She was recently named as one of the hottest transgenders in the world, along with Carmen Carrera, a RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni. She was also recognized as one of the “famous transgenders from around the world” (sic). She is a fashion model and a budding actress living in Thailand.
What may not be as known about her is that she ran away from home at a very young age to do what she wanted to do: that is, to make a name for herself. And several years later, she succeeded.
Meet Fiona Solis, a transwoman who originated from Ormoc City.
Fiona calls herself as an “ongoing piece of performance art”. And this, with the countless things that happened in her life, only affirms who Fiona really is.
She grew up living with her grandmother, though she later moved in with her father. But because of the bitter relationship she had with her stepmother, Fiona decided to leave and start a new life on her own.
When Fiona was 15 years old, she was allegedly raped by three men. She recalled being asked to dance in front of them, and then she was forced to play with a 1.5 Coca Cola bottle in her ass, and then they abused her with guns pointed at her. But while it was a very traumatic moment in her life, Fiona used that situation to fight and become a better version of herself.
She worked in salons so she can earn a living. Eventually, Fiona discovered the world of beauty pageants.
“I was fascinated with the beautiful display of those women on stage. They are like gorgeous peacocks. And I identified very deeply with all the color and glitter,” Fiona said. “It might also have been a reaction to my mother dying when I was three months old. Perhaps I was trying to bring the femininity back into my life.”
Fiona first joined a beauty pageant when she was 10 years old. Luckily, she won the title.
It was in joining beauty contests that she “mastered the art of beauty” and used it to her advantage.
“Most of the transsexuals who were joining beauty pageants wanted their skin to be whiter, but I was not like them. I wanted to be who I am really. I’m proud of my skin,” Fiona said.
One of her achievements was when she joined Queen of Cebu, a prestigious transgender beauty pageant in the southern part of the country. She placed as one of the 21 finalists, chosen from over 100 participants. Even if she didn’t win the title, Fiona considers it as “the culmination of the display part of my life. It was a chance to be the ultimate peacock.”
For Fiona, “it was also a way to re-emphasize to the world how important it is to stand up and be yourself in the world.”
Aside from joining beauty pageants, Fiona is also active in the world of fashion. She has modeled for several brands internationally – in print, in TV, and in the runways. Some of her notable modeling appearances on TV include: a luxury paper bag in Italy, handbags, online poker games, and cosmetic surgery. She also did several runway fashion shows for some local and foreign designers.
“There have been many turning points in my career, and I hope there will be more in the future,” Fiona said. “I was very lucky to have a very supportive parent, my father.”
Although she already achieved and reached many successes in her life, Fiona still feels that “I have one more mountain to climb, which is the international pageant held in Pattaya, Thailand, the Queen International. After that, I hope to focus more on fashion and acting.”
She also noted that “I did grow up, we all have, in an environment where there is constant discrimination.” But instead of succumbing to the repression she encountered, she used it to reinforce her determination to stay in her course and to continue improving her craft.
“There have also been instances in government offices where I get odd looks from the officials every time they compare my appearance to the ones in my documents,” Fiona said, adding that for transgender people, “(we) have to go the extra mile just to be allowed to travel.”
Today, she lives and works in Thailand, juggling several jobs. She is a teacher and a tour guide, while she also waits for the agents to call her.
She said that the decision to live in another country was an “effort to escape the mild oppressive atmosphere of the Philippines when it comes to LGBTQ people.”
Fiona was also featured in several documentaries, and in radio and TV programs, where she discussed what it’s like to be a transgender. Here, she always narrates her experiences during her humble beginnings in Ormoc and Cebu, describing the ordeals of being a transgender.
She also posed for several photographers, depicting the “reality” of transgenders. One of which was by renowned photographer Ingetje Tadros, where Fiona was shot in full frontal, showing her genitalia.
“The (photography) project was a matter of being proud of who I am, all of me. I am a unique individual, head to toe. I am not ashamed of it. I am promoting LGBTQ awareness in my own little way, through my personal example,” Fiona said.
In a world where discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is still pervasive, the likes of Fiona may be considered as unsung movers that do not always get recognition. But while she may be dismissed by many as just another pageant queen or a transgender model who is making her way in the world stage, in her journey, Fiona helps change perspectives by never forgetting who she really is. “I want to keep exploring this idea of personal creation and helping others do the same,” she said.
When asked what Filipino transgenders should do in times of repression, Fiona said: “We cannot let a set of outdated ideas on gender and roles dictate who we are, how we act, and what we do. Have personal integrity; love yourself first, not just the image in the mirror, but the person inside you as well. It is important for everyone to live a life that they can be proud of – that is the mark of success.”
Covid-19 and the freelancer’s dilemma
The Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. But Covid-19 responses actually do not include them, so what happens to them now?
Kate is a visual artist. She resigned from her day job to pursue her passion two years ago. Painting and creating origami, her income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students.
Nicole is a freelance makeup artist. Her clients varied from celebrities to socialites to brides and debutantes… and everything in between. Nicole used to earn a minimum of P3,000 per client, with the amount increasing depending on the type of service being offered.
Lumina is a drag artist, a common face in dance clubs and in events. Aside from her “talent fee”, she also used to get “tips” from customers.
But when the Covid-19 related Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) took effect in Luzon starting last March 17, their capacity to earn a living was also put on hold. And people like them – a.k.a. “freelancers” – are many.
