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Transgender rights ARE human rights

As the world marks Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) 2012, highlighting the real plight of transgenders is important in the push for equal rights for all. And, indeed, much remains to be done to achieve this.

As the first nominee of the only political party for LGBT Filipinos seeking representation in Congress, Ladlad’s Bemz Benedito (topmost photo) sees the need to have laws that must be passed to protect and empower the LGBT community where trans people belong.

In some ways, transgenders in the Philippines may be “relatively better (off) than other transgenders in other countries,” noted Kate Montecarlo Cordova, vice president of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). There are some “developments” worth noting that may be seen to exemplify this. For instance, in the Philippines, transgenders are somehow treated as women by some men when it comes to relationships (though, Cordova admitted, remaining “questionable is the courage of men to come out in the open and declare that their girlfriends are transgenders”). Also, gone are the days when transgenders were only pigeonholed as comedians and entertainers, with Filipino transgenders somewhat able to express themselves more openly in public (though not all reactions are necessarily always positive, Cordova acknowledged).

But Cordova is first to note that “discrimination is (still) everywhere.”

This is why, according to Tam Maguad of Pink Watch, the Filipino LGBT-related hate crime watch, if asked if Filipino transgenders are better off or not than their counterparts overseas, providing an answer is “tricky”. “On one hand, there is ‘tolerance’ for Pinoy LGBTs here in our country; but on the other, we barely (if any) have any legislations that protect us from discrimination and the harmful consequences that arises from it. So to answer the question, transgender people everywhere experience challenges that I’m sure vary from person to person no matter where they are; the same is true for everyone else.”

For Bemz Benedito, first Congressional nominee of Ladlad, the only LGBT political party in the Philippines, “obviously, transgenders overseas are either better off or on the same (boat as us). I mean, there are Western countries that recognize trans people to be who they are, (since they can) amend their identity papers and are given other rights. But there are other countries that don’t recognize and protect their trans citizens, like the Philippines, and this is very sad.”

Benedito added: “Sa atin na lang, sabi ng ilan na masuwerte ay tanggap na naman daw kami. May tanggap bang hindi mo mapalitan ang mga identity papers mo, hindi ka makapagkonsulta sa mga endocrinologists para hindi ka mag-self-medicate at malagay ang buhay mo sa alanganin, hindi makapag-comfort room ng hindi ipinapahiya, hindi ka makakain sa isang restaurant o makapagsaya sa isang bar dahil ‘bawal daw ang cross dresser’, at hindi ka makapagtrabaho dahil hindi naman daw tulad namin ang mga bading na empleyado nila? Ang dami pang problema at kadalasan ang hindi pagtanggap nag-uumpisa sa pamilya, paglabas mo ng tahanan mo, sa eskuwela, sa trabaho, sa mga pribadong mga lugar, at iba pa.”

For Naomi Fontanos of Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas, “the advancement of human rights is generally uneven around the world. I don’t think it can be actually said that transgender people overseas are better off compared to those of us in the Philippines. In the US, for example, transAmericans continue to be vulnerable to workplace discrimination. Not all states recognize transfolks in the gender they identify as in their legal documents. The same is true in Canada. Marriage rights are also still being contested for many transpeople around the world. In ‘First World’ countries that have state gender recognition mechanisms, some aspects of the law may still violate transpeople’s rights. In Sweden, for example, transpeople are forced to undergo sterilization. In Japan, they should not have children before transition. In Hong Kong, a transperson has to carry an ID card that explicitly says he or she has Gender Identity Disorder (GID). Otherwise, other laws are used to persecute transgender communities. In Singapore, which is highly economically progressive and where transpeople can change their identity documents, Section 377 of their penal law inherited from British colonial rule, is used to harass transwomen as going against ‘the order of nature’”.

The challenges are compounded in pre-dominantly Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where “I believe they have more challenges. In Malaysia, a court has just denied the petition of Malaysian transwomen known as mak nyah to put to judicial review Section 66 of their Syariah Criminal code, used to abuse, harass and violate the rights of tranwomen there. In the ASEAN, foreign ministers do not want to protect Southeast Asians from discrimination and unequal treatment based on their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) by refusing to include SOGI in the proposed ASEAN Human Rights Decalration. In Hong Kong, a court also denied the petition of a transwomen to marry her long-time boyfriend. In Uganda, a bill that will impose the death penalty on ‘gay’ people can definitely be used against transgender people as well.”

