“Nicole,” 36, was born male but all her life she identified as female. She worked as a cook and dressed sexy when she pleased. She painted her nails, often wore makeup, and loved combing her long blonde-dyed hair. 

An anti-drug operation in 2019 turned her life upside down. It was a “wrongful arrest,” she said, and the subsequent charges were “trumped up.” But all the same her life had changed. 




The jailers shaved her head when she arrived at the Manila City Jail in the capital’s Sta. Cruz district. It’s mandatory in the male jail dormitory, one of the first steps to her becoming an inmate or person deprived of liberty (PDL). There was no mirror when the barber decrowned her. She watched strands of her cherished mane fall off her shoulder and could only guess how she looked without them.

To survive life in jail, she prepared to discard her femininity and act like a man. She heard nightmarish tales about gay men and transgender women getting bullied behind bars. She expected nothing less, too, because in the nearby Tondo area where she grew up, jails housed “tough” men and “bakla” was a derogatory term for people like her and for those who were perceived to be weak.

So imagine Nicole’s surprise when, within minutes of stepping inside the world of locked-up male offenders, a fellow PDL proposed to “wed” her.

Same-sex union, it turned out, was widely practiced among gangs in city jails. It had no legal effect, of course, and the male partners often had girlfriends or wives waiting for them back home. Still, within the confines of the jails, they were given the usual privileges of husbands-and-wives. 

Nicole said gay men and transwomen are “considered women” inside jails. They receive “gentle treatment” from gang leaders – no matter what group they join. They’re allowed to wear anything as long as the tops are yellow. They’re also spared from doing “heavy” jobs. 

Why? Gay men and transwomen in jail often assume the roles of housekeeper, homemaker, and entertainer. They cook, they clean, and do the laundry. They also give massages, which allow them to earn an income.

They also satisfy men’s desire for sex. “Tigang na tigang kasi mga lalaki doon,” Nicole said.

Nicole felt that, somehow, it was her being gay that guaranteed her “protection,” “respect,” and “love” from other inmates. Catcalling and name-calling were strictly prohibited. Disrespecting the gay community was met with violent punishment called “takal”.

Nicole proudly tells everyone that it was in Manila City Jail that she experienced “what it was like to be loved.” Men fight for and quarrel over their attention, affection, and intimacy. 


 Protection from rape 


But before one gets the impression that Philippine jails are more progressive than the rest of Philippine society, same-sex unions in jails are allowed by “mayores” or gang leaders to serve a very practical purpose. 

For the mayores who usually officiate these weddings and seal ceremonies with paddle whippings, these unions are a way to control sexual behavior of other inmates, Nicole said. It prevents gay men and transwomen from having multiple partners, as fellow PDLs are expected to respect the exclusivity of the unions. 

Cheating is heavily punished by gangs. Couples have to separate peacefully through “divorce” before entertaining other prospective partners.

It’s a setup that also protects against sexual abuse, which gay men are prone to inside jails and police detention centers.

Noli Cano, a former leader of the gay community in the Navotas City Jail, was a victim of sexual assault while at the Navotas police detention center. A cell leader broke into the bathroom while Cano was showering. Cano escaped, but another PDL who went in after Cano was not able to.

“Weddings” have become a sort of refuge, said Cano. “Some gay men get married to protect themselves from harm.”

“If a guy loves you enough, he will take all the blows for you,” said Cano.

Rape of gay men and transwomen is a problem acknowledged by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. In its 2018 standard operating procedure for the treatment of the LGBTQI+ community, the bureau stated the need to put them “in a cell separate from other [cisgender] male or female cell provided that the jail has available cell dedicated for this purpose.”

“A trans woman (those who have undergone hormone therapy to attain breast enlargement or those with breast implants) and transexual made PDL who have undergone sex change shall be housed differently from the rest of the population as they are in danger of being subjected to physical and sexual abuse due to their identity, physical appearance and attributes,” read the circular signed by Jail Chief Supt. Allan Iral.

As a leader of the Navotas City Jail’s gay community, Cano said he heard reports of PDLs being raped or sexually assaulted by fellow inmates, but nothing was done because the victims wouldn’t come forward to formally complain.

Some were ashamed of getting blamed for the assault. They feared being told that they “wanted it” or that they “should feel lucky” because they found a sexual partner inside the jail— something perceived to be unlikely in the outside worldthey wouldn’t easily have if they were not in detention.

The BJMP is aware that the sufferings of the LGBTQI+ community stem from the “stigma attached to it by the society.” And this makes the members “easy targets of ridicule, disrespect, humiliation and possibly harassment, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, violence, and other forms of abuses,” its 2018 circular states.

But it also acknowledged the bureau's limitations by saying “our present jail condition may not be ideal in terms of facilities and amenities but the bureau has initiated measures to ensure the safety of the LGBTQI+ (lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender, queer, and intersex) PDL”.

It added: “The bureau, however, can only do so much in monitoring all the activities going [on] inside the jail in relation to the plight of the LGBTQI+ community as they continue to be integrated among the other PDL. The situation is further aggravated by an environment which could be discriminating to the LGBTQI+ community and to anyone who is gender non-conforming due to the perception and attitude of fellow PDL and even personnel towards them.”

The city jails have separate detention buildings for LGBTQI+ persons but the police stations don’t.




Nicole agreed to cohabit with her suitor, who was a total stranger to her, but she refused to “wed” him because tying the knot meant she could no longer entertain other partners.

Cohabitation gave her access to better sleeping quarters and bathroom privacy. 

Couples from same-sex unions are allowed to close the door when they’re showering together, and they share a “kubol” or bungalow – privileges denied to the rest of the inmates.

Before Nicole entered a plea bargaining agreement to be freed from jail, she had two other boyfriends during her one-year and three-month detention. Her last boyfriend’s sentence ended while they were together, so they inevitably broke up—the man returned to his wife and children.

Cano got married, too, before walking out of the Navotas City Jail. Cano had also entered into a plea bargaining agreement. END


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