In his well-circulated contrarian take on the Valkyrie fracas, Atty. Bruce Rivera rightfully said that cross-dressing and transgender people are entitled to all the rights and obligations granted by law because of their status as citizens. However, the problem lies not on their status as citizens but on “how we define the meaning of discrimination.” Thereafter, Rivera laid down the foundation of the rest of his contrarian view: “Is a democracy allowed to discriminate? The answer is YES. Provided there is a valid classification.“ Then he pointed out that the division of the almost 100 million population of the Republic of the Philippines into two sexes, though “a problem,” is still a “valid classification.” Therefore, the discrimination based on this division is allowed in a democratic society.
“This is the same law,” he said, “that forces a transgender to write M to the question of sex even if the heart wants to write F.” In this statement, he did not only reduce transgender people into transgender women only, he didn’t also point out why this is exactly a problem. Instead of offering this explanation, he just went on to say that Valkyrie pales in comparison to issues that he would have “taken the cudgels for,” namely: “denying a cross-dresser the right to vote; and denying a transgender the right to own property or denied the right to practice a profession.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t even include the cause of fighting for a gender recognition law, which is always implicated in almost every instance of discrimination transgender people face, including the Valkyrie issue, which Rivera reduced to an instance of “a bruised ego.” He concluded his essay by telling us that there is “only one way to be accepted” and that is “when people will see our similarities rather than our differences.”
In this essay, I will offer four interrelated critiques of Rivera’s essay. I’ve been academically trained in political philosophy; thus, I will interrogate his essay using the approach in this discipline. The first critique centers on democracy, the important actor in his statement, which Rivera didn’t define. The second on the question of whether transgender people are enjoying the benefits of full citizenship. The third one challenges Rivera’s rejection of an important aspect of acceptance: respect for difference. And finally, the fourth critique challenges the advocacy of connivance that Rivera had fallen into by not challenging the frame in which Valkyrie’s no-crossdressing policy operate: the frame of cisgender norm.
Rivera didn’t give any definition and just assumed that “we all know what it means.” This taken-for-grantedness is unfortunate, specially that the central actor in his essay is a democratic society, who, as Rivera argued, is allowed to discriminate if there is a “valid classification.” So what is democracy? And how is the validity of a classification established in a democracy?
Democracy is not a legal term but a political one. Rivera lacked a political unpacking of the term that is crucial to his argument. Usually, we define democracy as the rule of the people, by the people, of the people. In On the Demos and its Kin: Nationalism, Democracy, and the Boundary Problem, Arash Abizadeh provides a more sophisticated understanding of democracy: democracy “demands that the human object of power, those persons over whom it is exercised, also be the subject of power, those who (in some sense) author its exercise.” In other words, the demos must be the author of the power they have to obey.
Classifying something, specially if it’s the State that is doing it, is an exercise of power. In a democracy, for a “classification system” to be valid, it must be authored by the demos itself. If the classification system is not authored by the demos, then the power this system holds over the demos is an arbitrary exercise of power, i.e. it doesn’t have any democratic legitimacy, thus unacceptable in a democratic society.
Gender is one of those classification systems. Gender has so much power over our lives. It shapes almost every aspect of our lives, and gender norms are enforced by the full might of the State. We are legally obliged by the State to write, recite, and perform the gender and the cultural norms associated with the state-sanctioned gender assignment we were classified into when we were born. If we disobey this gender assignment, we will be punished by the State in both direct and indirect ways.
For example, transgender people are required by the Department of Foreign Affairs to look like their gender assignment at birth in their passport photos. Maria, a Filipina trans woman in California, once shared: “When I was renewing my Philippine passport, I was asked to remove my make up and pull my hair in a pony tail because I am a “male.” This is no different from the experience of the trans woman referred to by the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) in its statement on the Valkyrie issue. “The Professional Regulation Commission or PRC’s Registry section,” STRAP narrated, “required a transwoman to tie her long hair and look less masculine before being issued a professional license.” Even in the workplace this is the case as what we can learn from the story of Claire, a labor rights leader and transgender woman, and “one of the 96 contractual employees of Tanduay Distillers Inc. in Cabuyao, Laguna who decided to launch a sudden strike after they were told on May 16 to stop reporting to work by May 18.” While working, Claire “was forced to be “mas mukhang lalaki (appear more manly)”, including getting a haircut, as well as wearing more masculine-looking clothes.”
