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The transgender Filipino dilemma (A bittersweet reaction to Kataluna Enriquez’s victory)

Sass Rogando Sasot writes about the disparity of the lives between Filipina women of transgender background living in the country, and those now living in countries with more advanced understanding and policies on transgender people.

Photo by Sergey "Merlin" Katyshkin from

“You must be very happy for Miss Nevada USA 2021!” one of my readers told me.

Kataluna Enriquez is a Filipina-American woman of transgender experience who made history to be the first woman of trans background to represent a US State in the Miss USA beauty pageant. This brings her one foot closer to being the first Filipina woman of transgender background contestant of the Miss Universe pageant.

Certainly, I am happy for her, but her victory just highlights the disparity of the lives between Filipina women of trans background living in the Philippines and those who are now living in countries with more advanced understanding and policies on trans people.

In August 2019, it was such a victory that trans issues became part of the national conversation when the toilet issue involving Gretchen Diez became known. I still remember how it first happened. At around 7:00AM, I was woken up by Facebook notifications after notifications. My help was sought by several people to help Diez. Diez at that time was live-streaming her ordeal. All I could do was use my platform to publicize it and to mobilize my political connections. I reposted her live stream on my blog, which reaches millions of people. So from having a handful of live viewers, her live stream viewers increased dramatically. Mainstream media picked up the news.

The Senate launched a public hearing on the issue. Even the Philippine presented granted Diez an audience. It was by all means a turning point in the history of the trans movement in the Philippines.

Yet such high publicity invited a backlash. I was subjected to one of the worst online abuse one could receive almost every day, which made me decide at that time to quit blogging. Another huge political blog, ran by the team of Mocha Uson, worked against me by emphasizing voices against trans people. That led to my falling out with Ms Uson.

SWS, one of the biggest and most respected polling companies in the Philippines, launched a survey on trans people. While the same survey found that 55% favor laws protecting LGBT Filipinos, that attitude isn’t extending to trans-specific issues. Only 22% of Filipinos agree that transgender people should be able to change their gender in their official documents. Only 32% of Filipinos agree that women of trans background should be allowed to use the female toilet.

The backlash even from members of the Filipino gay community against women of trans background joining the Miss Universe reflects this survey. As politicians in the Philippines are highly responsive to what the majority of Filipinos want, especially on controversial issues like this, this gives us a snapshot that it would be very difficult to push for a gender recognition law.

Kataluna migrated to the United States with male documents. After she became a citizen, she was able to change her documents into female. However, such change wouldn’t be honored in the Philippines because we don’t have a gender recognition law.

This wasn’t always the case. Congresswoman Geraldine Roman, the first trans person elected in the Philippine congress, is a beneficiary of a more compassionate court in the Philippines. Hence, she is officially recognized as female in Philippine documents. However, things changed for the worse when the Supreme Court of the Philippines decided in October 2007 that gender change through courts wouldn’t be allowed anymore unless Congress legislates a law allowing it.

Given the enormous resistance among Filipinos against a law like that, it would be a miracle if this would happen in our lifetime. The resistance against a gender recognition law is perhaps one of the few bipartisan issues that get support from either pro- or anti-Duterte, the main political cleavage in the Philippines.

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Since the Supreme Court decision in 2007, Philippine laws have become more and more anti-trans people. In 2012, the Aquino administration passed “An Act Further Authorizing The City Or Municipal Civil Registrar Or The Consul General To Correct Clerical Or Typographical Errors In The Day And Month In The Date Of Birth Or Sex Of A Person Appearing In The Civil Register Without Need Of A Judicial Order, Amending RA 9048.”

The Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of that law specifically says that “No petition for correction of erroneous entry concerning the date of birth or the sex of a person shall be entertained except if the petition is accompanied by earliest school record or earliest school documents such as, but not limited to, medical records, baptismal certificate and other documents issued by religious authorities; nor shall any entry involving a change of gender corrected except if the petition is accompanied by a certification issued by an accredited government physician attesting to the fact that the petitioner has not undergone sex change or sex transplant.”

