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The sign of beauty

Meet Apple Fritz Bela, a Deaf transgender woman from Antipolo, who is a regular in the beauty pageant circles. She believes that, no, her being PWD is not reason for her not to compete; and yes, exactly because she’s different, hopefully others will see the real beauty of diversity. And so she says to other PWDs: “Every time we show we can, we’re making a mark.”

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.”

The first time transgender woman Apple Fritz Bela, 18, joined a beauty pageant was in 2018; and it was a “challenge.” As a Deaf person, she knew that she was already at a disadvantage. For instance, during rehearsals, she did not even have an interpreter (a recurring issue in all pageants she joined, actually), and so she had to resort to just mimicking the other contestants, instead of actually getting the instructions on what she is supposed to do.

That year, she signed to me, “I did not win.”

But for Apple, the challenges she faced as a Deaf beauty pageant contestant (and even the eventual losing) are “minor issues,” she said.

She is, after all, “doing what I want to do.” And while at it, “showcasing that – if/when given the same opportunity – people like me, a Deaf transgender woman, can also shine.”

The first time I met Apple was at the Queen of Antipolo 2019, a beauty pageant helmed by the Transpinays of Antipolo Organization (TAO), helmed by Ms Shane Madrigal with Kagawad Kristine Ibardolaza of Barangay Mayamot. At that time, too, she had no interpreter; but she was gearing to be part of arguably the most prestigious beauty pageant for transgender people in these parts of Luzon.

Apple – at that time seated at the corner of this makeshift dressing room in front of a mall in Antipolo – was surrounded by over five people. These were her “handlers”, the people who made sure she looked her best before she went onstage to compete. All of her handlers are Hearing; and none knows how to sign.

Apple can speak. And so now and then, she would utter words to her handlers – e.g. the light is too bright, turn the fan that way, and so on. But the conversations with others are almost always immediately limited by her inability to hear their attempted responses.

Apple was chatty with me then; even if it proved difficult because her handlers were moving around her as they dolled her up. But she tried to converse anyway, now and then looking over the shoulder of any person standing in front of her so I could see her sign.

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“A friend introduced me to pageantry,” she said, adding – even if it was only a year ago – with a smile: “I was younger then.”

She was shy when she first joined pageants, particularly because of her “difference”, she said. But Apple eventually got the hang of it.

Joining a pageant, said Apple, was an expected “progression” for Apple. Sans knowledge of SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression), she said she feels she is a woman; but that because she has yet to do gender affirmation surgery, she does not see herself as a transgender person. But it is this “feeling as a woman” that sort of encouraged her to join pageants; a means – for her – to celebrate beauty.

Apple was around three years old when she lost her hearing. At first, she said, she could hear; but then she gradually became deaf. Growing up, the hearing continued to deteriorate. She never knew what went wrong; just that she stopped being able to hear.

She was in high school when she started learning sign language. Her sign is a mix of Filipino Sign Language and American Sign Language; and when she doesn’t understand a sign, she almost always reverts back to fingerspelling. And always, she does this with a wide smile.

Apple’s parents are still around – i.e. her father works as a tricycle driver, and her mother is an overseas Filipino worker in Kuwait. She also has a brother. All of them are Hearing. All of them – she said – readily accept her. She still lives with them, helping sustain herself by also giving make-up services.

This makes joining beauty pageants “easy”; a means for her, she said, to show that even Deaf people like her “CAN”. This is a way “to show everyone that even Deaf people have beauty, have brains/intelligence.”

Queen of Antipolo 2019 was, in a word, competitive. And not that surprising because the prize – amounting to tens of thousands of pesos – comes with the “rare opportunity,” said Apple, to “give voice to the transgender community of Antipolo.”

And so, not surprisingly, the organizers are “strict”. The stage director was a common face behind the scene, barking her expectations – demands, even – for the candidates to do when onstage. No overstaying, she said. Comply with what was agreed upon during rehearsals. Otherwise, “face the consequences” – e.g. a microphone will be turned off even if a candidate is still talking (if she’s talking too long), or worse, she will be singled out by a public announcement before the next exposure is made.

But all these were lost on Apple. Called for an impromptu (and closed door) meeting of the candidates, for instance, she was without an interpreter, left to read lips or get the instructions from attempts to explain by the other candidates.

No worries, she said to me.

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“You really just have to follow other people’s leads; you’ll be fine.”

Onstage, the pre-recorded videos of the candidates were already playing (before they were to be called out). Apple’s video was… surprising. In it, she was actually speaking, not signing. Her use of English tentative; but her message was the same: “I want to show to the world that we may be PWDs, but we can just be like everybody if given the chance.”

The competition went fast.

The candidates went onstage for a quick production number. Candidate number 11, Apple, just had to follow everyone’s lead; no mishap happened.

They then introduced themselves. Apple again chose to speak, not sign. It was, she said to me, just a quick introduction anyway; just to say her name, her age, and the barangay/village she came from. “No big deal.”

Even as the other candidates were still introducing themselves onstage, the others (who already finished doing so) were already prepping for the next exposure: the swimsuit competition.

No mishap happened – at least initially. Apple did what she was supposed to do.

But then while she was already being prepped for the evening gown competition, a member of the organizing team went backstage. Some electric fuse exploded; and the computers used by the judges went off before the scores were saved. So the candidates had to return onstage in their swimwear; to be graded/judged again.

Apple, already half-dressed in her white gown, was at a loss; particularly when her handlers just attempted to change her gown into her already-discarded swimsuit. “Bakit (Why)?” she asked. None could eloquently explain to her the technical glitch that happened. Tempers flared; but no words were spoken.

With the repeat of the swimsuit competition done, the candidates paraded in their evening gowns. By then, people were shouting the numbers of the candidates they were supporting. Number 11 was among them.

When the special awards were given, Apple’s name was called for Miss Photogenic. She was fixing her gown then; ironing the skirt with her palm. Unaware that she won something. Two other candidates had to tap her on her shoulders, and then signal to her that she was being called. Apple looked up, a smile growing on her face, and then strutted in front to claim her prize.

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But Apple didn’t make the final cut (top five).

And so off the stage she had to go with the other candidates who also didn’t place.

Backstage, she was misty-eyed. But I’d say she was on a better state; another losing candidate can be heard wailing inside the makeshift dressing room. Her smile widened again when she saw me.

“How do I feel that I didn’t place? Okay; just okay,” she signed to me. “What’s important is that I showed that I can also compete.”

She wiped the corners of her eyes, even if her smile stayed wide.

“In life, that’s what you do. You show up to fight. Even if you lose, you fought.”

Someone behind me caught her attention. She waved, and then mouthed “What?” to this person. She then gathered the flowing skirt of her gown, quickly turned to me to sign “Thank you”, and then headed to the person who caught her attention.

And as she walked away, into the arms of her friends/supporters, many tried to sign with her. Only one was intelligible: “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”

And there goes Apple Fritz Bela, a Deaf transgender woman who’s now a regular in the trans pageant circuit, helping redefine the sign of beauty… – WITH ALBERT TAN MAGALLANES, JR. AND JOSHUA DOLENDO

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