May is Asian-American Heritage Month in some parts of the United States – and I still don’t know fully what I should be celebrating. Really. I’m an immigrant from the Philippines, so I’m considered Asian – and that’s the box I check every time I have to fill out forms asking for my racial/ethnic identity. Am I celebrating the legacy of Asians in America? Is this month supposed to make me feel good that my race is valued, and our contributions to American society are recognized? Is this a way for the colonizers to shed off some guilt for robbing us of our cultural heritage? Oops. Too soon?
Ok, let us back up a little. I’m sounding like a “dragon lady” way too early here. The date was April 27, 1521. The explorer Magellan – yes, that Magellan who circumnavigated the earth – steps foot on the shores of Mactan, an island in the Philippines. Back in the day, we were different tribes scattered in an archipelago of over 7,100 islands. We were not one nation, but we lived peacefully and traded with other races like the Chinese and Arabs. We had our own diverse culture and languages. We had our own native spirituality. Our Malay race and civilization had existed long before the European colonizers came.
Magellan, a Portuguese, was a conquistador for the Spanish Crown. He came, not to explore, but – with the sword and the cross – to take control of our islands and convert us to Christianity.
In an epic battle with my people, Magellan died at the hands of Lapu-lapu, the tribal chief who repelled the Spanish invaders that day. That didn’t stop the colonizers. Waves upon waves of Spanish warships came and eventually took over. They gave us Spanish names but never intended to teach us to speak Spanish. Later on they named our islands “Las Islas Filipinas” in honor of King Philip II of Spain. Every time I refer to my being Filipino and name my country as the Philippines, I am reminded of this tragedy.
My identity is tainted by the name of a white monarch.
After over 300 years of Spanish rule in my homeland, a new power was rising. The United States was at war with Spain. My people were also waging a revolution against our colonizer. We declared independence over Spain on June 12, 1896. Naively, our revolutionary government looked up to the Great White Brother for help. Our first president, Emilio Aguinaldo, went to Hong Kong to seek the support of then U.S. Commodore George Dewey, commander of the American Asiatic Fleet. It seemed the. that the United States was willing to help us defeat a common enemy. This was an opportunity that would allow us to govern ourselves.
On May 1, 1898, the Spanish armada was defeated by American forces in the Battle of Manila Bay. Dewey was promoted to the rank of Admiral. However, instead of helping us win our independence over Spain, U.S. President William McKinley, a Methodist, paid Spain $20 million to annex our entire archipelago in the 1898 Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish–American War. For another half century, we were under a different conquistador. Every time I celebrate my Methodist roots, I feel a sharp pain in my gut because of this treachery that deprived us of freedom from Spanish occupation and self-determination.
Why is all this her/story important to me as a queer person of color? Five millennia of colonization systematically wiped out our indigenous culture and spirituality.
My ancestors recognized and celebrated the leadership and distinct gifts of the “babaylan” (bah-bai-lahn) – they were teachers, healers, and priests/spiritual leaders. The babaylan – most of them women – were part of our native community’s leadership. Many of them became warriors in the struggle against Spain. The male babaylan were known to present themselves in women’s clothing and assumed their gender roles. The babaylan is said to navigate and occupy what we might refer to today as queer/feminist/fluid spaces of sexuality – the antithesis of patriarchy.
They are my queer ancestors – hunted and killed by colonizers because they did not fit the patriarchal mode of gender/sexual binaries propped up by the Christian religion brought to our shores. They were stripped of their roles as spiritual leader, healer, and teacher and called witches. I see the Reconciling movement’s struggle for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of The United Methodist Church in the same vein as my people’s struggle against the conquistador. When we force our own notions of sexuality over others without regard to their innate dignity and their life, we are no different from the conquistador.
Colonialism sought to destroy my own cultural and queer identity when it excluded the babaylan in the life of my people. This is akin to depriving LGBTQ persons to assume leadership as clergy in The UMC. We are of sacred worth but not good enough. The babaylan’s blood flows in my queer veins. My ancestors’ voices cry out like the prophets in the wilderness seeking justice. They are part of our great cloud of witnesses, but they are also in my very being – nourishing me as I join you in the struggle to decolonize our United Methodist faith community and rid it of discrimination and homo/transphobia. This is an invitation for us, Reconciling United Methodists, to reflect on our own complicity with colonialism when we remain silent about matters of white privilege and racial justice.
To struggle with LGBTQ persons for full inclusion is to be against the colonization of both body, identity, and culture of any human being. Come! Celebrate my cultural heritage with me. The babaylan – my Queer Mother – lives.