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Our Brave New World (First 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

For the memory of Ms Tonette Lopez, a dear friend, a Cebuana transwoman, and the first transgender rights activist in the Philippines. I wish that you had seen the birth of the dream that we both once shared to each other while we both walked in the streets of Cebu City one evening in 2003. May your spirit guide the growth of this movement. My warmest gratitude to Aleksi Gumela, Malu Marin and Ging Cristobal, who encouraged me in 2001, to start a trans organization in the Philippines; to JR, the first love of my life, for supporting my passion about transgender rights when I was still in high school; and to the great love of my life, Aernout Schram de Jong, thank you for being beside me, holding my hand, come calm, come storm, making me feel and experience the lighter and positive side of life!

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

This week is the 10th year of the pivotal moment when I had reached the point of conviction to dedicate my life towards the advancement of the rights of transgender people. I was 18 years old at that time and nursing myself out of depression. Patrick Califia’s book Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism served as my companion in that black period.

When someone approaches me and asks me whether it is important for them to engage in this activism, I might be tempted to just say yes. But my thoughtful side would say, “Well, you don’t have to. Life’s is too short and it’s good, just enjoy it anyway you can, fully, wholeheartedly.” I just don’t believe that someone should do something because somebody else said it’s important. One must be internally convinced that doing something like this is indeed important. To do something with all your heart, strength, and passion begins with “I will and want do it” and not with “They want me to do it”.

Engaging in this activism is a commitment. Just like any commitment, it is replete with challenges and frustration. The road to happiness is not always a smooth one. In the course of your activism, you’ll find out that you might not be able to live in the changed world you are helping to craft. So a degree of selflessness is necessary. From time to time, you’ll hit the great wall of apathy. That will be the moment your commitment would be greatly put to a test. There will be people who will hate your guts. You’ll also absorb so much pain from the suffering of other people; and there’ll be times when you might no longer distinguish which is your pain and their pain. And there’s also a danger of falling into the traps of arrogant self-righteousness whenever you encounter those who inflict pain and suffering on others.

Yet despite the challenges and frustration, it is worth it. The depth of your commitment deepens your character. You will learn the invaluable lesson that when you want to widen the space of change around you, you should first widen the space of change within you. And the best thing of all is experiencing the humbling joy of seeing the faces of people lighting up with hope whenever your courage touches them. Seeing those faces is the “Thank You!” that you’re waiting for, the best “Thank You!” you’ll ever have, and the “Thank You!” that makes your submission to your commitment beautiful.

I feel blessed to have become part of the birth of the transgender rights movement in the Philippines. The movement started in the first decade of the 21st century. During those ten years, I have witnessed frightening and endearing events. And I want to share them with you.

Because of my limited resources, space, and scope of my memory, I know that I have left out a lot of events that should be here. I pray that one day life would bless me – or someone else – the opportunity to write more comprehensively about this, hopefully in a book format. Nonetheless, despite of my shortcomings, I hope these events may serve as a source of inspiration for those who would want to engage in this activism, just like how they have inspired me. But besides being sources of inspiration, some of them are pressing reminders of how much work is still needed to done.

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The Jonathan Agudaña Case: The first ever known trans human rights complaint in the Philippines

The Jonathan Agudaña Case is the first ever known case involving a trans person filed in the Philippine Commission on Human Rights.

Sometime in 2000, a human rights complaint was filed by the Gay Movement for Human Rights in the Philippines (GAHUM-Philippines) on behalf of Jonathan Agudaña who was barred on two separate occasions from entering a dance club in Cebu City for wearing women’s clothes and sandals. The complaint claimed that Jonathan Agudaña was discriminated because of her “sexual orientation”. The dance club defended itself by saying that they don’t discriminate against gays. They even said that they have lots of gay patrons. They just don’t allow cross-dressing in their bar. The case was dismissed on the 11th of January 2001.

