The Laude-Pemberton double tragedy has been analysed from different angles — from sovereignty to inhumanity. The recent, but unexpected, confession of Pemberton that he arm-locked Laude after finding out that Laude was dressed in blue when she was born stirred the passion of trans activists because it bears resemblance to the “trans panic defense.” I won’t deal with whether this defense must be admitted as a mitigating factor in the Laude case. BuzzFeed first trans writer Meredith Talusan, a transpinay, wrote about this extensively in The Failed Logic of “Trans Panic” Criminal Defenses. The transpinay literary enfant terrible Miyako Izabel offers a contrarian view in Trans Panic: A Matter of Law or of Neuroscience?
Outrage Magazine’s editor asked me to write an article about Pemberton’s confession. At first, I said pass; but the subject kept bugging me. This article is about a dimension of the Laude-Pemberton tragedy that must be brought to light in order to save more lives and to encourage others to live authentically. This is a product of critical self-reflection and frank conversations with the members of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), the pioneer trans support and advocacy group in the country.
DECEPTION AND HONESTY
Though conceding that Pemberton committed a crime, the controversial intersex lawyer Bruce Rivera highlighted the alleged “deception” Laude committed. He even offered some curious suggestions on how to avoid this tragedy in the context of sex work. And they are not all utterly ridiculous: here in the Netherlands, in the red light district, blue lights illuminate the windows of sex workers who are trans women. Bruce entitled his article “Pemberton and Deception.” Though I agree with some of his points, I find this reductionist title very problematic: Pemberton is named, while Laude’s reduced into a “deception.” It conveys a message that this tragedy is about Pemberton and deception when in its complexity it is about Pemberton AND Laude AND the unfortunate choices they BOTH made that tragic evening. Though we shouldn’t always judge an article by its title, titles inevitably color our prose. That’s why Bruce’s article was perceived as insensitive.
But it wasn’t just the title that was insensitive. Some of them were forcefully highlighted by Babaylanes President Meggan Evangelista in her article teeming with pathos: “There is little Love and no justice for Jennifer Laude.”
“Many would use Jennifer’s fate as a reminder for other trans women to be “honest” to their cisgender partners,” Meggan wrote. “I’m curious how can this people in the LGBTQ community reconcile their call for trans women to be “honest” and their perpetual outcry for freedom in Pride marches. I ask this in the sense that a trans woman enjoys freedom when she lives her life and expresses her gender the way she wants. To ask her to be “honest” is telling her she’s a fraud. There’s an irony in all this and it’s vicious.”
Contra Meggan, reminding trans women to be honest to their partners is not about “telling her she’s a fraud.” That’s a very simplistic understanding of the function of honesty in the context of trans women’s sex and love life. Trans women live in the closet twice: the first time is when they try to hide that they are not the gender the doctor declared upon their birth; the second, when they conceal their life history, even to those they have an intimate relationship with. Without honesty, we live inside the closet. But closets are not for those who are seeking to live authentically.
Live authentically! Isn’t that the message Geena Rocero imparted when she decided to come out? She came out despite the fact that she had passed quite well as a non-trans woman in the industry she was working in. Is Geena’s honesty telling us that “she’s a fraud”? Why are we celebrating Geena’s honesty on Ted, while frowning at those who are suggestion that trans women must be honest with their partners? Part of the answer is that the discourse on disclosure is currently dominated by transphobic demands. Accordingly, reminding trans women to be honest is all about forcing them to accept that they are “really” men. And that is why we must reclaim from bigots and ignoramuses what honesty entails. We must propagate a discourse of disclosure informed by ethics and our lived experience as trans women and not by our wishful thinking.