In May 2019, PayPal (the payment system company) reported that the Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. In fact, this is a segment that is fast becoming an influential part of the Filipino workforce and a key engine driving the growth of the country’s economy.
The terms used to refer to them may vary – e.g. In October 2019, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that of the 73,528,000 population in the Philippines, ages 15 years and over, 95.5% are employed. And 25% of them are “self-employed workers”. Freelancers also fall under PSA’s categorization.
And ECQ has been devastating to these Filipinos.
“The current lockdown left us, freelance workers, in a complete halt — events and shows were cancelled. It technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home,” Lumina said.
Like Lumina, Kate said freelancer workers are “so tied to the situation.”
“Even if I want to sell my work or earn a living, I cannot do anything right now,” Kate added.
What gov’t support?
There are supposed to be government support for workers affected by the ECQ.
In a statement released last March 17, for instance, the Department of Labor and Employment stated that they “may be able to address the pressing needs of the rest of the affected workers in the quarantined areas.”
DOLE developed the following mitigating measures: “Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program” (CAMP), “Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers” (TUPAD), and “DOLE-AKAP for OFWs”.
CAMP will serve “affected workers regardless of status (i.e. permanent, probationary, or contractual), those employed in private establishments whose operations are affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” TUPAD “aims to contribute to poverty reduction and inclusive growth.” The program is “a community based (municipality/barangay) package of assistance that provides temporary wage employment.” And the DOLE-AKAP specifically caters to overseas Filipino workers who have been displaced due to the imposition of lockdown or community quarantine, or have been infected with the disease.
DOLE reiterated that the only qualified beneficiaries are the underemployed, self-employed and displaced marginalized workers. To help these people, “employment” is offered – i.e. the nature of work shall be the disinfection or sanitation of their houses and its immediate vicinity, and the duration will be limited to 10 days. The person will be receiving 100% of the prevailing highest minimum wage in the region.
Another government body eyeing to supposedly help is the Social Security System (SSS), where employees of small businesses may apply to be considered for the Small Business Wage Subsidy (SBWS) Program.
To add, the government agency is also geared up to pay some 30,000 to 60,000 workers projected to be unemployed due to possible layoffs or closures of Covid-19 affected private companies.
Some arts-focused institutions like the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) also developed their own “disaster-triggered funding mechanism” to help address the “lack of support from the government.” In FDCP’s case, the program aims to help displaced freelance audio-visual workers—from talents, to production staff and technical crew members.
But note how all efforts are mum on freelance workers.
Making ends meet
And so many are left to do something they never did – i.e. rely on others just to survice.
In the case of Nicole, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda.
“Sobrang hirap ng sitwasyon ngayon. Hindi ko alam kung saan ako kukuha ng panggastos. ‘Yung ipon ko paubos na, tapos kailangan ko pa magbayad ng renta sa bahay at ibang bills (The situation now is very hard. I don’t know where to get money to spend. My savings are almost gone, and yet I still have to pay for my rent and the bills),” she said.
Lumina, for her part, is “lucky” because she still lives with her family, and “they have been providing for my basic needs since the lockdown started.”
Her luck isn’t necessarily shared by many – e.g. Human Rights Watch earlier reported that “added family stresses related to the Covid-19 crisis – including job loss, isolation, excessive confinement, and anxieties over health and finances – heighten the risk of violence in the home… The United Nations secretary-general has reported a ‘horrifying‘ global surge in domestic-based violence linked to Covid-19, and calls to helplines in some countries have reportedly doubled.”
To add: “In a household of six members, I think the goods that we are receiving from the government is not enough,” Lumina said, hoping that “every freelance worker also receive benefits from the government that would in a way cover the earnings that we lost.”
In 2017, when PayPal conducted a survey of over 500 freelancers in the Philippines, the results showed that the country had a “very optimistic freelancer market”, with 86% of freelancers claiming they anticipate future growth in their businesses. In fact, at that time, 23% of the respondents said their business is growing steadily, while 46% said their business is stable.
But Covid-19 turned everything upside-down for many.
There are rays of hope.
A Toptal survey, for instance, pointed out that 90% of companies depend on freelancers to augment their professional workforce, and – get this – 76% of surveyed executives intend to increase use of independent professionals to provide expertise either to supplement full-time talent or to access skills and experiences they lack in their workforce.
This may be particularly true to those whose works do not involve face-to-face engagement (e.g. graphics design, BPOs).
And so for the likes of Kate, Nicole and Lumina — and many other freelance workers for that matter, whose works rely on being with people — the way to get through now is to just to make do with what they can grasp on… while trapped inside and hoping for a better future, where reliance (including in a non-responsive government) is not in the picture…
Keeping the faith at the time of COVID-19
Many ask where God is at the time of #Covid19, including #LGBTQIA people who – prior to this – already experienced difficulties because of their #SOGIESC, and now have a hard time with their expression of faith. But #LGBTQIA faith leaders say that this is as good a time as any to also highlight humanity and, yes, the rainbow #pride.
LGBTQIA people are “no strangers to isolation, hardships and the stress of being alone,” said Bb. Kakay M. Pamaran, Director for Field Education of the Union Theological Seminary Philippines. And while stressing that she is, in no way, trying to “romanticize this, but I think of all people, we know what this level of isolation feels like because we’ve been there… many of us have been there.”
