By Mae Emmanuel Hernandez
Sass Rogando Sasot, Rica Paras and Raquela Rios – these are just few of the names of those who made history when it comes to transgender activism in the Philippines. But more recently, we saw, heard and read on the news a new addition to this coveted list. Her name is Heart Diño, the first transgender chairperson-elect of the student council of University of the Philippines Diliman.
It seems she was destined to achieve greatness at a very young age. At 22, Heart graduated with a degree of Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, Magna Cum Laude. She is an incumbent USC councilor and the head of its Gender Committee, the head of the Student Council Alliance of the Philippines (SCAP) Gender Committee, and is also a council member of the youth and student sector of the National Anti-Poverty Commission. She is now on her first year taking up Masters of Science in Applied Mathematics.
THE BARBIE YEARS
But all of these achievements did not come overnight. Born Gabriel Paolo, growing up while getting to know herself was a struggle. She always knew she was a girl but it confused her why everybody around her was reacting negatively to it.
“Bata pa ako, mga five, pinapalo na ako ng Dad ko kapag nahuhuli niya ako nagme-makeup. So medyo confused ako kasi ito yung gusto mo pero mali (daw). Nakaka-confuse yung kung paano ka aarte, kung ano yung nararamdaman mo. So ever since na bata ka, medyo constrained ka talaga. You are working on your limitations in such a way na kailangan mong i-please yung parents mo at yung grandparents mo. Noong nalaman ko na ganito talaga ako, dati ‘bakla’ pa yung term natin, di ko pa alam yung transgender. Kailangan ko siyang itago kasi baka ma-disappoint grandparents ko sa akin, baka ma-disappoint yung Mom ko and yung Dad ko. I had to really act doon sa ine-expect nila sa akin (When I was younger, around five, my dad hit me every time he caught me wearing makeup. I was really confused because this was what I wanted but I was told it’s wrong. It’s confusing how are you going to act, what you’re supposed to feel. Ever since you’re a kid, you’re definitely constrained. You are… limited since you need to please your parents and grandparents. When I found out that I’m really like this, the term we use was still ‘bakla’, we didn’t know the term transgender. I needed to hide it because I’s disappoint my parents and grandparents. I really had to act as they expected of me),” Heart says.
Albeit confused at the time, Heart had a happy and lenient childhood. She was third among the four siblings: two older sisters and a younger brother. She grew up playing Barbie, Claydoh, Lego, matchboxes and even robots with them and with her cousins. A self-confessed grandparents’ daughter, Heart stayed at her grandparents’ house until she reached high school.
It was during this time that she came to terms with who she is. Heart reveals, “siguro that time na-feel ko na iba talaga ako, nung nagkaroon na ako ng crush sa neighborhood. Kung grade one ako noon, mga fourth year high school sya. So imposibleng maging kami, ‘di ba? Na-feel ko na sobrang iba na, seryoso talaga ‘tong nararamdaman ko na hindi talaga ako lalaki at all (I felt I was different when I had a crush in our neighborhood – I was in first grade, while he was maybe in his fourth year in high school, so it’s impossible for us to be together, right? (But then) I felt that so different, that I am not a boy at all).”
It was then that she was ridiculed and verbally bulled; at school, she was incessantly called “bakla” and “salot”.
IF I WERE A BOY
After finishing grade school, Heart went to an all-boys school to continue her studies – it was her mother’s wish. “Nung high school na, medyo matanda na ako, sabi ng mom ko: ‘This time ako na magdedesisyon for you, mas maayos dito sa (all-boys school), exclusive ‘to, mas marami kang matututunan. (When I reached high school, my mom said this time she was going to decide for me, and that it’s more decent to study in (an all-boys’ school) since it’s exclusive, I’ll learn a lot there).” Heart did not object; in fact, it was at this point when she tried to become the “man” everybody believed she was supposed to be.
