“…out of that contradiction, against unfathomable odds,
it’s you – only you – that emerged, to distill so specific a form
from all that chaos. It’s like turning air into gold.
Mr. Manhattan to Laurie Juspeczyk
From the movie Watchmen
On November 23, 1978 another human being was born in Makati City, Philippines. A quick glance at the baby’s genitals prompted the doctor to declare the baby female. Consequently, the baby was registered “female” on “her” birth certificate, was given a feminine name, and was raised and socialized to be a girl by “her” parents and the rest of society.
But there’s something this human being intimately knows that’s unknown to the doctor, “her” parents, and the rest of society. Something unknown even to the genitals this human being was born with. It’s something that the heart, brain, and consciousness feel and understand. It’s a feeling that doesn’t have the ephemeral quality of a physical sensation or of an emotion. It’s an innate understanding – it cannot be learned or unlearned. And this feeling and understanding are like a living truth that cannot be destroyed even by the most deadening stubborn dogma.
“I am not female but male,” the grown-up baby who preferred to be called James Roque affirmed, “And I will definitely NOT survive living in the wrong body and being called the wrong pronouns for the rest of my life.”
James and I were introduced on Facebook by someone from Denmark; we were supposed to meet in Copenhagen during the 2009 World Outgames in July. But James’s urgent business trip to Tokyo made that meeting impossible. I then emailed him whether he would be willing to be featured here on Outrage Magazine. “When you asked me about your request, I had to think twice,” James replied, “Then I thought it’s OK ‘cause the magazine is focused on the LGBT community…and I think it will be a good start to connect with other Filipino transmen.”
We then arranged for an interview over Skype. James just requested that we use an alias to refer to him in this article because he lives as stealth.
“My new friends don’t know my past,” James explained, “Parang ang hirap mag-explain sa tao eh. Takot ako sa judgmental people. (It’s hard to explain to other people. I’m afraid of judgmental people).”
But though he lives as stealth, he wouldn’t go as far as denying his past. “If someone asks [that I’m a transman], I will not deny it. Ok naman ako dun, pag comfortable na ako sa tao (I’m OK with it, so long as I’m already comfortable with the person). I can even come out to the public – that’s not a problem. I’m only worried about my family.”
Then I asked James whether he feels “transpinoy” would be a good local term for Filipino transsexual men.
He said, “Yes, I think it’s perfect.”
GROWING UP YEARS:
THE BOY, INTERRUPTED
“Don’t think that being a transsexual man was just a quick decision I made yesterday,” James asserted. “It is who I am, not just a label or anything. It is not something I just decided to be, and it is definitely not a trend.” Indeed being male is not something James had decided to be – he simply knew it all along.
Since he was six James has never been comfortable being called and treated as a girl. During that time, gender and sexuality had no meaning to him.
“All I knew is that everyone was calling me a girl, and I didn’t like it at all, never, “James said. “Despite my outward appearance and how everyone told me I should act, I knew I was a boy and no one could tell me any different.”
Unlike his younger sister, James was not simply drawn to anything that portrays him as a girl.
“I started as boyish, I always wear boy’s clothes, and I play boy’s toys, do anything, everything for boys. I was very different from my sister… Whenever my family would go out, my sister would wear her pretty dress and I’ll always wear my pants and a shirt, even on formal events. My parents would always force me to wear girls’ dress for church, but I never do, and I don’t care, I’ll always cry and insist on my comfortable pants.”
When they lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in late 80’s, James remembered joining his father in his motocross trail practice in the desert.
“I always rode with my dad; I couldn’t get a motorbike at that time,” James recalled, “I used my BMX bicycle to do all the stunts. I also remember playing with the four-wheeled ATV Quad motorbike.”
He studied high school in a coed born-again Christian school in the Philippines. It was there where this man, who considered himself a “torpe (shy)” guy, first met his first girlfriend. He was in junior year in high school while she was in her freshman year. They met through a common friend.
“I courted her by sending her letters and cards,” James recalled.
