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Trans hairdresser Bella Abac partially makes a living by joining beauty pageants, intending to do so for as long as her body can. It is in these beauty pageants that LGBTQIA Filipinos like her push for equality… to a certain point, ending up promoting the limiting gender binary even as they also call (at least onstage) for better treatment of LGBTQIA and gender non-conforming people.

This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Para sa akin po, ang attraction ng pagsali ko po ng pageants, pakiramdam ko po kasi sa sarili ko na parang doon ko lang nailalabas lahat ng kasiyahan ko (Beauty pageants are appealing to me because they allow me to express my happiness),” Bella Abac, 24, said. “Feel ko po na hindi makukumpleto ang pagka-trans ko kung hindi sumasali ng pageant ng mga trans kasi po (dito ay) napapatunayan ko sa mga tao na karapat-dapat pa ring respectuhin, na kahit bakla ka, may talino at talent kang maipapakita sa kanila (I feel incomplete as a trans woman if I don’t join a pageant. It allows me to show to people that I still merit respect).”

Bella is, obviously, one of the now-regular trans “beauconeras (regular beauty pageant competitors/contestants)”, a staple – if you must – in a beauty pageant crazy country like the Philippines.

GROWING UP TRANS

Bella always identified as a woman. “Since nung nagkaisip na ako, nalama kong babae pala ako. Puso (ko ay) babae (For as long as I can remember, I always identified as a woman; in my heart, I am a woman),” she said.

But it was only in high school when she came out. “Nung bata pa ako may komportable po akong makipaglaro sa mga babae. Kaya masasabi ko po na naramdaman ko na trans ako dahil sa mga nakakahalubilo ko, nakakasalamuha na mga barkada (As a kid, I was more comfortable hanging out with girls. I’d say I knew I’m transgender because of the company I kept),” she said.

At the start, Bella tried to hide her true self from her family, particularly since she was the firstborn male child and grandchild. But when she deemed she already looked feminine enough, she then started living as a trans woman.

Nung nag-out po ako… siguro nabigla din sila (When I came out, perhaps they were also surprised),” Bella said. “Pero never naman po nila akong pinagbuhatan ng kamay (But they never hurt me).”

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Having grown in a generally welcoming family, Bella Abac said family acceptance is important because this will have affect particularly the minds of young LGBTQIA people.

Pastora Raquel, Bella’s grandmother (who raised her) said she noted that when Bella was in high school, she had all-female friends. And so, even then, she already suspected Bella is trans.

Minsan… parang tinatanong ko ang sarili ko, bakit nagkaganito ang apo kong ito (Sometimes I ask myself why my grandchild is like this),” Nanay Paz said, “pero wala naman ako magagawa kundi tanggapin (But there’s nothing I can do but accept her).”

It is also acceptance that Nanay Paz wants other parents/guardians to learn; to “learn to love your children instead of driving them away.” It’s a choice, she said, of accepting them as they are, or losing them if they are not accepted. And for her, “I’ve learned to just accept it without reservations.”

Now and then, Nanay Paz worries for Bella, “particularly in these times” when people can get in trouble even if they did nothing wrong. But she said “sinabi ko lang sa kanya, mag-ingat siya… Baka ako ang unang manigas diyan (kung may nangyari sa kanya) (I just tell her to be careful… If something happened to her, I don’t think I can bear that. Perhaps I’d die myself).”

Having grown in a generally welcoming family, Bella said family acceptance is important because this will have affect particularly the minds of young LGBTQIA people. “Maaring mag-rebelde po sila o maaring maglayas. At baka maging against pa sila sa pamilya nila (They may rebel or run away if they are not accepted. They may even think badly and be against their own families).”

After coming out and openly hanging out with other trans women, Bella was introduced by a close friend to beauty pageants; this friend encouraged her to join, and she, herself, wanted to manage Bella.

PART OF THE INFORMAL SECTOR

Based in Bacoor, Cavite, Bella now works as a hairdresser.

Right after high school, Bella’s aunt helped her study hairdressing in a vocational school. By the time she was 19, she was already working.

Masasabi ko po na sapat ang kinikita ko sa salon. Sa isang araw po, kahit P100 lang po; then pinaka-maximum po, P1,000 (I can say I earn enough while working in a salon. In a day I can earn at least P100, reaching to P1,000),” she said.

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Bella doesn’t get regular salary; instead, she gets a cut of the day’s profit of the salon where she works at. She is, therefore, further driven to entice people to avail of the services that they offer, since having more customers means possibly earning more.

Having work helps Bella in joining pageants since she has (some) money to spent.

BEAUCONERA’S LIFE

Bella “only” joins pageants as a hobby; it’s just for fun for her, and only when she has spare time.

She learned that in this industry, “hindi siya ganun kabigat (it isn’t financially burdensome),” she said; at least just give some money to the handler/s for them to be able to travel to the venue of the pageant, and then while there, at least feed them.

