Before she blossomed into the lady she is now, Kirsten Bernard VI used to work with the Department of Interior and Local Government-Bureau of Fire Protection (DILG-BFP). Specifically, “prior to leaving the country for a job offer in the US, I was a Fire Officer 2, assigned at the BFP-National Headquarters in Manila, where I stayed there for over five years,” Kirsten said.
It is with hindsight now that she recalls why she worked in that post – that is, “not only due to limited opportunities to secure a permanent position in government service, but because I also challenged myself to enter an organization dominated by men,” Kirsten said. Even then, “I wanted to have a chance to break the stereotypical view of being LGBT as being weak, that when given the opportunity to do what heterosexual ‘macho’ men do, we can do things better.”
At that time, however, Kirsten said she still presented herself as a “cisgender gay man”. “I did my best to present myself as less ‘sissy’ and constantly reminded myself to be careful not to flick my fingers or swirl my words,” she said, adding that she knew if she didn’t do those, “I wouldn’t have any chance (to be part of) this military culture.”
Kirsten actually failed all the physical screening (push ups, bar pull-ups, running sprints, et cetera). “But the last part of the screening was swimming, and I nailed it. I was the only one who completed the laps,” she said. Kirsten can laugh about it now, adding that “being a mermaid (sirena) favored me.”
Once in, though, Kirsten said life wasn’t easy. “Homophobia exists. I heard a lot of hateful comments. I was mocked. There was bigotry. Those were the biggest challenges.”
One time, “several officers lobbied to have me fired for the simple reason of ‘walang bomberong bading o kumekendeng (there are no gay firemen or firemen who walk while swaying hips)’. Luckily, I was wise enough to establish a network of lawyers and friends in the Civil Service Commission. They assured me that they will back me up and protect me if circumstances were against me,” Kirsten said. Still, “everyday was a freaking struggle to survive; I was basically begging for acceptance.”
Kirsten said that many of the discrimination against LGBT people are “unwritten”. In her case, “I always had to prove myself 100 times more than others would just to be recognized as a valuable employee. The promotion board refused to accept my application because they said I was not fit for the job to begin with, and then stated the obvious that I was gay.” Kirsten said she also had to fear for her job security during those days, all because of her sexuality.
Now looking back, “I was faking it until I made it,” Kirsten said. “I was hiding my true self.”
Kirsten moved to the US in 2011. But she said even then, she did not “immediately transition during my first employment in east Texas; it was too risky,” she said, noting that there, it was still largely unacceptable to be gay, much more transgender, even in the Filipino community. Instead, “I started my transition after I left the south and accepted a job offer in Massachusetts.”
Kirsten knows, of course, that she’s luckier. After she was officially diagnosed to have gender dysphoria, she had the “complete medical support. Medical tests and blood work is constantly monitored by a team of doctors in Boston, which includes: endocrinologist, psychologist/psychiatrist, and primary physician. For my transition, I did not self medicate. I had a relatively good experience in that my trans health needs were professionally addressed.”
Kirsten is now a lead CT scan technologist working mostly with emergency department cases. “My co-workers are very open about me being a transgender woman. They call me by my preferred name, and use my preferred gender pronoun. It is so much easier if the place you live in and work at are more open about LGBT equality.”
To others who may still be in the position Kirsten was when she was in the Philippines, Kirsten wants to say that “you should know that there is nothing wrong with you.” However, “if you are struggling for acceptance or in denial of your true self, you first have to embrace yourself. This what makes you unique and shine.”
She knows that there may be times when “if you have to live a double life, you fake it until you make it.” But she said that “you should never let the straight bigots use your circumstances against you.”
In her case, “surrounding yourself with LGBT allies is also important; and stay away from people who discriminate, it is not worth your positive energy.” Similarly, “equip yourself with legal knowledge about your rights; establish your network with a lot of ‘Miss Friendship’ attitude.”
More importantly, though, for Kirsten, “never stop fighting for equality. Support an organization that advocates for change; there is strength in numbers. You are not less of a person for being who you are, thus you deserve the same rights that others enjoy,” Kirsten said. “Soon you will get to enjoy the freedom and equality that you are fighting for in pursuit of your true happiness.”