And as to their first kiss, James had nothing to say but, “It was amazing, I can’t put it into words…but it was the best feeling.”
They were together for eight years until James called it quits because of his girlfriend’s affairs with other men (a cisgendered man; the other is a transman).
After that, James had several relationships, all with women who identified as heterosexual and who related to him as a man. “They never see me as a woman, even as a lesbian. They see me as a man,” James said.
During those times, James reluctantly accepted the label lesbian, “because at that point I did not know about transsexualism or other terms. At a very young age of 8 or so, my mother knew I don’t want to be called lesbian; she knows I get mad each time. Then I thought I was a butch lesbian.”
Nonetheless, in 1997, James joined two lesbian groups in the Philippines, Dykes of Manila Society and the Society of United Lesbians; and he identified himself as a butch lesbian with them.
“I thought being a butch was the last choice and the one that best described me, but I was wrong,” he said, “But I really hate it if someone calls me a lesbian or a tomboy. I really feel there’s something wrong calling myself as a lesbian because lesbians are female and I am not female.”
Being himself didn’t go over too well with his family because of religion – his parents were one of their church leaders. Hence, James strived hard to become independent. After he finished high school, James lived in a university dormitory where he felt free to live. He even became a working student while studying in the university. However, this didn’t come without challenges.
“I was once discriminated when I tried to transfer in another university in the Philippines,” James said. “The dean called for interview. When I came into her office, she looked at me from head to toe. She was so irritated and started shouting – I really don’t remember everything that she said. She didn’t accept me in her college. She said the university wants quality student and so on. Unfortunately for me, we don’t have any anti-discrimination law yet.”
LIVING IN JAPAN
In 1999, James finished his Bachelor in Science Degree in Computer Science at the De La Salle University-Dasmariñas. His first full-time job was as an IT Assistant in Lebanon. Feeling the wrench of homesickness, he resigned after six months and returned to the Philippines.
But soon after, he relocated to Tokyo to work as a Systems Engineer in an automotive industry company. He met friends from gender societies who organized events for foreign LGBT community in Tokyo. There he began to find the words to fully articulate what he was going through.
“I began to be more aware about gender and sexuality,” James said, “And I learned more information about the LGBT community. Here I learned about transsexualism and I found that the identity transman best described me.”
It was in Japan that he started to manifest fully his inner reality. Luckily, James was with a supportive and nurturing company.
“My company was so professional; they know how to respect me. I didn’t even have to tell them to use male pronouns when I was transitioning, they just did. They even called me Mr. Roque.”
This is a sharp contrast to what James experienced in the Philippines.
“In the Philippines, it’s always about religion, I am always a sinner for them, I am always judged. Too many gossips, and even if they see how you look like, if they know you are female in your documents, they will stick into calling you with female pronouns, or your female name, and then laugh… they make fun of you,” he said.
He added: “I was always questioned whenever I present identification papers, I always have to explain. But after my explanation, I get a strange look from them…then they laugh. Nakakainsulto lagi (It’s always very insulting). One example, when I changed my driver’s license, I had to get a drug test. After taking the urine test, the whole room was laughing and making a joke about me!”
In October 2006, James started a blog to document his physical transition. His first entry narrated how much he was depressed.
He wrote: “Depression is killing me, I feel like dying, every day I have nothing in my mind but to think of death. I desperately need to be [myself].”
James explained to me that he had always been depressed but it reached its peak in 2006: “I hated my old voice, I hated my body, I hated monthly periods, I hated wearing binders. I can’t live my life forever like this, I believe I also deserve to be happy and live my ‘real’ life as a male in the correct body.”
On December 22, 2006, accompanied by his girlfriend at that time, James undergone subcutaneous mastectomy in Yanhee Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. Narrating the last five minutes of him having breasts, James said: “I was very nervous and excited at this moment; I lie on the stretcher labeled with the operating room number. A Filipino male nurse was there. I talked to him for a few minutes while my stretcher was in line for surgery. He made me feel comfortable – that eased my nervousness. He said I was probably their first Filipino FTM patient, mostly were Japanese, Singaporeans, Malaysians, etc.”