Commenting on this decision on 29 July 2001, the Regional Director of the Commission on Human Rights in Cebu (where the case has been filed), Attorney Alejandro Alonzo, was quoted in newspapers saying: “They [gays] should wear proper attire, and I don’t think [Club Royale’s policy is] a violation because customers should follow the house rules. There should be appropriate attire because they are governed by dress code.” He added: “If you’re a man, you should wear the apparel of a man or vice versa. Unless the court will grant the change of status to a particular gay just like what happened in Metro Manila.”

Notwithstanding the decision of the Commission and the fact that it was wrongly claimed that Jonathan Agudaña was discriminated because of her sexual orientation, this case brought to light that gender expression is a human rights issue.

The Marriage of Esperanza Martinez-Widener

This is a story of the obstacles people who are truly and deeply in love are willing to go through in order to fight for their love and their right to be together.

Prior to 2007, there had been a number of successful court petitions for a legal change of sex in the Philippines (All of the cases involved post-op transsexual women). One of them was the petition of Esperanza Martinez. On the 7th of July 2001, Esperanza married her long-time American boyfriend, Jacob Allen Widener, in a civil wedding in Manila.

The case was highly celebrated. This prompted Congressman Ruffy Biazon to file a bill in Congress to limit marriage between “naturally born male and naturally born female”. The bill contained highly questionable definitions of male and female. Moreover, in the bill’s introduction, Mr Biazon unapologetically compared marrying a transsexual woman to a buying a fake signature shirt. Thanks to the efforts of LGBT activists, the bill didn’t pass in Congress.

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The challenge to the Widener’s didn’t end there. When Jacob filed a petition for immigration visa for Esperanza, the Nebraska Service Center of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied the petition, citing the Defense of Marriage Act definition of marriage.

The Service Center said that although “some states and countries have enacted laws that permit a person who has undergone sex change surgery to legally change the person’s sex from one to the other, but that [US] Congress has not addressed the issue… without legislation from Congress, it lacked a legal basis on which to recognize a change of sex so that a marriage between two persons born of the same sex could be recognized for immigration purposes.” Hence, the Service Center concluded that the marriage between Esperanza and Jacob was “invalid for immigration purposes.”

The case was appealed to the Executive Office for Immigration Review of the U.S. Department of Justice. On the 21st of September 2004, the Board of Immigration Appeals overturned the decision of the Nebraska Service Center. It honoured the Philippine certificate of marriage which reflected an opposite-sex marriage.

The Birth of Transgender-led Support & Advocacy Groups in the Philippines: STRAP and C.O.L.O.R.S.

STRAP was founded in December 2002 by four transpinays (Filipino transsexual women), in Seattle’s Best Coffee Shop in a mall in Metro Manila. It was formed to address the need for an organization that would address the issues, needs, and concerns of transsexual/transgender Filipinos and to raise public awareness on issues of gender identity and expression, as well as to promote a compassionate understanding of transsexualism. During that time, STRAP was known as the “Society of Trans & Gender Rights Advocates of the Philippines”. STRAP was the first transgender support and rights advocacy group in the Philippines at that time.

It became active for a few years but became dormant because of lack of membership and its founders became more focused on the demands of their personal lives. In early 2005, two of its founders, Veronica and Sass, were featured by ICON LGBT Magazine after its editor received a complaint from a subscriber about the magazine’s silence on transgender issues. The subscriber turned out to be Dee, another founder of STRAP. The exposure the feature article gave to STRAP resulted to inquiries about how to join the organization. This led to the revival of STRAP on 20 May 2005. Two significant changes happened at that time: first, the founders thought it was best and less taxing if the group would focus on transsexual women; and second, it changed the name of the organization to “Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines.”

STRAP mixes the format of being a support group and an activist organization, and have had three Chairwomen already. It has now grown from having an initial four members to almost a hundred members.

If Manila has STRAP, Cebu City, another major city in the Philippines, has COLORS. In 2006, the Coalition for the Liberation of the Reassigned Sex or COLORS was originally conceptualized as a campus-based organization in Cebu City. However, COLORS was not recognized as a registered school organization. Four years later, COLORS was formalized and the first election was held.

