Our Brave New World: The Birth of Transgender Liberation in the Philippines

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For the memory of  Ms Tonette Lopez, a dear friend, a Cebuana transwoman, and the first transgender rights activist in the Philippines

This week marks the 10th year of the  pivotal moment when I had reached the point of conviction to dedicate my life towards the advancement of the rights of transgender people. I was 18 years old at that time and nursing myself out of depression. Patrick Califia’s book Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism served as my companion in that black period.

I feel blessed to have become part of the birth of the transgender rights movement in the Philippines. The movement started in the first decade of the 21st century. During those ten years, I have witnessed frightening and endearing events.  And I want to share them with you.

Due to my limited resources and space,  and the scope of my memory, I know that I have left out a lot of events that should be here. I hope these may serve as a source of inspiration and hope for those who would want to engage in this activism, just like how they have inspired me. But besides being sources of inspiration, some of them are pressing reminders of how much work is still needed to done.

The Jonathan Agudaña Case: The first ever known trans human rights complaint in the Philippines

The Jonathan Agudaña Case is the first ever known case involving a trans person filed in the Philippine Commission on Human Rights. Sometime in 2000, a human rights complaint was filed by the Gay Movement for Human Rights in the Philippines (GAHUM-Philippines) on behalf of Jonathan Agudaña  who was barred on two separate occasions from entering a dance club in Cebu City for wearing women’s clothes and sandals. The complaint claimed that Jonathan Agudaña was discriminated because of her “sexual orientation”. The dance club defended itself by saying that they don’t discriminate against gays. They even said that they have lots of gay patrons. They just don’t allow cross-dressing in their bar. The case was dismissed on the 11th of January 2001.

Commenting on this decision on 29 July 2001, the Regional Director of the Commission on Human Rights in Cebu (where the case has been filed), Attorney Alejandro Alonzo, was quoted in newspapers saying: “They [gays] should wear proper attire, and I don’t think [Club Royale’s policy is] a violation because customers should follow the house rules. There should be appropriate attire because they are governed by dress code.” He added: “If you’re a man, you should wear the apparel of a man or vice versa. Unless the court will grant the change of status to a particular gay just like what happened in Metro Manila.”

Notwithstanding the decision of the Commission and the fact that it was wrongly claimed that Jonathan Agudaña was discriminated because of her sexual orientation, this case brought to light that gender expression is a human rights issue.

The Marriage of Esperanza Martinez-Widener

Prior to 2007, there had been a number of successful court petition for a legal change of sex in the Philippines (all involving post-op transsexual women.) One of them was the petition of Esperanza Martinez. On the 7th of July 2001, Esperanza married her long-time American boyfriend, Jacob Allen Widener, in a civil wedding in Manila.

The case was highly celebrated. This prompted Congressman Ruffy Biazon to file a bill in Congress to limit marriage between “naturally born male and naturally born female”. The bill contained highly questionable definition of male and female. Moreover, in the bill’s introduction, Mr Biazon unapologetically compared marrying a transsexual woman to a buying a fake signature shirt. Thanks to the efforts of LGBT activists, the bill didn’t pass in Congress.

The Birth of Transgender-led Support & Advocacy Groups in the Philippines: STRAP and C.O.L.O.R.S.

STRAP was founded in December 2002 by four transpinays (Filipino transsexual women), in Seattle’s Best Coffee Shop in a mall in the Metro Manila. It was formed to address the need for an organization that would address the issues, needs, and concerns of transsexual/transgender Filipinos and to raise public awareness on issues of gender identity and expression, as well as to promote a compassionate understanding of transsexualism. During that time, STRAP was known as the “Society of Trans & Gender Rights Advocates of the Philippines”.  STRAP was the first and only transgender support and rights advocacy group in the Philippines at that time.

It became active for a few years but became dormant because of lack of membership and its founders became more focused on the demands of their personal lives. In early 2005, two of its founders, Veronica and Sass, were featured by ICON LGBT Magazine after its editor received a complaint from a subscriber about the magazine’s silence on transgender issues. The subscriber turned out to be Dee, another founder of STRAP. The exposure the feature article gave to STRAP resulted to inquiries about how to join the organization. This led to the revival of STRAP on 20 May 2005. Two significant changes happened at that time: first, the founders thought it was best and less taxing if the group would focus on transsexual women; and second, it changed the name of the organization to “Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines.” STRAP mixes the format of being a support group and an activist organization, and have had three Chairwoman already. It has now grown from having an initial four members to almost a hundred members.

If Manila has STRAP, Cebu City, another major city in the Philippines has COLORS. In 2006, the Coalition for the Liberation of the Reassigned or COLORS was originally conceptualized  a campus-based organization in Cebu City. However, COLORS was not recognized as a registered school organization.  Four years later, COLORS was formalized and the first election was held.  COLORS aims to establish a united, strong, and empowered transgender community that nurtures to their well-being and welfare and rebuild a discrimination-free and equal society.

COLORS and STRAP are both transgender women groups. Up to this time, there is no known transgender men groups in the Philippines. I hope that the next decade we will witness the emergence of these groups and that our Filipino transmen brothers will join us in our quest to having a Philippine-society that upholds, protects, and advances the rights of transgender Filipinos.

