By Eli Ramos
I met a trans woman as a child visiting the Philippines. She was confident, a singer somewhere we were visiting in the province—the details escape me now as an adult. I kept a small journal then, replete with photos we hastily got developed at drugstores. “We met a bakla. Hairy legs. She sang for us.”
I didn’t know what the word bakla really meant back then. My dad used it to mean an effeminate gay man. Pre-World War II Tagalog used it as a word for coward. Nowadays, the clearest translation is, “people assigned male at birth who adopt a feminine gender expression.” When you break down the commonly derived etymology, bakla takes the words babae (girl) and lalaki (boy) and puts them together.
The journey in gender expression and sexuality was one that was very closely intertwined for me. I don’t like to split hairs between “boy” and “girl” interests for anyone, especially children, as that kind of defeats the whole purpose of nonbinary existence and the questioning of gender norms and values. But I was not a traditionally feminine child. I jumped at the chance to play pretend as a boy character as enthusiastically as I accepted the role of female characters. I also really liked frogs and bugs—classic nonbinary behavior. My family called me a tomboy, mostly as a joke, since in the Philippines, tomboy is slang for a butch lesbian.
My parents are both nurses, which is among one of the more Filipino things I’ve said in this memoir. Though they’re both fairly devout Catholics (another point for “Filipino things”), they also were invested in giving my siblings and I medically accurate sex education as soon as we could understand it, even if it was accompanied by “Passport 2 Purity.”
Picture this: eight-year-old me, sitting with my siblings, writing about the anatomy of the vagina and God’s gift of virginity in my notebook and getting emotional whiplash. My mom finishes discussing various STIs and how to prevent them through abstinence.
“Moving on, let’s talk about the breasts. I know our tomboy Elise is excited to talk about that one.” She laughed and our dad joined her.
In hindsight, I realized that was a jab at my gender neutrality. At the time I thought my mom knew about my burgeoning attraction to women. But Passport 2 Purity assumes heterosexuality because of course it does, so I went ahead and casually ignored my feelings for women for another six years.
My education about gayness came, like for most closeted kids, largely from the internet. I watched videos of YouTubers talking about gender, I got a tumblr on the behest of my friend in middle school and followed a bunch of popular gay users. The thing is, most of the content I was consuming was from people who weren’t really like me. The people on my screen who told me “It gets better” or “It’s okay to have gay thoughts and feelings” were overwhelmingly white. When I thought I was a trans guy, the faces of the men I desperately wanted to look like were white too. I internalized a lot of Eurocentric standards not just of beauty, but of expression in general. I thought I was genderfluid between man and woman because I couldn’t even conceive of a gender that didn’t come from European standards on gender. It didn’t help that both my middle school and high school were largely populated by white students.
I had it mostly figured out by senior year of high school and confidently talked about being nonbinary and bisexual to everyone at school. I started introducing myself with both the name Eli and Elise. Then I would come home and neatly pack all of that away. It would still slip out sometimes. My cousin, her husband, and kids had just immigrated to the United States and moved into a neighborhood close to mine. They frequently came over and asked that I perform the piece I had for a speech competition. At one point, I couldn’t avoid the fact that the most recent one was about gender. I still performed it for them.
“The sign for transgender is about becoming more beautiful and more yourself,” I said, signing ASL for transgender.
“Isn’t that unnatural?” My cousin interrupted. I felt the pit grow in my stomach.
“Why would it be? Is being yourself unnatural?”
“Well, it’s like…bakla.” She rolled her eyes. “Or tomboy. You can dress up, but you will never be the other thing. It’s playing pretend.”
Being a combination of boy and girl or being considered a girl with masculine traits. Feeling mostly like I wasn’t either of those things. They’d both been used as insults and jokes around me and denying my heritage—which had proven itself through my family and my time in the Philippines as homophobic and transphobic—felt like the easiest way of realizing my identity.
I barely talked about being Filipino the first semester at USF, until I met Isa. She proudly pansexual and genderfluid. More importantly, she was also Filipino—I think she was the first gay and genderfluid person I met who was like me. Her very existence in my life was the first sign of many that I was not alone in being brown and part of the LGBTQ+ community. I read the history of non-gendered gods and goddesses, maidens who transformed into male warriors and back again, lesbian collectives and pride marches. I saw myself.
In time, I would come out to my parents. In time, they’ll learn the nuances of the words they use—in Tagalog, in Ilocano, in English. But bakla and tomboy don’t feel like insults anymore. They feel like anchors in my journey, stretching back in history. When I look behind me to my history, I see a long line of brown faces, my siblings in the community, urging me towards the future.
Author Bio: Eli Ramos (they/them) is a biologist and science journalist. They love bugs, rock and roll, and the color blue. In their free time, they work on Aster Podcasting Network and write the audio fiction Under the Electric Stars.