Following Rivera’s logic, these instances can be allowed in a democracy because they are based on “valid classification.” But the question is: does the gender classification system, as it stands, have democratic legitimacy? Is the demos the author of the power of gender over our lives? If not, then how can it be valid in a democracy and be a legitimate reason for discrimination in a democratic society? And if we live in a democracy, why should Maria and the trans woman in the PRC Case be compelled by the government to obey something that has no democratic legitimacy? Isn’t that tyranny? Can Claire’s expression of her gender identity be protected by the State? Or will the State protect and enforce more the current legal gender system, just as much as it will protect and enforce more the interests of Lucio Tan?
Rivera said that transgender people are citizens. But while encouraging us to “let our advocacy have essence,” he failed to ask this substantive and essential question: Is the citizenship of transgender people in equal terms with cisgender people, i.e. those who have gender identity and/or gender expression that matches what is expected of their gender assignment at birth? The answer is No, and this is because citizenship has been based on the reality of cisgender people.
Citizenship is often understood as membership in a political community, which is currently embodied by the State. The State decides the boundaries of citizenship, i.e. who becomes a citizen, the terms of membership – the rights and obligations of being a citizen, and the level of membership – full or subordinate. Social groups that have been previously excluded from enjoying the rights of full citizenship – Greek warriors, peasants, plebeians, medieval artisans, proletariats, blacks, women, immigrants, gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people, living with disability – have fought to make the boundaries of citizenship become more inclusive. However, these struggles are not easily won because as Engin Isin said in his essay City as a Difference: the “dominant groups…have never surrendered…without a struggle.”
In the context of this essay, the dominant group are cisgender people to which Rivera belongs.
Transgender people are seeking to redefine the social world because they cannot fully fulfil the obligations of being a citizen and exercise their rights as equal citizens if in the first place they have a subordinate form of citizenship and, most importantly, when citizenship is based on the reality of cisgender people.
The birth certificate is the legal document that establishes our existence. Through it we become legal persons, and this means that we will possess the capacity to have and to maintain certain rights, and to have duties enforceable by law. One of the important aspects of our legal personality is our sex.
Our sex is legally defined at birth. Let me digress for a moment. This article will not make any distinction between gender and sex as I don’t share the view that “sex” is a biological fact while “gender” is socially constructed. Hence, I use sex and gender interchangeably, as well as female with girl/women, and male with boy/men – but this is not to say that gender is a biological fact. Genitalia, body parts, are biological facts but the label we assign to them and the activity of assigning a particular sex/gender to these body parts are not. As what Anne Fausto-Sterling said in Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, they are social decisions based on normative views about sex/gender. More importantly, the law does not make any distinction between sex and gender. Assigning a baby’s sex is also assigning the baby’s gender. They are not separate and independent legal processes.
Taking our external genitalia as the cue, the doctor (or whoever attended to our birth) proclaims, and hence assigns us, into either the category of “boy or girl.” This proclamation, however, is not a description of what is between our legs but an act of giving us the first aspect of our legal identity and therefore of our citizenship: sex. Along with other details such as name, date of birth, name of parents, the sex that was proclaimed by the doctor gets entered into our birth certificate. In turn, the sex on our birth certificates will be the sex that will be reflected on all our legal documents, such as our passports. It will be also be the sex that will be considered in the application of several laws, such as marriage laws.
Most people find no problem with the sex to which they were assigned during their birth. They are cisgender people whose sex assignment at birth matches their lived gender identity and/or their gender expression.
The reality of cisgender people is taken as the norm. And because cisgender people dominate every political community, the discourse of citizenship becomes entangled with the experience of cisgender people. Those who don’t share the way cisgender people experience gender are then treated as second class citizens. Thus, transgender people don’t experience citizenship in the same way as cisgender people. As what River said, transgender people are “forced” to kept on writing their gender assignment at birth despite the fact the gender that they live everyday is not that. Cisgender people, though required to also identify their birth gender, don’t experience this as “force” because the gender that they write is the gender they live everyday.