Several hours later, James was awakened by a nurse calling his name, “that moment, I realized, the surgery was finished that I now have a male chest.”
It took a month for James to completely heal. He fondly remembered the first time he took a shower without the binders on his chest. “It was so good and satisfying! I can now wear just a shirt in public without inner wear. But this is just the beginning of my new life…”
On April 14, 2007, James had his first testosterone shot (T-shot) in a clinic in Tokyo that specializes on transsexuals. He was referred there by an FTM shop in Asakusa, where James bought shinobi (height increasing in-soles) and Microgen, a testosterone cream James applied on his face to thicken his beard and mustache. He started with 150 mg, then later it increased to 250 mg; these were all to be taken every two weeks.
After his second T-shot, James already noticed several changes: increased sex drive; his clit started to grow bigger; his appetite raged; he became more hairy; and he had an oily face. It was after his fourth T-shot that James’s body gained more muscles, and his voice became masculine.
Years later, James went back again to Thailand, this time with his mother, to have his uterus, ovaries, and other female reproductive organs removed through a TAH-BSO surgery (total abdominal hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy).
Since he physically transitioned, James hasn’t seen his father yet, who is a born-again Christian pastor. He had only told him about it on the phone and their conversation didn’t go too well.
“He can’t accept my gender. He kept on telling me Christian reasons [against it],” James said while recalling that phone call, “But then he said, ‘Anak kita (you’re my child), and I love you. But I will not support you on that.’”
Nonetheless it was only his father who doesn’t fully accept him. “I told my mother before that I’m a man and not a woman. My mother told me she knew it all along. But she’s still having difficulties calling me with male pronouns, or my male name. My sister is the most supportive and open-minded. She told me that she’s happy for me, and that she accept and support me.”
But with or without the full-support of his family, James would still continue his physical transition. In the next years, he plans to undergo phalloplasty or metadoiplasty.
LIVING IN GERMANY
In October 2007, James was sent by his company to Bordesholm, Germany for a business trip. While in Germany, his company decided to transfer him permanently to their German branch to work as a Senior Manager for Quality Management.
Even if he is still legally female, James is already considered male in his company. His company ID shows his male name; and his colleague, as well as the suppliers and customers of the company, treat him as male. It’s only in his legal documents such as in his bank account and contract that James’s sex assignment at birth still echoes through. But that echo shall die soon, to be replaced by the voice of James’s internal truth.
On July 17, 2008, James filed a petition to change his name and legal sex from female to male in a court in Amtsgericht Kiel, the nearest city to Bordesholm.
Updating the status of the petition, James said: “We expect it soon before December [of this year]. Since I need to renew my visa in December, my company hopes that I’m already using the new name before the renewal para isang procedure na lang (so it will be just one procedure).”
It was his German boss who encouraged him to file the petition. “He told me it’s possible, he gave me the idea to do it,” James said. “Legally, I may even get married and sponsor my spouse to come here.” James’s German boss was so supportive that he was even the one who looked for a lawyer.
“And as I was still new in Germany, my boss even asked the company assistant to help me with the rest of the process, to contact the court, to look for an interpreter, etc.,” James added.
He is very hopeful that his petition will be granted. “Yes, it’s possible,” he said. “There is no discrimination even to foreigners.”
Indeed this is definitely possible as there’s already a precedent to this case. Sometime in 2008, Jenny, a Filipina transsexual woman who now lives in Germany and one of the four original founders of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), won her legal petition to change her name and legal sex from male to female.
Jenny was introduced to James and she helped James in processing his petition. It’s unfortunate that this right to change one’s legal sex is not possible yet in their country of birth.
In October 22, 2007, deciding on the Mely Silverio case, the Supreme Court of the Philippines decided that courts cannot change the gender on the birth certificates of transsexual people without a law allowing it. This kind of law might still take years or an entire lifetime – to be passed here.
