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
Challenging Discrimination in Establishments: The Ice Vodka Bar Incident and the Renaissance Hotel Incident
The Ice Vodka Bar Incident that took place in May 2008, involving me and other members of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). The bar said that we’re not allowed to enter a bar because they said we were “inappropriately dressed” and that foreign men don’t like us there as people like us mislead them into thinking that we were “real women”.
On behalf of STRAP, I wrote an open letter about the incident. The manager of the bar apologized to us, and removed the discriminatory policy . STRAP also filed a complaint to the owner of the mall (AyalaLand) where the bar is located. The management of the Ayala Malls apologized to us in a letter saying “We empathize with you .… We wish to clarify that we do not have any agreement whatsoever with Ice Vodka Bar or other merchants in our mall to prohibit transsexual women from entering Ayala Mall. Rest assured that we have noted your recommendations and will brief our merchants to be more sensitive in attending such matter to prevent the recurrence of the same incident.”
However, two years after, a similar incident happened in the same mall. A security guard of the mall told us that we couldn’t enter the mall as we were not allowed there. We held another dialogue with the management of the mall, reminding them of their promise that a similar incident wouldn’t happen in their mall again. We were informed that the security guard has already been relieved and they promised that it will not happen again.
In July 2009, Rica Paras and Naomi Fontanos experienced a discriminatory incident in a hotel in Makati. Naomi recounted the incident on her blog, “Rica Paras and I wanted to have a fun and relaxing 4th of July weekend and were vacillating between going to the beach and staying in the city. “
When they used the female sauna of the hotel, “the same receptionist came in. She took an empty basin lying around but before she stepped out, Rica asked if we could have two towels. The receptionist nodded her head, came back with the towels but upon her return, looked at us and said “I’m sorry but what are you?” I was starting to get angry and looked at Rica who told her again “We’re women.” The receptionist said “Ah okay” and giggled as she stepped out of the sauna.”
“Rica and I were already upset. Around 10 minutes later, we heard a knock. We said “Yes?” and the lady who knocked opened the door. It was another hotel attendant and she said “Good afternoon SIR! I’m sorry but you have to transfer to the male sauna.” To which I replied, “Do not insult us. Do not call us sir! How dare you barge in here and ask us to transfer to the male sauna. Who do you think you are and who do you think we are?” The attendant said, “I’m sorry but it is policy.” Rica retorted, “It is policy? Show me the policy! Don’t you think people will be scandalized more if they see female bodies in the male sauna? You will have to drag us out of here!” The attendant closed the door and we stayed in the sauna. Another 10 minutes passed and the sauna door opened once more. This time, it was the duty manager with a male guard beside her. The male guard peeped in and then the duty manager in the same hostile tone said “I’m sorry SIR, but it is policy that you have to transfer to the other side.” It was my turn to ask and I said “Policy? What policy? Is it written in black and white? Show me that document first!” The duty manager answered, “Well based on your registration, you checked in under MALE names.” I said, “Those are our legal names and we didn’t have a choice on the matter; but they do not determine our gender!” The duty manager replied “But it is policy that if you are male, then you have to use the male area and if you are female, the female area.” Exasperated, Rica just said “Can you just let us finish please?” The male guard rudely barked “Five minutes!” after which he and the duty manager left.
