Up close and personal

BY JOHANNA D. POBLETE, Reporter
Businessworld Weekender magazine

It’s hard to be a woman, but it’s harder to become a woman. Female issues revolve around empowerment, battling for the same entitlements given to men — the right to be educated, to vote, to hold public office, to work and earn fair wages, to have marital as well as parental rights, to have religious freedom, to have bodily autonomy even — but one tends to forget that transgender individuals are struggling for the same fundamental rights sometimes taken for granted by the traditionally male and female members of society.


"As far as I can remember, I’ve always identified myself as feminine."?— Nadine The general appellation of "trans-gender" refers to "people who express their gender in ways that are not traditionally associated with their birth-assigned one" (cross-dressers or transvestites, genderqueers, androgynes), and who "identify with a gender opposite to the one assigned to them at birth" (transsexuals) — a definition approved by 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.

Although one would hope that gender variance would be more accepted in modern society, this is not the case. The UN Special Rapporteur reported as late as 2006 that girls who display same-sex affection face discrimination and expulsion from educational institutions, whereas lesbian and transgender women are at increased risk of discrimination, homelessness and violence.

Locally, cross-dressers are banned from certain nightclubs, and the simple matter of entering the toilet becomes complicated when people from both sexes prefer that gay men and transwomen be isolated in a restroom of their own. Transgender individuals also experience difficulty in finding productive work outside the entertainment and beauty industries; transgenders consulted by BusinessWorld revealed that going to an interview decked out in all their female glory makes them ineligible for the job in a heartbeat.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a comedian or a hairstylist, but if the society limits us to these professions alone then it becomes a problem. In fashion and beauty, it’s all the same. We are not limited by what we do. We are limited by the society that we live in," said Nadine*, a 27-year-old fashion designer turned full-time human rights advocate, who recently underwent surgery in an ongoing process of crafting her female identity.

"I believe the Filipino society is more tolerant than accepting. It is perhaps due to the pagan roots of respecting nature around us and not to contribute anything to disturb its harmony. So people tolerate us because their subconscious tells them this is what history and evolution is all about. And yet, when we start insisting on our basic human rights as women, it is a completely different story for them," she wrote in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.


Innately female

Gender variance can be confusing, but the key is remembering only four things: 1. Sex at birth, 2. Preferred gender, 3. Sexual identity and 4.Sexual preference. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are based on sexual identity (no. 3) and sexual preference (no. 4) only, and these are completely independent from the rest. Nadine was born male and prefers to be female, identifies herself as female, and is attracted to men. If she had been attracted to another male-to-female transsexual or another natal born female, she would’ve been lesbian (or homosexual, or slang gay).

Most transgender individuals would insist that there is really no choice in the matter, that they’ve identified themselves with a particular gender from birth, regardless of their physiology and how other people treat them in their formative years. If any choice is involved, it is whether to stay true to this identity.

"As far as I can remember, I’ve always identified myself as feminine. I grew up choosing dolls over cars and found myself either in the company of my female cousins or raiding through my Mom’s closet with her pretty things... They just came very naturally, like breathing and survival. Like a set of ’a priori,’ being feminine was innate to me. So I behaved as my mind and heart can only dictate... the logic, mannerism, patterns of behavior — everything always has been female," explained Nadine.

The conscious decision she made was to align her physical body with how she thought and felt, a transition best made with the expertise of a psychiatrist, an endocrinologist, and a surgeon; and in her particular case, amounting to an investment worth "two brand-new luxury cars." But it started simply with wearing chokers under her male school uniform, painting her toenails, and wearing leather shoes a tad higher than usual - a move initially met with disfavor by the authority figures at the Catholic school for boys she attended, and by her family, who thought she was "an effeminate gay guy."

"This is not to be mistaken as a comic indulgence of how little boys parade around with flamboyance and humorous gender innuendos. This was us being ourselves, and no amount of pun nor pundit can break down the principles and values that define the very core of our existence," said Nadine, who objects to being identified as a gay man simply because it runs contrary to her conviction of being female in every way that counts, and perpetuates an erroneous and often undignified stereotype.

"Transsexuals are NOT gay men who just happen to be happier wearing female clothes. It is completely heartbreaking to be reminded time and again of our society that continually sees us as comic relief and reliable sources of entertainment and slapstick humor," she said.

Gay, and proud to be

Rica (formerly Lemuel) Gonzalez, is a 25-year-old currently contemplating sex-reassignment surgery. Her friend since high school, Marla (formerly Marlon) Quiñones, is 24 years old and also open to sexual reassignment before reaching her 30s, given the chance. Both have already undergone breast implantation and continuously take hormonal shots and pills to maintain a feminine appearance, partly because it is required of them as "showgirls" for A.Y.D.A. Arts & Entertainment (specializing in corporate events and regular performance gigs at Library Comedy Bar and Bed in Malate), and partly because it makes them happy and more fulfilled as individuals.

Their experience is similar to Nadine’s in that their femininity also manifested in high school as young transvestites in platform shoes and reworked tight-fit polo shirts. The difference is that they do not object to being though of as "bading" (gay), and even refer to themselves as such, like a badge of honor, a testament to how they were born male but in every other way imaginable are female and attracted only to straight men.

