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Times have changed and you are stuck

An open letter from Sass Rogando Sasot to Philippine Star columnist Sara Soliven De Guzman, who – among other claims – stated that a problem erupts when transgender people “mingle with the opposite sex and pretend to be who they are not”.

An open letter from Sass Rogando Sasot to Philippine Star columnist Sara Soliven De Guzman, who – among other claims – stated that a problem erupts when transgender people “mingle with the opposite sex and pretend to be who they are not”.

Times have changed

Dear Sara,

I am writing in relation to your 27th of October 2014 article on Philippine Star entitled “Times have changed.” I must commend you: your article is so popular in my FB newsfeed – unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. To be fair, your article has laudable moments.

I agree with what you mean by this: It’s sad that we give so much attention to this case when there are more major concerns where many victims are found and no news is brought out about them…There are other cases of pedophilia and serial killings happening around the country but the government has not done any major action on such problems. Indeed, there are many victims of crimes in our country which have not received the same outpouring of attention as Jennifer Laude’s case. And you are right on the money. This case became a national issue because of the VFA angle. Thus, in a tragic kind of way, Jennifer Laude was “lucky.”

Can you imagine if she were killed by another Filipino? I mean, would you even care about it? Would you even be bothered to research how many transgender people have been brutally murdered in our country? Perhaps their lives don’t really matter to warrant your precious attention. Based on our past experience, the fate of a murdered transgender person in our beloved country follows the same path of a lot of other murdered people in the Philippines: oblivion. Yes, there were other atrocities in our country, and indeed, the government seems to be not doing anything about it.

This is one of the defining moments of your article: Let’s level up and deal with this issue in a more objective and civilized way. Let’s not be too barbaric and archaic. As we scrutinize the Americans, let’s also be mindful of our own behavior.

The call to be not “too barbaric and archaic” is very interesting. Using “too” suggests that there is a level of barbarity and being archaic that you may be able to tolerate. But what could that be Sara? This “tolerable level of barbarity and being archaic” seems to be demonstrated by your article.

You said:

The problem begins when transgenders truly believe in their hearts that they are really “men” or “women”. When they mingle with the opposite sex and pretend to be who they are not, then a problem erupts. The US Marine may have felt violated and raped not knowing that he was with a transgender. How would he have known unless he was properly informed? Many transgenders I know are beautiful and sexy – indeed very attractive. Was Jeffrey morally obligated to have informed Pemberton that he was a transgender? If people are expected to respect each other for their sexual preferences shouldn’t they learn to be more truthful in this modern age? This case should awaken us to the reality of the times.

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The truth of the matter is that many foreigners who visit our shores look forward to meeting beautiful Filipina women. I guess they have to be more cautious nowadays because not everything they see is what it seems in this seemingly mysterious paradise.

First of all, sexual preference refers to everyone’s choice of one’s sexual partner. Thus, divulging your sexual preference is simply a matter of telling with whom you want to have sex. I’m not sure whether transgender people divulging their sexual preference could have resolved the “moral dilemma” you’ve presented. Perhaps what you meant was people should divulge their birth history to someone before indulging in a sexual relationship. I used “people”, and not just transgender people because this “sexual etiquette” shouldn’t just be confined to transgender people. That means that you should also require your children, friends, and yourself to divulge what gender assignment you’ve received from your birth attendant.

This is because, to use a phrase of yours, in this modern age, there are men and women who actually prefer to have a romantic and sexual relationship with a woman like Jennifer. Sara, you wouldn’t know whether the man sexually turned on by you might actually be one of those men.

Now let’s recall your twisted logic: “The US Marine may have felt violated and raped not knowing that he was with a transgender.” Following your logic, the man in our hypothetical situation could be justified of being violent to you if she found out that you were not a woman of transgender experience. What could stop him from “feeling violated and raped” knowing that he was not with a woman of transgender experience as he expected? I mean how would he have known if he was not properly informed? Ergo, Sara, practice what you preach: Divulge to everyone you romantically and/or sexually fancy that you were born with a vagina and that you currently have one.

I don’t know how you were able to reach this epiphany: The problem begins when transgenders truly believe in their hearts that they are really “men” or “women”. Sara, as a journalist for a respected publication, your thinking readers expect that before you publish anything, you have undertaken first a fairly reasonable amount of research that can help you craft an informed opinion. Be honest: have you actually consulted medical experts that have actually devoted time in studying the transgender phenomenon? Have you opened a book about the subject? Or have you even, at least, consulted Wikipedia, to give you an overview about the subject you are writing about? In this modern age, information abounds, and the things that stopping people from actually learning from the experts in the field that you have commented with disdain are laziness, bigotry, attachment to the comforts of ignorance, and arrogance – the entangled features of, to use your words, a barbaric and archaic mentality.

Sara, don’t take me wrong, I’m not disrespecting your “freedom of speech.” I am a firm believer of the ethos of that quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, which is popularly misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” But the thing I will defend to death is your right to have an opinion but not the content of your opinion. Historically, freedom of speech as we know it is a product of the Age of Enlightenment. During this period in the political history of the West, the scientific method displaced the religious method in understanding phenomena. That entails subjecting even our most cherished beliefs under rigorous empirical testing. Thus, freedom of speech is rooted in the desire of people during that age to free themselves from the dictatorship of religious authorities. So, applying the values of the Age of Enlightenment, let’s weigh your opinion against current scientific evidence regarding the phenomenon you are commenting on.

