Tracing the transpinay through the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP)
When the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (formerly the Society of Trans and Gender Rights Advocates of the Philippines) was founded in 2002, it was a “response to the need of an organization that would focus on the issues, concerns, and needs of the transgender community in the Philippines,” Dee Mendoza, former chairperson of the group, earlier said to Outrage Magazine.
But the group that “attracted a very diverse membership (and) was a full representation of the whole transgender community: male-to-female transsexuals, female-to-male transsexuals, heterosexual cross-dressers, and intersexed people” was more than a social group – it was also “conceived to be a revolutionary organization wanting immediate change in society and in law,” with missions including to “act as a support group for girls and women of transsexual experience (whether pre-op/non-op, post-op), as well as to those exploring the possibility that they may be transsexuals; to reclaim our dignity and identity, thus, the name/identity of transpinay; to gather local resources and information beneficial to Filipina girls and women of transsexual experience; to promote compassionate understanding of transsexualism; and to promote positive and empowering images of Filipina transsexuals,” Mendoza said. Eight years on, and STRAP has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in Philippines’ gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and ally (GLBTQIA) community.
FOCUS ON THE PEOPLE
“STRAP’s bottom line is its people,” says Naomi Fontanos, who now chairs STRAP. With this focus, “before the New Year came in, membership was starting to surge and I am proud to say that we have been attracting the best of the best. Our membership now is truly diverse and they come from all walks of life. I think that this diversity will prove to be an asset to STRAP because that means its reach has become extremely broad and what it stands for now resonates to a wider demographic.”
This development, though, says Fontanos, is but natural. STRAP focused its initial efforts on strengthening its membership by holding educational discussions about human rights, gender and sexuality and transgender advocacy.
“We wanted to make information available to all and arm our members with the knowledge to engage in informed and thoughtful activism. We wanted to mentor our members so that each of them could represent STRAP well and embody STRAP’s work through their individual initiatives,” Fontanos says.
Changes were bound to be introduced, nonetheless.
“I believe that getting (where we are) is part of STRAP’s natural evolution as an organization. When the new set of officers took over, immediately we held a meeting to consolidate our vision for the organization. Thankfully, we were all of the same mind that STRAP must go to the next level – that is, it should be recognized by the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission), have its own bank account, be self-sufficient financially, be strong internally with more formal processes and structure, engage more with government institutions and agencies, and (to) build chapters outside Manila and the Philippines,” she says. “This May, the officers have reached the halfway mark of their term and are on the right track. We are finished with our SEC registration and are set to open a bank account — something very important for any nongovernment organization (NGO). We hope to also reach our other goals in the next six months. It will take a lot of effort and hard work but I am confident that with the help of all, we will be able to do what we set out to do as volunteers of the organization. We are not getting paid for what we do but we do it for the love of it.”
STRAP holds monthly support group meetings meant to educate and equip its members to become more effective and empowered advocates of gender justice and equality. It also organizes strategic panel discussions, lectures, fora and symposia on gender identity and human rights including its attendant legal, medical and political dimensions. The organization links human rights and GLBTQIA groups to ensure that transgender needs, issues, and concerns are properly understood, addressed and included in their diversity initiatives.
Apart from these, STRAP also campaigns for the right to define one’s gender identity and expression and has taken steps to ensure transgender visibility by holding activities and events that promote empowering images of transpinays like joining the annual Pride March and holding a yearly commemoration of the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). It is the love for the advocacy that, Fontanos says, is being encouraged among STRAP’s members.
“We have always encouraged our members to excel in what they do as well. For me, that is the best way to advocate and create change: when you excel in what you do and stand as an inspiration to others.” Fontanos adds: “Of course all these are a continuation of the good that has already been started. Our advocacy against transphobia and discrimination and marginalization based on gender identity and expressions remains our primary guiding principle.”
For STRAP, the struggle to educate Philippine society about transgender issues remains its number one priority. “It is because of ignorance that there is no trans-friendly law or policy in place in this country,” says Fontanos, even as she adds that “the struggle to educate people for us is twofold, as we also need to educate the GLBTQIA community about our issues.” But STRAP has also taken steps to start working with government institutions – a necessity what with the two high profile Supreme Court decisions that “stand proof of institutionalized transphobia in this country.”