Cisgender citizens will never experience what Ria Rosales experienced when she saw her job offer evaporate after her employer saw that her documents reflect that she’s Male. Transgender people are socially marginalized and individually discriminated against because they are not living in accordance with the gender norms of their legal sex at birth, which in turn intersects with other system of oppression based on class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion etc.
What produces these patterns of discrimination based on gender identity and expression is the presence of a law that takes cisgender people’s experience of gender as the norm against which the legitimacy of our gendered experienced is judged. Cisgender citizens will never experience doors being shut to them because of their lived gender precisely because they are the ones who were closing these doors. And they don’t fear closing these doors because their exclusionary practices are backed by the full might of the State biased towards the cisgender experience of gender.
“The only way to be accepted,” Rivera said, “is when people will see our similarities rather than our differences.” In one aspect I agree with Rivera. After all, the discourse of difference has legitimised the oppression of the other, which can even have a genocidal result. As what Narcisa Paredes-Canilao rhetorically asked in Decolonising the Subjects from the Discourse of Difference, “which one really led to colonialism or the Holocaust or which is a more potent antidote to (wo)man’s inhumanity to (wo)man, difference from or identification with the Other.”
However, it is not the recognition of difference per se that lead us to inflict indignity upon each other, but the way we value difference. If cisgender people, who dominate society, interpret their version of being human as exceptional, God’s chosen way of living, the only legitimate way of experiencing gender, they are not just recognizing difference but putting their difference on a pedestal, in the throne of power that can police others into becoming like them.
In Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship, Iris Marion Young discussed the failure of universal citizenship in treating each citizens as equals. Instead of delivering its promise of equality to all qua citizens, citizenship “operated in fact as demand for homogeneity.” The terms of similarity, Young argued, is set by the dominant group. Thus, seeing our similarities is not innocent activities but can be a way of imposing the way of living of the dominant group.
We must use both the lens of similarity and difference in order to see another human in her totality. More significantly, we must use both lenses in order to see how the lens of difference can make us see another person as inferior and how the lens of similarity lead us to reject the validity of another person’s version of humanity. The danger of a cisgender person seeing only a transgender person as similar to him/her is the inability to see how the State-sanctioned cisgender norm has rendered transgender people as not only different but inferior, illegitimate, and immoral. And a cisgender person who only sees a transgender person as different would be blind to the common humanity that binds them together.
ON THE ADVOCACY OF CONNIVANCE
Who has the right to decide our own gender, and therefore the way of expressing? This is at the heart of the Valkyrie issue and all instances of gender identity and expression based discrimination.
This is left unaddressed by Rivera who only assumed the validity of the current gender classification system, which lead him to conclude that discrimination based on it can be allowed. Earlier, I put into question the validity of the current gender classification system in our democracy because, in the first place, this was never democratically legitimated. Further, it’s a gender classification system that rendered the cisgender experience of gender as the only State-sanctioned experience of gender, and therefore the only gendered experience that have full access to the protection of the State. Consequently, transgender people, despite sharing the same formal citizenship as cisgender people, have to fight rather than simply request for this access.
By not challenging the very framework of cisgender norms, Rivera missed the opportunity of making the kind of advocacy he is forwarding fully relevant to the lives of transgender people. His advocacy is an advocacy of connivance. Borrowing the concept of trial of connivance that Jacques Vergés developed, an advocacy of connivance is an advocacy that seeks merely to evaluate the facts in relation to the existing framework. This is what Rivera did when he merely recited the law in relation to the facts of the Valkyrie issue and when he reduced the Valkyrie issue as merely an issue of a “bruised ego.” He accepted the cisgender framework and called it a day.