Rica and I took our time. After getting ourselves decent, we stepped out and proceeded to the reception. There the pool attendant, a lady guard, another male guard and the receptionist were on stand-by. Upon seeing us, the receptionist said “I will need your signature to sign out MA’AM” and handed us the forms that we signed on our way in. I took my form, signed it and when I looked up, the pool boy who was looking by said, “I apologize for the inconvenience MA’AM but it is policy.” I said, “Inconvenience? This is an INSULT! Policy? In my book this is DISCRIMINATION!” After signing out, Rica and I both asked to be escorted to the office of the General Manager (GM). The lady guard perhaps misheard us and said the manager was waiting for us downstairs. So we took the elevator going down and stepped out into the lobby. The lady guard accompanying us directed us to take seats near the front desk and wait for the manager who would see us shortly. Rica and I were surprised when it was the same duty manager who sat down with us. I introduced myself and Rica to her politely and immediately told her that we felt insulted and disrespected with what happened earlier. The duty manager said, “I’m sorry but I did not insult you.” Rica said, “But I felt insulted with what you did!” I asked the duty manager, “Tell me, who was harmed by our use of the female sauna?” She just looked at me. I told her, “No one was harmed right? But by asking us to use the male area, do you know that you are actually harming us psychologically?” Then she said, “I am sorry but it is our policy.” Rica then addressed her, “You keep saying that it is policy. We want to see the policy because I have been using other Marriott hotels before all around the world and I have never been treated like this. Only in my own country have I been insulted and disrespected in a Marriott hotel!”
The duty manager addressing Rica said, “Yes, I checked our records. I know that you are our Silver Member. There is actually no written policy but based on the names that you registered under…” Rica cut her short and said, “I am registered as MISS in the records. You can check it for yourself!” The duty manager said, “But they are MALE names…” I cut her short and said “Again, those are our LEGAL names. They do not determine our gender! Besides, do I look male to you?” to which she said, “Well your looks are deceiving.” I could not take it anymore and said, “Tell me, whose needs needed to be satisfied with your insistence for us to transfer to the male sauna? Who needed to be happy to see us embarrassed and humiliated by being asked to transfer to the male sauna? No one right? Because nobody was complaining! Then it is only you who needed to be happy. It was your personal prejudice and bigotry that needed to be satisfied with your insistence that we use the male sauna. Because people like you will stop at nothing to embarrass and humiliate people like us. Because people like you can only feel good about themselves after putting down people like us. Because as far as you are concerned, people like us do not have the education, the money, and the right to be in a hotel like this. So I hope today, you made yourself very happy. I hope today you are very proud of yourself!”
“To which the duty manager said, “Yes I am very proud.” I said, “Well then this conversation is finished. We want to see the GM so we can file a formal complaint. We also want to escalate this to the International Customer Service. You are a modern hotel but your attitudes are stuck in the Middle Ages!” Rica and I stood up and went back to the room. That night after dinner, we tried to see the GM but he was already off-duty. Rica and I spoke to the night duty manager Jhun and asked him to make an appointment for us to see the GM at 9 am the next day.”
“On Saturday morning, July 4, 2009, Rica and I got ready to meet with the GM. At a little over 9 am, we went to see him. Rica recounted to the GM what transpired the previous day. The GM was understanding and apologized outright for what happened. He thought that the situation the day before could have been better handled. Rica told him that all we wanted was to relax for the weekend, use the hotel’s amenities and enjoy ourselves; but instead what happened, happened and now we had to use up what little time was left for us to enjoy the hotel by seeing him just to complain. Rica told the GM that she felt it was important for him to know because as someone who has been using the services of Marriott hotels around the world, not once has she encountered any bad experience except at the Renaissance Hotel and in her own country at that. She added that if the Renaissance Hotel could treat people like us that way, then what’s stopping the hotel staff from mistreating others based on skin color, religion, disability and other petty reasons.”
“The GM thanked us for coming to see him and personally informing him of what happened. He said that the Renaissance Hotel always aims to make every customer happy and comfortable and that what happened to us went directly against what the whole hospitality industry stood for. He asked us if we wanted to dialogue with the day duty manager. We agreed. He stepped out to fetch her and sat all of us down together. The duty manager started by telling us that what took place the day prior was also very difficult for her; but for whatever it was worth she wanted to extend her apologies to us. Rica told the duty manager that as a manager herself, she knew that there were ways of treating people without disrespecting them. She added that for the weekend, she just wanted me and her to have a great time but it was ruined by the incident at the sauna which Rica felt the duty manager mishandled.”
