man born female, woman born female, woman born male and all at once. These last are the priests in the culture, which is animist.
Research conducted on the Philippines’ island of Negros in the 1950s and 60s by anthropologist Donn Hart reveals a longstanding presence of homosexual and transgender individuals in the region, from the slightly effeminate dalopapa or binabaye to the fully transgender bayot. Similar third-gender subcultures can be found throughout the country’s many islands, each with its own set of local categories and terms.
Today, there are huge numbers of transwomen in the Philippines. While these are of both types, HSTS and AGP, the former are conspicuous. Every town seems to have a population of them.
In Indonesia, transwomen are called ‘Waria’ which means. roughly, ‘man-woman’. This is a predominantly Muslim nation yet the Waria tradition is tolerated. In non-Muslim areas such as Bali, there are considerable numbers of transwomen much more like those found in Thailand.
Quite why southeast Asia has so many trans people is not fully understood. Clearly, there is a cultural input. This area has traditionally been far more relaxed about male homosexuality than almost any other in the world. At the same time, homosexuality and trans are seen as the same thing and gender-conforming homosexual males are somewhat looked down on by others.