Honesty is about practicing self-acceptance: accepting our unique path to being girls and women. Asking trans women to be honest is encouraging them to be not ashamed of how their girl and womanhood unfolded. There is nothing wrong with being a trans woman; thus, there is nothing wrong about being honest about it every time. As we can learn from the Teduray People in Mindanao, our path to womanhood is as valid and legitimate as the path to womanhood of girls and women born with vaginas. We invalidate the legitimacy of our girl — womanhood if we don’t take the courage to fully accept how our girl — womanhood came to be. And there cannot be acceptance without honesty. To paraphrase Gerard Doyle in Being You: How to Live Authentically: Unlocking the Power of the Freedom Code and Incorporating the Philosophy of Adaptive Freedom, dishonesty is a major roadblock to acceptance, which requires openness to flourish. Acceptance without honesty is a delusion.
Surely, there are people who chose to be in the closet. Let us indeed respect their choices. But respecting their choice doesn’t entail being blind and silent of the debilitating consequences of living inside the closet. In the context of the second closet, paranoia is one of these consequences. Geena even mentioned this in her Glamour News interview. She said she carried this paranoia with her every day. Rene, one of the members of STRAP who has already undergone sex affirmation surgery, described how she experienced this paranoia: The more she was able to hide to the guy her birth history, the more she feels her womanhood is affirmed by the guy, but the more her paranoia escalates.
Other trans women even go as far as constructing a different past in order to present themselves as women born with vagina. Can you imagine the web of lies they have to create and the resulting psychological, if not physical, tragedy that would ensue when that web collapses? Geena had something to say about this in her same interview with Glamour News:
“…the stress of constantly editing her life for her boyfriend proved too much. “One day he asked if I was ever a Girl Scout,” she recalls. “But I was a Boy Scout.” It was yet one more detail she had to gloss over, and, for some reason, the final straw. She felt sick and ran into the bathroom. “My head was spinning, and everything was going dark, like I was about to faint,” she says. “I was at the point of a breakdown.”
Even the cause célèbre of the Philippine trans community knows very well that living with constant paranoia is not living life in freedom. Paranoia will prevent you from forming an enduring intimate relationship and it will eventually make you really crazy.
ETHICAL SEX REQUIRES CONSENT AND CONSENT REQUIRES DISCLOSURE
I strongly agree without reservations that Laude didn’t deceive Pemberton by simply living as a woman. She is a woman. Period. She is, to use Meggan’s words, “[living] her life and [expressing] her gender the way she wants.”
To those who are confused, it’s okay to be confused, but don’t let your confusion lead you to kill people. Educate yourself. On the other hand, I also agree with Bruce: Laude concealed the genitalia she had. Based on Barbie’s testimony, Laude might have even exerted efforts to conceal it. For example, by asking Barbie to leave the room because Barbie was easily clockable. Throw rocks at me, but this act was deception. However, acknowledging this doesn’t entail invalidating Laude’s womanhood. Laude’s womanhood is not a deception. Again, her action during that night was the deception. But hold your rocks: I strongly believe that Pemberton must still go to jail. And I highly doubt that his invocation of self-defense can satisfy all the elements of the principles of the law of self-defense: innocence, reasonability, proportionality, avoidance, and imminence.
I’m not suggesting that we should always disclose what’s between our legs and that non-disclosure is always deception. For example, you don’t need to inform immigration officials at the airport which genitalia you have and they don’t have the right to ask it: your genitalia had nothing to do with border security. During job interviews, questions about your genitalia are very inappropriate and unnecessary, and can even count as sexual harassment — unless of course having a particular genitalia is essential in performing the job. I can go on and on discussing situations like these but this article is not enough.
But in the context of being a trans woman in intimate relationships, being honest about our genitalia is an important ingredient of the consent of people who would like to be intimate with us for a night or for life. This issue is not tacenda. We trans women must have a sisterly, open, and frank talk on how we negotiate sexual consent with those who don’t know we are trans. I opened up this topic recently on the FB group of STRAP. On the issue of disclosure, sexual consent and its relation with our bodies, here are some of the views of STRAP members who participated in that discussion:
Clara replied concisely: “I go for full disclosure. Nothing will be lost when we do it.”