The inclusion of gender identity in the Anti-Discrimination Bill and its Almost Victory

When it was first filed during the 12th Congress in 2001 by then Akbayan Party List Representative Etta Rosales (who is now the Chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights), the Anti-Discrimination Bill (House Bill 2784) only sought to address discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Several activists, including myself, pointed out the need to include “gender identity” in the language of the bill. The bill was revised, and I was present during the brainstorming of its revision in the office of Amnesty International-Philippines in May 2002. The revised bill (HB 6416) was re-filed  in 2003.  It was renamed as “The Act Prohibiting Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Providing Penalties Thereof.”

It was referred to the House Committee on Civil, Political and Human Rights. During the public hearing of the bill, several groups were invited to give their views about HB 6416. The military and the Catholic Church were the vocal opponents of the bill. But surprisingly, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) supported the bill. INC didn’t attend the public hearing but sent a communique saying that though they don’t approve of homosexuality they nevertheless support their human rights. In December 2003, the bill was approved by the Committee for second reading.

In legislative processes, 2nd Reading is the toughest stage. It’s there where debates for and against are held, as well as amendments are suggested. You may expect that HB 6416 provoked strong opposition. The opposite happened. However strong the Catholic Church position was, no one stood to bark their dogma. You read it right – NO ONE. Because there were no objections, the Speaker of the House Representative Gonzales motioned for the approval of the bill. The bill was unanimously approved in less than 30 minutes – this is not an exaggeration.

After six days, the 3rd Reading of the bill took place. Just like the 2nd reading no one objected. Again, you read it right. The 118 present during the 3rd Reading voted UNANIMOUSLY for the bill. After the 3rd Reading, the bill was supposed to undergo the same process in the senate. However it didn’t make it because the 2004 National Election happened. The bill just landed on the accomplishment report of the 12th Congress of the Philippines.

The 12th Congress approval of the Anti-Discrimination Bill didn’t carry over the 13th Congress. It was re-filed by Rep. Rosales as House Bill 634, and had its first reading on 28 July 2004. A month after, Senator Bong Revilla filed a similar bill in the senate, the Senate Bill 1738 or the Anti-Gender Discrimination Act. It had its first reading on 21 September 2004.

Thirteen proved to be unlucky for the Anti-Discrimination Bill. It was blocked twice by the Chairman of the House Committee on Civil, Political, and Human Rights, Representative Bienvenido Abante. He blocked the 2nd Reading both on October 13 and November 14, 2006. And on November 20, 2006, he delivered the highly polemic speech that was never heard in the 12th Congress. Now the dogma was barked. His cheerleaders were various religious groups who were all fearing that the approval of this bill might be the Pandora’s Box of Same-Sex Marriage.

“God created only two genders – male and female. And both in the Bible and the Q’uran, homosexuality and lesbianism are sins and abominations unto Almighty God,” was Mr Abante’s message. Aroused by this statement, Mr Abante’s cheerleaders orgasmically clapped in the House gallery.

In his answers to his interpollators, Mr Abante raised several times that “there is no general and widespread discrimination in private companies and corporations because the Constitution already prohibits discrimination so there is no need for the proposed law anymore.” He even claimed that he has an “effeminate” legislative staff whom “he loves and never discriminated”.

Several groups cried foul. The most prominent ones are the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network Philippines (LAGABLAB), Ang Ladlad Party List, Amnesty International-Philippines, and the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). The passage of the Anti-Discrimination Bill had once again became the theme of the Pride March. In 10 December 2006, several groups marched calling for the immediate passage of the bill. LAGABLAB called for the resignation of Rep. Abante. We are now waiting for the re-filing of this bill. However, I reckon that the language of the bill should be revised and aligned to the language of the Yogyakarta Principles, specially the definition of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Confronting Sexual ViolenceBemz Benedito and Ruvic Rea

When she was still a researcher at the Institute of Philippine Culture at the Ateneo de Manila University, Bemz was sexually harassed by their Indian evaluators while discharging her duties.

“My bosses and colleagues wanted to sweep the incident under the rug. I could have been contented to ask just for an apology. But when I heard one of my co-workers say ‘Ayaw mo yun Bemz na-assert yung pagkababae mo? (Don’t you like it Bemz, your womanhood has been affirmed)’, I decided to seek legal assistance and the support of Professor Danton Remoto. That snide remarked trivialized my experience and robbed me of my dignity,” Bemz shared. “Professor Remoto wrote a letter to the personnel head and from thereon, an investigating committee was formed. The Indian evaluators apologized to me and purging was done in the institute by all of its staff. The Ateneo also asked the bid to ban the two Indians from entering the country…Though it was not a complete victory, I have at least made my point and regained my dignity.”

Ruvic Rea was the Barangay Captain of Angeles Zone 4 near Tayabas, Quezon Province. On the 20th of January 2006  she filed a case of acts of lasciviousness against two city officials in her hometown. According to reports, Ruvic was molested on the night of the 19th of January 2006 inside Cafe Esteban Restaurant and Bar, the cafe and bar restaurant that Ruvic owned.  Along with another Barangay Captain and a police officer, the two city officials were drinking inside the bar. They called Ruvic and talked to her about the complaint they received that the bar was a front for prostitution. Ruvic denied the allegations and said she is ready to defend herself.

