Monday, March 16, 2009
Breaking the trans ceiling
As I mentioned previously, I along with Sass Sasot from the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) was invited to speak in a forum to celebrate International Women's Month. Sponsored by the Rainbow Rights (R-Rights) Project, Inc., a legal and policy think tank composed mainly of lesbian and gay lawyers and the University of the Philippines Paralegal Volunteers Organization (UP PVO), a law students' organization at the State University, the forum happened on March 10 at the UP College of Law and was attended by a sizeable number of people.
I had the privilege of meeting seasoned lawyers there who've been working on the area of gender and the law. One of them, Atty. Rowena "Bing" Guanzon, is an advocate of children's and women's human rights, a litigation lawyer and a pioneer in the field of gender discrimination. I also met Atty. Carol Austria, a well-known feminist lawyer who holds a Senior Lecturer position at the UP College of Law and was the former Executive Director of Women's Legal Education, Advocacy and Defense (WOMENLEAD) Foundation. Both of these extraordinary women flank me, in the middle in black, in the picture above. Atty. Guanzon is the one in white while Atty. Austria is the one in beige. I'm glad to report that both women are our allies. They did not need us to preach to them as they were already converted, so to speak.
The forum started with me giving a Trans 101 talk dealing with basic terminologies and issues. I ended by touching briefly on the two Supreme Court decisions which I have already discussed in this blog earlier. One of those decisions came out in 2007 and involves the denial by the high court of a transwoman's petition to change her name and sex in her birth certificate (Silverio vs. Republic of the Philippines).
The other one came out a year later in 2008 and involves the approval of the petition of a person with an intersex condition for the same remedy: name and sex change in the birth certificate (Republic of the Philippines vs. Jennifer Cagandahan). Although, these two cases were to be the fulcrum of the afternoon's session, Sass, who spoke after me, also discussed other cases of trans discrimination in the Philippines.
Sass made a point that we have been trying to make ever since the high-profile case of Inday Garutay was brought to the community's attention, that sexual orientation and gender identity and expressions cases are different. Inday Garutay is a comedian who has appeared on TV and movies here who in 2006 with her boy friend went to a restaurant for dinner. After placing their order, Inday went to the ladies room. When she came out, the manager was waiting for her outside and told her that people like her were not allowed to use the ladies room and not allowed in the restaurant. Inday brought her case to the activist community which immediately decried it as a clear case of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
First of all, it does not take a genius to see that Inday was not being discriminated for being a man who is sexually and emotionally attracted to other men. In short she was not being discriminated on her sexual orientation. Second of all, she was discriminated against because of her gender expression. Her case was a clear case of trans discrimination and yet the gay and lesbian leaders at that time insisted that Inday was a gay man. If that were the case, then why was she using the women's toilet?
In her talk, Sass pointed out that many cases of discrimination in the Philippines floundered because they were handled as sexual orientation cases and not gender identity and expression ones. In the case of Inday Garutay, for example, the offending restaurant asked the court where Inday brought her case to dismiss Inday's claim of sex-based discrimination. The restaurant had an explicit No Crossdressing policy and its owners said that it applied equally to all men and women. Inday was a man so therefore, the restaurant was right in imposing such policy on her and violated none of Inday's rights when their manager asked her to leave. Because Inday's handlers early on asserted that in fact Inday identified as a gay man, then they could not argue the case on the issue of gender identity and expression: that Inday's wearing of female clothes and use of the female toilet were part of her identity.
Clearly there was a confusion between and conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in Inday's case and this is starkly demonstrated by the sample letter below which Inday's handlers were asking people to send as protest:
SAMPLE LETTER TO ARUBA RESTAURANT
MR. JASPER CHUA
It has come to our attention that your restaurant enforces a dress code that bars cross-dressing or transsexual gay clients. One such client who was barred from your establishment is Ms. Inday Garutay.
I am writing to express my protest over the incident and the existence of such a blatantly discriminatory policy. Such a dress code violates the right to freedom from discrimination and right to freedom of expression of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. These basic human rights are enshrined in our constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
I also wish to inform you that I have decided to boycott your restaurant as long as that policy exists and as long as no public apology is offered to the gay and lesbian community. I will encourage my friends and my family to do the same.
This is what happens when you have a community that has been calling itself LGBT the last 15 years but in fact has no clear understanding of what the B and T parts really mean. There are people in this community who pass themselves off as activists and yet cannot even make the simple disctinction between sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The worst part is that they are the ones who hold key positions, have access to media and insist on speaking for the L G B T community and continue to invisibilize us.
So I am glad that organizations like R-Rights, Inc. are there to help us get the message of trans equality to a wider audience. The world is large indeed and if members of our own community refuse to ally with us, then we cannot do anything about that. Their day of reckoning will come soon and I know that they will be judged harshly.
Everyday women around the world have to deal with the proverbial glass ceiling. Trans people face a similar discriminatory barrier which I want to call the trans ceiling. This trans ceiling is more insidious as it encompasses all spheres of a trans person's life. In the STRAP e-group alone, the stories shared there involve trans women being refused entry to etablishments, being asked not to use public women's toilets, being refused education and employment as women, not being given competent and proper health care, losing family support, being told we are gay men and belittling our self-identification, etc. The list of oppression goes on and on and that includes oppression in our own communities, the trans and the LGBT ones.
Sometimes, we joke, just being alive is an achievement in itself for if the cruelty of the world does not break your spirit then one must be commended for one's tenacity, courage and will to live in a world that will do everything to kill you. Indeed, we have a long way to go before we can even scratch that ceiling. That's why we were very happy to be in the College of Law that day. Sass even remarked that she did not expect a forum such as that one to happen in her lifetime. Sass and I agreed, in one of our conversations, that we must do what we must and when we can, speak personally about our issues because it's the only way we can effect any little change. If a person changes his/her perceptions about trans people when they hear/see/meet us, then that is good enough for us. Moreover, methinks it's a good start in putting a tiny little crack on the damned trans ceiling.