“It was a new start for me – (naisip ko na) siguro nga mali ang pagiging gay and this time I had (a chance) to change it. Sa pagbabago ng school na all-boys na walang nakakakilala sa ‘kin, (naisip ko na) baka dito ko kayang baguhin ang sarili ko. Sabi ng Dad ko mali, sabi rin ng Mom ko. Lagi akong napapagalitan kapag nabri-bring up yung issue. Nag-succumb ako sa kanila (It’s a brand new start for me, and I thought that maybe being gay is really wrong and this time I have to change it. In moving to an all-boys’ school where no one knew me, I thought I can change. My parents said it’s totally wrong. I get reprimanded every time the issue is brought up. I just succumbed to their wishes),” Heart confesses.
The first few months at the new school were never easy for her. Timid and soft-spoken, she tried to find friends and get accustomed with her new environment. Eventually, she met students who had the same interests like hers. However, just like any other exclusive, private schools out there, Heart and her buddies were subjected to what they called the “Gentleman’s Policy.”
“Meron kaming kontrata na bawal tumili, bawal mag-makeup signed by me. Pero may mga ka-batch ako na hindi nakapirma pero sabi kahit ‘di ka nakapirma, mandatory yun, parang social contract yun. Hindi porke’t wala kayong papel na pinasa, excuse na kayo. Subject kami to expulsion, to suspension kapag na-violate namin yun. I think alam ng parents ko yun. So napaka-limiting niya and all. Luckily, hindi naman ako na-expel or na-suspend dahil sa contract na yun. But the fact na may special rules sa iyo na ini-implement just because ‘gay’ ka, napaka-discriminating niya (We had a contract that prohibited us from screaming and to put on makeup. But I have batchmates who didn’t sign but it was mandatory, like a social contract. It didn’t mean that you didn’t sign you’re already excused. We were subject to expulsion, to suspension if we violated it. I think my parents were aware about it. It’s very limiting. Luckily, I was not expelled nor suspended because of that. The fact that there were special rules just because you’re gay was so discriminating),” Heart says.
To make things worse, Heart was forced to out herself to her parents due to an unexpected instance. She recalls how a teacher – even if well-meaning – outed her to her mom during a student evaluation meeting. Looking back, Heart asks: “Bakit niya ako in-out? Hindi niya ba alam yung repercussions ng ginawa niya? Pwede akong palayasin, pwede akong mag-stop sa pag-aaral; yung welfare ko hindi niya inisip talaga. (Looking back, why did she out me? Didn’t she know the repercussions of her actions? I could have kicked out of the house, stopped from going to school; she didn’t really think of my welfare).”
Through it all, she relied on her inner strength and moved on with utter optimism. She just enjoyed her stay at the said school and excelled in her academics, believing that being a transgender person or LGBT in general is not relative to one’s intellectual capacity.
Inclined with her inclination to solve complicated math problems, Heart decided to take up BS Mathematics at University of Santo Tomas in 2006. Having learned that University of the Philippines was offering Actuarial Science the same as UST, she transferred the following year. It was as if she was meant to go to UP. Prior to her going to UST, she passed UPCAT and she was considering Food Technology at UP Los Baños.
I AM… TG
Heart had no idea that entering UP will change her life. In the second semester of 2007, Heart decided to join UP Babaylan, the pioneering LGBT organization in the country, where she first encountered the term transgender. She was initially confused since “di ba sa Pilipinas kapag transgender ka na male-to-female, bakla ka lang na pa-girl, kapag female-to-male butch ka lang? Hindi pa talaga ako ganon ka-receptive sa idea, pero nung na-engage talaga ako sa mga discussions and all, nakakatuwa kasi mas naging open ako dun sa ano nga ba ang LGBT, ano yung rights natin, ano yung mga advocacies natin dapat (in the Philippines, if you are a transgender male-to-female, you’re considered as gay and feminine; if female-to-male, you’re just butch. But when I engaged in discussions, then I became more open on the issues of LGBTs, what rights we have and what our advocacies should be),” she recalls.
However, it was love that strongly convinced her to start transitioning from male to female. She admits: “May crush talaga ako. Sobrang patay ako sa kanya. Tapos yung crush niya sobrang ganda.” One time, Heart remembers telling the guy that if she transitioned, “mas maganda pa ako (at) baka siguro gugustuhin niya talaga ako (I had a crush. I really like him but he had a crush on a beautiful girl. [One tile I told him] that if I transitioned] I’d be more beautiful than her and maybe he would like me that much too).”
