“I never asked to be placed on a pedestal.”
So said Hon. Geraldine B. Roman, the representative in the Lower House/House of Representatives of the 1st District of Bataan; though she is more often just summed up as “the first transgender person to win a seat in Congress in the Philippines”.
For Roman, this is important to stress particularly considering the flak she received after she voted to re-impose the death penalty in the Philippines (Roman was one of the 217 lawmakers who voted for the final approval of House Bill 4727); and after her detractors erroneously claimed that she also voted to defund the Commission on Human Rights (she didn’t; Roman was actually not in Congress during the voting).
“(People) have to deal with us politicians on an issue to issue basis,” Roman said. “I tell people that no hero is 100% right, and no villain is 100% wrong.”
SPEAKING FROM THE HEART
Born in 1967, Roman was the second of four children born into a political family, to Herminia Roman and Antonino Roman Jr. Spending her early childhood in Orani, Bataan, she eventually completed her primary and secondary education in Ateneo de Manila University. She attended the University of the Philippines for college; and then – after securing a scholarship – she pursued journalism at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, attaining two master’s degrees.
Though she worked in Spain as a senior editor for the Spanish News Agency, Roman returned to the Philippines in 2012 to take care of her then ailing father.
In 2016, Roman ran for the position of 1st District Representative for Bataan in the House of Representatives under the former ruling party, Liberal Party. She aimed to replace the then congresswoman Herminia Roman, her mother. Roman handily won with more than 62% of votes, thereby becoming the first ever transgender congresswoman in Philippine Congress.
Even while running for office, “I never looked at myself as a trans candidate; just an ordinary candidate, the daughter of a former congressman and former congresswoman from my district,” Roman said, adding that “that was basically how I looked at my victory.”
But later on, Roman noted that people were focusing on her being trans, and “to see me as the first transgender person to win a seat in Congress.” With people claiming her as “theirs”, it proved to be a challenge.
“That’s why from the very start, even in my first interviews, I always made it a point to stress the fact that I am first and foremost a representative of the first district of Bataan because the people (there) were the ones who placed me where I am (now),” Roman said.
However, “by extension, of course, I can’t deny the fact that I am a member of the LGBT community.” So Roman decided to “take it upon myself to fight for the rights of the LGBT community.”
As soon as she assumed her post, Roman filed her version of the anti-discrimination bill (ADB).
Roman also gave an impassioned speech in Congress, where she stressed that LGBT people are not asking for special rights, but are only asking for equal rights, since, “with inclusiveness and diversity, our nation has so much to gain.” She stressed then that she “can’t turn my back at the group of people who have long suffered discrimination, and have long been denied adequate legal protection. How can I turn a blind eye to the suffering that I myself experienced in my own life?”
PUSHING FOR LGBTQ EQUALITY
The first ADB was filed in the 11th Congress by Akbayan Party-List Representative Etta Rosales (this is now the 17th Congress); and almost 20 years have passed since that first bill was passed. The ADB only gained traction in the 12th Congress, when it was approved on third and final reading (though no version was made in the Senate); and in 2006, during the 13th Congress, when the ADB reached second reading.
In the current Congress, there are actually two “versions” of the ADB – one is a “comprehensive” ADB, which lumps LGBT people with other minority sectors (e.g. persons with disability, seniors, persons living with HIV, indigenous people, et cetera) and the SOGIE-specific ADB, which focuses on penalizing discrimination against people based on their SOGIE. The latter version is the bill that was passed.
For Roman, there really is “no difference in terms of the essence, the wisdom behind the bill”, even if some tweaking was done – e.g. addition of Q for queer people.
The focus on SOGIE equality was “to send a message to society that it is time to recognize the fact that there are Filipinos who just happen to be members of the LGBT community.”
Roman recalled how – up to the last minute – she had to lobby for support for the bill. For instance, she personally wrote to her peers to tell them that if they can hold her in esteem as their equal, surely they can extend the same courtesy to other LGBT people; and if they could, “would you be a co-author of the bill?”
The SOGIE Equality Bill got the nod of 197 Representatives, with none opposing it.
The Senate version continues to be challenged, so Roman said that “I plan to lobby (for the same) there.”
ELEPHANTS IN THE ROOM
Though she used to be from LP, Roman eventually moved to PDP-Laban, the party of Pres. Rodrigo Roa Duterte. This – on top of her vote on death penalty – ruffled many feathers.
But Roman said that “first and foremost, my decisions will be conditioned by the fact that I am the representative of the first district of Bataan. And the interest and welfare of my constituents will always be prioritized.” Particularly on her decision to vote on the death penalty, “it was based on my belief that as a representative of the first district of Bataan, I have to give them voice in Congress. And 85% of my constituents wanted the death penalty. So much against my personal beliefs, I voted in favor (of it). I view my position as a representative as something that is not about me. It’s about the people I represent.”
With Roman bashed and called – among others – a “disappointment”, just another “trapo (traditional politician)”, and so on, she said that “it isn’t fair because you can’t just judge a person based on a single issue. All of us, we are multi-issue people. You could not find a perfect person. We have to manage our expectations. We work in an imperfect system, and we have to deal with certain realities. We just try to navigate (our way) in trying to do some good.”
Roman added: “The treatment I got is a form of bullying. But you know what? I’m used to being bullied. And I usually survive. Because I know deep inside, I am not an evil person. I have my limitations, but all in all, I am not an evil person.”
UNIFYING THE LGBT COMMUNITY
In many ways, Roman is new to the LGBT advocacy in the Philippines, perhaps magnified when she was “claimed” as a “representative” of the LGBT community after she won a seat in Congress. But her stint already showed her how divided the LGBT community, which “saddens me.”
“The LGBT community is just a sector within Philippine society. If you study the Philippine society as a whole, you’d find that we are diverse, we have different opinions, we have different beliefs, we have certain ways of doing things… But if you start thinking of yourself as the exclusive holder of absolute truth, then I think you’re headed in the wrong direction. Because with that kind of pride and hubris, you won’t be able to listen to the opinions of others,” Roman said. “Maybe other people have something to contribute to your own idea. Maybe in the first place you weren’t that correct, that right to begin with. Maybe if you have a little bit of humility, you will understand why people think differently.”
For Roman, it is important for the LGBT community, which calls for the need to respect diversity, to respect differences.
“Aren’t we – as members of the LGBT community – also victims of people who see themselves as holders of the absolute truth? Haven’t we been judged by the same kind of people, and by the same kind of thinking? So I ask: If you have this holier-than-thou attitude, what makes you different from the people who condemn and judge those from the LGBT community?”
And so for Roman, for the LGBT community to survive and even thrive, “we should be humble enough to listen to others and respect diversity of opinion. It doesn’t mean that because a person doesn’t agree with you, he/she is the son/daughter of the devil,” Roman said. “And I say no one – not a political party, not a militant group and not any organization – can claim that it is the sole and exclusive holder of the absolute truth.”