Rivera cannot see the issue beyond “a bruised ego” because it wasn’t his version of humanity that was put into question. He said that there are a lot of straight people who can’t enter the stores we’ve entered into because they don’t have money, a lot who can’t eat because they were poor. This is a valid point but the issue is not about class but the intersection of class AND gender. Not all impoverished people experience poverty in the same way. A poor cisgender man would have a higher chance of finding a job than a poor transgender woman. Claire’s cisgender co-workers don’t have to experience being forced to be masculine at the workplace in pain of losing their job. And even rich people don’t experience privilege equally. This was aptly demonstrated by the experience of Trixie and Veejay. Rivera can’t see this intersection because he has not problematized the cisgender framework of our everyday lives but simply considered it as “valid classification.”
He said that we must find an issue that can make “the common man… relate and symphatize.” When Laude was murdered, we have witnessed how vicious and transphobic the “common man” was. In order for the common man to relate and symphatize, Laude’s being transgender had to be swallowed by her identity as a Filipino. But when we highlight Laude’s transgender status, the common man, instead of relating and sympathizing, responded with a whole range of cruel, transphobic “blame-the-victim” tactics. Why? It’s because the common man is a cisgender person who has taken-for-granted the privileges he/she have by simply having a gender identity and/or gender expression aligned with his/her gender assignment at birth.
Trans advocates, including those Rivera condescendingly looked down upon, are revolting against the dictatorship of the State-sanctioned cisgender framework. They are engaging in an advocacy of rupture, an advocacy that seeks to challenge the very framework, in this case the cisgender framework, within which facts would be interpreted. Valkyrie didn’t simply make a business decision. Valkyrie is enforcing the State-sanctioned cisgender norm, which has been the source of oppression of a lot of people whose gendered lives don’t fit the cisgender experience of gender. Trans advocates are not just making noises, they are reclaiming the right to define our own gender from the state, the church, the medical profession, and even from private establishments like Valkyrie.
Acceptance and love as sources of Pride
For many LGBTQIA people, self-acceptance is difficult to achieve, even if it is generally accepted that only when one lives one’s own truth can he/she/they know true self-acceptance and the joy that comes with it. Lucky for Ahds who met Anna who loves him, even as they get the support of accepting families.
In 2015, Ada (or Ahds, as his friends and close relatives call him), was working in Toronto when he met Anna, the best friend of a cousin.
It “completely changed my life,” he beamed.
Ahds recalled that there were people who doubted their relationship.
During their first year together, he admitted that they experienced difficulties in terms of finances (and adjustments to being together). But Ahds said that even though things were a bit tough, it was okay because at least they had each other.
“May mga kaibigan kami na nagsasabi na hindi kami magtatagal, na maghihiwalay din kami (There were some friends who said that we would not last, that we would just part ways),” he said.
But they gave being together a try, eventually proving the the naysayers wrong.
On June 18, 2016 Ahds and Anna got married.
“Nag-decide kami na magpakasal kasi gusto ko ma-experience kung ano ang pakiramdam ng kinakasal, at gusto ko rin may kasama ako sa buhay habang tumatanda ako (We decided to get married because I wanted to experience how it feels like. I also want to have someone in my life while growing old),” Ahds said.
When they celebrated their wedding anniversary this year, Ahds said in a Facebook post: “The secret of a happy marriage is finding the right person. You know it is right if you love to be with that person all the time.”
“Basta anniversary namin, nagse-celebrate kami kahit kami lang dalawa. Mababaw lang ang kaligayahan namin. At bawal sa amin ang mga nega, ang gusto naming pareho masaya lang kami (Whenever we celebrate our anniversary, it is okay even if it is just the two of us. We find happiness in simple things. And we do not like negative things, we just both want to be happy),” he said.
Ahds added: “Tsaka masaya kami dahil tanggap kami ng family namin pareho (Further, we are happy because our families accepts us).”
But for as long as he can remember, his family was always supportive of him and his decisions – at least as long as he doesn’t put himself in harm’s way.
“When I was three years old, lalaki na ako (I already identified as a boy). I still remember when I was in elementary, I was already attracted to girls. Masaya ako kapag nakikita ko ang crush ko na malaki ang tanda sa akin (I was happy when I saw my crush, who was older than me).”
He can actually still remember how things were when he was young.