Bb. Pamaran was referring to the isolation/stress of being alone and hardships brought about by Covid-19, with many countries – the Philippines included – forcing people to stay indoors, else risk getting infected. The World Health Organization (WHO), itself, acknowledged that “as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly sweeps across the world, it is inducing a considerable degree of fear, worry and concern in the population at large and among certain groups in particular…”
There are those whose (religious) faith is getting them through; but there are also those who, in times like this, start questioning their faith. This includes LGBTQIA people whose lives, as it is, are often marked by religious persecution. And so for those of faith and who belong to the rainbow family… how does one keep the faith at the time of Covid-19?
“When people are afraid, they turn to God,” Bb. Pamaran said. “And the church, for the longest time, has been God’s mouthpiece.”
She, therefore, believes that “the church has a huge responsibility where this is concerned.”
This April, the WHO released “Practical considerations and recommendations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of COVID-19”, which eyes to provide “practical guidance and recommendations to support the special role of religious leaders, faith-based organizations, and faith communities in COVID-19 education, preparedness, and response.”
WHO’s practical recommendations include: discouraging non-essential physical gatherings and, instead, organizing virtual gatherings through live-streaming, TV, radio, social media, et cetera; regulating the number and flow of people entering, attending or departing worship spaces to ensure safe distancing; management of pilgrim sites to respect physical distancing; and actual isolation of those who get ill/develop Covid-19 symptoms.
As stated by the WHO: Faith-based organizations (FBOs) “are a primary source of support, comfort, guidance, and direct health care and social service, for the communities they serve. Religious leaders of faith-based organizations and communities of faith can share health information to protect their own members and wider communities, which may be more likely to be accepted than from other sources. They can provide pastoral and spiritual support during public health emergencies and other health challenges and can advocate for the needs of vulnerable populations.”
Bb. Pamaran agrees – to an extent.
“It is very important, it is imperative for church leaders (and) faith-based organizations (FBOs) to deal with Covid-19 in factual, scientific ways,” she said. This is because “the things you say in the pulpit or all of the platforms that are available to you must always be based on scientific, medical evidence. And you have to exhaust all possible efforts to do your research because people tend to believe whoever is speaking behind the pulpit.”
Bb. Pamaran added that “people turn to superstition if scientific answers are not available. So as faith-based leaders, it is our responsibility to fuse rationality and factual scientific inquiry in these desperate (concerns).”
AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE
According to Rev. Alfred Candid M. Jaropillo, Administrative Minister of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP)-Ekklesia in R. Mapa St., Mandurriao, Iloilo City, Covid-19 is an “eye-opener for us that human as we are, we are finite beings, and we don’t have the control of life.”
But Rev. Jaropillo added that this ought to make people see that “people have contributions to the suffering of life, and the suffering of Mother Earth.”
RAINBOW IN FAITH
As FYI: In 2015, the Pew Research Center (PRC) noted that about 5% of the 2014 Religious Landscape Study’s 35,000-plus respondents identified themselves as members of the LGB population. And of that group, a big 59% said they are religiously affiliated. But only 48% of them reported belonging to a Christian faith group, compared with 71% of the general public.
Meaning: Although many members of the LGBTQIA community may feel that most major faiths are unwelcoming to them, a majority of them are still religiously affiliated (though not necessarily as Christian, but also as part of smaller, non-Christian denominations).
Bb. Pamaran noted that LGBTQIA people may not be going to churches because these are unwelcoming, or “they just don’t go to church because they gave up on church altogether. It was difficult for LGBTQIA people to express their faith pre-Covid-19; and now with Covid-19, it would be harder for them, I would imagine.”
Rev. Jaropillo added that it is, therefore, the church’s role to “open its doors… in ministering to people who need God the most: the vulnerable, poor, women, children, the displaced…”
There are, of course, open and affirming (or ONA, the term used by the United Church of Christ/UCC) churches and/or faith-based organizations, or those that affirm the “full inclusion of LGBTQIA and non-binary persons in the church’s life and ministry.”
And they are just as affected by Covid-19.
According to Bishop Regen Luna of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit Philippines, which is based in the Province of Cavite, the mandate to socially distance meant they had to (temporarily) close, so “Covid-19 had a big impact on us.”
Among others, they had to forego masses, Bible studies, weddings, baptism, et cetera.
“Ayaw din namin magkahawahan (We also do not one to infect each other),” he said.
Added Rev. Joseph San Jose, Administrative Pastor of the Open Table Metropolitan Community Church: In the context that we’re a small church, “we don’t have as much of the resources, the facilities that other churches have.”
For instance, the Roman Catholic Church and bigger Protestant churches can broadcast live their masses/worships, “we are unable to do that.”
The composition of the church membership is also proving to be a challenge, geographically speaking. Rev. San Jose, for instance, is in Laguna (approximately 100.3km from Mandaluyong, where the church is located); and members are from the City of Taguig, Quezon City, et cetera. “This is an issue with the Covid-19 lockdowns (that limit mobility of people),” he said.
Bb. Pamaran said that, largely, faith expressions involve corporate worship/gathering in one space. “Without that, faith expressions… significantly change.”
But Bb. Pamaran wants people to draw something from this experience.
“It is also a good demonstration to non-LGBTQIA persons that this kind of isolation… is the normal for LGBTQIA persons even without Covid-19 as far as going to church is concerned, and in belonging in church communities,” she said.
For Bishop Luna, the pandemic is (similarly) showcasing the resilience of LGBTQIA churches.
“Sanay na kami sa hirap (We’re used to hardships),” he said, adding that they now know how to “stretch the budget to sustain a small church.” This is even if their main source of income (i.e. donations, for holding of sacraments like baptism, marriage/weddings, et cetera) is affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Covid-19, on its own, isn’t the only problem; just as problematic are its effects on other issues.
