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Our Brave New World (Fifth of a Five-part Series)

Sass Rogando Sasot feels blessed to “have become part of the birth of the transgender rights movement in the Philippines”, a movement started in the first decade of the 21st century. And since during those ten years, she has witnessed “frightening and endearing events”, she now shares these via Outrage Magazine.

A Brief History of the Birth of the Transgender Movement in the Philippines

Part 1 – Our Brave New World
Part 2 – Confronting Sexual Violence
Part 3 – Challenging Discrimination in Establishments
Part 4 – Speaking Out Against Discrimination Based on Gender Expression
Part 5 – The Rise of the Power Transpinays

The Rise of the Power Transpinays: Bemz Benedito, Naomi Fontanos, and Ruvic Rea

Ruvic Rea gained prominence because of the acts of lasciviousness case she filed against two city councils (See: Confronting Sexual Violence…). She served as a Barangay Captain in Quezon Province. Barangay is the smallest unit of government in the Philippines. She might be the first out and self-identifying transwoman ever elected as Barangay Captain, if not the first out and self-idnetifying transwoman ever elected in a government position in the Philippines.

Bemz Benedito and Naomi Fontanos are the first transwomen in the Philippines to run for a nationally elected government position. Bemz Benedito was the first nominee and Naomi Fontanos was the fourth nominee in Philippine Congress of Ang Ladlad Party List when they first qualified to run for elections in 2010. Currently both of them hold the highest leadership position in the two of the major LGBT organizations in the Philippines, Bemz is the current chairperson of Ang Ladlad Party List, while Naomi is the current chair of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP).

Bemz, Naomi, and Ruvic gave rise to a new wave of transgender Filipinos as they prove to Philippine society that leadership is not a matter of gender identity but of capability and dedication to serve the people.

The Half-Opened Doors of Employment Opportunities

The rise of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), call centers, and other multi-national companies in the Philippines gave transgender Filipinos another avenue to gain a living and build a career besides working in the entertainment, beauty, fashion, and sex industries.

Because most of these companies have anti-discrimination policies they have been more willing to accept transgender employees. Hence there’s a considerable number of transgender Filipinos working in them. Nonetheless we still here stories of transgender people being rejected because of being transgender. And those who have been hired still have to fight discriminatory policies that aren’t aligned with the principle of diversity and non-discrimination these companies have. Restroom use and no-cross-dressing policies are among the issues that transgender Filipinos have to deal with in these companies.

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The story of Mae Hernandez is classic restroom story that transpinays face in the workplace. As reported in the blog of Naomi Fontanos, “Needing to use the bathroom upon arrival at work one Friday afternoon, she rushed to the women’s bathroom…Five minutes later while powdering her face in front of the bathroom mirror, Mae heard the voice of a security guard ordering her to get out. The guard stood by the bathroom door barking reasons at Mae why she did not belong to the women’s bathroom. Shocked, Mae tried to explain to the guard that she was female. The guard was belligerent, however, and threatened her if she did not step out. Humiliated and scandalized by the growing number of onlookers, Mae thought she had no choice. She left the bathroom in tears.”

IBM Global Services used to have an explicit policy against cross-dressing. They are not the only company in the Philippines that has this policy. What makes IBM interesting is that it’s a company globally renowned and celebrated for its gender diversity policy which includes freedom of gender expression. This point out that progressive policies of multinational companies don’t always get applied in the countries outside the country of their headquarters. The cross-dressing policy of IBM was removed sometime in July-August 2009 when, through the help of MJ Yap of Lesbian Advocates of the Philippines, I reported it to Ms Silvy Vluggen, the GLBT Program Manager Global Workforce Diversity of IBM, who happened to attend the International Business Equality Index workshop that I also attended during the International Conference on LGBT Human Rights of Outgames 2009 in Copenhagen.

Other than the restroom issue and no-crossdressing policies, another important employment issue that transgender Filipinos face is that explicit policy of health insurance companies not to cover transgender related healthcare.

Despite these issues, we hear stories of transpinays who have spearheaded change in the companies that they work for. One of them is the story of Rain Villagonzalo, who is popularly known for winning beauty pageant for transwomen, which includes Super Si Reyna and the Queen of Cebu. Rain has pioneered the change of policies towards transgender employees in the company she is working for. Now, the company have transgender-responsive company policy and practices.

The Rio Moreno Case: The Right to be a Woman All the Time

Yes: transgender Filipinos can go to school and universities in the Philippines. But it doesn’t always mean that their gender identity and gender expression will be respected by the educational institution. Rio Moreno’s story proves this.