“Noong bata ako, naaalala ko kung paano ako tinanggap na walang pag-aalinlangan ng tatay ko. Madalas niya ako dinadalhan ng bola ng ping pong. Tanggap ako ng pamilya ko kung ano talaga ako (When I was young, I remember how I was accepted without reservations by my father. He also liked to give me ping pong balls to play with. My family accepted me for who I am),” Ahds shared.
He was able to grow up “normally”, in a sense that his family supported whatever he wanted to do, as long as it would not harm him.
“When I was growing up, naririnig ko palagi na sinasabi sa akin na ‘Tomboy ‘yan’, siguro dahil na rin sa kilos at pananamit ko. Minsan, masakit sa pandinig (I always heard people call me ‘lesbian’, perhaps because of how I acted and the way I dressed. Sometimes, it pained me),” Ahds continued.
But it was not something he dwelled on. He knew that the people who mattered most in his life – his family – did not have a problem with who he really was and accepted him regardless of what other people said.
And that type of love has helped Ahds reach for his dreams, while providing for his family.
Ahds left to work overseas (for 22 years now); first heading to UAE in 1998 when Mt. Pinatubo erupted. After several years, he found his way to Canada… and Anna’s arms.
ACCEPTING AND LOVING
For many LGBTQIA people, self-acceptance is difficult to achieve, even if it is generally accepted that only when one lives one’s own truth can he/she/they know true self-acceptance and the joy that comes with it.
Equally important is acceptance [NOT mere tolerance] within the family – e.g. a study on LGBT youth acceptance and rejection revealed that it directly affects identity development, behaviors, physical and mental health. Those who experience rejection may experience serious consequences on physical and mental health.
And here, Ahds said he’s somewhat luckier, finding both acceptance and love, now his two sources of Pride.
Ahds believes that, yes, things will get better… eventually.
But while the road there may prove challenging, it starts with self-acceptance at least.
“Huwag kayo mahihiya na ipaalam sa madla kung sino kayo at kung ano ang totoong nararamdaman ninyo. Lalo na sa sarili mo, ilabas mo kung ano ka talaga. At para sa pagmamahal naman, para makamtam ang tunay na kaligayahan, dapat walang lihiman (Do not be afraid to let other people know who you are and what you really feel. Especially to yourself, show what you really are. And when it comes to love, for you to achieve real happiness, there should be no secrets),” Ahds said.
And who knows – like Ahds – this could also help others be led to having Pride.
‘Let us reclaim our crown, or what that represents, our right to be recognized as women’
STRAP: “Everyone’s opinion matters but if that was done without grounding yourself in the intersectional narratives and the lifelong struggles that speaks of our personhood, that you are contributing to the exacerbation of our problem.”
Statement of The Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (which was established in 2002), in reaction to the stance of Kevin Balot, Miss International Queen in 2012, who reiterated her segregationist perspective, saying that when transgender women ask to join beauty pageants traditionally only for those assigned female at birth, “hindi na siya equality eh, parang asking too much na (this is no longer about equality; it’s already asking too much).”
“If I can teach the world acceptance and love, I don’t need to win Miss Universe, I only need to be here.”
Miss Universe Spain 2018
Angela Ponce’s mere presence in the presentation of candidates for the 2018 Miss Universe was already enough to spark debate not only within pageant circles but within the greater society. But to many other Filipina transwomen, 2018 was doubly special not only because Catriona won Miss Universe but because some of us were also rooting for Angela to win.
Angela is the first out transwoman to compete in the Miss Universe pageant and the first from Spain, a Catholic nation which colonized many countries including the Philippines; and with colonization and the Christianization came the enforcement of gender binary and restrictive ideas on gender and sexuality as well as the erasure of gender transcending pre-colonial identities such as the Babaylanes, the Asogs, the Bayoguins among other names use in pre-colonial Philippines.
So with Angela winning Miss Universo Spain and officially representing her country in the 2018 Miss Universe, it becomes such a reflective and introspective moment for many Filipino queers who are within themselves trying to make sense of decolonization.
