The case of Maki Gingoyon against a fitness gym can possibly test Cebu’s anti-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of several categories including gender identity. As Ms Gingoyon’s journey to dignity unfolds, her case is also turning into an opportunity to challenge a pervasive societal belief internalized by women of transsexual experience: the womanhood of a woman of transsexual experience is an illusion. The real illusions, however, are the illusions constructed by our internalized prejudice.* We cannot move forward if we don’t stop this internal practice of delegitimizing the womanhood of our fellow transpinays (woman of transsexual experience of Filipino descent). Thus, one of the urgent tasks of trans activism is to exorcise this internalized transprejudice which destroys our dignity and our capacity to affirm the dignity of others.
Ms Gingoyon applied for gym membership but backed off after the manager told her that she cannot use the gym’s ladies’ room. Her gender became an issue after she presented her ID, which bears her legal sex – male. Perhaps trying to accommodate Ms Gingoyon, the gym asked her whether she already had genital reconstruction surgery. The question is not only inappropriate and intrusive it also demonstrates the taken-for-granted belief that it is our genitalia rather than our brains which define our gender identity. More significantly, the question demonstrates how everyone’s gender is assigned at birth: by inspecting the external genitalia.
The case will still take time to reach the stage of legal contestation; not only because Cebu’s anti-ordinance has no implementing rules yet but also because Ms Gingoyon opted to exhaust – rightfully so! – all available non-adversarial remedies, such as further clarifying the gym’s policy on transgender people. Hopefully, this action will lead to negotiating a gym policy that recognizes that there are different ways of being male and female, and that the genitalia is not the final arbiter and certainly not the most definitive basis of anyone’s gender identity. This is currently being emphasized by a brilliant online campaign in support of Ms Gingoyon. Since her case became public, Ms Gingoyon received an outpouring of support from trans folks with their pictures bearing the statement “my genitalia has nothing to do with my gender identity”. Certainly, this negotiation will involve educating the gym management regarding the complexity of gender identity. And definitely, it has to include explaining transsexualism.
THE TRANSSEXUAL PHENOMENON
Though the term is fairly recent and of Western origin, the phenomenon transsexualism refers to is not. The transsexual phenomenon – and trans phenomenon in general – has been observed in different cultures in different times in history. The trans phenomenon refers to the condition in which people have gender identity and/or gender expression that don’t coincide with the gender identity and/or gender expression associated with their gender assignment at birth. The transsexual phenomenon is a subset of the trans phenomenon. Transsexualism is the condition of having a gender identity that is “opposite” the gender assignment at birth (e.g. a person assigned as male at birth with a female identity, a person assigned as female at birth with a male gender identity.
Our gender assignment is declared by our birth attendant (e.g. doctor, midwife, etc) who based the declaration on the gender culturally assigned with our genitalia. This declaration gets registered in our birth certificate, which in turn dictates our legal gender. No matter how our society values this initial gender assignment, this is only provisional at best. Contrary to the belief that underpins the assigning of gender at birth, the seat of our gender identity is not our genitalia but our brain. Because the brain continues to develop after we were born, it takes time before we realize our gender identity. This realization may or may not coincide with the birth attendant’s declaration. Because gender identity is largely an internal process which takes place in someone’s brain, it is the individual who is in the best position to know and determine his/her own gender identity. A good starting in understanding transsexualism from a medical perspective is Dr. Harry Benjamin’s classic text The Transsexual Phenomenon. Meanwhile, Wikipedia provides a survey of the different scientific explanations of the causes of the phenomenon.
Because the gym management’s policy echoes wider societal belief, educating the wider public is imperative. It will take time before a large-scale shift in thinking happens. However, the shift’s tipping point cannot be reached if those experiencing the transsexual phenomenon themselves don’t come to terms with the phenomenon. These are the people who have internalized transprejudice: the belief that the trans experience of gender is not as legitimate as the cisgender experience of gender (which is the experience of having a gender identity and/or gender expression which coincides with the gender identity and/or gender expression associated with one’s gender assignment at birth). Internalized transprejudice manifests in myriad ways, such as self-hatred, various forms of social resignation, and the belief that the womanhood of women of transsexual experience is nothing but an illusion.
Reacting to Ms Gingoyon’s case, one famous transpinay beauty queen arrogantly declared in a Facebook comment that what happened to Ms Gingoyon was not discrimination but a demonstration of her illusion. Calling a fellow woman of transsexual experience ilusyonada is nothing new. A taken-for-granted belief within the community, it reflects the wider societal belief that there is only one way of being a woman. This societal belief reduces womanhood to a body part – the presence of a vagina – and/or to one of the human body’s function – the ability to give birth.
Internalized transprejudice robs us of our courage to affirm our own womanhood. Because of it, we believe that we are not “real women,” and that no matter what we do we will not “become real women” because we were “born as men.” In turn, we project this internalized prejudice to our fellow women of transsexual experience by calling them ilusyonadas. Furthermore, our internalized transprejudice makes us apathetic to dignity because it already destroyed our capacity to recognize even our own dignity. Thus, it propels us to consciously or unconsciously sabotage every effort to regain the dignity of people like us. Our internalized transprejudice seduces us to think that we are worthless, that we are not worthy of respect and love. Ultimately, internalized transprejudice destroys our capacity to love ourselves. If not arrested, this self-hate will culminate into the greatest victory of transprejudice: to make us delegitimize our own humanity.
Let’s move forward: let’s say goodbye to our internalized prejudice. Start by firmly affirming that our own womanhood is as legitimate as the womanhood of our fellow women who were assigned as female at birth; that as citizens of the Philippines we have the same rights and responsibilities as other Filipino citizens; and that as human beings we have the same dignity as everyone else! It’s not easy to exorcise our internalized prejudice. Chances are we already had it since we were children. But exorcising it is something that we must do if we want our society to affirm our womanhood, to respect our equal status as citizens of this nation, and to recognize our equal dignity as humans. To paraphrase Socrates: let her that would move the world, first move herself.
*Transprejudice is also known as transphobia. I prefer to use transprejudice because transphobia is not akin to phobias such as hydrophobia and arachnobia.