As part of her transitioning, Heart is undergoing hormone replacement therapy by taking over-the-counter contraceptive pills such as Yasmin, Diane 35, Premarin, et cetera. While she admits to experiencing mood swings, sleepiness and weight gain, she said she has never been this ecstatic. When she started transitioning, she discloses that her insecurities have gone away and she is more empowered than she used to be. And with the confidence, even her family has become more open to the fact that they have a daughter and a sister all along.
HEART AT YOUR SERVICE
Joining organizations like UP Babaylan and later on UP Math Majors Club exposed her to advocacy work and training. She met new people and learned how to interact with different kinds of students. It did not take long for Heart to find her purpose.
In 2010, she won a council seat at the College of Science Student Council elections under the party MATTER. It was a dream-come-true as it was her first time to participate in such election.
“Masasabi ko nga na even in high school, hindi ako nakakatakbo kasi nasa all-boys (school) kami. So kahit tumakbo ako, wala rin akong chance na manalo. Noong in-offer sa akin na tumakbo ako as college councilor, gusto ko talaga. Nanalo naman tayo (In high school, I did not have the chance to run for office because it was an all-boys’ school. Even if I ran, I had no chance of winning. When I was offered to run as college councilor, I said yes right away and won),” she says.
Because of the success she earned from the preceding year, Heart was offered to run for the second time. But it would be in a much larger and competitive arena, the University Student Council. She took the challenge without hesitation.
Even before deciding to run for office, Heart says she already had job offers. “Pero sabi nga ng mga tao, by running lang, nakakapag-send ka ng substantial equality message na kahit sino ka man, ano man ang sexuality mo, if you believe in yourself, kaya mong mag-take ng lead. If manalo ako, yung opportunity hindi lang para sa akin, hindi lang para sa transgender, hindi lang para sa LGBT, para sa lahat ng marginalized sectors. Siguro ito yung pinaka-nag-encourage sa akin na dapat hindi muna ako maging selfish, one year lang naman eh (People convinced me that by running alone, I can send a substantial equality message that whoever you are, whatever your sexuality is, you can take the lead. If I win, it’s not only for me, for transgenders, for the LGBTs, but for the marginalized sector. I think this really encouraged me that I should not be selfish this time, just for a year).”
With hard work and sheer determination, she topped the race for council seat last year. She won as the first transgender chairperson in the recent student council elections. She was the standard bearer of the student party ALYANSA (Alyansa ng mga Mag-aaral para sa Panlipunang Katwiran at Kaunlaran) where she garnered 3,290 votes against her other rivals.
A HEARTY FUTURE
In the top posts, Heart’s immediate concerns are not even LGBT-related, such as working on the university’s budget, with the council intending to be included in the drafting of the UP budget passed to the Department of Budget and Management; and coordinate efforts to deal with security concerns in the UP campus.
When asked about her critics, Heart has nothing but gratitude. “Hindi ako perfect. Dahil sa mga haters and critics natin, naco-continue natin na i-mold ang sarili natin, na i-develop ang skills natin, i-strengthen yung faith natin, and even yung character. Sabi ko nga I cannot please everybody talaga. Nung nanalo ako as chair, hindi na ako LGBT community lang, kailangan dapat nire-represent ko yung 21,000 UP students. We can do that through consultations. Sabi ko nga as transgender, naramdaman natin na no matter how loud we scream, hindi tayo pinapakinggan kasi nga transgender tayo, nobody cares. So this time, I’m taking the lead, no matter how loud students scream, no matter how soft they whisper, pakikinggan sila ng USC. This time, mas alam ko yung value ng pakikinig sa mga estudyante kasi ako mismo naranasan ko na hindi pakinggan (I’m not perfect. Because of our haters and critics, we continue to mold ourselves, develop our skills, strengthen our faith and build our character. I cannot please everybody. When I won as chair, I’m not just for LGBT community, I represent now the 21,000 UP students. We can do that through consultations. As transgender I feel that no matter how loud we scream, we are not heard because we’re transgender. Nobody cares. So this time I’m taking the lead, no matter how loud students scream, no matter how soft they whisper, USC will listen to them. Now I value more listening to students because I myself experienced not to be heard),” Heart ends.