Angela failed to snag the crown or at least a spot in the finals; however, an unprecedented special walk and segment became the most touching moment for many if not cathartic for some. Angela’s powerful last line that “…she does not need to be Miss Universe, she only needs to be here” was enough to break the hearts of many transwomen who for many decades have been fighting for recognition and inclusion in all spaces, including pageantry.
That moment in Miss Universe and the 2012 case of Miss Canada finalist Jenna Talackova were very important moments wherein transwomen or transpinays as we call ourselves, needed to heed others for recognition and acceptance of our self-determined gender identities.
If you come to think of it, Jenna and Angela among some other transwomen over the years, needed to explain fervently why we are women too, and why we need to be recognized and allowed to participate in events for women. The immutability of our birth registration and sex assignment and the absence of gender recognition deprived us of many opportunities, including scholarships, jobs, career advancements, proper media representation and inclusion, travel, marriage, adoption among so many others.
It is already a long process of discrimination and even violence that we experience everyday growing up as trans in our society. From the catcalls, to the heckling, dead naming to the occasional brutality that usually leads to murder such as that of Jennifer Laude who had to be a poster child of transphobia and transmisogyny. Incidentally Jennifer was nicknamed “Ganda” for she was indeed beautiful, yet vilified and mutilated not only by her American murderer but our fellow Filipinos who seemingly enjoyed dead-naming and misgendering her in social media platforms.
Jennifer’s case is still connected to Angela’s, because this proves, it is not only in pageantry do we experience exclusion and discrimination, we experience it everywhere else.
How many times have transpinays shared experiences of being humiliated in immigration counters around the world for the mismatch of their gender presentation and passports? Many of them detained and deported and other undocumented cases of violence in the process of proving their humanity not just womanhood. How many times have transpeople been rejected from jobs especially those not identifiable with being queer ( e.g. beauty salons, fashion design, cultural dancer, etc.) just because their gender presentations are viewed as unprofessional or unacceptable in work spaces? How many countless times, other than that of Gretchen Diez’s case, wherein transpinays were not allowed to use the female toilets and changing rooms because they are not considered to be “real women”?
In the plight for gender recognition, transpeople are viewed as fake versions or impostors of the gender they are identifying as.
Take note that the issues of transpinays don’t end in the recognition of gender but looking at other areas of life, oppression takes shape in the form of color, race, socio economic class, level of education, religion, etc.
Well, not only transpinays experience discrimination in those areas, everyone does, maybe implicitly. But transpinays go through more because we must first be accepted as women, beautiful or not. Now imagine if you are a transpinay, from the province, with dark skin, poor, did not finish high school, Christian, could not speak in English. I bet her life is going to be tremendously difficult.
Having said all of these, we want to educate everyone especially our fellow transpinays, that the inclusion of transwomen in pageants and the recognition of their gender identities is a simple step towards equality, diversity and inclusion, it is not in any way asking for “too much”. For maybe we are asking something “little”, just allow us to be here for our battle for that crown is still uncertain. But at least we are battling for it just like other women, for we are women too.
We have the right to self-determination and self- identification. It is nice to have a pageant of our own as they say, but we created those since other pageants are not allowing us to join for we are not women.
Angela’s battle is every transwoman’s and transpinay’s for that matter. Just because some of you are content with joining “Miss Gay” or other exclusive pageants, do not forget that our battle for equality does not end with pageants, it is only beginning. It is a simple step of recognizing our rights to be women and a platform to educate society that gender is not between your legs, that your anatomy is not why you will wear that crown.
It is even difficult to write a piece on pageantry and defending it while we are not even dissecting the issues of beauty and womanhood and how pageants are not exactly the end-all, be-all of being a woman. But for transpinays, it is a platform for recognition and inclusion. Don’t take away our sash.
As we continue to position ourselves everywhere in our society because we have as much right, we seek our fellow transpinays and the greater Philippine queer society to engage with us on discussions of our human rights issues. Everyone’s opinion matters but if that was done without grounding yourself in the intersectional narratives and the lifelong struggles that speaks of our personhood, that you are contributing to the exacerbation of our problem.
We ask our fellow transpinays to listen to us if you don’t know much, now that is not asking for too much. Because honestly, transpinays have been here, even before Spain came. Now we want to reclaim our crown, or what that represents, our right to be recognized as women.