Kate Montecarlo Cordova, vice president of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP, last photo above): “People should be aware that there’s beauty and strength in the community should they only heed the voice of the transgenders, should they only open their eyes.”

“In all continents of the world, transpeople have their own crosses to bear in terms of state and non-state actors restricting their freedoms and impacting the quality of their lives as human beings and citizens of their countries,” Fontanos said.

And as stressed by Rica Paras, STRAP president, “transgenders globally are experiencing the same struggle – discrimination, limited economic opportunity, human trafficking and sex trade, and most especially staying sane.”

It is because of these continuing challenges that transgenders face that highlights the observance of the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR).


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Founded in 1998 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender graphic designer, columnist, and activist, to memorialize the murder of Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts, TDoR is held every November 20 so that the world – particularly members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community – can mark, thereby bring attention to the continued violence endured by the transgender community; as well as to memorialize those who have been killed as a result of transphobia, or the hatred or fear of transgender and gender non-conforming people. TDoR has evolved from the Web-based project when it was started, into an international day of action observed in over 185 cities throughout more than 20 countries.

The observance of TDoR is relevant as an expression of “solidarity with the global transgender community,” Paras said. “Locally, it is also important to bring the global movement to local awareness because we all share the same struggle.”

For Cordova, “TDoR is important in promoting awareness to the rest of the people of the world how transgenders and other allies in the LGBT community form to fight the oppression that our sisters have suffered and will suffer. People should learn that transgenders are not just the ‘screaming faggots’ that they used to perceived as. People should be aware that there’s beauty and strength in the community should they only heed the voice of the transgenders, should they only open their eyes.”

For Nil Orera Nodalo of TransMan Pilipinas, “observance of such occasions is necessary because a lot of Filipinos do not know what it is to be transgender, and it is very, very important that they are (made) aware of our existence. Celebrating occasions like these will help to make people understand what it is to be transgendered and not to have it confused with other ‘classifications’ of the LGBT population.”

As for Fontanos, the observance of TDoR each year is an important event in the global human rights movement as it brings to the fore the reality of transgender people’s vulnerability to hate violence. “It is important to observe TDOR because ever since it started in 1999, 14 years ago, the number of transpeople who die each year who are remembered during TDoR has steadily increased and not decreased. The prevailing statistics suggest that a transgender person is murdered somewhere in the world every 72 hours. If you look at the number of transpeople killed by hate violence each year, it is very depressing,” she said.

For TransMan Pilipinas’ Nil Nodalo (second from topmost photo), “everyone within the community can basically share whatever it is that they can to help push for equal rights.”

In 2009, there were 124 transpeople in TDoR’s list. In 2010, there were 179 who were killed. In 2011, 221 transpeople were brutally murdered. “This year, the number is even higher, 265. It’s a global genocide of transpeople, if you think about it. Worse is that a hate crime involving a transperson often goes unpunished or unsolved. These numbers and the lack of sympathy from the police and other state authorities are proof of how devalued and inhumanely treated we are in the world. So for me, TDOR is a powerful platform to call the world’s attention to this,” Fontanos added.

While it may be acknowledged that transgenders continue to be among those most discriminated against, and for no apparent reason but their being transgender, data that segregates transgender-related hate crimes remain – in truth – hard to come by, even if hate crimes directed against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, as a whole, have been rising. In the US, for instance, as reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under The Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, LGBT hate-related crimes reached 1,617 in 2008 alone – with the number actually higher than the 1,171 reported LGBT hate-related crimes in 2005. Year-on-year, in fact, an increase in the number of reported cases were noted.

In the Philippines, data from Pink Watch, an LGBT hate crime watch, cited over 140 such cases since 1984, when the first case was noted.

During the earlier launch of TDoR-related “No different”, a photographic campaign helmed by the Bahaghari Center for LGBT Research, Education and Advocacy (Bahaghari Center) with Outrage Magazine, Michael David C. Tan, Bahaghari Center executive director and publishing editor of Outrage Magazine, noted the “other” status that transgenders are compartmentalized into.