In the case of Bishop Luna’s church-goers, for instance, “we have members who are also living with HIV.” Issues re access to life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) medicines have been reported on; particularly affecting those who have no access to treatment hubs/facilities, again because of immobility.
Rev. San Jose admitted that it’s a “personal struggle as a pastor” not being able to help out, particularly at a time when people are asking what churches are doing to help the needy. But “with our situation, it’s almost impossible for us to mobilize in the same way that other churches (have been mobilizing).”
DEALING WITH ‘NEW NORMAL’
Covid-19 introduced a “new normal” even to FBOs – here, largely dictated by going online.
Union Theological Seminary, for one, introduced online courses. Metropolitan Community Church hosts webinars and online conversations. Catholic Diocese of One Spirit Philippines has online services – though, as Bishop Luna said, holding sacraments (e.g. weddings) are still not done this way (thus the rescheduling of pre-booked events to next year). Meanwhile, Open Table Metropolitan Community Church’s Rev. San Jose records sermon/homily for Sunday online “gatherings”; which is also the time when members videoconference to discuss their faith and, yes, Covid-19.
“I think that’s going to be the trend,” said Bb. Pamaran. “This is going to be how we facilitate conversations moving forward.”
Rev. Jaropillo – whose UCCP-Ekklesia also has worship services – said that while churches now also use technology in ministering to people, “we don’t stop there. Aside from virtual worship services, we concretize the love of God through relief operations. We address two things: the liturgical/spiritual ministry through virtual worship services, and the physical need of people. Churches should have a holistic approach (to this).”
“It’s best to respond with creativity,” Bb. Pamaran said.
At the time of Covid-19, Rev. Jaropillo said that “it’s very natural to doubt and it’s human to question one’s faith: ‘Natutulog ba ang Diyos (Is God asleep)?’ But I believe I don’t need to defend God. God understands the doubts of the people nowadays. So as a church, we need to journey with these people who are in doubt, especially at times of crises like now.”
Bishop Luna agrees.
“Some people ask why God would let something like this happen,” he said, adding that while these questions are unnecessary, that they are asked at all is “natural”/understandable. But he said that times like this offer lessons from God, and people should listen. “We believe in a loving God… We believe that God is teaching us – e.g. how to look after the environment, health, and respect of other creatures. We’ve forgotten these. We also live fast lives; we don’t even think it can end in a blink of an eye.”
For Rev. San Jose, it may be worth echoing what Pope Francis said when asked by a child why there’s human suffering. “Sometimes we just don’t know. It is what it is. There is a mystery of suffering and pain. And it would be very arrogant for us to try to answer very difficult and almost no-answer questions. The progressive faith compels us not to ask where God is, but to ask where we are and what we are doing at this time to be the channel of God’s love, comfort, hope for ourselves and for others.”
For Bb. Pamaran: “It’s a common question to ask where God is in all these. But perhaps it’s the best time to ask where humanity is in all these. It is the best time to look into our humanity and our creativity, our innovative imaginations to pull through this.”
LGBTQIA OF FAITH
To LGBTQIA people of faith, Bishop Luna calls for prayers – “unified prayers” – while spending time with loved ones, and looking after oneself (e.g. mental health).
“Ibigay natin laat ng ito sa Panginoon (Surrender everything to God),” Bishop Luna said, adding: “We believe that this, too, shall pass.”
LGBTQIA people are resilient, continuing to face hardships in life. “We can survive this, too,” he said, “and pass this with flying colors.”
It is also the resilience of the LGBTQIA people that Rev. Jaropillo wants to highlight. That LGBTQIA people find joy/laugh even in dark times is something that can be shared to cheer up communities. “Continue to shine as a rainbow, to inspire other people.”
Covid-19, said Rev. San Jose, is also a good time for the LGBTQIA people to reflect on social justice. “There is a need for us to be more active in engaging in the issues faced by the country, by our community,” he said. “There is really a great need to organize and mobilize.”
“No sector of people understands isolation more than the LGBTQIA community. We can imagine, we can grasp the loneliness and isolation that Covid-19 brings. And so try to remember how you pulled through all these years, and then try to help others do the same,” said Bb. Pamaran.
In the end, “now more than ever, the world needs color; the world needs our color. So be that… for yourself and for others,” Bb. Pamaran ended.
Being trans at the time of Covid-19 lockdown
#LGBT Filipinos still face legal impediments re their #SOGIESC, so many of the gov’t responses related to #Covid19 exclude them. For #trans community members, interconnected issues include losing livelihood considering many belong to informal sectors, limited access to hormonal medications that could adversely affect mental/emotional/psychological health, and general forced invisibility that excludes them from gov’t support.
At the moment, LGBTQIA people are (often) excluded in government assistance related to Covid-19, said Magdalena Robinson, CEO of the Cebu United Rainbow LGBTIQ+ Sector Inc. There are various (and many of them interrelated) reasons why this is so – e.g. because marriage equality is not recognized in the Philippines, many LGBTQIA Filipinos live alone (“For example, they just rent rooms”) or perhaps couples live together yet are just considered as board mates, so they are not considered to belong to “homes”/”households”. “That’s a difficulty (that affects) access to the assistance of the government.”
It is the intersection/inter-connection of issues that – in truth – define the experience of transgender Filipinos in particular as they try to survive the Covid-19 lockdown.
WANTED: ACCESS TO MEDS
To start, there’s the issue with accessing hormonal medications.
As noted by Jhen Latorre of the Pioneer FTM (Pioneer Filipino Trans men Movement), members of the transpinoy/trans men community already noted issues re accessing testosterone (hormonal medications). Not only because the stocks are limited, ordering is challenging, but also “mahirap ang shipping (we also encounter issues with shipping).” This is even more so for those in provinces.
Robinson added that many trans people access hormonal medications from the black market. For example, some local suppliers buy from Thailand. But there are now issues with stocks, affected by the lockdown that limits mobility of goods (from overseas, as well as locally).
Now, this is worth highlighting: According to Kate Montecarlo Cordova, founding chairperson of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines, “people have a hard time understanding the health impact of hormones to trans people.”
Cordova said that many people now “think that taking hormones is just a luxury; that we just want it, and it’s not even needed.”
She added that often neglected in this line of conversation are the biological/physical, economic/financial, and psychological/emotional impacts of not having these hormonal medications – e.g. there are trans women who work as entertainers, and not having access to the needed meds could affect their physicality, which could affect their means of living.
In the end, “these are all interrelated,” Cordova said. “There are intersectionalities.”
Obviously this touches on the continuing “forced invisibility” of trans people in the Philippines particularly when talking legally – e.g. the country still doesn’t have gender recognition law, and basically misgenders trans people by legally pigeonholing them according to their assigned sex at birth.
According to Latorre, at least in his group, most of their members have jobs that: 1. allow them to work at home, and 2. still give them regular salaries even during the Covid-19 lockdown.
But there are also those who are affected by “no work, no pay,” he said. So these people now only rely from the support of family members.”
Shane R. Parreno, chairperson of the Transpinays of Antipolo Organization, said that the percentage of members of the trans community who hold regular jobs remains low.
Local figures continue to be limited on this, but at least in the US, 29% of trans people live in poverty, compared to 14% of the general population; and trans people experience unemployment at three times the rate of the general population, with 30% of trans people reporting being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity in the past 12 months.
For Parreno, may trans Filipinos – and LGBTQIA community members, for that matter – are informal workers, e.g. hairdressers, make-up artists/cosmetologists, and tailors/seamstresses. And with “everybody affected by the lockdown, those working in these fields/areas do not have clients, so they do not earn,” she said.
Robinson stressed the same point: There are trans women who work in the beauty industry, fashion industry, et cetera who do not have income now. “So we hope they will not be left out (in the giving of needed support from the government during the pandemic).”
Latorre – who has two kids, but who also did not qualify in the government’s definition of “household” to be given support – said that even before, LGBTQIA families have always been set aside.
And because “there are trans people who are the breadwinners,” Parreno said, “I hope that their SOGIESC won’t be reason for them not to be included in (government support).”
ACCESS TO MEDICAL CARE
There’s also the difficulty in getting medical care.
Recognizing that trans people may need to see medical professionals (e.g. when transitioning), Latorre also isn’t aware of clinics that are now open for them to access. This issue is ongoing, however, and is apparent even when there’s no lockdown, since there remain few – if any – trans-specific medical practitioners in the Philippines, perhaps even more particularly in provinces.
“Sana di na magtagal ito ng sobra (I hope the lockdown doesn’t last long),” Latorre said, because “alam ko din naman na kailangan pa din to see a doctor lalo na sa too-serious na matters (I recognize that there is still need to see a doctor, particularly for very serious matters).”
HELPING EACH OTHER
For Latorre, “nakakatulong ang organization (trans organizations help).” For instance, members of trans organizations can give tips re transitioning, or – if meds are needed – they can “lend” supplies.
In Cebu in central Philippines, Robinson said that transpinays asked their networks on where to get supplies. And when supplies are really hard to get, “we just advise them on the alternatives – e.g. maybe there are fruits that have high estrogen or anti-androgen properties.”
Some food that are estrogen-rich, and help lower testosterone levels include: soy products like edamame, tofu, soy milk and miso; spearmint and peppermint; licorice root; vegetable oils; flaxseed; and certain types of nuts.
“We give out this information so we have alternatives for them,” said Robinson, adding that those who received the information are “advised to share the same to their contacts.”
For Robinson, “everyone is experiencing difficulties,” she said, so “we have to support each other, fix each other’s crown.”
Latorre also has a practical recommendation: Since trans people are at home during the lockdown, they may want to use this to find time to talk to their families. “Baka ito na ang oras to open up (Maybe this is a good time to open up),” he said.
Cordova said that the lockdown highlights that “it’s about time that we comfort each other. We can’t expect our government, or other people to comfort us.”
Meanwhile, Parreno has practical recommendations.
“Let’s support our government – e.g. when it says for us to stay home, stay home. Talagang malaki ang impact nito (This has a big impact),” she said. “Ipakita natin… na hindi tayo pasaway (Let’s show others we’re not troublesome).”
And in the end, “let’s pray that this will end soon para magkita-kita na tayo ulit, maka-rampa na tayo ulit (so we can see each other again, and wander/jaunt again).”
Living with HIV at the time of Covid-19 lockdown
To date, there is still no evidence that the risk of infection of #COVID19 is different among persons living with #HIV. But the #lockdown is worsening the situation of many PLHIVs – e.g. in accessing their life-saving medicines, loss of income/livelihood, exclusion in government responses, depression, et cetera.