Rio attended Nursing school wearing women’s uniform. All her classmates and teachers referred to her as Miss Rio and treated her as a woman. Sometime in July 2008, after one of the security guards saw that Rio’s name on her ID was male, Rio was asked to go into the Office of Student Affairs (OSA). The OSA required her to wear men’s uniform and that she have to be identified and treated as male because Rio’s birth certificate says male.

A compromise was reached after a dialogue with the OSA (which included an exchange of temper between me and the school administrator). The OSA head agreed that she could wear the female uniform as long as she wears the one with pants. However, OSA Head remained indifferent and disturbingly apathetic when we pointed out that “forcing a transsexual person to live according to the norms of their sex assignment at birth would seriously damage their psychological well-being.”

Filipino Trans Immigration Issues

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There is a growing report of various Filipina transwomen who were approached by immigration officers while waiting in line to enter Hon Kong and asked to follow them to holding rooms. When the women asked why, the officers said it was a standard “security check.“ Once inside these holding areas, these trans women’s treatment varies. Some of them are outrightly accused of being prostitutes and some are asked how much money they are carrying, as if that would prove they are not there for sex work. One, in fact, suffered the inhuman experience of being strip searched. Some are held for hours without being informed of the reason for their detention; while some others have been asked to exit Hong Kong at once with no official document stating the reason why.

STRAP initiated a dialogue with Hong Kong immigration in 2008. The result was a letter from Hong Kong immigration outlining their complaint procedure. This was the best response STRAP got from them. So the next time we encounter being pulled out of the immigration queue and into a room where we are further interrogated, we just have to file a complaint right there and then.

There is also a need to address the safety and legal needs of overseas transgender Filipinos workers in countries that have anti-crossdressing laws, such as Saudi Arabia. I know that this is such a challenging issue given that we have no choice but to follow the laws of the countries in which we live and work.

Another emerging immigration issue involves the discrepancy between Philippine laws and countries that have gender recognition laws. I wrote in February 2010 about the case of Jenny Ramsey when the Philippine Embassy in Germany refused to renew her passport because they said she couldn’t have dual identity. She is legally recognized as female in Germany, while she is legally male in the Philippines.

To the next generation of Filipino transgender activists…

To the emerging generation of transgender Filipinos who would like to stand up for human rights, who would dare to speak up and influence change, and who would want to work to make a brighter future happen for all of us, the decade that was made us see that the proverbial room for improvement is real and its door is already open. This room for improvement is a space for growth. A time to learn anew and unlearn the growth-barriers we have, consciously or unconsciously, brought to ourselves. A reminder that change is not a dead thing but a living and continuous unfolding of our lives. The fruits of improvement always go through a bitter phase, but eventually, it will ripen into the sweet taste of maturity. The room for improvement is the space where the faith in the infinite possibility of change resides.

Every one of us can be the difference that can make a difference on someone’s childhood and to be a living testament that hope, courage, and determination can triumph over oppression. The inglorious trinity of discrimination, violence, and marginalization that we experience is not the natural order of things but a social condition. Just like any other social condition, their continuation lives and thrives on our apathy.

Aberdeen, United Kingdom
2 January 2011

Part 1 – Our Brave New World
Part 2 – Confronting Sexual Violence
Part 3 – Challenging Discrimination in Establishments
Part 4 – Speaking Out Against Discrimination Based on Gender Expression
Part 5 – The Rise of the Power Transpinays

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Written By

Since 2001, as she was about to turn 19, Sass has dedicated herself to the LGBT Rights movement in the Philippines, most specifically to issues of gender identity and freedom of gender expression. James Green, an international transgender rights activist, served as her mentor via email. She started giving discussions on transgender rights and issues in Luneta Park in Manila. In December 2002, she co-founded the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). In 2003 & 2004, together with Drs Sam Winter and Mark King of the University of Hong Kong, she did the first comprehensive study on transgender women in the Philippines. The study has been published in the International Journal of Transgenderism. In 2009, she was one of the LGBT activists invited to speak in a historic United Nations General Assembly side-event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. In 2013, she received the ECHO Award, given annually to excellent and promising migrant students in the Netherlands. In 2014, she received the Harry Benjamin Distinguished Education and Advocacy Award from the World Profession Association for Transgender Health. A nomadic spirit, Sass loves to write, walk, read, cycle, and cook. Together with the love of her life, Sass is currently based in The Hague, The Netherlands. She graduated with a Combined major in World Politics & Global Justice, minor in International Development (Magna cum Laude) at Leiden University College, which bestowed her the 2014 Global Citizenship Award. She is a contributing writer on TG issues for the mag, through The Activist.


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