Around April 2012, Naomi Fontanos, with her “closest transgender friends (Yasmin Lee, Princess Jimenez, and Seanel Caparas), “felt that in order for us to contribute better to building the transgender movement in the Philippines, of which we had already been part for some time, it would be best for us to form our very own organization that reflected who we are as people, as women, and as transgender Filipinas.”
Thus, after around two months spent on brainstorming “on our vision, mission, and goals”, Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas was formed. “Simply, it means that we are Filipinas who advocate on gender and development issues, which we see is a gap that current LGBT advocacy or transactivism does not address,” said Fontanos, the group’s executive director.
For the group’s first year, the priority issues for the group are: the right to the highest attainable standards of health, economic justice and regional human rights activism. “We are currently focusing our efforts on these issues and their impact on the transgender community.”
And to attain its goals, like many emerging groups, the group’s main challenge is funding. “We have the energy, drive, passion, know-how and skills for advocacy work having done it for a long time, but it is sustaining all these through proper funding that is something we need to address,” Fontanos said.
At the same time, the group is also faced with the “usual concerns of finding enough volunteers for our activities, attracting the right mix of people who will fit in our group culture, and mentoring our sisters who are new to activism to continue the work that we have started.”
But Fontanos stressed that “we face all these issues head-on. We have prior experience so we have already learned valuable lessons that we carry in our hearts. The best part about being with a group of people who have your back, understand you, respect you, care for you and want you to succeed is that the work becomes secondary. The joy of being together and having a sense of community and belonging is foremost.”
“We recognize human rights work as highly intersectional. Economic, social and cultural rights are not disconnected from civil and political ones. We also see how in a country such as ours, marginalization can be brought about by the pursuit of development,” said Fontanos, who cited as a case in point the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. “A strong lobby from the BPO industry worked hard to get that law passed to protect BPO companies from corporate sabotage and other cyber threats. But in the government’s acquiescence to the BPO lobby, many voices were neglected to be heard: women including transwomen were left out of the conversation. So you have an existing law that, as Sen. TG Guingona points out, legislates morality when its main aim was to protect the BPO sector which lobbied for it in the first place.”
Fontanos added that “that is why it was very important for us to make our stand heard on the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 because it is one of several laws that are proof of the inadequacies of the democratic process in our society. In March 2012 during women’s month, a law was passed decriminalizing pimps as vagrants but maintaining that prostitutes are only women. Having such a law in 2012 is almost unbelievable when you think about it. But it brings to the fore how much lacking we are when it comes to issues of human rights, development, and democratization. These are issues we want to address through GANDA Filipinas.”
GANDA Filipinas wants to push for “a group whose values were crystal clear. GANDA Filipinas values dignity, community, wellness, joy and change. Every step we take, as an organization and as individuals, is guided by these values.”
Even though it’s a new group, GANDA Filipinas already has efforts that the group is proud of.
“We advocate for genuine gender equality for all Filipinos and we believe in mainstreaming. So far, I am very proud of our dynamic Facebook website page (www.facebook.com/gandafilipinas). We have seen social media users grow in leaps and bounds over the past year and we are glad that we decided to create a community fan page for our group,” Fontanos said. “There, we are able to show people our work but also our lives as sisters and friends.”
Linked with the group’s push for social media presence, GANDA Filipinas was able to get PictureCity as a corporate sponsor for its photography needs. “We see how people are starved for empowering images of beautiful, larger-than-life, and empowered transwomen. I believe that through our Facebook page and the images we have posted there, we have been able to reach and touch many people and address this lack,” Fontanos said.
In fact, even as Fontanos noted that “so far we have very few members, but when we post a spectacular picture of us girls, we get more clicks and ‘likes’ than we expect. And we see complete strangers from all over the world, high school and college students, people of all ages, our friends and the family and friends of our friends liking on our page. It is quite thrilling knowing that we are very new but, at the same time, it is also a form of validation of the hard work we put in at GANDA Filipinas.”
GANDA Filipinas is also “making headway in our advocacy for transgender health and wellbeing. We are part of several important networks addressing this issue.” In September 2012, GANDA Filipinas was invited by the World Health Organization Western Regional Pacific Office (WHO WPRO) to a consultation on HIV, STI and other health needs of transgender people in Asia and the Pacific. “We have also joined or are joining several initiatives in line with HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and care within the transgender community,” Fontanos said.
GANDA Filipinas was also represented at a regional workshop in Singapore this December addressing gender in the corporate world and how gender gaps can be addressed through corporate social responsibility (CSR). “We hope to share this expertise to the companies we belong to in order to create change for sex and gender diverse people in the workplace.”
Also, “we have also been lucky to be approached by media continuously as recognition of the kind of discourse we bring to our activist work. Many groups have also signified their intention to work with us, which is really humbling. I’m happy to see our sisters like Ms Justine Ferrer bring attention to our group through her celebrity status or through their wide networks of friends,” Fontanos said.
GANDA Filipinas now eyes growing its membership, and “contrary to what some believe, we are actually open to all genders because even boys and men can also be ‘ganda’. In Filipino culture we have a concept of ‘gandang lalaki’. And that beauty or ‘ganda’ can refer to the interiority or exteriority of a person of any gender. We believe that to achieve real gender equality, we ourselves should create spaces where gender equality is the norm. In short, we don’t only talk the talk, we walk the real walk,” Fontanos said.
The group is also looking at working with more institutions in the future. As Fontanos said, “many actors are involved in gender and development, so we want to get the chance to collaborate with them.” This way, we hope to initiate programs that benefit our community in a deep and meaningful way.”
For those interested to become a part of GANDA Filipinas (www.facebook.com/gandafilipinas), you may contact the group through its Facebook page, or email: email@example.com, so that the membership and volunteer coordinator – Princess Jimenez – can get in touch with you.