Ang babaylan nga nahimong bayot.

by Marc Conaco
presented by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

This is the story of the Babaylan, once revered and respected members of Philippine society, and how they were vilified, killed and erased by the Christian missionaries to allow the colonial religion to gain a foothold, enabling them to easily invade and plunder the Philippines. [insert additional text about queer identities in this context]

Created by Auckland-based artist Marc Conaco, this exhibition's title describes how Babaylan – the Tagalog term for "spiritual leader," devolved into bayot – a derogatory term used the same way as "faggot."

A repurposing of The Stations of the Cross, this is an unwavering provocation – a celebration of queer Philippine ancestors who were the spiritual leaders of pre-colonial animistic religion.


Ang balaanon

(The divine)

Babaylan were our pre-colonial spiritual leaders who practiced animism. They were a matriarchy that allowed queer men in their ranks.

The co-existence of both feminine and masculine energies in the Babaylan, meant that they were linked to the divine. And were revered as such.


Ang kusgan

(The strong)

The Babaylan has a spirit familiar, the Abyan, a gift from the ancestors during initiation. They are the guides and guardians who accompany the Babaylan when they traverse the spirit world so they do not get lost. They allow the Babaylan to communicate with powerful spirits and deities. They also help fight malevolent spirits during healing or exorcism.


Ang mananambal

(The healer)

The Babaylan’s most important role is the healer of both natural and spiritual illness. They believe that people have twin souls.

The first twin Ginhawa, the breath of life, resides in the stomach. Ginhawa affects the physical body and is treated through herbs, remedies and antidotes. The second twin Kalag, the astral soul, resides in the head. Kalag normally detaches from Ginhawa during sleep to travel to the spirit world (creating dreams).

Sometimes, Kalag can get lost in the spirit world or worse, captured or attacked, and it is up to the Babaylan to bring it back to its twin restoring a person’s mental well-being.


Ang mahinungdanon

(The important)

The Babaylan performs rituals and sacrifices to appease, honour and converse with the various diwata (spirits), and deities. These traditions ensure a bountiful harvest, a positive outcome in war and serve as oracle for decisions in trade, travel and marriage. They assist in rituals for safe childbirth, as well as sacred preparations for death. The Babaylan’s duties encompass all aspects of community life.


Ang tigsaysay

(The historian)

Babaylan were gifted orators who kept the traditions and culture of the community alive. They passed on the tribe's histories and lore through chant, song and dance.


Ang mga tinahod

(The respected)

The Babaylan were highly respected members of the community, equal to the noble ruling class. It was said that their healing feminine energy balanced the destructive masculine energy of the Datu (the head of the tribe). They also served as counsel to the Datu on campaigns, as their link to the divine allowed them to read omens and foretell outcomes of war.


Siya ug sila

(They and them)

The Bisaya language is inherently gender neutral and thus the Babaylan were never considered ‘other’ or different. The western construct of identifying someone based on sexual preference didn’t exist. The babaylan could freely marry and have sexual relations with any gender. They could have children of their own if they so wished. They were an integral part of the community – keeping the culture, traditions and its people alive – they were never reduced to labels based on sexual preference.


Ang mga dili ingon nato

(Those unlike us)

When the Spaniards came, my people respected Christianity as another type of diwata (spirit) and the missionaries as ‘babaylan’. Being a country used to trading with other cultures and religions, the Filipinos afforded them the respect given to all visitors of the land. The Spanish missionaries exploited this hospitality and benevolence and under the guise of religion, insidiously converted and occupied most of the islands with minimal military support.


Ang kawatan

(The thief)

The Spaniards understood that the way to subjugate my people was to target our most powerful and revered, the Babaylan. The Spanish missionaries as the ‘babaylan’ of Christianity used their self-imposed power and authority to violently desecrate the Babaylan’s influence and traditions. They commanded young children to defecate on religious idols, they ordered the destruction of sacred trees and spiritual spaces. They asserted dominance of their religion by severing and reducing the power of the Babaylan’s own.


Ang paglugos

(The pillage)

Like a vicious disease, the Spanish friars spread Christianity, at the expense of our traditions and culture. They hid behind the cloak of religion to justify their acts of violence and genocide. Those that refused to convert would be publicly whipped in the town square, ash thrown in their faces to humiliate them. My people’s only option was to be ‘saved’ by Christianity or face execution.


Ang pag-guba

(The destruction)

The coloniser destroyed the delicate balance of our communities by changing power dynamics and imposing their backward beliefs. They enforced heteronormative patriarchy and subjugated women. They policed our bodies and taught us to be ashamed of our sexuality. They demonised our tattoo culture and writing systems and forbade their usage. They destroyed our culture and enforced their own. They stole our gold, resources and land. These white people made themselves our rulers, we, the brown people, became slaves in our own country. In this backward white supremacist world, there was no space for the divinity of the Babaylan.


Ang napildi

(The defeated)

There were a number of Babaylan-led revolutions, but by that time, our brainwashing and allegiance to Christianity was so deeply ingrained, that they were easily defeated by the newly-converted people. The Spanish missionaries ordered these Babaylan to be impaled on stakes as a grim warning to those who refuse to be converted to the new religion. Some were burned – a fitting punishment for ‘witches’ while some were left by the mouth of rivers presumably for the crocodiles to devour.


Ang pag-lubong

(The buried)

To further disenfranchise and demonise the Babaylan and their supporters, the Spaniards associated them with the beings of our lower mythology. They were re-written as unclean, unholy and unbaptised devil worshippers. To be shunned and destroyed. The fear-mongering was so successful, that the word Babaylan once divine and revered, devolved into the slur word, BAYOT. An effeminate man. A man who sleeps with other men. A sinner. A faggot.


Ang pagkamatay

(The death)

Fast forward to the present day, generations upon generations of Filipino queer men have inherited the trauma of the name ‘bayot’. We’ve learned to hide the divine in ourselves, to not let the feminine energy show. Our link to the diwata and deities severed from memory. We were no longer healers, cultural bearers or orators. Reduced to the flimsy colonised identity of men who slept with men, men who wore dresses. Aberrations. Living embodiment of the Christian sin. We had no place in this new society.


Ang pagkabanhaw

(The re-birth)

We learn who we are by unlearning who our invaders taught us to be. Indigenous queer people are part of a rich cultural heritage that has been violently erased from history by our colonisers. By knowing our histories we reclaim our identities. By remembering who
we are, we reclaim our power.

About the author

Philippine-born Marc Conaco is a graphic designer, illustrator and aspiring farmer who is in process of re-indigenising by learning about his pre-colonial history and culture. His zines and illustrations centre on the heritage of his ancestors and the importance of keeping their stories alive.

Marc Conaco’s practice looks at pre-colonial cultural traditions from the Visayas, a cluster of islands in the middle of the Philippines, an important place within his family history. He explores indigenous mythology, tattoo cultures and a pre-colonial Visayan writing system known as Suwat Bisaya or Badlit within his illustrations and design, highlighting and reviving the knowledge structures that have been lost through the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines.