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Our Brave New World (Second 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

Confronting Sexual Violence: Bemz Benedito and Ruvic Rea

When she was still a researcher at the Institute of Philippine Culture at the Ateneo de Manila University, Bemz was sexually harassed by their Indian evaluators while discharging her duties.

“My bosses and colleagues wanted to sweep the incident under the rug. I could have been contented to ask just for an apology. But when I heard one of my co-workers say ‘Ayaw mo yun Bemz na-assert yung pagkababae mo? (Don’t you like it Bemz, your womanhood has been affirmed)’, I decided to seek legal assistance and the support of Professor Danton Remoto. That snide remarked trivialized my experience and robbed me of my dignity,” Bemz shared. “Professor Remoto wrote a letter to the personnel head and from thereon, an investigating committee was formed. The Indian evaluators apologized to me and purging was done in the institute by all of its staff. The Ateneo also asked the bid to ban the two Indians from entering the country…Though it was not a complete victory, I have at least made my point and regained my dignity.”

Ruvic Rea was the Barangay Captain of Angeles Zone 4 near Tayabas, Quezon Province. On the 20th of January 2006 she filed a case of acts of lasciviousness against two city officials in her hometown. According to reports, Ruvic was molested on the night of the 19th of January 2006 inside Cafe Esteban Restaurant and Bar, the cafe and bar restaurant that Ruvic owned. Along with another Barangay Captain and a police officer, the two city officials were drinking inside the bar. They called Ruvic and talked to her about the complaint they received that the bar was a front for prostitution. Ruvic denied the allegations and said she is ready to defend herself.

Afterwards, one of the two suspects, put his arm around Ruvic and asked if she can given them women. Ruvic didn’t pay attention to this, thinking he was drunk and just joking. But the suspect quickly pulled her to him, and together with the other suspect, they ran their hands over her body’s sensitive parts while they continued to kiss her neck and back.

“I thought at first they were only joking because they were drunk but they kept at it until I hurt and my chest got bruises because of their insistence but when I struggled they held my arms tightly. Councilman Agapay even held my left foot down with his right foot and he licked my left thigh while Councilman Venzuela lifted my blouse and licked my breasts while he held my left arm,” Rea lamented.

LGBT activists and her British boyfriend and now husband supported her in her fight. She won her case. Ruvic now lives and is now happily married in the UK.

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Sexual harassment is one of those things that Filipino women of transgender experience deal with every single day. To some extent, this situation has become normalized. Because no one is complaining about it, it may seem that these women are actually enjoying it – this is far from truth. Silence does not mean consent. Silence can be brought by fear that no one will heed your call for help. But just like any fear it must be withstood.

Bemz Benedito and Ruvic Rea are two of the Filipino transwomen who remind us that even those who are highly educated and are in the position of power can be victims of sexual harassment. But more importantly, they remind us that it is possible to break free from the fear that no one will hear us when we cry foul. May their courage inspire a movement to put a stop to the normalization of sexual harassment against Filipino transwomen.

The rise of T in the LGBT movement

One of the defining moments in the LGBT movement in the Philippines is the embracing of gender identity and gender expression issues. There is now a growing understanding of the complexity of these issues among LGBT organizations such as Rainbow Rights Project (R-Rights), Ang Ladlad Party List, Metropolitan Community Church-Quezon City (MCCQC), TLF SHARE Collective, Task Force Pride Philippines, as well as other human rights and women’s organizations.

R-Rights has been active in creating space for the discussion of transgender issues. They had several forums that discussed the legal aspects of gender identity. Just like R-Rights, MCCQC has created space for transgender Filipinos to discuss their issues. MCCQC commemorated Transgender Day of Remembrance for several years, and they had sponsored a forum on the transgender rights.

Ang Ladlad Party List included specific reference to gender identity and expression in its Constitution, and will surely include Gender Recognition Law in their legislative agenda. TLF SHARE Collective heeded the call to separate transgender people from the men-who-have-sex cluster in HIV and AIDS work. They had started to have a separate transgender programme, and are engaging transgender people to be involved in their work. Task Force Pride Philippines, the network that organizes the annual Pride March in Manila, have had transgender people as part of its executive committee. In 2007, Task Force Pride Philippines had, for the first time, two transwomen as the co-coordinators of the executive commitee, Naomi Fontanos and myself.