“Nakakadagdag ng takot (Covid-19 adds to the fear) of persons living with HIV,” said Anthony Louie David, a Filipino living with HIV.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “at present there is no evidence that the risk of infection or complications of COVID-19 is different among PLHIVs who are clinically and immunologically stable on antiretroviral treatment when compared with the general population.” WHO added that “it is unknown if the immunosuppression of HIV will put a person at greater risk for COVID-19.”
However, “until more is known, additional precautions for all people with advanced HIV or poorly controlled HIV, should be employed.” This is because “PLHIVs with advanced disease, those with low CD4 and high viral load and those who are not taking antiretroviral treatment have an increased risk of infections and related complications in general.”
And so for David, because those with weaker immune systems are at higher risk of getting infected with Covid-19, “andoon yung takot (the fear is there).”
Rogeselle Burdeos Monton, also a PLHIV and the research and development officer of the Culture and Arts Managers of the Philippines, said that there’s that “worry within yourself” that because one is immunocompromised, “you might end up being infected with another virus.”
ACCESS TO LIFE-SAVING MEDS
The fear – not just the lockdown – has been limiting.
David, for instance, hasn’t been out of his house for weeks now – e.g. other family members have to do the groceries for him.
David is also troubled that his supply of life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) medicines is about to run out. “My treatment hub is in the City of Manila, and I am now in Biñan City, Laguna (approximately 31 kilometers away).”
Living in a different local government unit (LGU) is also an issue because people from outside Metro Manila (where his treatment hub is) are barred from entering Metro Manila.
At least for Moses Myro Ayuha, another person living with HIV, “luckily, I have supplies until May.” But Ayuha said that there are “blood brothers” who are really having difficulty in accessing their ARVs.
The Department of Health (DOH) tried to remedy this issue.
In March, DOH released an advisory that recognizes that “this current situation poses challenges in accessing life-saving medications… which may result in treatment interruption”, so it is mandating treatment facilities to “exhaust all possible methods to ensure reliable access to PLHIVs to treatment without having to risk increased exposure to Covid-19 when accessing their medicines.”
Meaning: PLHIVs can get their supplies (while the lockdown is ongoing) in other hubs that are nearest to them; or have their ARVs delivered to them, among others.
Monton’s hub delivered his ARVs for him… but he had to pay for the courier/shipping fee on his own, which may be an issue for those who do not have money to do so.
Monton also noted that there are also confusions – e.g. the process of accessing ARVs in hubs not yours, with policies supposedly announced by the DOH causing confusion instead of clarity.
And so Monton said that some end up “borrowing meds.”
David noted how non-government organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) are stepping up. For instance, there are those that deliver the ARVs to those who can’t leave their houses – e.g. #AwraSafely has some guide for PLHIVs during the time of Covid-19.
Helping is also done to those who have lost their means of living – e.g. the AIDS Society of the Philippines (ASP) gives out some amount to HIV-positive mothers and/or their kids, as well as healthcare providers who are rendering HIV-related services during the Covid-19 lockdown period.
This is particularly helpful to those “na walang kakayanang bumili ng pagkain nila ngayong may lockdown dahil wala ring trabaho ngayon,” David said.
Sadly – and this is worth highlighting – many of the existing solutions are available for PLHIVs in metropolitan areas, such as Metro Manila, where many NGOs and CBOs operate. Outside of Metro Manila, in the provinces, already problematic access to ARVs are worsened by the Covid-19 lockdown. Monton knows of a PLHIV in Laguna, for instance, who had to spend an entire day just to get through a series of checkpoints to access the nearest treatment hub to him; and then when he got there, “siguro nagmakaawa (maybe he begged) just to be given ARVs.”
Like the rest of the population, the livelihood of PLHIVs are just-as-affected by the Covid-19 lockdown.
Ayuha, for one, said that – at least where he’s staying, a halfway house for PLHIVs – they now rely on donations of food packs. “Nakakaraos din (We get by somehow),” he said.
But Ayuha said that “I am unable to do (what I usually do daily),” including giving HIV-related lectures (while working for non-government organizations). “Nabago talaga dahil di ka nga makalabas (This really changed because you can’t go out).”
David is the same; with his income usually sourced from giving HIV-related talks. And with gatherings cancelled because of the lockdown, “walang maasahan kundi pamilya ko lang (I only rely on my family).”
Monton, meanwhile, is a freelance worker, so his earnings are also affected. He may be luckier than most because he has savings; but he knows of other PLHIVs who – even now – are already worrying where to source the money for the incoming months’ bills (e.g. rent, utilities, et cetera).
Monton actually hopes that that the government’s financial support be made more inclusive. “When it comes to evaluating people who are currently financially challenged.” At the end of the day, he added, even PLHIVs are “also tax-payers.”
FOCUS ON SELF-CARE
David said that there are other issues affecting PLHIVs now highlighted by Covid-19 – e.g. depression. To deal with this, he recommends “keeping yourself busy.”
So David said: “Better your immune system because Covid-19 isn’t just going to be here now. Even without the lockdown, Covid-19 will still be there. So gain strength so that when the lockdown is lifted and we’re finally allowed to go out, we know we’d still be safe because we’ve properly prepared.”
Monton gives three practical tips.
First, with being idle affecting mental health, along with the fear of getting Covid-19 and accessing ARVs, “learn how to divert your attention,” he said. “Your fears are valid, but focus on your well-being as a PLHIV.”