Usually, a candidate spends from P100 per pageant, though this obviously goes up to thousands, depending on one’s entourage and on where the pageant is being held. A big chunk of the expenses goes to the “handlers”.

In Bella’s case, “mahigit kumulang P500 din nagagastos ko per pageant (personally, I spend approximately P500 per pageant).”

Bella Abac: “I feel incomplete as a trans woman if I don’t join a pageant. It allows me to show to people that I still merit respect.”

The handlers actually do just about everything for the candidate (aside from competing), from providing the clothes to be worn, providing hair and make-up, and even training (e.g. walking, answering questions, et cetera) as needed.

The arrangements with handlers vary (e.g. some take a bigger cut of the earning, some charge fees outright whether a contestant wins or loses, and still some do it for free). And in Bella’s case at least, “it’s your call how to divide the prize money.”

The biggest cash prize Bella won totaled P4,000, after she placed first runner-up in pageants in Batangas and Nueva Ecija. “Yung kalahati po, para na po sa akin, pang-suporta po sa bahay para sa… pagkain po, unang-una po sa bigas (I kept half of that amount to myself, spending it for expenses at home… for food, to buy rice),” Bella said.

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The other half, she gave to her handler. “Para fair po (To be fair),” she said, as well as to avoid possible grumblings from people who may complain that it was them who helped her clinch a title.

In total, Bella already joined around 20 beauty pageants.

And she plans to be a beauconera for as long as she is able to compete, perhaps until she reaches 40.

CONFRONTING, YET ENDING UP PROMOTING THE STATUS QUO?

A handful of trans beauconeras actually believe in “separate but equal”.

In Bella’s case, “if you ask me if trans women should be allowed to join beauty pageants like Miss Universe, I’d say: ‘No’.”

Bella’s belief is anchored in recognizing segregation; that “may mga inilaan naman pong patimpalak para sa mga kabaklaan… kaya hindi natin kailangan pang panghimasukan ang pageant na para lang sa kababaihan (There are pageants just for us. So we shouldn’t impose upon them to accept us to join pageants just for them).”

But this belief is also anchored in the continuing dominant belief of sex/gender binary that, obviously displaces members of the LGBTQIA community.

Dapat pa rin po nating irespecto ang kanilang pagka-babae (We should respect their womanhood),” Bella said.

Being a woman, for Bella, means being able to nurse a child. “Para sa akin po, ang babae ay isang ina na handing kumalinga sa kanyang anak. Kaya dapat irespeto ang kababaihan (For me, to be a woman is to be a mother who cares for her child. So women should be respected).”

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The words “hindi ‘tunay’ na babae (not a ‘real’ woman)”, “purong babae (pure woman)” and “pusong babae (literally, woman’s heart; though also weaker heart/cowardly disposition)” also easily get thrown around in trans beauty pageants, referring to the personhood of the candidates themselves, thereby – knowingly or not – pushing for the anti-trans (and anti-LGBTQIA) narratives.

Pageants remain relevant, said Bella Abac, as they allow people to voice out their opinions on particular issues; thereby, they allow the promotion of these issues that – hopefully in the long run – promote equality.

LIFE LESSONS

Bella already had three boyfriends; none lasted. But she’s saying that “I’m not saying that trans relationships don’t last long because there are relationships that involve us that work out.” For Bella, it always “depends on the people involved”, since relationships can help develop people.

And being developed, said Bella, also happens in pageants. Which is why she recommends joining them (particularly to younger members of the LGBTQIA community). “Malay natin yung mga batang trans may kakayahan na maaring mahasa sa pamamagitan ng pagsali ng mga pageants (It’s a way for us to know if they have skills that can be developed through these pageants).”

The world of beauty pageants is “round” – one day you win, one day you won’t. So Bella Abac said not winning may be disappointing, but it isn’t everything.

Pageants remain relevant, said Bella, as they allow people to voice out their opinions on particular issues; thereby, they allow the promotion of these issues that – hopefully in the long run – promote equality. “Pageants can help solve a lot of problems facing different countries,” she quipped.

The world of beauty pageants is “round” – one day you win, one day you won’t. So Bella said not winning may be disappointing, but it isn’t everything. “Masaya (na rin ako) na nag-enjoy ako, at may sumusuporta pa rin sa akin kahit papaano (At least I enjoyed myself. And there are people who supported me somehow).”

To people who continue to look down on LGBTQIA people, Bella said that “kahit ano pang pangyuyurak sa aming pagkatao ang inyong gawin, kahit na kami ay inyong laitin, naniniwala pa rin ako na karapat-dapat pa rin kaming respetuhin (no matter how many times you step on us, and even if you belittle us, I believe that we deserve to be respected).”

But turning inwards, she added: “Sa kapuwa ko (LGBTQIA), gumawa muna tayo ng tama sa kapuwa nang sa ganun ay wala silang masabi (To my fellow LGBTQIA people, let’s do something good so people won’t have anything bad to say about us).”

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