Situations wherein they pass as natural born females — "di kami nabubuking" (we’re not exposed) — like in nightclubs where transvestites are not allowed, or riding the MRT car reserved for women, are a constant source of joy. Yet when they are approached by straight guys angling for a date, they automatically reveal their history.

"I don’t like to pretend. It’s hard. I’m proud of who I am... I don’t believe that this is because of the environment. This isn’t a disease, if it were, then I would have influenced my siblings," said Ms. Gonzalez in the vernacular, adamant her attitude will not change after the sex-reassignment surgery. "Kung paano ka matatanggap ng nasa paligid mo at ng pamilya mo, nasa bading iyan e, kung gusto mong irespeto ka, kung gusto mong tanggapin ka ng mga tao na nasa paligid mo, irespeto mo ang sarili mo. (How you will be accepted by the people around you and by your family, it’s up to the gay guy, if you want to be respected, if you want to be accepted by everyone around you, you have to respect yourself."

"Gay" a flexible term for Ms. Gonzalez and Ms. Quiñones. In colorful vernacular speech, they dismiss their in-born masculine traits as "imperfections" and the discrimination dealt them as challenges to overcome. Being female to them means a commitment to all things beautiful, to codes of behavior that are appropriate to situation and company and self-respect, and though they hold up the dignified "Maria Clara" type of woman as an ideal, they maintain that women today who are more independent, self-assured and sexually confident are actually taking a page from transgender individuals who developed such strong personalities because of what they went through to become what they are.


Ultimately human

Local slang such as "bading" or "bakla" (gay) is a preferable form of address to Ms. Gonzalez and Ms. Quiñones, rather than terms like charing, darna, papa, tita, georgia which are used as endearments within the gay community but are offensive when used by a straight person.

Nadine, for her part, points out that people nowadays need a refresher on humanities, down to using politically correct terms such as transsexual, transgender, transgirl and transwoman, rather than derogatory terms such as ladyboy, she-male, he-she, chicks-with-dicks and tranny, which are are widely used in the sex and pornography industries. (But she maintains that members of the Filipino transsexual community calling themselves gays or homosexuals are misguided; after all, based on the definition of transgender, being gay presupposes same-sex attraction.)

Femaleness is flexible. Nadine ventures that a woman can simply be a concept, an idea, a gauge that mirrors a society. Like love, it is open to interpretation (and as it is true with a lot of interpretations in life, some of them can be wrong, she added). While transwomen have physiologically female brains with male-developing bodies, the characteristic she finds completely feminine is the intrinsic ability to nurture in herself. However, without putting too fine a point on it, being a woman depends completely on self-actualization and the only definition that really matters is one’s own. "I believe I am a woman because I just am. The world will just have to deal with that," she said.

The question is, whether or not society will accept, not just tolerate, these self-actualizing women. In 2006, in response to well-documented patterns of abuse of transgender individuals, a group of international human rights experts met in Indonesia to outline a set of international principles — dubbed the Yogyakarta Principles — which address the broad range of human rights standards and their application to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. These included extrajudicial executions, violence and torture, access to justice, privacy, non-discrimination, rights to freedom of expression and assembly, employment, health, education, immigration and refugee issues, public participation, and a variety of other rights.

It is quite clearly stated that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

This includes the expression of identity or personhood through speech, deportment, dress, bodily characteristics, choice of name, or any other means, as well as the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, including with regard to human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, through any medium and regardless of frontiers."

At the end of the day, all three transgender interviewees speak not only of being women, but most importantly of being human beings and to be treated as such.

"Bear in mind that being a transsexual doesn’t summarize me as a person. It is but just one layer of a multitude of who I am. A dreamer, friend, fighter, heartbreaker, daughter, student, traveler, and a lot more would still describe who I am today. People easily overlook this? The difficult part is having to defend yourself in the most miniscule of ways that at the end of the day you’re not male or female, trans or non-trans, you’re just another human being living your life like any other," said Nadine.

"Pare-pareho lang tayo na naninirahan sa mundo. Tao rin kami, humihinga, nabubusog, nagugutom, nagkakasakit. Hindi nila kailangan ikasuklam ang pagiging bakla namin kasi as long as hindi namin sila tinatapakan, as long as wala kaming ginagawa na masama sa kanila, hindi kami kailangan nilang maliitin. (We are all people living in the same world. We are human like you, we breathe, we eat our fill, we go hungry, we get sick? You don’t have to denigrate our being gay, as long as we don’t step on you, as long as we don’t do anything harmful to you, you don’t have to belittle us)," said Ms. Gonzalez.

"Kasi kung ano ang kaya nilang gawin, kaya naming gawin, kaya pa naming higitan? pare-pareho lang tayong ng hangin na hinihigop at inilalabas, kaya walang punto, walang dahilan para ikahiya o ikagalit nila ang pagiging bakla, pare-pareho lang tayo ginawa at nilikha ng Diyos (What you’re capable of, we’re also capable of, and more beyond that? we breathe the same air, so there’s no point and no reason to be ashamed of us or to hate us, since we are all creations of God)," she continued.

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