Second, take precautions – e.g. wear face mask when going out, disinfect particularly before touching the face, et cetera.
And third, “magdasal (pray),” he said. Maybe not even because one is religious, but for “peace of mind… somehow it helps.”
For Ayuha, “PLHIVs should take precautionary measures… particularly if they go out.” Practically, “wear mask,” he said, though more importantly, “better your immune system… and huwag praning (stop panicking).”
LGBTQIA people as Covid-19’s hidden victims forced to choose between risking infection or starving
How Covid-19 – and the eventual lockdowns – is impacting the livelihood of LGBTQIA people.
Choosing to go out while the world is panicking over Covid-19 is “scary,” said Bella Abac, a freelance hairdresser/make-up artist from the City of Bacoor in the Province of Cavite. Though she knows she may be putting herself at risk of getting infected by the dreaded novel coronavirus 2019, “kailangan ko naman ay budget… kasi ito yung source of income ko (I need earn… because this is my source of income).”
The government – e.g. the barangay – gave some support; in Abac’s case, a few kilos of rice, noodles and canned goods. But since the Covid-19 lockdown is expected to last for weeks, this is obviously not going to be enough. And so putting one at risk (and others at risk, for that matter) becomes a necessity to survive.
According to Ging Cristobal, project coordinator for Asia & Pacific Islands Region of OutRight Action International: “‘Yung Covid-19, napakalaki ng pinsala sa lahat (Covid-19 did big damage do everyone)” though even more so to minority sectors like the LGBTQIA community.
To start, there’s the damage done to livelihood, she said. Many LGBTQIA people still experience discrimination that force them to engage in informal sectors; “ibig sabihin nito, sila ay hairdresser, staff sa grocery, eatery, palengke… at alam natin na ito ay ‘No work, No pay.’ Mas pagtuunan natin ng pansin yung mga marginalized sectors (this means that these people are hairdressers, staff in groceries or eateries or markets… and they don’t earn if they don’t work. We should give attention to those in the marginalized sectors).”
The economic impact of Covid-19 is now being discussed, including in the Philippines. In February, for instance, Statista.com, for instance, reported that about 75% of Filipinos perceived that the Covid-19 outbreak would affect the international economy, while 65% believed the national economy of the Philippines would be affected.
In fact, as of early March 2020, the global pandemic already contracted a decline of 2.4% in US’s GDP. Specific to the Philippines, the World Bank still sees the country’s economy to grow by 3% at best, contracting 0.5% at worst in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But really, it is still too early to see how big an impact Covid-19 will have on the economy.
What abounds now, instead, are anecdotal evidence of the difficulties experienced because of the pandemic, and the lockdowns implemented to monitor/control the same.
For Elden Lopena, owner of Top Touch Beauty Salon in Cotabato City, we should be thankful that we’re not as of yet as affected by other bigger countries; but “sana matapos na ito para di na masyado magtagal ang hirap (hopefully this ends soon so the hardships don’t last long)”.
Lopena lamented that as an owner of a salon, “meron din akong mga tauhan (I also have staff)” and he needs to help them with their daily needs, even as he worries where to source money for would-be expenses for his business (e.g. rental, utilities). Therefore, closing – even temporarily – has a big impact.
Maureen Mejia Chan, owner of Salon de Maureen in Makati City, estimates that she’d lose over P100,000 because of the lockdown, and so “hindi ko alam ano ang gagawin ko (I don’t know what I’d do).”
The difficulty is more pronounced for those who earn daily wages, said Ms Garner delos Reyes Lagare, salon owner/hair and make-up artist/PMU artist and instructor. “Ang nakaka-awa ay yung mga taong walang ipon (It’s sadder for people without savings)” because they don’t have the capacity to buy basic needs (e.g. food, milk for babies, medicines, etc).
Workers in informal sectors – as noted by Cristobal – worry day to day.
Vinz Calvin (a.k.a. Lumina), a drag queen, said that with venues where they perform closed (for three weeks now), they haven’t been earning at all.
To earn, some become more creative.
“Some drag queens, they hold shows online,” Vinz Calvin said. The viewers give “tips” by sending these to remittance centers/apps.
The “creativity” assumes, however, that everyone affected by lockdown has access to the same internet (and speed) services, which isn’t the case. Globe Telecom, for instance, urges subscribers to be ‘conscientious’ with internet use while most Filipinos are working from home, highlighting the impact of the demand on the connections/availability of connections.
Like Abac, who used to occasionally take risks by still services clients out of necessity, Lopena said that he knows of others who also do home service.
“Kung makakalabas… lalabas (If we can go out of our houses, we do so to serve clients),” he said, so that “kahit papaano makakatulong din sa pang-araw-araw na gastusin (so it helps in daily expenses).”
But fear (of getting infected or infecting others) is limiting this now, on top of the need to comply with the lockdowns, else risk getting arrested. And so many are basically left to be hungry.
HIGHLIGHTING LGBTQIA ISSUES
For Cristobal, the Covid-19 lockdown also has an unwanted effects.
There’s the surfacing of anti-LGBTQIA practices – e.g. in Quezon City, a lesbian couple complained that they did not receive goods from the local government because they were not considered “household”/”family”. The city is fortunate enough to have an existing anti-discrimination ordinance (ADO) that prohibits discrimination of LGBTQIA people within the city, so that the issue of the lesbian couple was resolved; but other local government units (LGUs) also in lockdown do not have ADOs.