COLORS aims to establish a united, strong, and empowered transgender community that nurtures to their well-being and welfare and rebuild a discrimination-free and equal society.
COLORS and STRAP are both transgender women groups. Up to this time, there is no known transgender men groups in the Philippines. I hope that in the next decade we will witness the emergence of these groups and that our Filipino transmen brothers will join us in our quest to having a Philippine society that upholds, protects, and advances the rights of transgender Filipinos.

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The inclusion of gender identity in the Anti-Discrimination Bill and its Almost Victory

When it was first filed during the 12th Congress in 2001 by then Akbayan Party List Representative Etta Rosales (who is now the Chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights), the Anti-Discrimination Bill (House Bill 2784) only sought to address discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Several activists, including myself, pointed out the need to include “gender identity” in the language of the bill. The bill was revised, and I was present during the brainstorming of its revision in the office of Amnesty International-Philippines in May 2002. The revised bill (HB 6416) was re-filed in 2003. It was renamed as “The Act Prohibiting Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Providing Penalties Thereof.”

It was referred to the House Committee on Civil, Political and Human Rights. During the public hearing of the bill, several groups were invited to give their views about HB 6416. The military and the Catholic Church were the vocal opponents of the bill. But surprisingly, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) supported the bill. INC didn’t attend the public hearing but sent a communique saying that though they don’t approve of homosexuality they nevertheless support their human rights. In December 2003, the bill was approved by the Committee for second reading.

In legislative processes, 2nd Reading is the toughest stage. It’s there where debates for and against are held, as well as amendments are suggested. You may expect that HB 6416 provoked strong opposition. The opposite happened. However strong the Catholic Church position was, no one stood to bark their dogma. You read it right – NO ONE. Because there were no objections, the Speaker of the House Representative Gonzales motioned for the approval of the bill. The bill was unanimously approved in less than 30 minutes – this is not an exaggeration.

After six days, the 3rd Reading of the bill took place. Just like the 2nd reading no one objected. Again, you read it right: The 118 Congressmen present during the 3rd Reading voted UNANIMOUSLY for the bill.

After the 3rd Reading, the bill was supposed to undergo the same process in the senate. However it didn’t make it because the 2004 National Election happened. The bill just landed on the accomplishment report of the 12th Congress of the Philippines.

The 12th Congress approval of the Anti-Discrimination Bill didn’t carry over the 13th Congress. It was re-filed by Rep. Rosales as House Bill 634, and had its first reading on 28 July 2004. A month after, Senator Bong Revilla filed a similar bill in the senate, the Senate Bill 1738 or the Anti-Gender Discrimination Act. It had its first reading on 21 September 2004.

Thirteen proved to be unlucky for the Anti-Discrimination Bill. It was blocked twice by the Chairman of the House Committee on Civil, Political, and Human Rights, Representative Bienvenido Abante. He blocked the 2nd Reading both on October 13 and November 14, 2006. And on November 20, 2006, he delivered the highly polemic speech that was never heard in the 12th Congress. Now the dogma was barked. His cheerleaders were various religious groups who were all fearing that the approval of this bill might be the Pandora’s Box of Same-Sex Marriage.

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“God created only two genders – male and female. And both in the Bible and the Q’uran, homosexuality and lesbianism are sins and abominations unto Almighty God,” was Mr Abante’s message. Aroused by this statement, Mr Abante’s cheerleaders orgasmically clapped in the House gallery.

In his answers to his interpolators, Mr Abante raised several times that “there is no general and widespread discrimination in private companies and corporations because the Constitution already prohibits discrimination so there is no need for the proposed law anymore.” He even claimed that he has an “effeminate” legislative staff whom “he loves and never discriminated”.
Several groups cried foul. The most prominent ones are the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network Philippines (LAGABLAB), Ang Ladlad Party List, Amnesty International-Philippines, and the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP).

The passage of the Anti-Discrimination Bill had once again became the theme of the Pride March. In 10 December 2006, several groups marched calling for the immediate passage of the bill. LAGABLAB called for the resignation of Rep. Abante.

We are now waiting for the re-filing of this bill. However, I reckon that the language of the bill should be revised and aligned to the language of the Yogyakarta Principles, specially the definition of sexual orientation and gender identity.

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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