Why is it a problem for transgender people to “truly believe in their hearts that they are really “men” or “women”? I wonder whether you are aware of the 2008 genetic study conducted by Australian scientists who were investigating the transsexual phenomenon (Note: transsexuality is the term used in medical parlance to refer to the condition of having a gender identity that doesn’t correspond to the gender associated with one’s birth genitalia). It was reported by BBC and by Science Daily in October 2008. To date, it is the largest genetic study of women like Jennifer.

Science Daily reported:

From an early age people develop an inner sense of being male or female – their gender identity. Transsexuals however, identify with a physical sex opposite to their perceived biological sex.

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DNA samples were collected from 112 male to female transsexuals and researchers compared genetic differences with non-transsexuals.

The researchers discovered that male to female transsexuals were more likely to have a longer version of a gene which is known to modify the action of the sex hormone testosterone.

“We think that these genetic differences might reduce testosterone action and under masculinise the brain during foetal development.” said researcher Lauren Hare.

For decades, there has been debate over the causes of transexuality. Early theories included psychosocial factors such as childhood trauma. More recent studies have indicated that family history and genetic aspects are linked to the development of gender identity.

“There is a social stigma that transsexualism is simply a lifestyle choice, however our findings support a biological basis of how gender identity develops.” said study leader Associate Professor Vincent Harley, Head of Molecular Genetics at Prince Henry’s Institute.

Based on this, the problem you have identified is not a problem but simply reality: Women like Jennifer truly believe they are women not because they are simply thinking they are women but because this realization is rooted in their genes. Recalling what Professor Harley said, the womanhood of Jennifer is not a product of choice akin to choosing what you want to eat later. Jennifer’s womanhood is rooted in her biological makeup. The larger implication of the study is that everyone’s gender is not simply a matter of inspecting our genitalia, which we have traditionally believed to be the final arbiter of gender. There is now a growing list of countries that have actually started to respect and honor the reality of the experience of transsexual people by enacting Gender Recognition Laws, which would allow people to change their legal gender to the gender they, to use your words, “truly believe in their hearts.” They are: Argentina (where the Pope is from!), Spain, United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Japan, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, France, and Portugal.

Gender is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to whether you have a penis or a vagina. This complexity is further explored in different animals in Joan Roughgarden’s groundbreaking book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. Unfortunately, this complexity is lost in your opinion piece.

I have written this before, and I feel it deserves to be repeated in the context of Jennifer’s double tragedy of being killed and being killed again by the incredible cruelty and bigotry of Filipinos who believe, in one way or another, that Jennifer deserved to die.

The transsexual experience is often mocked – intentionally or unintentionally – by that tiring sensationalizing staple news tagline: “he becomes a she” or a “she becomes a he”. Tagalog is one of those very few languages in the world that do not have gendered pronouns. He, she, and it are just “Siya/Sya”. Hence, he or she becoming or changing into another pronoun does not have an equivalent in Tagalog. It’s just “Sya becomes Sya (Sya ay naging Sya)”; and I feel that this is a better starting point in understanding, explaining, and reflecting on the transsexual experience than the Jekyll-and-Hide approach. Jennifer is not a he who became a she. Jennifer just became Jennifer and she unfolded to the outside world the reality contained inside her: “Sya ay naging sya at patuloy na nagiging sya.” This is not superficial political correctness but a deep affirmation of an experience.

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Forcing transsexual people to conform to their sex assignment at birth is like forcing an apple seed to grow as an orange tree. And just imagine all the energy wasted, the lives made miserable, and the relationships broken by simply exercising our ignorance and rejection of what people’s brains, hearts, and consciousness feel themselves to be.

Yes we may continue to assert the virtue and legitimacy of our ignorance by invoking the gospel of the genitalia and the dictatorship of the sex assignment at birth. We may even succeed in the process. But our success will be a Pyrrhic victory: Transsexual people, throughout the rest of their lives, will live unhappily in the hell of our ignorance and rejection and we continue to numb our ability to appreciate what Walt Whitman once said, “that all the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.”

Sara, you ended your article with a powerful quote from Gandhi. I want to honor this class act by quoting another Gandhi:

Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologize for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.

Between transgender people and people like you, who do you think are discriminated and marginalized – punished – in the Philippines for simply being themselves? Who are years ahead of our time: those who have a much deeper appreciation of the complexity of gender or those who think that it’s just a matter of having a penis and a vagina?

Sara, Jennifer didn’t lie. She was simply being herself in a society stuck in archaic understanding of gender, and given the outpouring of cruel remarks about her and people like her, it is also a society that barbarically treat people like her. Let’s level up!




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Sass Rogando Sasot is a transpinay (Filipina woman of transgender experience) based in The Hague, Netherlands. Sass recently graduated Magna cum Laude at the international honors college of Leiden University, with a combined major in World politics and Global Justice and a minor in International Development. In June 2014, Leiden University College (LUC) gave her the Global Citizenship Award, annual recognition given by LUC to a graduating student who has demonstrated the qualities of active engagement, responsive and responsible participation in civic and/or community building, within and/or beyond the university. Earlier that year, she received the 2014 Harry Benjamin Distinguished Education and Advocacy Award, given by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health in recognition of her valuable contributions to advocacy for transgender equality and rights. In 2013, she became the first Filipino to have received the ECHO Award, annually awarded to excellent migrant students in academic and higher professional education in The Netherlands. And in 2012, she was awarded the Best Speaker and Best Delegate awards in The Hague European International Model United Nations and in Paris International Model United Nations, respectively. Sass is currently doing an internship in a defense and security consultancy firm in Leiden, Netherlands.

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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