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Raquela Rios: Courting the Queen

Raquela Rios, hailing from Mandaue in the Province of Cebu, stars in The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (which looks at the plight of transgenders in the Philippines), and helps re-define what it means to be a woman.

Raquela Rios, hailing from Mandaue in the Province of Cebu, stars in The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (which looks at the plight of transgenders in the Philippines), and helps re-define what it means to be a woman.

Raquela Rios
Actress, The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela

“I was not being positive (with playing the lead role in Queen Raquela). I’m a type of person who prefers to live a life in private. But then a realization dawned on (me). I realized I could serve as an inspiration to many; not just to the transgenders or transsexuals, but to everyone in the society – as a Filipino, as a transgender and transsexual, and as a citizen of a Third World country,” says Raquela Rios.

Her Facebook account has, at one time or another, used Valerija Kushukskina, Snježana Yevteushenko, and Ilena Kokkinopoulou for her profile name – but she may well be more known as Queen Raquela, the main actor in a female role of Poppoli Productions’ documentary movie The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela, which won the 2008 Teddy Award for Best Featured Film at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival for Panorama Fims.

She is, of course, Raquela Rios, the MTF transgender hailing from Mandaue City in the Province of Cebu, who, when asked when she realized she was in the wrong body, said: “For as long as I can remember, though I was never a toy-oriented person (like playing with Barbie or with guns), as a kid, I liked to play baha-bahayan and I liked portraying the role of the housewife. At that time, I still had no idea what I am, who I am. But it eventually dawned on me that this is me, this is what I am – and what I am is not a boy, I’m a girl.”

The realization did not make life easy for Raquela.

“It was a bit hard for me growing up since many were against my effeminate behaviour,” says Raquela, who also recalled having to “blend in with the norms.” “Having been taught that homosexuality/transsexuality is a sin and is bad, I was scared, naive, not knowledgeable of the truth. And when people teased me as bakla, I always just cried, picking fights with anyone and everyone to deny the fact that this is me.”

“I don’t know how much of the story can be said to be completely mine,” Raquela Rios says, smiling. Then turning serious: “But then looking at the film – how it was done and how the story line flow – it really talks about the reality of most TGs living in the Philippines, on how they live their life, et cetera, even though it doesn’t talk about sex change and transformation and the likes. It is more about penetrating the lives and their daily encounters.”

Her living differently from the stereotypic normative did not make it easy for others, too, so much so that “at first, I had to be discreet about it, about being me because while I know they knew (my being different, just about everyone was) against it.” In fact, when she reached college, she had to somewhat live two lives – “Every time I was out of the house, away from the eyes of my family or neighbours, I’d come out from my shell,” she recalls.

Eventually, though – and fortunately – “they came to accepted me (for being me.”

Life being difficult particularly for TGs hasn’t changed much – at least if Queen Raquela the movie is to be used as basis.

Queen Raquela the movie follows the life story of, yes, Raquela, a sex worker Filipino MTF transgender (dubbed, a la TGs in Thailand, a “ladyboy”) who wanted to escape the streets of Cebu City for a (assumed, at least) better life in Paris, France. Stopping working the streets, Raquela instead started working in the Internet porn industry – which was how she met an Icelandic “ladyboy”, Valerie, as well as one Michael, the owner of the Web site she worked for. Valerie is the one to help Raquela go to Iceland; Michael, eventually, offers her access to Paris.
With a character named after her, the first question that comes to mind is exactly how much of the character Raquela’s story is based on the life of the person playing her.

“I don’t know how much of the story can be said to be completely mine,” Raquela says, smiling. Then turning serious: “But then looking at the film – how it was done and how the story line flow – it really talks about the reality of most TGs living in the Philippines, on how they live their life, et cetera, even though it doesn’t talk about sex change and transformation and the likes. It is more about penetrating the lives and their daily encounters.”