Svetlana: “If we always live the truth…Everything will be alright. We prefer honesty most of the time especially from men. If we want to gain trust, we should be honest. Hence, the disclosure of who we are as a woman.”
Carolina: “For me, I go by the principle on a “need to know basis”. As long as you have not asked, I will not disclose. On the other hand, I write immediately in my profile in dating sites that I’m a trans woman so that things won’t get so much complicated…Sexual consent for me means both have agreed to have sex in their own volition, without doubts and reluctance; and of course, both of you should know and respect your boundaries and limitations…And our bodies really matter in getting that sexual consent because there are men who don’t like to have sex with women like us.”
Satine: “Sexual consent for me is disclosing my identity as pre op trans before dealing with any men may it be just a friendly date or casual hook up. I always have to make sure that he knows my trans status before going any further. And by that I mean, he has to fully accept me and deal with it. Take me whole or don’t take me at all…Being passable won’t guarantee you safety. Disclosure will.”
Anna: “While we do not owe anyone any explanations nor do we owe disclosure of what’s between our legs, I think this changes when we are about to have a sexual contact/relationship with someone. While some men might be ok with whatever, others may not. So for me, sexual consent is giving someone a choice if he/she wants to proceed with the act.”
Marielle extended what Anna said: “I’ve been meaning to express my view on this one but have hesitated because of the boldness of it.
Sex is a physical activity where sex body parts play a key role. Outwardly presenting oneself as a woman, it is natural for the other partner to assume your physical makeup is that of a [cisgender girl], thus vaginal sex…Therefore, as trans women ,full disclosure is a safe, responsible and honest thing to do. Our assumptions of bodies and body parts associated to one gender is pre-wired in our brains. And we have expectations of the physical sexual characteristic of the people we sleep with. For a man to be suddenly confronted with a “big surprise” can, as we know now, lead to uncharacteristic actions that may be ignited by the heat of the moment…
This is the bold part: Anything that begins wrongly will always end up wrongly…Whilst I understand the great sense of self affirmation brought about by passing, there are responsibilities. And full disclosure should be on top of it.”
There are also STRAP members who are sex workers who shared why some trans women sex workers conceal their trans status. The reason is economic strategy.
Bella said that she knows a lot of sex workers who don’t disclose their trans status. “The main reason is,” she said, “the money is consistent.” Customers will be less demanding if you conceal your trans status. Though the pay is higher, she said that men who go for trans women are more demanding. Bella gave an example: “If I conceal my trans status, men would just be satisfied with oral sex. But if I go with men who prefer trans women, they demand threesomes. And finding another trans woman to have a threesome with,” Bella said,“could be very difficult.” That’s why having men who don’t know her trans status, Bella reflected, yields more consistent income.
Meanwhile, Satine, who is also a part-time sex worker, said that though she has never been with a client to whom she hid her being a trans woman, she is aware that “some sex workers [don’t] disclose because they fear having a specific market (men who are only into trans…), which means less potential clients = less income.”
Paulina, also a sex worker, confirmed that among trans women sex workers she knows, concealment of one’s trans status is quite common.“Most of the time,” she said, “the men don’t find out. However, when men find out, the least-worst result is an argument; and we all know what’s the worst-case scenario.” Paulina shared that she almost got killed when she didn’t reveal her trans status to a client. That’s why she now always disclose her trans status.
But no illusions: disclosure will not guarantee perfect safety. Nothing in this world could do that. There will be always assholes in this world. Even anti-hate crime laws, SOGIE 101, or TRANS 101 trainings cannot keep you alive from a man who is going ballistic after discovering that you have a penis while you are giving him a blow job. What you do is RUN for your life, and don’t ever do that again.
