Co-founder, Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines
“The personal is political.”
That, says Dee Mendoza, former president of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), was how she became a GLBTQIA advocate.
“Little did I know that the day I became at peace with who I am would be the day I start my activism.” This was back when “my friends were either women who were assigned female at birth, or gay men. No one among them understood or knew what I was going through. In the lonely (but joyful) path to living my true self, I sought after a community – a group of people – whose experience was the same as mine. I met a young trans activist online who then introduced me to two other women who shared my experience. The four of us conceived STRAP. In fully and wholly embracing myself, I took on the responsibility that came along with it – the assertion, defense and celebration of myself. In looking after myself, I needed to look after others like me. What they were subjected to was a possible subjection of myself. When a group of people feels the same way or shares the same experience, a community is born.”
Asking a person when he/she became what he/she is, is in itself discriminatory. It is like asking “when did the leopard recognize its spots?,” Mendoza says. “I was born the way I am, therefore, who I am is innate in me. I am a human being whose gender identity happens to be female. Like the rose’s fragrance, womanhood is every bit a part of my nature. It was formed in my brain as a fetus and grew on my skin when I was born. I may not have been reared in the traditional manner, still I believe I am a woman, therefore I am. The question should then be: ‘When did society begin to not recognize me as a woman?’”
For gender activists, “the confusion began when society made me believe that my physical body is the sole determinant of my gender identity. Because my body manifested that of a typical male body, I should identify and live my life as a man. My inner being, then, should be imprisoned by my physical self,” Mendoza says.
Mendoza recalls her earliest childhood memories to “include paper dolls (because I was never given a Barbie, much to my great dismay), games played exclusively with my female cousins, dreams of being a princess, curtains transformed into dresses and towels wrapped in my head pretending it were my long hair. I had crushes with the local boys, played mother in our bahay-bahayan,” she says. “So you see, my earliest memories were that of me in the traditional female role. No one forced me into it. It was the most natural thing for me.”
It is the “norm,” i.e. to “attack” notions questioning the notion of segregating sex and gender only between male and female/man and woman that led to the establishment of STRAP.
There are challenges needed to be faced for this.
For one, there’s ignorance. “We felt the need to create a group for transpinays because there wasn’t any at that time (it was established). The existing GLBTQIA organizations at that time did not have any idea what transgenderism was all about, (and even those) who claimed to be inclusive of transgenders did not have any clue at all. Simply, no one had heard of the word transgender. In our culture, we only have lalaki (man), babae (woman), gay (bakla), and lesbian (tomboy). All those who were assigned male at birth and chose to love a man and/or choose to identify as a woman were collectively known as the bakla. The concept of gender identity, which transgenderism is all about, was unheard of in our society,” Mendoza says. “It was only fairly recently that the trans movement in the world began. It was even more recently that the trans movement echoed in the Philippines. Because Filipinos were and mostly still are ignorant about the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation, this is often where the confusion, discrimination, harassment and oppression begin.”
Mendoza adds: “Gender equality cannot be achieved unless people are made aware about the basics of gender itself. This is why we tirelessly give talks about gender and transgenderism. We believe that to create change, people must first be re-educated. To value the beauty of diversity, GLBTQIA organizations must leave their old notions of gender and sex behind, and open up to the new truth and the facts of gender and sex.”
Secondly, there’s complacency. “I think it’s in the Filipino’s nature to just accept what is given. Bahala na. We never question, we just accept. Not all the things that we accept are truths. Most often, they are impositions. The same goes with gender. Blue for boys, pink for girls. One who is assigned male at birth must be registered as male even in one’s death certificate. Life must be linear according to the accepted norms. But now we know that this isn’t the case,” Mendoza says. “STRAP brings this awareness to the fore. We break the old notions and re-orient everyone of the truth.”
And thirdly, tolerance is still what is being done, not acceptance. “We say that the Philippines are tolerant to transpeople. Then again, tolerance is just a bittersweet substitute for acceptance. We don’t want to be tolerated, we want to be accepted and acknowledged in the gender we live our lives in. We don’t want to be tolerated in schools by allowing us to get in the campus’ gate. We want to be accepted as a student who identifies as a woman, and therefore be allowed to wear the female uniform. We don’t want to be tolerated to use the bathroom; we want to be accepted to use the female restroom,” Mendoza says.
