I was five when I learned I had another name, besides what my parents gave me. The name was first born out of my younger sister’s anger who never understood my difference—which for her and other kids were unusual and difficult to comprehend. For them, the world operated in black and white. Dolls are for girls; cars and toy guns are for boys. I wouldn’t blame them, we were taught to see the world in such banality and convenience.
But growing up was tough if you happen to be in the gray area.
As I ran my soft little hands and patted it against the black silky hair of my sister’s limited edition Barbie doll—donned in gold Filipiñana, beaded in intricate red gumamela patterns, and crowned with pearls towering on her head like those queens in Sagala, I was caught in a trance, mesmerized in an unknown cadence of beauty that I can’t help but adore. I continued patting her, held her brown legs, making sure not to spoil the crisp sparkling saya shaping her hourglass figure. I lifted her slim brown arms, waving them like queens do. She was beaming with her white teeth framed in her cherry red lips. I giggled in adoration until I heard my sister’s voice.
“Maaaa. Si Kuya o! He’s playing with my Barbie!” she shrieked as she bolted into the room, terrorized with what she saw. I believe it was the idea of me playing it first before she could that fumed her anger. The doll was her birthday gift when she turned four after all; her rage was justified.
Her voice broke the trance I was in, and the cadence faded away, overruled by her threat.
“Hala ka! I will tell this to Mama!” Her brows met in anger.
“What is happening here?” Mama came as the jury, investigating my sister’s complaint.
My sister pleaded her case, but Mama already gave her verdict. She grabbed Barbie from my sweating palms, and handed them over to my sister.
“You can’t play with this.” Mama said sternly. My father was surely absent during these times, so Mama was the only parent-figure I had. Dad was busy making ends meet as a seafarer, cruising the vastness of the sea anchored with the promise of a better life for us—the family he had left.
In my young and innocent mind, I mustered all the courage I had to respond despite being tongue tied after getting caught from a horrifying crime I was oblivious for.
“Ngano diay, Ma?” I asked. But before my tongue could even utter the words, my eyes had already drowned in tears. I felt defeated. I felt caught.
“Basta,” the only word Mama said, hinting a tone with finality, as if consoling me when all it had done for the next years was to leave me in a state of confusion.
“Bayot!” my sister blurted out the name, baptizing me with hate in which she concluded her tantrum.
My mother’s eyes widened in surprise and hissed her.
“Do not say that!” she quickly patted her mouth, wiping her clean from the filthy word she said.
The name my sister called me stung like a sharp whiplash of some plastic hanger Mama used to beat us every time my sister and I would run around the house howling and breaking her newly bought blinders from playing Power Rangers. We were pretending that those plastic blinders were our space crafts in our make-believe world. Of course, my sister had to be Pink Ranger. I settled being the Blue Ranger, but little did she know, I was channeling femme fatal with her by mimicking the Yellow Ranger’s stances instead.
I never knew words could sting more than Mama’s beating. Since then, I laid off touching my sister’s Barbie doll, afraid of being chastised with that name again.
I thought hate was the only word associated with such a name. I didn’t know it had other names too—synonyms my English teacher would often say, reminding us of the sanctity of enriching our vocabulary in better expressing ourselves through words. I thought the journey to learning new words was always exciting. I thought I would have the same delightful epiphany like how my teacher delighted herself saying the word flamboyant describing Barbie in class. But all I could remember was my sister’s doll, and how it reminded me of the word shame.
“Bayot ka noh? You’re always hanging out with girls!” my rambunctious stocky classmate Roy would often ask. His plump cheeks jiggled when he spoke. His face was glistening in beads of sweat under the scorching afternoon heat. He was panting from playing basketball. His eyebrows met in confusion looking at me—a complex boy who did not play basketball nor played computer games with him and the other boys in class. But I did not see confusion in his gaze while he was waiting for my confirmation to his question. I saw disgust— another synonym I learned for the name.
And so the words went on multiplying in the seemingly endless roster of synonyms for the name as I grew older. Often, it would find itself in the tolerance from teachers and friends who believe that as long as “hindi ka halata, okay lang,” as if it were an unwanted birthmark on my brown skin. Sin and immoral were words I usually heard from my Christian Humanism teachers every time they saw high school boys like me who were “napaghahalatan”, referring to me like a Gentile in a Jewish community who needs salvation through Christ. Ironic how they could preach “loving thy neighbor” yet reek in hating boys like me at the same time. With titas who would notice my femininity with a keen eye, remarks like “sayang ka, pogi ka pa naman,” would always find itself in conversations masked in sweet tones of concern as if to console me, yet only revealed the way they truly saw me—a baby machine. Isn’t overpopulation a concerning issue for these people yet?
I thought the roster would fill all vile words associated with the name until college came. I met the name once again, but this time I found it in the collection of stories which narrated histories of courage, liberty, and power—all seemingly strange to acquaint with the name which I had known to be irked at with disdain and disgust.
I was grateful enough that my literature professors taught us to look past beyond the stories propagated by white friars in huge coral-stone domes of worship, and see through the eyes of the indigenous Filipino communities in their vast perception of the world and gain wisdom from the rainforests of their civilization where the finite delineation of black and white did not exist. Where identity is as fluid as the rummaging surge of their sacred rivers. Where a person is not tied to what’s between his or her legs.
