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(Almost) a woman

By Ida L. Bata
Sunday Inquirer Magazine
First Posted 18:56:00 03/06/2010

“I AM a woman. I’m not gay.”

This succinct line from a song by a local artist best describes how Transpinays (or Filipino transsexuals) see and accept themselves –and hope the rest of the world would too.

The words reflect the experience of Filipino transsexual women, says Brenda R. Alegre, a clinical psychologist who has completed a study on transgenderism. Herself a transsexual, Alegre explains that they are individuals whose sex and gender are in opposition, and so they seek to hormonally or surgically alter their bodies to match their gender identities. Gays, on the other hand, do not feel the need to change their genitals, she adds.

Alegre began her research back in 1993 while completing a Psychology course at the University of Santo Tomas. “The research was something I really wanted to do. My feeling of being a woman is genuine and sprung from the time I was 5,” she shares. Her research included watching and joining gay and transsexual beauty pageants, visiting beauty salons to observe and interview hair stylists and customers, and watching TV programs and movies about characters conflicted about their sexual identities.

In 2005, Alegre met Dr. Sam Winter of Transgender Asia and Hong Kong University, as well as the founders of the Society of Transsexual Women in the Philippines (STRAP), the first advocacy and support group in the country for male to female (M2F) transgenders. They were her beacons, she says, encouraging her to complete the study within the scope of gender identity and sexual orientation.

“This is my advocacy. I want Filipinos to accept us as we are and realize that we too have equal rights and opportunities to jobs, education, marriage and political representation,” Alegre says. “It’s like a gift – you have to accept it whether it’s a good or bad one.”

The study’s 15 respondents, all aged 21 to 40, identified and presented themselves as women, not as homosexuals or a third gender. They have adopted female names, prefer to be called “ma’am” and referred to as a “she,” and would rather use the ladies’ washroom than the men’s room. They have also joined beauty pageants for transgenders and gays, considered a prelude to their transitioning ritual, which a few of them achieved through sex reassignment surgery (SRS). The surgical procedure costs at least P1 million and is available here, in the US, UK, Sweden, Denmark, Japan and Thailand.

Bemz D. Benedito, 31, national secretary of the gay organization Ang LadLad representing Transpinays, stresses the need to educate society about transsexualism and transgenderism and its distinction from homosexuality. “Most of the time, we are labeled as gays while others think that all transsexuals have undergone SRS,” she says. “Not all of us can afford this procedure,” she adds.

Their gender has been a source of discrimination, says Alegre. “Despite our academic qualifications, we can’t get the right jobs that fit our skills. There are many talented Transpinays who become entertainers and go to Japan and Thailand because of the lack of employment opportunities here. Entertainment is the only industry that shows us the quickest route to income. It has only been in the last 10 years or so, with the opening of call centers, that we’ve been given another career option. Still, it isn’t always a success story for many of us,” she says.

Alegre has worked for the last 12 years with four companies, carving a career path in Human Resources. Between these jobs, she has applied in some 100 companies.

“I have always presented myself as a transgender,” she says. “They’re impressed with my academic accomplishments and work experience, but when they see that I am transgendered, they don’t call me for further interviews. Companies in the Philippines and HR practitioners lack awareness on the transgender experience, so they’re inclined to turn us down.”

Society’s expectations also make things difficult, Alegre adds. “Companies want us to wear men’s uniforms, cut our hair, and use the men’s washroom. We cannot wear earrings and make up. They will not even allow configuration of emails based on our preferred female names. My advice to companies is: hire us first. Skills and the right attitude make a good employee,” she says.

Benedito echoes similar frustrations. Academically accomplished with degrees in Mass Communications and Sociology, she recalls unflattering remarks from colleagues while working on a research project at Ateneo.

Cruel taunts are frequently thrown her way by bystanders when she’s walking on the street or waiting for a cab. “They call me names like bakla, mang-aagaw ng lakas, or salot. Occasionally, I would challenge them to take a good look at themselves and what they’ve done to improve themselves. But most of the time, I just ignore them,” she sighs.

Like Alegre, she has been turned away by companies because of her gender identity. She remembers a male manager of a call center in Ortigas telling her during the final interview that though she performed excellently in the written and oral exams, he cannot take her in because she’s gay, wears women’s clothes, and it is against his (Mormon) religion.

Benedito doesn’t mince words when talking about how the Comelec abused its authority as a legal institution when it called the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community immoral and a threat to the youth. Ang Ladlad, she says, complied with the Partylist system law when it applied for accreditation to represent gays. Comelec however ruled that the group advocates immorality, citing Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code on lust and pornography. A false claim, she explains, because being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender isn’t an interpretation of pornography.

All transgender groups are ready to soldier on if the Supreme Court’s final decision is in their disfavor. They will then step up their education campaign on the rights of LGBTs around the country and will re-apply for party list accreditation during the next national election.

Apart from a more compassionate government, Alegre is pinning her faith on a more enlightened academe, as well as medical and social workers. “Studies on gender differences should be included in the sex and health education classes in the elementary grades and high school. Schools must include activities for transsexuals since most educational programs are designed for male and female students. Social workers must provide the right counseling and job placements for us,” she says.

Alegre and Benedito insist that they’re not batting for tolerance for their gender identity and sexual orientation, but for acceptance. Their advocacy and that of Ang LadLad is to reclaim their human rights as persons and as LGBTs. They are looking forward to that day when being transgendered in the Philippines does not make them beggars pleading for recognition and acceptance.

Says Alegre: “Believing that we are women is not a psychological disorder. This is w


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