‘All women – cis or trans – ought to enjoy the same fundamental rights and opportunities’
“Denying trans people access to a single-sex space when they fully identify as the sex to which it is confined, risks perpetuating forms of oppression that we would never tolerate if they applied to other groups.”
Reaction from Mujer LGBT+ Organization on the stance of Kevin Balot, Miss International Queen in 2012, who reiterated her segregationist perspective, saying that when transgender women ask to join beauty pageants traditionally only for those assigned female at birth, “hindi na siya equality eh, parang asking too much na (this is no longer about equality; it’s already asking too much).”
By Toni Gee Fernandez
President/Executive Director, Mujer LGBT+ Organization
Equality is defined as the state of being equal, especially in status, rights and opportunities. That means, one right and opportunity can both be exercised and enjoyed by two or more individuals. The same principle is true in the context of womanhood.
Treating trans people as individuals of the gender identity they claim to be is a sign of basic respect. A recognition of their authenticity. Denying trans people access to a single-sex space when they fully identify as the sex to which it is confined, risks perpetuating forms of oppression that we would never tolerate if they applied to other groups.
While their anatomy and surgical history may be relevant in the context of medical care, it is not supposed to be relevant in everyday life. At the same time, by breaking down sex into ambiguous components and arguing that trans women lack some of them, or have too many residual male components, we imply that trans women are not women, or not the right kind of women — which is utterly discriminatory and oppressive.
This is why Mujer LGBT Organization, Inc. denounces the segregationist remarks of Kevin Balot.
We have to realize that pageant contestants and pageant queens are more than their ravishing long gowns, two-piece suits and national costumes. More than anything else, they are their causes and the issues they want to shed light on.
Besides, a trans woman in a socially deemed single-sex competition like pageants – i.e. Miss Universe – allows a room for debunking myths, shattering stereotypes and educating the public, and therefore reforming an oppressive status quo one step at a time.
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…
The mental cost of Covid-19 lockdown
As the country copes with the “new normal”, the issue of mental health continues to be in the back burner. “Priorities” now continue to focus on: controlling the spread of Covid-19, and mitigating its impact on the economy. This is even if experts warn that the crisis could have a “profound” and “pervasive impact” on global mental health now and in the future.
“Three of my closest friends committed suicide last week,” John Albert shared in a post. “I could not believe the news when I heard it. I saw them before the lockdown; everything seemed fine.”
I chatted with John Albert, and in a short online conversation, he said that one of these friends was a lesbian. Her body was reportedly found by a barangay tanod who was patrolling their area. When they checked the phone beside her, there were 30 missed calls and 57 unread notifications. According to John Albert, the last message his friend sent was to her brother: “Ang hirap pala ng ganito, nag-iisa ka lang at wala kang makausap. Nalulungkot ako pero wala akong choice. Sana matapos na itong lockdown.”
But John Albert’s lesbian friend isn’t the only such case – at least it seems – of members of the LGBTQIA community dealing with the mental strife brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tere, a transgender woman who started her transition this January, lives in a small apartment and is used to doing things on her own, in her own way. But it changed on March 17, when Pres. Rodrigo Roa Duterte enforced the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon, which halted just about everything.
Most people were forced to adjust to what is only available. And in Tere’s case, this meant “temporarily” moving back to her parents’ house. And there, she does not exactly feel fully welcomed.
“For some reason, my father always scolds me. He wants me to do this and that, always asking me questions about my decision to transition and what will happen to my future,” shared Tere, who lamented that all her movements are being monitored so she cannot do her usually routine. “It had already come to a point that I just stay in my room the whole day and cry. I started questioning myself, too.”
FOCUS ON MENTAL STATE
“The new normal” – as people are now referring to the time of Covid-19 – is also testing how strong one’s coping mechanism is, particularly with the need to socially isolate that could trigger loneliness, which the American Psychological Association says increases the risk of premature mortality.
After all, two of the major factors that may contribute to a person’s mental health is the sudden change in physical and social environments. And so: What if you are someone who is struggling to manage how you think, feel and behave given the current controlled environment?
