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Liberation, BB Gandanghari Style

BY PAU FONTANOS AND SASS ROGANDO SASOT
Business World Magazine
March 27, 2009

As advocates for the Filipino lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, we watched in horror and disappointment as well-known members of our community, one after the other, came out on TV and other media disparaging Binibini (BB for short) Gandanghari. When BB Gandanghari first burst out into the scene, we, who make-up the "T" part of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, were excited that at last someone as high profile as BB had arrived and could potentially bring our issues to the fore and with matching beauty, wit, charm and aplomb at that.

That she was met instead with ridicule, criticism and nastiness only confirmed one thing that we have been contending with for some time now: that the LGBT community needs to do more in terms of educating society in general about equality and respect for diversity particularly in regard to trans-gender issues. For if those people who passed judgment on BB (and judge they did - from her fashion choices to her gender identity) had an inkling what the "T" in LGBT were all about, then perhaps they would have thought twice before they said anything in public to castigate her and cast aspersions on her motives for coming out.


The "T" in LGBT

The word "transgender," contrary to popular belief, does not equal transsexual. In fact, it is an umbrella term denoting a wide range of people regardless of sexual orientation. The term was coined in the US in the 1970s by Virgina Prince, a cross dresser and long-time advocate for the trans (short for transgender) community there to describe the process of changing her gender without changing her sex. Although in a very broad sense, the term "trans-gender" can actually include anyone from effeminate men to masculine-looking women, it is now more narrowly ascribed to people who identify as a gender opposite to the one assigned to them at birth (transsexuals) and those who express their gender in ways that are not traditionally associated with their birth-assigned one (cross-dressers, genderqueers, androgynes, etc.).

While only the term "trans-gender" is new, Jamison Green, a leading American transactivist asserts that transpeople have been known to exist in every race, culture and class of people since the beginning of time. According to Dr. Sam Winter, a leading researcher on the transgender phenomena in Asia, the Philippines shares along with other Asian countries such as Myanmar, Indonesia, India, Thailand, China and others a culture of transgender shamanism that dates back to pre-colonial times. As in other ancient cultures, transgender people in these countries were venerated as a third gender, male variant or female variant as they were thought to posses supernatural powers and thus worked as community healers and priestesses.

Unfortunately, as anthropologist and City University of New York Professor Emeritus Serena Nanda observes, the advent of colonial imperialism and "the imposition of European religions, cultures, law, and economies on non-Western societies, in most cases resulted in the marginalization or disappearance of indigenous alternative sex/gender roles." The marginalization of transgender people, in fact, is widespread and continues even up to now.


Transphobia: The prime mover of transgender oppression

It is common knowledge with-in the LGBT community that trans-folk make up its most oppressed sector. Because they are transgender, they simply have no rights. Many a transperson also lose personal relationships with loved ones including family and friends who are simply unable to deal with that person’s transgender status.

This anti-trans prejudice/hatred which often leads to violence and discrimination is known as transphobia and exacts a heavy toll on many transpeople’s lives. According to Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in the US: "We have people whose lives are being destroyed, people losing their kids, people being murdered, people committing suicide out of despair, people losing their jobs." Everywhere in the world, trans-people have been dying at a rate of one per month over the course of the last decade due to transphobic hate crimes. Ever since the International Transgender Day of Remembrance was launched 10 years ago to honor the victims of these senseless killings, more than 400 trans-gender people have died across the globe.

Thankfully, there is now a growing number of transgender activists in all continents who are starting to fight back, working painstakingly to reduce transprejudice and interrogate its evil twin, transphobia at every possible turn. Along with their allies, these transactivists have been toiling to secure for transpeople the most basic of human rights: equality under the law. A testament to the hard work they do is the growing number of states enshrining civil rights protections for their transgender citizens in countries like Spain, Turkey, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and many others. Today, human rights advocates are calling on the UN to adopt the Yogyakarta Principles, which is an application of international human rights standards not only in relation to sexual orientation but also to gender identity and expression as well.


Rethinking gender, reclaiming lives

One of the major lessons in the struggle for transgender liberation is the need to revolutionize how people think about gender. It has been noted that a key player in people’s transphobia is their understanding or lack thereof of gender itself. The prevailing discourse on gender purports that it is cultural, something that you are socialized into. In other words, if you are born with male genitalia, assigned a male gender at birth and are reared to be male, then you must turn out male. The same goes for those with female genitalia, assigned female at birth and taught female roles. Transpeople clearly negate this formula; but instead of fixing the theory to fit reality, experts have taken to blaming transpeople themselves for being who they are. Confounding the situation are people’s rigid notions of what it means to be a man or woman. As the writer Jennifer Boylan remarks "But gender is malleable and elusive, and we need to become comfortable with this fact, rather than afraid of it."

And perhaps this is the lesson

that BB Gandanghari brings to us. Gender diversity exists and it is high time to teach our children to be comfortable with difference. More importantly, it is time to teach children that being different does not mean something is wrong with you. It also does not mean you are less of a person.

BB Gandanghari may very well be the face of the hundreds of thousands of transpinays (transgender Filipinas) who are here and exist in the margins of Philippine society. We are happy she is back home and we welcome her. Moreover, we applaud her for asserting her human right to be her true self: a cornerstone principle not only of the sexual liberation movement but as well as of the global transgender revolution, which has now reached these shores.


Pau Fontanos, 31, and Sass Rogando Sasot, 27, are members of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), a support, contact and information group for girls and women of transsexual experience in the Philippines. For more information visit www.tsphilippines.com.

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