“Truly, it is easier to hate us when you don’t see us; when you think you don’t know us. We continue to be cast as ‘others’, so that the discrimination we experience are given justification; this is, at least, the excuse of those who keep claiming that we want ‘special rights’, even if we’re only after equal rights,” Tan was quoted as saying. “We need to confront this imposition of ‘other-ness’. LGBTs are everyday people – medical practitioners, policemen, firemen, lawyers, priests, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, politicians, scientists, educators, actors…”

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The “other-ness”, added Tan, is even more defined in the treatment of TGs. “Simply for being who they are, TGs are refused jobs, expelled from schools, barred from establishments, physically/sexually/mentally abused, and – in worst cases – are at risk to be slain. There are instances when TGs are ridiculed even by other members of the LGBT community.” There is, therefore, a need to “observe TDOR since TG-related hatred continue to be pervasive.”

For Maguad, therefore, “it is of utmost importance that we remember our brothers and sisters who have been unjustly murdered simply because of their gender identity/expression. It also serves as a warning to us, and perhaps hopefully a motivation, to keep on fighting for our rights not simply as trangender people, but people who just happened to be transgender.”


For Benedito, however, while TDoR remains relevant, “I think we should keep more people aware and cognizant of the relevance of TDoOR. Those who are conscious of this important observance are mostly LGBT advocates and active TG advocates. Sana palawigin ang kaganapan na ito na sa pangkalahatan ay maraming mga TG ang pinapatay dahil sa galit at paghuhusga dahil naiiba kami sa pangkaraniwan.”

Benedito stressed: “My point is, if it’s just us who will continue to observe TDoR, then we are not advancing further the consciousness of others toward trans people.”

There are numerous priority issues that need to be faced.

Paras, for instance, laments the absence of a law that legally recognizes (and teaches) that “gender identity is a human right, and we have the capacity to choose which gender we should belong to,” she said. “This will eliminate discrimination in dress codes, refusal of entry in public and private establishments, and ultimately will give transgenders dignified and happy lives.”

For Naomi Fontanos of Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas (topmost photo), “in all continents of the world, transpeople have their own crosses to bear in terms of state and non-state actors restricting their freedoms and impacting the quality of their lives as human beings and citizens of their countries.”

This was seconded by Maguad, who said that “a gender recognition law in the country… comes on top (as a key issue) in my personal opinion. I think the best way to face this issue is to further educate people and more importantly, show people in authority how such a law can protect the welfare of transgender people in the Philippines.”

According to Shane Marie Madrigal, who heads the Traspinay of Antipolo Organization (TAO), transgenders continue to have “so many issues to still face”. For instance, there’s discrimination in employment, with “finding a job proving to be (more challenging that it should be)”. For Madrigal, “we still have to teach people to learn to look not just at the physical appearance of transgenders but their capabilities and personalities.”

For Fontanos, “there is a host of issues that the transcommunity in the Philippines needs to focus on”. These include: the legal status of transgender Filipinos, since “many of us suffer extreme discrimination because our documents do not match our social gender presentation”; victimization by prejudice in their own homes, schools and workplaces; discrimination in public offices and private establishments like banks, malls, gyms, spas, hotels, trains, restaurants, and churches; difficulty in accessing social services; and the need to re-educate medical professionals on treating transgender patients with care and competence.

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“Individually, a transgender Filipino should learn to be strong to face all the hardship in life. Surrounding oneself with people who love you and care about you helps to make life easier for anyone. Transpeople can also come together and collectively agitate for badly needed change in society, which I am glad to see is happening now with so many transgender organizations and informal community networks being formed in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.”

And for Nodalo, “a lot of things that the transgender community needs to focus on include: 1. To be known and be accepted with respect from all; 2. To legalize change of name and gender marker in all public documents; 3. To be free from discrimination; 4. To have a health assistance, especially for those who are on HRT (to avoid DIY transition); and 5. To educate and inform other people for them to understand transgender community.”

Benedito said that the issues are actually “connected to each other. From our basic human rights of recognition of the state, basic rights to health care, education, housing, employment and immigration… Magkakabit-kabit ‘yan na mga isyu na nagiging problema ng lahat ng transgenders. Dahil wala namang gender recognition law na kumikilala sa amin at sumusuporta sa aming mga karapatan kung kaya’t lahat ng basikong karapatan, pangangailangan at oportunidad ay wala at sarado. I am not exaggerating or sensationalizing our case, but it’s the truth.”


Educating is believed to be what’s needed.

“Trans empowerment in the form of education is needed to achieve the social status desired by many. Through education, any transwoman can speak her mind, won’t be afraid to conduct herself in the most comfortable way she wants… can stand for herself against all odds and vicissitudes of life,” Cordova said.