Afterwards, one of the two suspects, put his arm around Ruvic and asked if she can given them women. Ruvic didn’t pay attention to this, thinking he was drunk and just joking. But the suspect quickly pulled her to him, and together with the other suspect, they ran their hands over her body’s sensitive parts while they continued to kiss her neck and back.

“I thought at first they were only joking because they were drunk but they kept at it until I hurt and my chest got bruises because of their  insistence but when I struggled they held my arms tightly. Councilman Agapay even held my left foot down with his right foot and he licked my left thigh while Councilman Venzuela lifted my blouse and licked my breasts while he held my left arm,” Rea lamented.

LGBT activists and her British boyfriend and now husband supported her in her fight. She won her case. Ruvic now lives and is now happily married in the UK.

Bemz Benedito and Ruvic Rea are two of the Filipino transwomen who remind us that even those who are highly educated and are in the position of power can be victims of sexual harassment. But more importantly, they remind us that it is possible to break free from the fear that no one will hear us when we cry foul. May their courage inspire a movement to put a stop to the normalization of sexual harassment against Filipino transwomen.

The rise of T in the LGBT movement

One of the defining moments in the LGBT movement in the Philippines is the embracing of gender identity and gender expression issues. There is now a growing understanding of the complexity of these issues among LGBT organizations such as Rainbow Rights Project (R-Rights),  Ang Ladlad Party List, Metropolitan Community Church-Quezon City (MCCQC), TLF SHARE Collective, Task Force Pride Philippines, as well as other human rights and women’s organizations.

R-Rights has been active in creating space for the discussion of transgender issues. They had several forums that discussed the legal aspects of gender identity. Just like R-Rights, MCCQC has created space for transgender Filipinos to discuss their issues. MCCQC commemorated Transgender Day of Remembrance for several years, and they had sponsored a forum on the transgender rights.

Ang Ladlad Party List included specific reference to gender identity and expression in its Constitution, and will surely include Gender Recognition Law in their legislative agenda. TLF SHARE Collective heeded the call to separate transgender people from the men-who-have-sex cluster in HIV and AIDS work. They had started to have a separate transgender programme, and are engaging transgender people to be involved in their work. Task Force Pride Philippines, the network that organizes the annual Pride March in Manila, have had transgender people as part of its executive committee. In 2007, Task Force Pride Philippines had, for the first time, two transwomen as the co-coordinators of the executive commitee, Naomi Fontanos and myself.

The Kapihan on Human Rights, a forum that evaluates the human rights agenda of the government, had included for the first time gender identity and expression issues, as well as sexual orientation issues. Women’s organizations had been keen on learning about transgender issues. During the workshop “The ASEAN: A Strategic Terrain for Filipino Women’s Human Rights Activism?”,   gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation were included in the human rights issues that the current administration should pay attention to.

The Mely Silverio Case and Jeffrey Cagandahan: Gender Identity and the Supreme Court of the Philippines

In the decade that was, the Supreme Court of the Philippines first issued decisions regarding changing ones sex on ones documents. The first one was the Mely Silverio Case in October 2007.

In 2002, after Esperanza Widener won her legal petition, Mely Silverio, a post-op transsexual woman, filed a legal petition to change her name and her sex from male to female. In 2003, the trial court decided in her favour. The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) appealed the decision. OSG’s main argument was “there’s no law  allowing the change of entries in the birth certificate by reason of sex alteration.” Three years later, in 2006, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court. Mely appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. In October 2007, the Supreme Court ruled against the appeal of Mely; and in consequence, ending the possibility of changing ones sex by petitioning the courts. (Prior to this decision there were a number of successful petition of changing one’s sex, the earliest one I can recall was in 1994 in Bohol).  The Supreme Court ruled that there must be a law in order for these changes to happen.

The Supreme Court said, “ Under the Civil Register Law, a birth certificate is a historical record of the facts as they existed at the time of birth.Thus, the sex of a person is determined at birth, visually done by the birth attendant (the physician or midwife) by examining the genitals of the infant. Considering that there is no law legally recognizing sex reassignment, the determination of a person’s sex made at the time of his or her birth, if not attended by error, is immutable.”

The Mely Silverio decision also gave a contentious definition of male and female, when it said that, “Female is the sex that produces ova or bears young and male is the sex that has organs to produce spermatozoa for fertilizing ova.”

A year later, another case on gender identity was dealt with by the Supreme Court. This time it involved Jeffrey Cagandahan, an intersex person.  In 2003, Jeffrey filed for a petition to change his sex from female to male. He said that he developed male characteristics when he was growing up because of his condition called, Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. In 2005, the lower trial court ruled in his favour. Using the same argument in the Mely Silverio case that there’s no law allowing change of sex in the birth certificate, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) appealed for the reversal of the decision.

In September 2008, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled in favour of Jeffrey. In the decision, the Supreme Court didn’t mind that there’s no law in the Philippines regarding changing ones legal sex. As the decision said, “In the absence of a law on the matter, the Court will not dictate on respondent concerning a matter so innately private as one’s sexuality and lifestyle preferences… Respondent is the one who has to live with his intersex anatomy. To him belongs the human right to the pursuit of happiness and of health. Thus, to him should belong the primordial choice of what courses of action to take along the path of his sexual development and maturation.”