Mendoza believes the Philippines still has much to do for equality to become the norm. “So far, here in the Philippines, there is no law that allows or prohibits us to change our sex and name in our birth certificates. There has been controversial news pertaining to this (Jeff Cagandahan and Melly Silverio cases). The thing is, until we are granted by the government the right to a change in our legal documents, and whilst our society continues to employ, educate, care for, insure, and account for, on the merits of one’s gender, as transgender people, we will not have the peace of mind to live our lives,” she says. “Like any civilized, humane and progressive country, we need to create a law that gives the human being the freedom to identify and express his or her gender the way he or she wants it to be expressed. This, or the creation of a gender-less society is what the Philippines needs to be in order to be at par with other countries.”
And it is on this that she sees STRAP’s relevance lies.
“STRAP is the first and only support, contact, information and advocacy group focused on the needs, issues and concerns of girls and women of transsexual experience in the Philippines. It seeks to improve the public understanding of transsexualism, encourage a helpful and supportive community among transpinays, and promote positive, empowering, and dignified images of Filipinas with transsexual experience. Having said that, we illuminate the (otherwise invisible) ‘T’ in the country’s GLBTQIA community. In that sense I would say that STRAP is not only relevant, but vital at the moment,” Mendoza says.
In 2006, Mendoza started acting as chairwoman of STRAP – which continues to be a “very loose organization with an even looser leadership structure.”
While STRAP has already helped initiate and engage in dialogues local and international groups, both from the public and private sectors – e.g. Ayala Group of Companies, owner of Greenbelt 3 in Makati City, due to a discriminatory policy on transgenders applied by select venues in its properties – “what makes STRAP successful is not the grand acts of activism. For me, it is the ability to touch a single person and change his or her opinion and views about themselves and transpeople. What makes me proud the most is to see the members of STRAP reclaim their dignity not as a woman, but as a person. To have the power to once again believe in one’s self and one’s capacities is something to be proud of,” Mendoza says.
The group’s focus now is to empower the transpinays.
“For a very long time, transwomen have been stereotyped and made to believe that their chances in life are limited. In the past we had been made to believe that we could only earn a living solely by being an entertainer, a parlorista, or a prostitute. We were made to believe that we could never have meaningful romantic relationships unless we pay. That we would always be the butt of jokes and everything we say would not matter. For a very long time, transwomen were not allowed to maximize their fullest potential. For a very long time, transwomen have had to subject themselves to the oppression, discrimination and repression directed towards us. STRAP now wants to enlighten the transpinay. We want to tell everyone that we have the power to choose who and how we want to become. That we can live dignified lives. That we can be doctors, teachers, engineers, mathematicians, IT professionals, marketers, et cetera. That we are worthy of true love. That our lives are as valuable as anyone else. That we have a voice and that we can use it to better the world,” Mendoza says.
“I believed, and still do now, that no amount of physiological alteration was necessary to transform myself into a woman. I think therefore I am. I have always been and will always be. Surgeries would not make me more of a woman. There’s no such thing as ‘more of a woman.’ There is just woman, and women came in various forms and shapes: tall, short, big, boyish, feminine, slim, flat-chested, full-bosomed, child-bearing, barren. Cosmetic enhancement is just that,” Mendoza says.
Mendoza is cautious when using the term “transitioning,” that Western expression that means actually acting on changing oneself from the gender assigned at birth to the rightful gender one identifies himself or herself to be.
“When I transitioned exactly is hard to point out. The Filipino way of transitioning does not fully ascribe to the Western definition. I knew I was a woman from a very young age. Even though I was dressed as a man, it didn’t stop me from believing in my true self,” she says. “It wasn’t until my early to mid 20s when I saw an endocrinologist and began my Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). It was also then when I physically manifested what is traditionally known as a female appearance. This was the time I started connecting the soul with the body.”
In a way, with her support system, Mendoza is still luckier than most.
“At first, I was the white elephant in the family. I was certain they knew the changes that were going on, but they were mum about it. One day, I wrote them a letter explaining my situation. My Mother’s first reaction upon reading it was, ‘I love you as you are.’ I’ve lost only one friend. My guess is my ‘transition’ has shamed her. Then again, perhaps she really wasn’t my friend. I lost a job. It was there where I started wearing more pronounced female clothing. They, of course, did not admit that reason to be so. After that, with an impressive scholastic and work records to back me up, I was on the job market for the first time in my over six years of professional life. I thought it wouldn’t be hard to find a new job because of my experience and credentials. I was wrong. While it would’ve been true if I remained androgynous, what I hadn’t realized was that the conservative corporate world was more interested in what’s between the legs than what is in the brains. Fortunately, now, I have a career in marketing with an equal opportunity employer. I’ve been in the same company for almost six years now,” Mendoza says.