By implication, changing one’s name on the ground of sex reassignment surgery will also not be allowed under that law.

The result of the disparity between Philippine laws and laws of countries where Filipinos can change their gender and name has huge implications — chief of which is the issue of dual citizenship.

In 2015, Filipino-American Morena Cipriano wanted to retire to the Philippines. Since Cipriano has foreign citizenship, she would face restrictions in buying properties and investing in the Philippines. So she applied for dual citizenship. The problem is, though she’s legally recognized as female in the US, her Philippine birth certificate lists her as male. The result: she cannot be issued a female Philippine passport. In effect, she would be living with two legal identities: male in the Philippines and female in the US.

In fact, a lot of trans Filipinos in the diaspora have given up their right to have dual citizenship because of this. Thus, for trans Filipinos, it has become a choice between remaining a Filipino citizen and being legally our gender identity. Giving up your citizenship is such an emotional issue. It’s like giving up a huge part of your life. It’s a decision not taken lightly. But for us, it’s really a choice between remaining a Filipino citizen and having legal documents that reflect our gender identity, the absence of that document can result to being treated with dignity or indignity.

I have personally experienced that shift of quality of life when in 2007, I was accidentally issued a female passport by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. As I was traveling a lot to speak on trans issues, that passport gave me a sense of relief. Having a female document meant that I would no longer be facing the risk of humiliation from immigration officials or worse being subjected to strip naked for them just to prove that I am “male”, like what a lot of trans women experience when they travel with male identity documents. When I renewed my passport in 2012, the passport got changed into male again. And that made me fear traveling.

When I went back to the Philippines in April 2019 to have a debate against Richard Heydarian, I experienced an incident in the toilet of the hotel where the event was held. I didn’t make an issue of it at that time as I just liked to concentrate on the debate. I was using the female restroom. Given that I have become some sort of public figure in the Philippines, people know that I am a woman of trans background. The people inside the toilet recognized me and gave me a look that felt that I wasn’t welcome there. I’m pretty sure if I were just an ordinary person, I would have been dragged out of the female restroom. And I wouldn’t have any recourse — I am male in my Philippine documents.

For me, the current discussions in Western countries on trans women participating in sports that are currently dominating worldwide discussion on transgender issues is really a conversation that I find hard to be involved in.

For me, I find these folks still a bit “lucky” — they already have legal documents reflecting their gender identity. If they aren’t participating in sports, they can go on with most aspects of their lives smoother than those who don’t enjoy yet that right to change legally their gender. For contests outside the West and countries with gender recognition law, the backlash against trans athletes and even trans contestants in female beauty pageants could mean stronger resistance against gender recognition law in contexts where there’s none yet.

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Written By

Since 2001, as she was about to turn 19, Sass has dedicated herself to the LGBT Rights movement in the Philippines, most specifically to issues of gender identity and freedom of gender expression. James Green, an international transgender rights activist, served as her mentor via email. She started giving discussions on transgender rights and issues in Luneta Park in Manila. In December 2002, she co-founded the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). In 2003 & 2004, together with Drs Sam Winter and Mark King of the University of Hong Kong, she did the first comprehensive study on transgender women in the Philippines. The study has been published in the International Journal of Transgenderism. In 2009, she was one of the LGBT activists invited to speak in a historic United Nations General Assembly side-event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. In 2013, she received the ECHO Award, given annually to excellent and promising migrant students in the Netherlands. In 2014, she received the Harry Benjamin Distinguished Education and Advocacy Award from the World Profession Association for Transgender Health. A nomadic spirit, Sass loves to write, walk, read, cycle, and cook. Together with the love of her life, Sass is currently based in The Hague, The Netherlands. She graduated with a Combined major in World Politics & Global Justice, minor in International Development (Magna cum Laude) at Leiden University College, which bestowed her the 2014 Global Citizenship Award. She is a contributing writer on TG issues for the mag, through The Activist.


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