Whether or not the Jeffrey Cagandahan case overturned the Mely Silverio decision is still subject for legal debate. Though Jeffrey and Mely have different conditions (although some may argue that transsexualism is an intersex condition), their cases have the same legal issue: Whether or not the courts can decide to change a person’s legal sex in the absence of legislation about it.  But the telling difference between the two cases is how the Supreme Court viewed intersex conditions and transsexualism: Intersex condition was seen as part of nature’s diversity of nature, while transsexualism was viewed as artificial.

In pushing for legislation for gender recognition law in the Philippines, it must be argued that transsexualism, or having and living a gender identity opposite to your sex assignment at birth, is not artificial nor superficial. It is a natural phenomenon. It is as natural as having and living a gender identity that matches your sex assignment at birth. The law should honour and reflect this reality. And to paraphrase that liberating line in the Supreme Court on the Cagandahan decision, “To us belongs the human right to the pursuit of happiness and of health. Thus, to us should belong the primordial choice of what courses of action to take along the path of his sexual development and maturation.”

Challenging Discrimination in Establishments: The Ice Vodka Bar Incident and the Renaissance Hotel Incident

The Ice Vodka Bar Incident that took place in May 2008, involving me and other members of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). The bar said that we’re not allowed to enter a bar because they said we were “inappropriately dressed” and that foreign men don’t like us there as people like us mislead them into thinking that we were “real women”.

On behalf of STRAP, I wrote an  open letter about the incident. The manager of the bar apologized to us, and removed the discriminatory policy . STRAP also filed a complaint to the owner of the mall (AyalaLand) where the bar is located. The management of the Ayala Malls apologized to us in a letter saying “We empathize with you .… We wish to clarify that we do not have any agreement whatsoever with Ice Vodka Bar or other merchants in our mall to prohibit transsexual women from entering Ayala Mall. Rest assured that we have noted your recommendations and will brief our merchants to be more sensitive in attending such matter to prevent the recurrence of the same incident.”

However, two years after, a similar incident happened in the same mall. A security guard of the mall told us that we couldn’t enter the mall as we were not allowed there. We held another dialogue with the management of the mall, reminding them of their promise that a similar incident wouldn’t happen in their mall again. We were informed that the security guard has already been relieved and they promised that it will not happen again.

In July 2009, Rica Paras and Naomi Fontanos experienced a discriminatory incident in a hotel in Makati. Naomi recounted the incident on her blog, “Rica Paras and I wanted to have a fun and relaxing 4th of July weekend and were vacillating between going to the beach and staying in the city. “

When they used the female sauna of the hotel, “the same receptionist came in. She took an empty basin lying around but before she stepped out, Rica asked if we could have two towels. The receptionist nodded her head, came back with the towels but upon her return, looked at us and said “I’m sorry but what are you?” I was starting to get angry and looked at Rica who told her again “We’re women.” The receptionist said “Ah okay” and giggled as she stepped out of the sauna.”

“Rica and I were already upset. Around 10 minutes later, we heard a knock. We said “Yes?” and the lady who knocked opened the door. It was another hotel attendant and she said “Good afternoon SIR! I’m sorry but you have to transfer to the male sauna.” To which I replied, “Do not insult us. Do not call us sir! How dare you barge in here and ask us to transfer to the male sauna. Who do you think you are and who do you think we are?” The attendant said, “I’m sorry but it is policy.” Rica retorted, “It is policy? Show me the policy! Don’t you think people will be scandalized more if they see female bodies in the male sauna? You will have to drag us out of here!” The attendant closed the door and we stayed in the sauna. Another 10 minutes passed and the sauna door opened once more. This time, it was the duty manager with a male guard beside her. The male guard peeped in and then the duty manager in the same hostile tone said “I’m sorry SIR, but it is policy that you have to transfer to the other side.” It was my turn to ask and I said “Policy? What policy? Is it written in black and white? Show me that document first!” The duty manager answered, “Well based on your registration, you checked in under MALE names.” I said, “Those are our legal names and we didn’t have a choice on the matter; but they do not determine our gender!” The duty manager replied “But it is policy that if you are male, then you have to use the male area and if you are female, the female area.” Exasperated, Rica just said “Can you just let us finish please?” The male guard rudely barked “Five minutes!” after which he and the duty manager left.

Rica and I took our time. After getting ourselves decent, we stepped out and proceeded to the reception. There the pool attendant, a lady guard, another male guard and the receptionist were on stand-by. Upon seeing us, the receptionist said “I will need your signature to sign out MA’AM” and handed us the forms that we signed on our way in. I took my form, signed it and when I looked up, the pool boy who was looking by said, “I apologize for the inconvenience MA’AM but it is policy.” I said, “Inconvenience? This is an INSULT! Policy? In my book this is DISCRIMINATION!” After signing out, Rica and I both asked to be escorted to the office of the General Manager (GM). The lady guard perhaps misheard us and said the manager was waiting for us downstairs. So we took the elevator going down and stepped out into the lobby. The lady guard accompanying us directed us to take seats near the front desk and wait for the manager who would see us shortly. Rica and I were surprised when it was the same duty manager who sat down with us. I introduced myself and Rica to her politely and immediately told her that we felt insulted and disrespected with what happened earlier. The duty manager said, “I’m sorry but I did not insult you.” Rica said, “But I felt insulted with what you did!” I asked the duty manager, “Tell me, who was harmed by our use of the female sauna?” She just looked at me. I told her, “No one was harmed right? But by asking us to use the male area, do you know that you are actually harming us psychologically?” Then she said, “I am sorry but it is our policy.” Rica then addressed her, “You keep saying that it is policy. We want to see the policy because I have been using other Marriott hotels before all around the world and I have never been treated like this. Only in my own country have I been insulted and disrespected in a Marriott hotel!”