Maguad seconded this, noting how educating the public regarding what it means to be transgender is important, since it is “very much misunderstood by a lot of people. It’s about time we shed light into this misunderstood corner of LGBT issues.”

Cordova also believes that the “media has an important role in shaping the minds of the people. Media can condition the minds of the people and instill the significance of transgenders by showing or exposing the good deeds of transwomen through movies, televisions, magazine, et cetera.” This is why she bemoaned how “media has not exposed the reality about translove life – in the movies and other form of mass media, transgenders (in relationships) are always portrayed as ‘sugar mommies’ (always connected to money) of handsome guys, failing to showcase the other side of reality that there are guys who take transgenders seriously, that there are transgenders who were able to bring out the best in their men. We need more exposure of the good deeds of the transgenders in the community.”

At the end of the day, proactive moves may be what will matter.

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TAO’s Shane Marie Madrigal (last photo above) formed the transgender organization in Antipolo “to help in opening up the minds of people,” she said. This is a way “to show the community that we are not less than other people; and that sooner or later they will have to recognize our existence and consider that we deserve equal rights.”

As the first nominee of the only political party for LGBT Filipinos seeking representation in Congress, Ladlad’s Benedito – for one – sees the need to have laws that must be passed to protect and empower the LGBT community where trans people belong. “Kapag maipasa ang Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB) na matagal ng pangarap nating lahat ay hindi naman siguro masama na magpasa ng gender recognition law upang makapamuhay naman ng malaya at maayos ang mga lalaki at babaeng transgender,” she said.

Pushing for the passage of ADB is one of Ladlad’s intentions if/when it wins seats in the 2013 national elections.

And there then are “small steps”.

TAO’s Madrigal, for instance, formed the transgender organization in Antipolo “to help in opening up the minds of people,” she said. This is a way “to show the community that we are not less than other people; and that sooner or later they will have to recognize our existence and consider that we deserve equal rights.”

For TransMan Pilipinas’ Nodalo, “everyone within the community can basically share whatever it is that they can to help push for equal rights.” As a health professional, Nodalo, for instance, supports and participates in health-related seminars and/or missions that reach out to the community. “By doing this, people can actually see that every transgender is a person who can and will move to uphold their right to protect their health in every way possible without being judged when seeking medical advice.”

Siguro maganda rin na may isang araw na kikilalanin ang estado na Day of Remembrance or TDoR para mas malaman ng nakakararami ang nagaganap sa ating hanay,” Benedito said, though she recognized that even this may be connected with the existence of “mga batas at polisiya upang humakbang ang ating laban sa katuparan.”

Fontanos believes that living openly – and proudly – as a transgender is in itself a form of advocacy. “I will continue being an advocate of sex and gender diverse Filipinos for as long as I can. Currently, I am working to create change in my immediate community. In the greater scheme of things, I vow to live my life openly and proudly as a transgender Filipina; to lend my voice to issues that confront us; to use my talent, skills and knowledge to benefit my community; and to be the best person I can be and achieve many things to show the world that transgender women in the Philippines are not only beautiful but strong, independent and intelligent,” she said.

And then there’s “No different”, part of the earlier “I dare to care about equality”, a photographic campaign calling for everyone to take a more proactive stance in fighting discrimination done by Bahaghari Center as part of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), celebrated every May 17.

As stated by Patrick King Pascual, who – with Deaf transgender rights advocate Disney Aguila – co-coordinates the “No different” campaign: “Fear-mongering against members of our community that highlight our supposed (and ill-conceived) ‘oddities’ is erroneous.”

Call out people who are transphobic, hold trans-friendly campaigns, help draft and then push for policies promoting equal rights for all – these are but some of the steps that can be taken, and must be taken,” said Outrage Magazine’s Tan. “We have to make them see that (LGBTs) are here, and that we’re not going anywhere.”

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Written By

A registered nurse, John Ryan (or call him "Rye") Mendoza hails from Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao (where, no, it isn't always as "bloody", as the mainstream media claims it to be, he noted). He first moved to Metro Manila in 2010 (supposedly just to finish a health social science degree), but fell in love not necessarily with the (err, smoggy) place, but it's hustle and bustle. He now divides his time in Mindanao (where he still serves under-represented Indigenous Peoples), and elsewhere (Metro Manila included) to help push for equal rights for LGBT Filipinos. And, yes, he parties, too (see, activists need not be boring! - Ed).


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