“I pointedly told the duty manager that when we travel abroad nothing of this sort ever happens to us. Only in our country do we get treated so inhumanly because of people like her. That is why, in spite of the fact that we love our country very much and think it is a very beautiful country indeed, we feel that we must leave it because no matter how hard we work, no matter what good schools we come from, no matter what we personally achieve, people like her will always make us feel bad about ourselves. Rica told the duty manager and the GM that even if we accepted both of their apologies, we still felt that the proper redress to what occurred the day before was for us to document it and lodge a formal complaint within the Marriott system. Rica asked for the GM’s email address and told him that we will send him our letter the soonest time possible with recommendations on how to handle transgender guests and ensure that the Renaissance Makati City Hotel Manila is able to provide the best quality customer service to all its clients regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Rica left the GM her calling card while the GM gave both of us his.”
“We thanked both the GM and the duty manager for their time and willingness to listen and proceeded to the pool. We only had an hour left at that point to have our morning swim. After enjoying the pool for the last time, Rica and I went back to our room. A few moments later, a fruit basket was delivered to us. It was from the duty manager accompanied by a personal letter of apology from her.”
The Launch of the Transpinay Identity: Transpinay the Other Filipina
In 1987, in their attempt at self-definition, transsexual women in Malaysia coined the term “mak nyah”. Malaysian transgender activist Khartini Slamah explained that they did this “because we…wanted to define ourselves from a vantage point of dignity rather than from the position of derogation in which Malaysian society has located us.”
The Philippines, just like Malaysia, does not have any local term to describe the transsexual experience. Transsexual women are often called “bakla” or “gay” by Filipino society. These terms imply that a Filipina transsexual woman is a man rather than a woman. Because of this, following the footsteps of mak nyahs, STRAP coined the term “transpinay”.
During the 2008 Manila Pride March, STRAP launched the transpinay identity. STRAP members joined the march wearing the terno, a traditional Filipina dress, while they ride the kalesa (horse carriage).
STRAP explains the transpinay identity: “TRANSPINAY means a female human being of Philippine descent who was given a male sex assignment at birth. It is a combination of the words transsexual, someone whose gender identity is directly opposite of his/her sex assignment at birth, and Pinay, the local term for Filipina, a girl/woman from the Philippines.This was proposed during one of our support group meetings and was voted upon by the general membership of STRAP. Other proposed terms were Transbabae and Transfilipina.
As compared to local terms such as bakla and bayot, transpinay doesn’t include homosexual males. Transpinay isn’t about sexual orientation or preference. A transpinay can be sexually/romantically attracted to other females (in that she is a lesbian), to males (in that she is straight), to both males and females (in that she is a bisexual), or to none at all (in that she is asexual).
As compared to the nascent term ladyboy, transpinay doesn’t maliciously or unwittingly call a girl/woman of transsexual experience a “boy/man”. Calling a transpinay a ladyboy is no different from simply calling her a “boy/man”, an offensive act.
A transpinay is not a homosexual/gay man nor a boy/man who is ladylike. A transpinay is not a crossdresser; she is not a boy/man who likes to dress. A transpinay is not a variation of male but a variation of female. A transpinay may be pre-op (have not yet have sex reassignment surgery but desires to have undergo it), post-op (have already had sex reassignment surgery), or non-op (does not desire to have sex reassignment surgery). All the same, no matter what their genital surgery status is, they are all females. A transpinay is not a boy/man wanting to be a “real” girl/woman – she is already one.
We acknowledge that TRANSPINAY, just like any other word, cannot adequately stand-in for what we actually are. Nonetheless, TRANSPINAY symbolizes our right to define our gender identity: A movement to reclaim that right from other cultural forces.”
The transpinay identity is now becoming widely-used. In 2009, GMA 7, one of the Philippines major network, had a documentary with Transpinay as its title. It featured the lives of several transpinays, which include trans beauty pageant legends Kristine Madrigal and Barbie Arcache.
OTHER ARTICLES IN THE SERIES:
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
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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