The duty manager addressing Rica said, “Yes, I checked our records. I know that you are our Silver Member. There is actually no written policy but based on the names that you registered under…” Rica cut her short and said, “I am registered as MISS in the records. You can check it for yourself!” The duty manager said, “But they are MALE names…” I cut her short and said “Again, those are our LEGAL names. They do not determine our gender! Besides, do I look male to you?” to which she said, “Well your looks are deceiving.” I could not take it anymore and said, “Tell me, whose needs needed to be satisfied with your insistence for us to transfer to the male sauna? Who needed to be happy to see us embarrassed and humiliated by being asked to transfer to the male sauna? No one right? Because nobody was complaining! Then it is only you who needed to be happy. It was your personal prejudice and bigotry that needed to be satisfied with your insistence that we use the male sauna. Because people like you will stop at nothing to embarrass and humiliate people like us. Because people like you can only feel good about themselves after putting down people like us. Because as far as you are concerned, people like us do not have the education, the money, and the right to be in a hotel like this. So I hope today, you made yourself very happy. I hope today you are very proud of yourself!”

“To which the duty manager said, “Yes I am very proud.” I said, “Well then this conversation is finished. We want to see the GM so we can file a formal complaint. We also want to escalate this to the International Customer Service. You are a modern hotel but your attitudes are stuck in the Middle Ages!” Rica and I stood up and went back to the room. That night after dinner, we tried to see the GM but he was already off-duty. Rica and I spoke to the night duty manager Jhun and asked him to make an appointment for us to see the GM at 9 am the next day.”

“On Saturday morning, July 4, 2009, Rica and I got ready to meet with the GM. At a little over 9 am, we went to see him. Rica recounted to the GM what transpired the previous day. The GM was understanding and apologized outright for what happened. He thought that the situation the day before could have been better handled. Rica told him that all we wanted was to relax for the weekend, use the hotel’s amenities and enjoy ourselves; but instead what happened, happened and now we had to use up what little time was left for us to enjoy the hotel by seeing him just to complain. Rica told the GM that she felt it was important for him to know because as someone who has been using the services of Marriott hotels around the world, not once has she encountered any bad experience except at the Renaissance Hotel and in her own country at that. She added that if the Renaissance Hotel could treat people like us that way, then what’s stopping the hotel staff from mistreating others based on skin color, religion, disability and other petty reasons.”

“The GM thanked us for coming to see him and personally informing him of what happened. He said that the Renaissance Hotel always aims to make every customer happy and comfortable and that what happened to us went directly against what the whole hospitality industry stood for. He asked us if we wanted to dialogue with the day duty manager. We agreed. He stepped out to fetch her and sat all of us down together. The duty manager started by telling us that what took place the day prior was also very difficult for her; but for whatever it was worth she wanted to extend her apologies to us. Rica told the duty manager that as a manager herself, she knew that there were ways of treating people without disrespecting them. She added that for the weekend, she just wanted me and her to have a great time but it was ruined by the incident at the sauna which Rica felt the duty manager mishandled.”

“I pointedly told the duty manager that when we travel abroad nothing of this sort ever happens to us. Only in our country do we get treated so inhumanly because of people like her. That is why, in spite of the fact that we love our country very much and think it is a very beautiful country indeed, we feel that we must leave it because no matter how hard we work, no matter what good schools we come from, no matter what we personally achieve, people like her will always make us feel bad about ourselves. Rica told the duty manager and the GM that even if we accepted both of their apologies, we still felt that the proper redress to what occurred the day before was for us to document it and lodge a formal complaint within the Marriott system. Rica asked for the GM’s email address and told him that we will send him our letter the soonest time possible with recommendations on how to handle transgender guests and ensure that the Renaissance Makati City Hotel Manila is able to provide the best quality customer service to all its clients regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Rica left the GM her calling card while the GM gave both of us his.”

“We thanked both the GM and the duty manager for their time and willingness to listen and proceeded to the pool. We only had an hour left at that point to have our morning swim. After enjoying the pool for the last time, Rica and I went back to our room. A few moments later, a fruit basket was delivered to us. It was from the duty manager accompanied by a personal letter of apology from her.”

The Launch of the Transpinay Identity: Transpinay the Other Filipina

In 1987, in their attempt at self-definition, transsexual women in Malaysia coined the term “mak nyah”. Malaysian transgender activist Khartini Slamah explained that they did this “because we…wanted to define ourselves from a vantage point of dignity rather than from the position of derogation in which Malaysian society has located us.”

The Philippines, just like Malaysia, does not have any local term to describe the transsexual experience. Transsexual women are often called “bakla” or “gay” by Filipino society. These terms imply that a Filipina transsexual woman is a man rather than a woman. Because of this, following the footsteps of mak nyahs, STRAP coined the term “transpinay”.