In October 2007, in a 22-page decision penned by Justice Renato C. Corona, the SC denied the petition of a transsexual (Rommel Jacinto Dantes Silverio – more aptly, Mely) to change in the entries in the office of Civil Registrar his (her) gender and first name for lack of legal basis and merit. And only recently, SC allowed Ang Ladlad Partylist to run in the May 2010 elections – and “while the SC decision on Ang Ladlad is landmark as it affirms the principles of secular morality, equality, freedom of association and non-discrimination, it is a decision more for homosexuals than for transgender people. Like the COMELEC decision disallowing Ang Ladlad, the SC decision takes a stand clearly only on gays and lesbians. It, by and large, ignores the reality of transpeople,” Fontanos says.
The transphobic occurrences do not reflect current international law, with SC, in fact, casting in doubt (through Footnote 52 of the SC decision) Principle 3 of the Yogyakarta Principles (YyP) – i.e. “Principle 3 is the Right to Recognition Before the Law, and the SC takes issue with what States should do to affirm this principle: to recognize fully and legally a person’s self-defined gender identity and allow necessary document changes accordingly. By questioning the ideas behind Principle 3 of the YyP, the SC is essentially saying that it accepts the notion that people can define their sexual identities but not their gender identities,” Fontanos says. “This is my fear as a transgender rights advocate in the Philippines: that GLBTQI advocacy will take on an incremental flair. That is that gays and lesbian should have their rights first before transgender people should. This is something that we all must guard against and we will need the help of GLB advocates to reject this idea. If we will fight for human rights, we must fight for the human rights of all. If we will seek civil protections, we should do so without leaving anyone in our community behind.” Understandably, STRAP is now looking at how to more effectively influence policy in the public and private sectors by “campaigning for gender recognition — to be recognized in the gender one identifies as — and for that to be institutionalized in some way through legislation or company policy. We believe that discrimination against transpeople will be reduced when we are recognized first as the gender we say we are.”
To date, STRAP has partnered with various organizations to greatly further STRAP’s causes, with collaborations made with Ang Ladlad Partylist, Gay & Lesbian Activist Network for Gender Equality (GALANG), International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Intersex Association (ILGA), Isis International, Rainbow Rights (R-Rights) Project Inc., Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), Task Force Pride (TFP) Philippines, TLF Sexual Health and Rights Educators’ (TLF SHARE) Collective, The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Rights (RSFL), Transgender Asia Research, Trans Iceland, UP Diliman Center for Women Studies (CWS), and the UP Diliman Gender Office (UPDGO).
“We are happy to have a working relationship with these organizations fighting for the human rights of sex and gender diverse people and look forward to building linkages with more. With the help of these organizations we have been able to reach more people to tell them about STRAP, its work and what it stands for. They have also helped us attract more members and served as our role models in doing good advocacy work in the Philippines,” Fontanos says. It is also because of the allies that STRAP established the Sybil Award, which intends to honor “allies who promote transgender equality and acceptance. It is the first of its kind in the Philippines and STRAP will be the first sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) activist organization to give out an award like this.”
Internationally, major developments have been happening to the TG community – e.g. in February, France became the first country in the world to remove transsexualism from its official list of mental disorders; and in the US, transgenders have been appointed by President Barack Obama into key government posts. Fontanos laments that “here in the Philippines, the prevailing notion of transsexuals is not that they have a mental disorder, but that they are an extreme version of homosexuals.” Thus, while international developments “do have a bearing on transpinays/pinoys,” she says, “we are working in a context where sexual orientation and gender identity are conflated.” To this end, “STRAP (has) joined the global campaign to depathologize transgender and transsexual identities,” says Fontanos, who believes that “even if psychiatric institutions in the country are weak, we recognize the influence and reach of American psychiatry in Asia; so, of course, if strides are made outside the Philippines, that will definitely help the local struggle.”
There are more immediate goals to be accomplished, though – i.e. finding a permanent place for STRAP (“We are growing steadily and I feel the burden of not having our own office,” says Fontanos, who is looking at finding a venue before her term ends. “Hopefully we will find a space big enough to function as a halfway house for transpeople in need – I want an office that also serves as a center for the transcommunity where they can go to for education, advocacy and fun.”); overhauling of STRAP’s Web site [“We want a more dynamic Website (that will) showcase our own members and celebrate their successes”]; and developing STRAP’s own publication mechanisms (“We want to be able to publish booklets and primers on trans and related issues, and create a conduit for our research work”). “We are all fighting for the right to self-determination, to define who we are, on our own terms,” Fontanos says. “What is good is that STRAP is there and has set its own agenda for change.”
And so, the struggle continues.
Get in touch with the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) by visiting www.tsphilippines.com.