It also puts members of the LGBTQIA community to be in situations/locations where they are at risk of getting abused – e.g. students, for instance, are now forced to be at home for the whole day, even if family members may not be accepting of them, or are even abusive of them.
HELP THE MARGINALIZED
Chan said that she heard of the support the government is supposed to give to small- and medium-sized businesses, like her salon. If true, she said it could help because “it’s difficult for businesspeople who are at a loss on where yo source the fund to continue financing their businesses.”
But Chan is among those at a loss on how to access/avail of this said support.
Vinz Calvin added that, in the case of drag queens for instance, who are also workers in the entertainment industry, “we’re not even sure if we qualify to ask for government support.” And this is even if this support is just-as-needed by them.
For some, giving help is becoming normal (in lieu of relying on government help). Lopena, for instance, said that “yung naitabi naming salapi, tinutulungan na rin namin sila (we use our savings to help our staff).”
But for Lopena, “yung hingi ng mamamayan kasi, yung pagkain… sana mabigyan sila ng tamang ayuda (what people are asking for, including food… hopefully the government can help them with that).”
The sentiment was shared by Lagare who said that getting help is ideal, though currently, the promised help is not reaching to target populations. “Kaya nakaka-awa talaga yung walang ipon sa ganitong panahon (Those who do not have savings are disadvantaged at times like this).”
And so Abac said that government should prioritize those who are in dire need of support. She added, though, that “yung iba naman na kaya namang makabili, huwag na daing nang daing kasi ang government ay kumikilos naman (those who can afford to buy, stop simply complaining because the government is acting anyway).”
Eventually, said Vinz Calvin, people should learn to be more prepared.
“Hopefully something like this doesn’t happens again, but in case it does, at least we have savings to use,” he said.
But while everyone is affected, LGBTQIA people should be very mindful, said Cristobal.
“Itong mga darating na panahon ay hindi ko alam kung mas magiging mabuti na ang kalagayan o mas (sasama) pa. Pero kahit sana anong mangyari, hindi tayo laging iniiwan (I don’t know if things will get better of worse. But whatever happens, LGBTQIA people shouldn’t be left behind),” Cristobal ended.
Trans kagawad at the COVID-19 frontline
As a frontliner during the COVID-19 pandemic, trans barangay kagawad Kristine T. Ibardolaza of Antipolo City said that her work may be risky, but it’s gratifying because she is one of those who help the needy. Right now, she said, everyone’s fighting, but “this is the time when we should be united as one. We should have one goal. And that is to stop this pandemic.”
“It’s very risky to be at the frontline because (in the case of COVID-19) we can’t see the enemy,” said Kristine T. Ibardolaza, a barangay kagawad of Barangay Mayamot in Antipolo City, one of the frontliners facing COVID-19 pandemic. “But as days (pass), I am able to say that it’s gratifying because you know you are one of those who help the needy.”
Kristine admitted that “you’re also only human so it gets hard. It’s physically draining, and a mental torture.” However, “we still trust that everything (happens for a reason).”
A barangay kagawad (in English, barangay councilor) is an elected government official, a member of the Sangguniang Barangay/Barangay Council of a particular barangay, the smallest administrative division in the Philippines. As local leaders, they are directly in touch with people at the grassroots/communities.
With the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) due to Covid-19, barangay officials were tasked by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte to helm the response to the COVOD-19 pandemic. And so “with our barangay captain… we pack food for our constituents, while monitoring how they are doing. We also give them hope that this, too, shall pass,” Kristine said.
The barangay – Mayamot – that Kristine serves is big. “It’s like a municipality,” she said, with “more or less 80,000 registered voters.” The number doesn’t include the other family members of these voters – e.g children.
“As much as possible, we want to reach everyone/all families,” Kristine said. But “sorry to say we still haven’t done this… for instance in the food packs made. But at the moment, I think we’ve reached 70% of the families; going to 80%.”
Service delivery is also proving to be challenging.
“I’m not sure if some people think this is a joke; they act like there’s a fiesta. Lack of discipline is the number one challenge. If people follow social distancing, or stay home to save lives, then our job will be easier,” Kristine said.
Already, Kristine – with the other local officials – have been working round-the-clock.
After packing the goods during the day, for instance, and “with help from the sitio chairman, we decided to distribute goods at night, when more people are asleep and are indoors.” This is because when visits are done during the day, people tend to congregate; and this is to be avoided in the time of COVID-19.
“We thought a pandemic like this only happens in movies. It never occurred to me that at a time when I’m the elected barangay kagawad, I’d face a problem like this,” Kristine said.
Kristine said it’s also challenging being a public official because sometimes, “nakalimutan ko pala na may pamilya rin ako. At hindi kami exempted sa pandemic na ito (I forget I also have family. And we’re not exempted from the pandemic).”
To other LGBTQIA elected officials, Kristine said: “Let’s be brave. This isn’t a fight only of LGBTQIA people, but of the whole Philippines and the whole world.”
She added that people should “never underestimate the power of prayers. If everyone prays, this will (soon) end.”
But Kristine said that bickering has to stop.
“Right now, everyone’s fighting; even within the LGBTQIA community. This is the time when we should be united as one. We should have one goal. And that is to stop this pandemic,” she said. “This is the time when we should be loving ourselves the most. This is the time when we should express our love to our loved ones. A simple smile for our frontliners. This could lift their spirits.”
And in the end, “everyone – no one is exempted – is experiencing difficulties. Hopefully, everyone is also eyeing a better future after this pandemic.”
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