Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines
On 24 May 2008, Sass Rogando Sassot, a transgender woman, was celebrating with her friends the anniversary of the founding of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), the first transsexual women’s support group and transgender rights advocacy organization in the Philippines. On their way inside Ice Vodka Bar, located in Greenbelt 3 at the third level of Ayala Center in Makati City, the group was stopped by the bouncer, who told them they were “dressed inappropriately.”
“We were rather dressed decently, tastefully, and, most importantly, just like any other human being who lives her life as female 24 hours a day,” Sasot said in an open letter generated by that occurrence, and which blazed the Net.
Sasot then asked to discuss the barring with the bar’s manager, Belle Castro, who, even if sympathetic, informed her that “’people like them’ aren’t allowed in our bar every Fridays and Saturdays,” and that there was, in fact, “an agreement between all the bars in Greenbelt (she particularly mentioned their bar, Absinthe, and Café Havana) and Ayala Corporation, the company which owns the Greenbelt Complex” to this policy because “Marami kasing foreigner na nag-ko-complain at napepeke daw sila sa mga katulad nila (There are lots of foreigners complaining because they mistake people like them as real women).”
“I felt terribly hurt and uncontrollably agitated. This transphobic act is not the first time that it happened to me, to my friends, to people like us. To say that this has become almost a routine is an understatement,” Sasot stated, adding that her open letter “may not be the proper forum to raise this concern, but is there any reliable legal forum to address this issue? Reality check: there is no antidiscrimination law in this country. And if you’re discriminated, there seems to be a notion that you’re supposed to blame yourself for bringing such an unfortunate event to yourself.”
Ironically, it is to deal with such transphobic acts that STRAP came into being in the first place – and six years before the discriminatory act at that, too, to seemingly stress the dire need for their existence.
ONE OF A KIND
In December 2002, four women of “transsexual experience” founded the Society of Trans and Gender Rights Advocates of the Philippines (STRAP) “in response to the need of an organization that would focus on the issues, concerns, and needs of the transgender community in the Philippines,” says Dee Mendoza, who added that “they were all high-spirited, idealistic, and had very high hopes.”
Materialization of the ideals did not immediately happen, though, since “STRAP became active for a year and then became dormant. It was short-lived due to the ‘vastness’ of the issues that they wanted to address. After all the transgender community is such a broad and diverse group with so many issues and concerns,” Mendoza adds.
It took over two more years for STRAP to more than exist. On 20 May 2005, the three founding members of STRAP met to re-launch STRAP. After assessing the group, “they agreed that STRAP’s objectives were too broad and their target community too diverse. Because of the group’s broad agenda, it lacked workable goals. STRAP was then restructured and re-named,” Mendoza says.
“Since the founding members of STRAP are all women of transsexual experience, they decided to focus on the issue of transsexualism. They believe that making STRAP focused on one issue (which in itself is complex enough) will make it more effective and efficient in the long run,” says Sasot to Outrage Magazine.
The relaunch of the group also introduced a change in its name, from the Society of Trans and Gender Rights Advocates of the Philippines to the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines.
For Sasot, “no organization in the Philippines at that time (and even until now) was knowledgeable of transgender issues. Who else can fight our fights, advance our causes and support ourselves but us and others like us?”
While STRAP – which, when founded in 2002, “attracted a very diverse membership (and) was a full representation of the whole transgender community: male-to-female transsexuals, female-to-male transsexuals, heterosexual cross-dressers, and intersexed people,” Mendoza says – was also “conceived to be a revolutionary organization wanting immediate change in society and in law,” the refocusing concentrated the group’s directives. With the refocusing, among STRAP’s missions are to “act as a support group for girls and women of transsexual experience (whether pre-op/non-op, post-op), as well as to those exploring the possibility that they may be transsexuals; to reclaim our dignity and identity, thus, the name/identity of transpinay; to gather local resources and information beneficial to Filipina girls and women of transsexual experience; to promote compassionate understanding of transsexualism; and to promote positive and empowering images of Filipina transsexuals.”
“We have about 60 online members now. Over the years, it has been a steady growth in membership. We have been attracting professionals and students, all of whom have a great sense of self and others,” Mendoza says.
Some of the remaining challenges for STRAP include the “expansion of membership to include more transinays; and the media’s ignorance of the usage of the words ‘transsexual’ and ‘transgender’ as differentiated from the words ‘cross-dressers’ and ‘gays.’”
“What makes STRAP proud the most is to see its members empowered. They now choose to stand up and fight their own battles, regardless of the extent. Rather than accept the stereotype role of being a victim, they choose to be the champions – be it in blatant discrimination in the workplace, schools, and in private and public institutions. Their freedom to live their lives with dignity, respect and pride affirms STRAP’s objectives, thus, fuelling it to continue doing what it is doing,” Sasot says.
Adds Mendoza: “It is also heart-warming to see young transpinays come to us and tell us how their lives have changed upon reading published articles about us. Of how they have been affirmed and inspired by our own stories.”
MOVING FOR CHANGE
Also noteworthy among STRAP’s efforts include the initiation to include the phrase “gender identity and expression” in the Anti-Discrimination Bill to “reclaim our identity and dignity as transinays”; ongoing dialogue with officials from the Hong Kong Immigration Department on the treatment of transsexuals entering their country; and participation in locally organized fora on gender and transsexualism (with continuous talks in major universities in the Philippines, such as Ateneo de Manila, Ateneo Law School, University of the Philippines, University of Sto. Tomas, De La Salle University, and even in Hong Kong University).
STRAP also provided the Philippine transgender representation in such events as the 23rd and 24th ILGA World Conference/ILGA Asia Conference in Bangkok, Thailand (January 2008), First International Transgender Rights Conference in Geneva, Switzerland (March 2006), and Gay Games VII in Chicago, USA (July 2006); as well as actively support local GLBTQIA organizations by, among others, coordinating for the 2008 Manila Pride March, and co-organizing the 1st Ang Ladlad National Convention in November 2006.
STRAP, of course, never forgets to focus on its members, holding monthly support group meetings (usually held on the evening of the last Saturday of the month); offering face-to-face and online consultations; giving out lectures and discussions with schools, media, and other organizations; celebrating the annual commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance (a day to commemorates all those who have died violent deaths due to transphobia); and holding special events, such as relevant movie premiers and GLBTQIA solidarity events.
“The transsexual roadmap and journey can be a lonely and confusing one if you have no proper support. We give references regarding medical, surgical, and psychological care, legal support, and others, (just as we) take responsibility in educating as much Filipinos as we can about the truths regarding transsexualism, (which is) why we entertain all forms of communication, such as media, fora and conventions, classroom discussions, and the likes,” Mendoza says.
After Sasot’s issue gained ground, Ayala Corporation itself got in touch with her to look closely at the existence of discriminatory policies in all its properties, and how best to remedy these – on its own, a big achievement for STRAP, still “the first and only organization in the Philippines that tackles the transsexual issue,” says Sasot.
“We will remain a support and advocacy group that empowers its members in particular, and the transpinay, in general,” Mendoza ends.
To become a member of STRAP, or for more information, visit tsphilippines.com.