The Kapihan on Human Rights, a forum that evaluates the human rights agenda of the government, had included for the first time gender identity and expression issues, as well as sexual orientation issues. Women’s organizations had been keen on learning about transgender issues. During the workshop “The ASEAN: A Strategic Terrain for Filipino Women’s Human Rights Activism?”, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation were included in the human rights issues that the current administration should pay attention to.

The Mely Silverio Case and Jeffrey Cagandahan: Gender Identity and the Supreme Court of the Philippines

In the decade that was, the Supreme Court of the Philippines first issued decisions regarding changing ones sex on ones documents. The first one was the Mely Silverio Case in October 2007.

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In 2002, after Esperanza Widener won her legal petition, Mely Silverio, a post-op transsexual woman, filed a legal petition to change her name and her sex from male to female. In 2003, the trial court decided in her favour. The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) appealed the decision. OSG’s main argument was “there’s no law allowing the change of entries in the birth certificate by reason of sex alteration.” Three years later, in 2006, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court. Mely appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. In October 2007, the Supreme Court ruled against the appeal of Mely; and in consequence, ending the possibility of changing ones sex by petitioning the courts. (Prior to this decision there were a number of successful petition of changing one’s sex, the earliest one I can recall was in 1994 in Bohol). The Supreme Court ruled that there must be a law in order for these changes to happen.

The Supreme Court said, “ Under the Civil Register Law, a birth certificate is a historical record of the facts as they existed at the time of birth.Thus, the sex of a person is determined at birth, visually done by the birth attendant (the physician or midwife) by examining the genitals of the infant. Considering that there is no law legally recognizing sex reassignment, the determination of a person’s sex made at the time of his or her birth, if not attended by error, is immutable.”

The Mely Silverio decision also gave a contentious definition of male and female, when it said that, “Female is the sex that produces ova or bears young and male is the sex that has organs to produce spermatozoa for fertilizing ova.”

A year later, another case on gender identity was dealt with by the Supreme Court. This time it involved Jeffrey Cagandahan, an intersex person. In 2003, Jeffrey filed for a petition to change his sex from female to male. He said that he developed male characteristics when he was growing up because of his condition called, Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. In 2005, the lower trial court ruled in his favour.

Using the same argument in the Mely Silverio case that there’s no law allowing change of sex in the birth certificate, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) appealed for the reversal of the decision.

In September 2008, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled in favour of Jeffrey. In the decision, the Supreme Court didn’t mind that there’s no law in the Philippines regarding changing ones legal sex. As the decision said, “In the absence of a law on the matter, the Court will not dictate on respondent concerning a matter so innately private as one’s sexuality and lifestyle preferences… Respondent is the one who has to live with his intersex anatomy. To him belongs the human right to the pursuit of happiness and of health. Thus, to him should belong the primordial choice of what courses of action to take along the path of his sexual development and maturation.”

Whether or not the Jeffrey Cagandahan case overturned the Mely Silverio decision is still subject for legal debate. Though Jeffrey and Mely have different conditions (although some may argue that transsexualism is an intersex condition), their cases have the same legal issue: Whether or not the courts can decide to change a person’s legal sex in the absence of legislation about it. But the telling difference between the two cases is how the Supreme Court viewed intersex conditions and transsexualism: Intersex condition was seen as part of nature’s diversity of nature, while transsexualism was viewed as artificial.

In pushing for legislation for gender recognition law in the Philippines, it must be argued that transsexualism, or having and living a gender identity opposite to your sex assignment at birth, is not artificial nor superficial. It is a natural phenomenon. It is as natural as having and living a gender identity that matches your sex assignment at birth. The law should honour and reflect this reality. And to paraphrase that liberating line in the Supreme Court on the Cagandahan decision, “To us belongs the human right to the pursuit of happiness and of health. Thus, to us should belong the primordial choice of what courses of action to take along the path of his sexual development and maturation.”

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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