During the 2008 Manila Pride March, STRAP launched the transpinay identity. STRAP members joined the march wearing the terno, a traditional Filipina dress, while they ride the kalesa (horse carriage).

STRAP explains the transpinay identity: “TRANSPINAY means a female human being of Philippine descent who was given a male sex assignment at birth. It is a combination of the words transsexual, someone whose gender identity is directly opposite of his/her sex assignment at birth, and Pinay, the local term for Filipina, a girl/woman from the Philippines.This was proposed during one of our support group meetings and was voted upon by the general membership of STRAP. Other proposed terms were Transbabae and Transfilipina.

As compared to local terms such as bakla and bayot, transpinay doesn’t include homosexual males. Transpinay isn’t about sexual orientation or preference. A transpinay can be sexually/romantically attracted to other females (in that she is a lesbian), to males (in that she is straight), to both males and females (in that she is a bisexual), or to none at all (in that she is asexual).

As compared to the nascent term ladyboy, transpinay doesn’t maliciously or unwittingly call a girl/woman of transsexual experience a “boy/man”. Calling a transpinay a ladyboy is no different from simply calling her a “boy/man”, an offensive act.

A transpinay is not a homosexual/gay man nor a boy/man who is ladylike. A transpinay is not a crossdresser; she is not a boy/man who likes to dress. A transpinay is not a variation of male but a variation of female. A transpinay may be pre-op (have not yet have sex reassignment surgery but desires to have undergo it), post-op (have already had sex reassignment surgery), or non-op (does not desire to have sex reassignment surgery). All the same, no matter what their genital surgery status is, they are all females. A transpinay is not a boy/man wanting to be a “real” girl/woman – she is already one.

We acknowledge that TRANSPINAY, just like any other word, cannot adequately stand-in for what we actually are. Nonetheless, TRANSPINAY symbolizes our right to define our gender identity: A movement to reclaim that right from other cultural forces.”

The transpinay identity is now becoming widely-used. In 2009, GMA 7, one of the Philippines major network, had a documentary with Transpinay as its title. It featured the lives of several transpinays, which include trans beauty pageant legends Kristine Madrigal and Barbie Arcache.

Trans Celebrities Speak Out Against Discrimination Based on Gender Expression

Inday Garutay and BB Gandanghari are two Filipino trans celebrities. Their experience is a reminder that fame cannot free you from discrimination.

Inday Garutay is a comedian in the Philippines, who got her fame from impersonating the late Inday Badiday, who was considered as “Philippine television’s queen of showbiz talk shows”.  The blog of the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Network (LAGABLAB) narrated the story, “According to Inday Garutay, she was in Aruba restaurant in Metrowalk Commercial Center, Pasig City, last Tuesday, July 4, 2006, at around 6.30 PM, with her boyfriend. She was to meet her Manager and another friend before her show in Zirkoh.”

“She was already inside the establishment when the incident took place. After coming back from the ladies toilet, she was reportedly told by the manager of the restaurant that she has to leave because of the establishment’s dress code. The supervisor for Aruba Metrowalk, Ms. Tin-Tin Aguilar, allegedly said that the dress code bars cross-dressing clients from entering the establishment. Despite being told that Inday was in fact already inside the establishment and that the dress code is discriminatory, Ms. Aguilar reportedly insisted that Inday should leave. Since it was futile to reason out to Ms. Aguilar that the policy is objectionable and biased, Inday decided to leave the establishment.”

Because of the incident, an investigation was launched by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights but it didn’t progress as the owners of the bar didn’t attend the investigation session. A court case against the bar was filed by Inday Garutay. Aruba Bar filed a motion to dismiss the case because the court where Inday Garutay filed the case has no jurisdiction over the bar and “Nothing also exempts homosexuals from the application of a validly and legally imposed dress code, such that a violation of such exemption would amount to legal discrimination. The true essence of democracy requires that such a dress code be applied to all persons,” regardless of race, status, sex, or sexual preference.” The incident also gave motivation for the re-filing of the Anti-Discrimination Bill during the 13th session of Philippine Congress and Senate hearing on criminalizing discrimination against LGBT Filipinos also took place.

Reading the case filed by Inday Garutay, it seemed that like the Jonathan Agudana case, this was primarily seen as discrimination based on sexual orientation rather discrimination based on gender expression.

BB Gandanghari, who was formerly known as Rustom Padilla, was a former matinee idol and one of the most bankable leading man of her time. In 2009, she shocked the whole country when she came back from her vacation from New York. She proclaimed upon arrival that she is a woman. This solicited different reactions. Some were very supportive of her right to self-determination, some were disturbed and disgusted by her affirmation of her gender identity.

In April 2009, almost three years later after the Inday Garutay incident, BB Gandanghari also suffered the same discriminatory treatment from Aruba Bar. However, BB didn’t file against Aruba Bar and became contented in questioning Aruba’s discriminatory policy through an open letter, which she posted on her blog.

She said: “What special right does Aruba Bar & Restaurant have that they can just force human beings to conform their gender expression to the gender expression traditionally associated with their assigned sex at birth? What special right does Aruba Bar & Restaurant have that they can just inflict indignity on their fellow human beings? What special right does Aruba Bar & Restaurant have that they can just enforce such transphobic policies with impunity?”