It was in UP Mindanao’s Mentefuwaley where I reacquainted the name bayot associated with me. And it was a shame how I never saw myself joining the organization; for at that time, I did not see myself with them—full of pride filled with courage, words I have yet to experience on my own journey in reclaiming the bayot in me which I used to conceal like a shameful scar.
Mentefuwaley is a Teduray term for “one-who-became-a-woman”. The Teduray indigenous community resides in the provinces of Cotabato and Maguindanao. In the written account of American anthropologist, Stuart Schlegel, he narrated his experience with how the Teduray community viewed Uka, a Teduray as a real woman, even if Uka was born male. Schlegel, a white man, found this notion perplexing. So he tried confirming by asking again if Uka “is a man” yet he was still told that Uka was a woman, thus the name mentefuwaley libun-“one-who-became-a-woman”. I couldn’t help but wonder did Schlegel also have the same confusion like my classmate Roy? Or did this thought angered him like how my sister felt when she saw me playing with her doll?
The members of UP Mentefuwaley, the sole gender-based organization in the university personified acceptance. They embraced their queerness with pride and embodied the organization’s name as part of their Mindanawon identity. And they shared this vibrant space of love and acceptance openly as they marched and sashayed their way every Pride March along University Avenue where the shining rainbow flag was cloaked on the Oblation. In 2016, UP Mentefuwaley marked a historic Pride March when they invited different gay and lesbian organizations in Davao City to create a more inviting spirit of oneness and community.
As I continued my journey finishing my degree in the university, I met names that helped reconstruct what bayot truly was, far from the slurs I grew up with. In our regional literature class, I came to learn of Tamblot’s courage and how the babaylan fought against the Spanish invaders in Bohol. Later then, I would learn that the societal role of being a babaylan did not only conform to female members of the society but also to those males who couldn’t give a child. And the so called “misfits”, if our current society would call them, weren’t mocked, hissed, nor disgusted, but held spiritual roles in the society and were revered among folks.
Had I been born during that time, would Roy and my sister have accepted me? Would Mama not bat a glaring look every time I acted “soft”? Would people around me be kinder then?
Of course, I couldn’t turn back time, but I could capture it into writing. And so I did. I wrote stories of how the name bayot thrived in me. How it was mocked and crucified my childhood years into painful memories. But now that I had met the name again and its other names, I found redemption and liberation in it which were seeds to the acceptance I needed. A journey that was yet to unfold as I stepped outside from the comforts of the university where people do not think the same way as I do.
One day at work, an officemate came to me seemingly troubled with a thought.
“I have a question to ask,” she lowered her voice as if telling a secret. “I hope you wouldn’t take offense with it.”
I nodded in affirmation. But I already had an inkling on what she would ask. It was always what people wanted to know every time they saw me, the name. It probably bothers them at night as to how they could relate to me if they hadn’t got confirmation of who I was. So of course, she needed to know more than attending to her own business.
“Are you…” tucking her hair behind her ear, gesturing the name as if we’re in a guessing game.
“What?” I smiled.
Say it. Say the name.
“Uhm… Maya, Beshy mae, beki?” hinting a tone of irritation expecting me to have known the answer already.
The name came out from me this time with a thrill that my voice didn’t shake nor did it shy away from saying it. My tongue welcomed it like a delectable treat, a dessert I could not decline. So I opened my mouth and said,
The name and I became one.
She nodded in reply and in expectation too, hoping that her impression—just like how my titas had—would prove her speculation right.
In Binisaya, bayot is used to insult boys who appear to be weak and cowardly. Sissy. I was not spared by being called this too when my cousins and I used to play hide-and-seek, and I couldn’t get past in an abandoned house we dubbed haunted looking for them hiding. “Ayaw pagbinayot!,” my cousin teased me while searching for them in the dilapidated house, only to find out they weren’t there. And ever since, I believed them.
But at that moment, seeing my workmate’s anticipation for my response, I have never felt courage in reclaiming who I was. Despite the name being tainted with weakness, I had found strength—my own strength in finally knowing who I was.
“Oo, bayot ko. What’s the matter?” I felt chills running to my spine saying it. I never felt any bigger while sitting at that time in my life. I looked straight into her eyes but she dodged away. It was a familiar look. That was how shame looked like from the other end.
“I also experienced that one, too. But when I became a Christian, it faded away. Basta, pray ka lang,” she replied, trying to salvage the conversation.
What she did not know was that I did pray when I was young. I prayed that classmates like Roy would stop hurting me by insinuating that I was a disgusting person. I prayed that people would stop sneering at me for who I was, or pity me for being sayang like my titas would imply. I prayed hard but got no answer.
“We could be best friends, you know,” she faked her laugh.
We never became one after that, though.
I concealed what could have been a disastrous event in a smile like how diplomats do in a brink of waging war. I took a deep breath and beamed with pride because for once in my life, it was exciting to finally know me.
I was five when I was first called bayot and would deny it for the next ten years, trying to convince myself I wasn’t the horrible person associated with the name. And it would take me almost another ten years to realize the lies they tainted it with. The systemic erasure brought by colonialism that led to the marginalization and oppression of the bayot under a macho society has also brought a generational trauma, and reeducating people through our history and literature is a step towards that healing.
Growing up, I have been called names and have lived under the impression that other people knew more than I did, so I believed them. But now that I have learned more, I realized I am not who they think I was. I am more than what they say because nowhere was I weak in finally accepting who I am.
This literary piece is part of Katitikan Issue 4: Queer Writing.