At this point, there’s the acknowledgement that the Covid-19 pandemic not only attacks the body’s immune system, but also wreaks havoc on the mental state of people.
A recent chat with Filipino persons living with HIV (PLHIV), for instance, showed that aside from the paranoia about the disease (e.g. how it spreads, the constant danger of being in close contact with someone who has it), the battle with one’s self can just be as difficult.
Sadly, there are no available outlets to release these anxieties, just the confines of your home/room/house. And for many, this is proving to be very difficult.
Perhaps even more so for LGBTQIA people going through additional difficulties because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.
LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT
John Albert’s lesbian friend’s demise highlights how bad things can turn out.
And suicide isn’t “rare” in the Philippines – even if still not as widely discussed. In 2016, the World Bank reported that the Philippines’ suicide rate was 3.20 per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate has actually been growing since 2000.
And as the country slowly copes with the “new normal”, the issue of mental health continues to be in the back burner. “Priorities” now continue to focus on: controlling the spread of Covid-19, and mitigating its impact on the economy.
In a paper published in Lancet Psychiatry, scientists already stressed the need to also prioritize mental health, since a crisis could have “profound” and “pervasive impact” on global mental health now and in the future.
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…”
WHO stressed that: “In public mental health terms, the main psychological impact to date is elevated rates of stress or anxiety. But as new measures and impacts are introduced – especially quarantine and its effects on many people’s usual activities, routines or livelihoods – levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behavior are also expected to rise.”
But there are steps that can be taken.
US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added practical ways to cope with stress:
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
- Take care of your body.
- Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
- Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
- Exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
- Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
It is worth stressing that for those dealing with mental health issues, know that there are ways to lessen the stress and burden on the mind. And perhaps apt to stress is the need to help each other. Just as Cebu City-based transgender woman Magdalena Robinson, CEO of the Cebu United Rainbow LGBTIQ+ Sector Inc., said, this is the right time to “fix each other’s crown.”
Covid-19 for people living with HIV
With persons living with HIV voicing their concerns regarding COVID-19, especially if their immunocompromised status makes them more vulnerable to the coronavirus, the AIDS Society of the Philippines provides the following advice for prevention.
How can Persons Living with HIV protect themselves from COVID-19?
Recently, persons living with HIV have been voicing their concerns regarding COVID-19, especially if their immunocompromised status makes them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The AIDS Society of the Philippines acknowledges and empathizes with the key affected population, and provides the following advice for prevention.
Adhere to ARV regimen
Continue to faithfully take your anti-retrovirals (ARVs) and ensure you have enough supply of ARVs. Reach out to your treatment hub, primary care facility, or community-based organization so they can help expedite your ARV refill despite the community quarantine in NCR. Call them to set an appointment before you visit.
Maintain a strong immune system
Continue to maintain a strong immune system with proper diet and enough sleep. Currently, there is no COVID-19 data specifically about persons who are immunocompromised. However, Dr. John Brooks from the HIV/AIDS Division of the CDC said publicly that, most likely, the risk for severe illness will be greater for persons at lower CD4 cell counts and those who aren’t virally suppressed.
Follow general precautions vs. COVID-19
Continue to follow DOH and WHO advice in COVID-19 prevention. This includes frequent handwashing, practicing cough hygiene, avoid touching the mouth, eyes, and nose, social distancing (maintain 3 feet distance), working from home, going out as little as possible, and seeking medical care when you have fever, cough, or difficulty breathing.
If you have been exposed to a Person Under Investigation or Person Under Monitoring (PUI and PUM) for COVID-19, contact your treatment hub or primary care facility to request for advice. Home quarantine will likely be required, even without symptoms. If symptoms appear, visit your nearest government hospital for triaging and indicate the presence of co-morbidities.
Keep in touch with friends and family
Continue to take care of your mental health by reaching out and staying in touch with friends, family members, and support groups remotely or through the Internet. Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. But advise family and friends that due to your status, you have to limit your exposure to others. Finally, encourage other PLHIV and fellow Filipinos.
We stand with you in this difficult time. Stay strong—we will get through this together.
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