Aruba Bar is not the only bar in the Philippines that have been reported to refuse entrance to transgender people. Other bars include Manor Superclub, Members Only, Cafe Havana, and Encore (formerly known as Embassy).

The Media and Transpinays: From our bodies to social issues

Prior to the first decade of the 21st century, Philippine media’s interest towards transgender people has mostly been limited to issues of body modification. This has changed in the past ten years. The social issues faced by transpinays are now more widely-discussed in Philippine media.

Philippine broadsheets such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), Manila Times, and Businessworld have all published feature stories on  transgender issues. PDI’s feature on Bemz Benedito and Brenda Alegre highlighted employment discrimination and the social ridicule and legal obstacles that transgender Filipinos face. The article ended with a very affirming statement from Brenda: “Believing that we are women is not a psychological disorder. This is who we are and what we are.” The Manila Times feature explored the intricacies of gender identity and expression. And Businessworld published an article penned by Naomi Fontanos and an interview of Nadine Barcelona.

Major women’s fashion magazine such as the now-defunct Marie Claire and Metro Magazine gave space for transpinays to voice out their concerns. Both Marie Claire’s 2007 feature and Metro Magazine’s feature of Dee Mendoza in its 2010 Women’s Month issue affirmed the womanhood of transpinays. UNO Magazine, which is a men’s magazine, published an article about transpinay’s quest for the right to self-determination when it featured STRAP’s chair Naomi Fontanos in August 2010. And Women’s Journal covered the 8th Anniversary celebration of STRAP in 2010.

LGBT magazines such as Outrage, Ketchup, and the now-defunct icon have also consistently gave space to transgender issues, and even featured articles written by transgender people themselves.

During the latter part of 2009, two television giants had transpinays in their primetime shows: Justine Ferrer in GMA 7’s Survivor Philippines; and Rica Paras in ABS-CBN’s Big Brother Double-Up Edition. They have been embraced by Philippine viewers. And their participation in these reality TV shows inspired a lot of transpinays as they showed to Philippine society the dignity of their humanity.

Transpinays in International Media

Transpinays have also been featured by media outside the Philippines.

Raci Ignacio was part of the cast of TransGeneration, an eight episode documentary series that tells the story of transgender college students in the United States. Raci, an Ilocana transpinay, was a merit-based scholar in California State University. The documentary was shown on Logo LGBT television network and on the Sundance Channel in 2005. It was also screened in several festivals and independent theatres as a feature film.

Minerva Rios, a Cebuana transpinay, starred in the award winning film the Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela. Produced, written, and directed by the Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur, Queen Raquela tells the story of a transpinay working in the sex industry, who travelled the world in search of true love. It premiered in the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival and won the Teddy Award for Best Feature film. After that, it was screened in different film festivals, including the 2008 Cinemanila International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize.  Undeniably, the success of Queen Raquela was largely brought by the powerful, authentic, and heartwarming performance of its star, inspiration, and soul, Minerva Rios.

The famous French weekly magazine Paris Match featured Rica Paras, Bemz Benedito, the performers of the stunning trans cabaret show of Club Mwah, and myself in May 2010. And in the 2010 winter edition of the Join, a campus magazine in the Netherlands, Adri Pangilinan graced its front cover and was the inspiration of their main feature article.

The Rise of the Power Transpinays: Bemz Benedito, Naomi Fontanos, and Ruvic Rea

Ruvic Rea gained prominence because of the acts of lasciviousness case she filed against two city councils (See: Confronting Sexual Violence…).  She served as a Barangay Captain in Quezon Province. Barangay is the smallest unit of government in the Philippines.  She might be the first out and self-identifying transwoman ever elected as Barangay Captain, if not the first out and self-idnetifying transwoman ever elected in a government position in the Philippines.

Bemz Benedito and Naomi Fontanos are the first transwomen in the Philippines to run for a nationally elected government position. Bemz Benedito was the first nominee and Naomi Fontanos was the fourth nominee in Philippine Congress of Ang Ladlad Party List when they first qualified to run for elections in 2010. Currently both of them hold the highest leadership position in the two of the major LGBT organizations in the Philippines, Bemz is the current chairperson of Ang Ladlad Party List, while Naomi is the current chair of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP).

Bemz, Naomi, and Ruvic gave rise to a new wave of transgender Filipinos as they prove to Philippine society that leadership is not a matter of gender identity but of capability and dedication to serve the people.

The Half-Opened Doors of Employment Opportunities

The rise of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), call centers, and other multi-national companies in the Philippines gave transgender Filipinos another avenue to gain a living and build a career besides working in the entertainment, beauty, fashion, and sex industries.

Because most of these companies have anti-discrimination policies they have been more willing to accept transgender employees. Hence there’s a considerable number of transgender Filipinos working in them. Nonetheless we still here stories of transgender people being rejected because of being transgender.  And those who have been hired still have to fight discriminatory policies that aren’t aligned with the principle of diversity and non-discrimination these companies have. Restroom use and no-cross-dressing policies are among the issues that transgender Filipinos have to deal with in these companies.