Like Raquela in the movie, Raquela, too, met Icelandic Olaf de Fleur Johannesson “via social network online – I (have forgotten) what site that was – but I thought he was looking for a date or girlfriend or something, so we (chatted). At that time, I was looking for an online date or a relationship.” However, “I didn’t see any future with him since all he did was talk about his job in the film industry, et cetera. I felt like I had to ditch him because he was not coming over to the Philippines anyway.”

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After a few months, however, the filmmaker sent Raquela an SMS, telling her he was coming over to shoot a film. Even then, he was interested in her as the subject of the film even if “I wasn’t interested to be an actress since I never dreamt of becoming one. But I told him I would be happy to help him find his subject until the time we met for real.”

Raquela was persuaded to do some test shots, at which point, “I already grew to like the (developments),” she says, eventually making her accept the role of Queen Raquela.

Not that, from then on, things already went smoothly.

“At first, it was all awkward,” says Raquela. “I was not being positive (with the experience). I’m a type of person who prefers to live a life in private.”

But then a realization dawned on Raquela. “I realized I could serve as an inspiration to many; not just to the transgenders or transsexuals, but to everyone in the society – as a Filipino, as a transgender and transsexual, and as a citizen of a Third World country,” she says.

And how has life changed for Raquela after her foray with, well, fame?

“It bettered my standards in looking for a man in my life,” she beams. And then, on a more serious note: “I can say it empowered me as it (helped teach me maturity) – even if, at the same time, I also gained some recognition and made new friends from all over the world.”

Raquela’s way of seeing has long broadened, as she has also worked as a GLBTQI rights advocate in Cebu City to fight against discrimination and give rights to GLBTQIs (specialization in safer sex practices).

In her Facebook profile, Raquela states that she is a “pre-op transsexual.” The thing, though, is that this identification is more for other people’s ‘comfort’ than for hers. “To be honest,” she says, “I prefer to be a non-op transsexual. The only reason I (use that descriptor) is because not all know what a non-op transsexual is.”

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The point is the deconstruction of the heteronormative – often erroneous – beliefs.
“For me everyone is entitled (to be who and what) they want to be,” Raquela says. “If one wants to undergo sexual reassignment surgery to be happy, go for it. But for me, I choose to be a non-op since I know I am a woman, a transsexual woman. I don’t need (any) process of going under the knife to make me a woman.”

The necessary change, stresses Raquela, is in the recognition of the individual differences.

“If there is a law that recognizes TGs in their own gender, then for me, it will be not necessary to go for any operation just to change one’s identity from male to female or female to male (the deemed identifiers of sex and gender differentiation),” she says.

That there remain stereotypes about transgenders, including association with sex work, is true, but “we are all different individuals and you can’t just conclude one to be such or such,” she says, adding that even if assumptions may prove to be true, too, “we still have to respect every one as human beings – after all, (even for TGs in the sex industry, they still) have to make a living in a harsh world, considering the harsh treatment they experience every day.” And this is even if TGs “could offer a lot of other things just like all of the other people out there (when given the chance).”

These are issues, of course, that the GLBTQIA community, as a whole, needs to deal with – something problematic since “there’s often no unity in (the GLBTQIA community) so that many actually marginalize themselves into gay versus TG versus lesbian versus bisexual. There remains so much hate even within (our ranks),” Raquela says.

Hopefully, however, films like Queen Raquela can help remedy the situation.

“(Through such efforts, hopefully) people will get a glimpse of the life, the struggles of being GLBTQI – especially of living in a country where we are not protected by laws and we are not recognized to have human rights.”

Raquela remains hopeful, nonetheless, inspired by the “the existing sisterhood/brotherhood, too, (in the GLBTQIA community),” she says. “(Our community) is colourful, full of life – as such, it is fun, not just tediously serious all the time.”

What’s next for Raquela?

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“To come out of a ‘depression’ stage,” she says, as Raquela continues to finish her studies, yet to decide if she’ll pursue becoming a chef or a haute couture fashion designer. The dream, though, is to “maybe go back to Europe to build a ‘normal’ life – “my experiences (there) opened my eyes to (a TG) life’s possibilities.”

For now, though, remember her as “Queen Raquela, the innocent/naive but street smart girl who touches everyone’s heart.”

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