But, based on the experiences of the STRAP members I spoke with: non-disclosure in intimate settings will lead you to trouble. From a crude consequentialist perspective, disclosure in intimate relationships yields more positive results than non-disclosure. Non-disclosure can be death. But from a deontological perspective, disclosure is a moral duty in sexual and romantic relationships because honesty is a fundamental aspect of being in a relationship.
LESSONS OF THE LAUDE-PEMBERTON TRAGEDY
I’ve been a trans activist for quite some time, and I will be retiring very soon. As I retire, I don’t want to impart a message that wishful thinking and lack of critical self-reflection will do my sisters any good. I have grown out of my naiveness. Thus, instead of telling my sisters to wait for Kingdom Come of the world where genitalia don’t matter in sex, I now prefer to tell them Montaigne’s sobering advice: “We must live in the world and make the most of it as we find it.” Further, my years of experiences as an activist and my new journey as a scholar made me realize that rights must always come with corresponding responsibilities and vice versa. Without rights, you diminish the individual into a mere presence. Without responsibilities, society is impossible.
We all have the right to choose our own sexual or romantic partners; and this right has accompanying duties. Honesty is one of them. This right implies that people have a right to reject anyone as their sexual or romantic partners. Thus, we are not entitled to a sexual or romantic relationship just because we have the right to choose our own sexual or romantic partners. We don’t have this entitlement because we need the consent of those who we want to be intimate with. We are not entitled to consent. We must work hard to secure it. And we have a duty to be honest as we get someone’s consent. More significantly, consent must be sought not during, not after, not after a big surprise, but BEFORE any intimate act.
This is a fact in all intimate relationships: People feel violated, duped, and abused when you, no matter who you are, don’t disclose an information that is a fundamental or an important factor in making a decision on who they want to be in a sexual or romantic relationship with. WAKE UP, SISTER: Men are not open zippers. The happy endings in “tranny surprise porns” is a fantasy. In the real world, engaging in “tranny surprise” practices may not only be fatal, it is ALWAYS unethical. Not all men will give their consent to be in a sexual or romantic relationship with women like us. LIVE WITH IT. And you cannot determine which man would without disclosing an information that would help him forge his consent.Yes, there will always be rejection, but being rejected upfront is much safer and emotionally better than being rejected after you disclose your trans status at a much later period.
The Laude-Pemberton tragedy bears two important lessons. To men like Pemberton: Don’t take the law in you hands if you discovered that the person you are having sex or relationship with is not someone you would have given your consent to had you known that she was not born with a vagina. To be angry is an understandable response because you felt you were duped. And to paraphrase Sherry F. Colb in Is There a Moral Duty to Disclose that You’re Transgender to a Potential Partner?:
“We might consider this strong feeling to be either a form of homophobia, a form of transphobia, or both of the above and not worthy of respect. Yet in intimate relations, we could choose to treat these “hang-ups” as part of a person’s own identity and not rightly subject to invalidation or dismissal.”
But violence will not redeem your slighted manly ego. You will just ruin your life.
And to women like Laude: Your life is far more precious than the thrill, the excitement, and the utterly empty and ultimately useless affirmation of your womanhood brought by having sex or relationship with men who weren’t able to clock you. Disclosure is not about thinking of your womanhood as fake. Disclosure is accepting the fact that your womanhood is different from the womanhood of women born with vaginas. That our womanhood is different doesn’t mean it is inferior, invalid, immoral, or illegitimate. Disclosing who we are is an exercise in self-acceptance. Non-disclosure will not protect you nor will it encourage wider societal acceptance of women like us.
“If we want to be loved,” Sidney Jourard wrote in The Transparent Self, “we must disclose ourselves. If we want to love someone, he must permit us to know him. This would seem to be obvious. Yet most of us spend a great part of our lives thinking up ways to avoid becoming known.”
Save your beautiful life from paranoia and death.
The failure to recognize and learn from these twin lessons condemn us to repeat this preventable tragedy. And that is vicious.