The story of Mae Hernandez is classic restroom story that transpinays face in the workplace. As reported in the blog of Naomi Fontanos, “”Needing to use the bathroom upon arrival at work one Friday afternoon, she rushed to the women’s bathroom…Five minutes later while powdering her face in front of the bathroom mirror, Mae heard the voice of a security guard ordering her to get out. The guard stood by the bathroom door barking reasons at Mae why she did not belong to the women’s bathroom. Shocked, Mae tried to explain to the guard that she was female. The guard was belligerent, however, and threatened her if she did not step out. Humiliated and scandalized by the growing number of onlookers, Mae thought she had no choice. She left the bathroom in tears.”

IBM Global Services used to have an explicit policy against cross-dressing. They are not the only company in the Philippines that has this policy. What makes IBM interesting is that it’s a company globally renowned and celebrated for its gender diversity policy which includes freedom of gender expression. This point out that progressive policies of multinational  companies don’t always get applied in the countries outside the country of their headquarters. The cross-dressing policy of IBM was removed sometime in July-August 2009 when, through the help of MJ Yap of Lesbian Advocates of the Philippines, I reported it to Ms Silvy Vluggen, the GLBT Program Manager Global Workforce Diversity of IBM,  who happened to attend the International Business Equality Index workshop that I also attended during the International Conference on LGBT Human Rights of Outgames 2009 in Copenhagen.

Other than the restroom issue and no-crossdressing policies, another important employment issue that transgender Filipinos face is that explicit policy of health insurance companies not to cover transgender related healthcare.

Despite these issues, we hear stories of transpinays who have spearheaded change in the companies that they work for. One of them is the story of Rain Villagonzalo, who is popularly known for winning beauty pageant for transwomen, which includes Super Si Reyna and the Queen of Cebu. Rain has pioneered the change of policies towards transgender employees in the company she is working for. Now, the company have transgender-responsive company policy and practices.

The Rio Moreno Case: The Right to be a Woman All the Time

Yes: transgender Filipinos can go to school and universities in the Philippines. But it doesn’t always mean that their gender identity and gender expression will be respected by the educational institution. Rio Moreno’s story proves this.

Rio attended Nursing school wearing women’s uniform. All her classmates and teachers referred to her as Miss Rio and treated her as a woman. Sometime in July 2008, after one of the security guards saw that Rio’s name on her ID was male, Rio was asked to go into the Office of Student Affairs (OSA). The OSA required her to wear men’s uniform and that she have to be identified and treated as male because Rio’s birth certificate says male.

A compromise was reached after a dialogue with the OSA (which included an exchange of temper between me and the school administrator).  The OSA head agreed that she could wear the female uniform as long as she wears the one with pants. However, OSA Head remained indifferent and disturbingly apathetic when we pointed out that “forcing a transsexual person to live according to the norms of their sex assignment at birth would seriously damage their psychological well-being.”

Filipino Trans Immigration Issues

There is a growing report of various Filipina transwomen who were approached by immigration officers while waiting in line to enter Hon Kong and asked to follow them to holding rooms. When the women asked why, the officers said it was a standard “security check.“ Once inside these holding areas, these trans women’s treatment varies. Some of them are outrightly accused of being prostitutes and some are asked how much money they are carrying, as if that would prove they are not there for sex work. One, in fact, suffered the inhuman experience of being strip searched. Some are held for hours without being informed of the reason for their detention; while some others have been asked to exit Hong Kong at once with no official document stating the reason why.

STRAP initiated a dialogue with Hong Kong immigration in 2008. The result was a letter from Hong Kong immigration outlining their complaint procedure. This was the best response STRAP got from them. So the next time we encounter being pulled out of the immigration queue and into a room where we are further interrogated, we just have to file a complaint right there and then.

There is also a need to address the safety and legal needs of overseas transgender Filipinos workers in countries that have anti-crossdressing laws, such as Saudi Arabia. I know that this is such a challenging issue given that we have no choice but to follow the laws of the countries in which we live and work.

Another emerging immigration issue involves the discrepancy between Philippine laws and countries that have gender recognition laws. I wrote in February 2010 about the case of Jenny Ramsey when the Philippine Embassy in Germany refused to renew her passport because they said she couldn’t have dual identity. She is legally recognized as female in Germany, while she is legally male in the Philippines.

To the next generation of Filipino transgender activists…

To the emerging generation of transgender Filipinos who would like to stand up for human rights, who would dare to speak up and influence change, and who would want to work to make a brighter future happen for all of us, the decade that was made us see that the proverbial room for improvement is real and its door is already open.  This room for improvement is a space for growth. A time to learn anew and unlearn the growth-barriers we have, consciously or unconsciously, brought to ourselves. A reminder that change is not a dead thing but a living and continuous unfolding of our lives. The fruits of improvement always go through a bitter phase, but eventually, it will ripen into the sweet taste of maturity. The room for improvement is the space where the faith in the infinite possibility of change resides.

Every one of us can be the difference that can make a difference on someone’s childhood and to be a living testament that hope, courage, and determination can triumph over oppression. The inglorious trinity of discrimination, violence, and marginalization that we experience is not the natural order of things but a social condition. Just like any other social condition, their continuation lives and thrives on our apathy.

Contributed By:

Sass Rogando Sasot
Aberdeen, United Kingdom
2 January 2011

For the original version of this article, please read this note.

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