Interestingly, “I would have wished to be born non-GLBTQIA if only to escape the additional struggles we have to go through because of who we are. I say additional because everyone faces challenges in life. Ours are just a bit more because of our otherwise non-conventional identity,” Mendoza says.
Nonetheless, she realizes that “I would not have been the person I am today if it were not because of my history. I wouldn’t have known how much my family loves me despite it all. I wouldn’t have met my friends who are the most understanding and compassionate people. I wouldn’t have been loved by a man who, despite myself, accepts, honors, respects and cherishes the love that I’m able to give. If I did not take the steps to be one with myself, I will never feel complete. I’ll be a living zombie – empty and unfeeling,” Mendoza says.
This is why, largely, she has no regrets in life.
“My journey, though not smooth, is a fun ride. The friend I lost should not really account for as a friend. The job and the potential employers who turned me down didn’t get the chance to know an employee who would’ve impacted their growth. The boy clothes I had to pack benefited the destitute more. No, I have no regrets for choosing my life. I did it on my own terms. I aligned my sails to the wind. Where the wind will take me? I don’t know. I am certain, though, that it will be towards a place I have always wanted and am destined to be.”
If there’s one achievement she can highlight, Mendoza says it is womanhood. “I take pride in the woman that I have become. In fulfilling that, I have become a better person, a better citizen, a better friend, a better child, a better partner,” she says. “A lot of people long to live extraordinary lives. My life’s extraordinary. Now, I just want be like a lot of people.”
If there is one thing GLBTQIAs themselves need to change, it is, for Mendoza, their lack of understanding. “The reason why we started STRAP was because of the lack of understanding about transgenderism even in the GLBTQIA community. Some GLBTQIA people seem to be hostile towards transpinays and transpinoys (even more hostile than their ‘straight’ counterparts). They say, ‘Why can’t you just act straight and still be gay?’ What most in the community do not understand is that transwomen are NOT gay men. Transgenderism is not a branch of homosexuality. We are not cross-dressing gay men. We are not effems – we are not effeminate gay men. We are not pa-girls. WE ARE GIRLS AND WOMEN who happen to be born in the same body most male-identified men were born in. We can choose to love a man (hence making us straight (trans)women or love another woman (hence can we then only be called lesbian)),” Mendoza says. “We are a marginalized group in a marginalized community. We need all the support and encouragement we can get from everyone in the community.”
But Mendoza is inspired to continue doing good by “the women of STRAP. We are a small group of courageous women and we inspire each other. The STRAP girls are self-made, brave, outspoken, driven and can wear high stilettos while being all these. We affirm, lift up, and encourage each other. Our gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, intersexed, and androgynous allies in the community are also very encouraging. They believe in us, and listen to us. They laid the foundation of a revolution that is soon to come,” she says.
Yet other sources of inspiration from Mendoza are her family (“I look at their great love for and even greater faith in me and I know that someday soon they will be proud of the change I will make in our society and of the change I have already made in myself”) and her boyfriend, Lawrence (“He was the first person to fully believe in me even when I have doubts about myself. His loving support is a source of strength. His encouragement to reach for my fullest potential as a person and to advance the transgender cause in the Philippines, his adoptive country, is enough to keep the advocacy torch burning”).
After all is said and done, Mendoza wants to be remembered “for how I lived my life as a person, not as an advocate. I want to inspire as I have been by the women before me and by those who were with me. There is no greater source of inspiration than the life of someone who has walked in their shoes,” she says.
And if given the chance to tell her story, she would summarize it, “to be told this way: Once upon a time, from a walled castle not so far away, there lived a princess. One day, her fairy godmother tore her kingdom’s walls. For the first time, she saw a different world beyond the shattered walls. Her world was opened to a whole new dimension. She was liberated. She felt free. She felt more at home with this new world than she ever did in the one she grew up in. The possibility of living a whole new life like how she had always imagined it to be was now before her. She pursued her desire to be a part of this promising brand new world. She gave up a lot of things, but not the truth about, and the faith in, herself. Then she lived happily ever after.”
Fortunately, that is not the end of it.