It must be noted that Spain, our colonizer for almost three hundred years and whose Catholic indoctrination destroyed our pre-colonial respect for and accommodation of gender diversity, passed a non-sex reassignment surgery dependent Gender Recognition Law in 2006. Sans this legislation, James’s Philippine identity documents will continue to use his female legal identity. “And this will put me in a lot of embarrassing situations,” James sighed.
THE BOY, UNINTERRUPTED
The once critically depressed James now knows no regret and has nothing but gratitude for the changes that happened to him.
“I am very satisfied and happy with my life. I am more productive with my daily tasks, I have more self-confidence, and my social life drastically improved,” he affirmed.
In time, he would like to go back to the Philippines, and hopefully have a family of his own. He is currently single, but he doesn’t think finding a relationship will be as problematic as it is for Filipina transsexual women.
“Well, it can’t be that problematic for me,” he said, “If I’m not choosy, and if I’m not torpe (shy), I can probably just be with any girl who shows interests. But once I overcome that part of being torpe, I am very romantic.”
Adventurous and an old-fashioned romantic, James loves giving surprises to his girl. He fondly recalled what happened to one of his dates: “I once asked a girl on our date – she’s not yet my girlfriend – to pick up the travel magazine, flip the page, and whatever the page says… we will go there.”
Besides having a family of his own, one of the things that James is looking forward to is to start an online forum to support transpinoys who are struggling for information and resources. He understands just how hard it is for men like him in the Philippines, where there’s not much information about transsexualism and female-to-male transitioning. And to his fellow Filipino transmen, he has this encouraging message, “Don’t be afraid, and just be true to yourself. Remember: We only have one life to live.”
THE POETRY OF THE TRANSSEXUAL EXPERIENCE:
“SYA AY NAGING SYA”
The transsexual experience is often mocked – intentionally or unintentionally – by that tiring sensationalizing staple news tagline: “he becomes a she” or a “she becomes a he”.
Tagalog is one of those very few languages in the world that do not have gendered pronouns. He, she, and it are just “Siya/Sya”. Hence, he or she becoming or changing into another pronoun does not have an equivalent in Tagalog. It’s just “Sya becomes Sya (Sya ay naging Sya)”; and I feel that this is a better starting point in understanding, explaining, and reflecting on the transsexual experience than the Jekyll-and-Hide approach.
James is not a she who became a he. James just became James and he continues to unfold to the outside world the reality contained inside him: “Sya ay naging sya at patuloy na nagiging sya ”. This is not superficial political correctness but a deep affirmation of an experience.
Forcing transsexual people to conform to their sex assignment at birth is like forcing an apple seed to grow as an orange tree. And just imagine all the energy wasted, the lives made miserable, and the relationships broken by simply exercising our ignorance and rejection of what people’s brains, hearts, and consciousness feel themselves to be.
Yes we may continue to assert the virtue and legitimacy of our ignorance by invoking the gospel of the genitalia and the dictatorship of the sex assignment at birth. We may even succeed in the process. But our success will be a Pyrrhic victory: Transsexual people, throughout the rest of their lives, will live unhappily in the hell of our ignorance and rejection and we continue to numb our ability to appreciate what Walt Whitman once said, “that all the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.”
During the height of the BB Gandanghari issue, a news writer once asked me what role social institutions should play in the lives of transsexual people. I find my answer, which wasn’t published, as a fitting end to this article:
“The role of social institutions – such as the family, the state, the church, and medical establishments – in everybody’s lives should be like the role the sun, the soil, the rain, and the wind play in the life of a seed. They are nourishing and nurturing agents to the outward healthy manifestation of the internal reality of the seed and not as dictators of what the seed should be. They act not with oppressive action but with tender affection to the unique beauty the seed will share as it blossoms to this world. In facing another human being, whether a new-born child or a grown-up one, perhaps we must keep in mind that we don’t really know that person. This is not to invoke fears of the unfamiliar but to invite ourselves to live with a sustained and ever-sustaining warmth and joy of experiencing and appreciating each other’s unfolding again and again and again…”