Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"The essence of a person"

Below is an interview of the current Chair of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) Dee Mendoza and her partner Lawrence, published in the Philippine Online Chronicles (POC), a weekly online publication founded by Gaspar Vibal of Vibal Foundation, which advocates freedom of knowledge and information. Dee and Lawrence (shown in the pic below) are quite the charming couple. We joke that they are the mother and father of STRAP and that may very well be so. Dee has been nothing but the perfect Chairwoman of STRAP, taking care of organizational affairs while also making sure that everyone is happy with and in the org. She and Lawrence have been very generous to all of us and have welcomed us to their home countless times for the monthly STRAP support group meeting (SGM). We thank them for their friendship, their support and the love, that they show us, is possible for all.

Dee and Lawrence

by Tinette Panogot

What defines you?

This is a question that has haunted humankind through our long history. Who am I? What makes me who I am? It is a question, however, that many do not ask, content with the definitions that society has already given them. They are males and females, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, belonging to a certain family, a certain clan, a certain community.

But what if a person perceives a clash between what society tells him he should be and what he feels to be his own self-truth? Which one should he follow? What should he believe?

These are the questions faced by the people who to call themselves transgenders. Often confused or identified with homosexuals, transgender people say that in fact, sexuality is irrelevant to what they are. What makes a person a transgender is his/ her own self-perception.

"Transgender" is an umbrella term for those with different gender identities, says Dee of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines. The term encompasses what she calls the "intersex" or those with undefined genitalia, the asexual, the cross-dressers and the transsexuals. "It defines the experience outside heterosexuals, around homosexuals and bisexuals. If you are not... any of those... you are a transgender. It's all encompassing."

The norms of society mandate that there have to be only two genders: male and female. But, Dee's partner Lawrence comments, "[I]t turns out that in reality as people are beginning to accept, there really is more than just two genders. There's more than just male and female, there's a spectrum. Every frequency between. That's what the human mind is like, that's what the human soul is like."

Dee illustrates the difference between transgenders and homosexuals through a simple four-part test. What did the doctor say when you were born? What gender do you feel you belong to? What gender do you present yourself as? What gender are you attracted to? The answer to the first question, she says, determines your gender assigned at birth, the second your gender identity, the third your gender expression, and the fourth your sexual preference or orientation. Being a transgender is gender identity. Being a homosexual is a sexual preference. A person's answers to all four questions may coincide, thus: A person may be born a male, feel like a male, dress as a male, and be attracted to females. Confusion begins when the answers diverge.

A search for self

Adolescence is already a difficult stage; the adolescence of a transgender is even more difficult because socially established answers cannot be made to apply to the situation.

"Before I came across the word transgender-- and mind you I was already in my twenties when I heard of the word transgender--before that growing up there was no other identity I can put myself into but bading, bakla, bayot," Dee says. "And this is reinforced by the media, this is reinforced by the movies that we see and by the jokes that we hear as children. Kapag pinanganak ka na lalaki (If you are born male) and you present yourself as a woman, bakla ka (you are gay)." Although there is no clear etymology of the word "bakla," Dee theorizes that it might come from the words "babae"(female) and "akala" (I thought), literally meaning "I thought (he was) a girl."

Yet the word "bakla" doesn't exactly fit them. It has come to be associated too much with homosexuality, Dee explains. "You could argue that the word 'bakla' could mean the local term for transgender. Babae akala. But it's so tainted right now. It is so owned by the words gay and homosexual that we don't want to use that word for us because right now bakla is a derogatory word." If a man fills a role that is considered female by tradition, such as doing the laundry, or refuses to do acts that are considered badges of manhood, such as fighting, they are derisively dubbed "bakla." Dee herself is not comfortable with the word. "Number one, it's owned by the gay culture; number two, it denotes cowardice; and number three, it means that you're a man," she states.

Hence, the coining of the term "transPinay" from "transgender Pinay." "Our tagline goes like: the other Filipina," says Dee. "We're Filipinas. We're not saying we are the Filipina, we're not taking the crown off the mainstream Filipina. We're just saying we're just behind you, we're just beside you, we're also Filipinas."

Changing mindsets, shifting paradigms

Humanity being what it is, however, it is not that easy to make other people understand the transgender experience. When people have been taught for centuries what things are right and what are wrong, it is not easy to change their minds, Lawrence says. In addition, people also fear being accused of transgenderism or homosexuality when they try to explain or enlighten others.

"What are they afraid of?" he questions. They are not being forced to become transgenders, they are only asked to accept transgenders as fellow human beings. Transgenders are not trying to take away anyone's rights; they only want their own rights to be recognized, he adds. "People will have to accept that there will be some erosion in their rights. They don't have the right to be bigoted and prejudiced... they've lost the right to be racist, to be religious persecutionist. But that's a reasonable right to give up."

The word "transgender" may be new, coined as it was in the mid-1970s, but transgender people have been around for as long as humankind. In India, the hijra have existed for centuries. In the Philippines, the babaylanes, many of them transgender, were serving as the religious and spiritual leaders of their people before the arrival of the Western colonizers. In Native American culture, "two-spirited" people were highly respected and even held to be sacred.

Judeo-Muslim-Christian teachings, however, have led many to believe that deviation from the heterosexual norm is immoral and an abomination. Doctors and scientists classify transsexualism as a medical condition and attempt to "cure" it. Transgenders became stigmatized not only as immoral and unnatural persons, but also as mentally ill persons, a situation that they are endeavoring to correct today. There is nothing to cure, nothing to change about them, they say; although they do not conform to some of society's norms on gender, they are normal human beings and should be accepted as such.

It's like learning a new language, Laurence opines. People have been equating gender with genitalia for a long time, and it is not easy to change mindsets that have already been ingrained by centuries.

"If you spent all that time knowing, absolutely knowing, that someone who was born with a penis is a he, and someone comes along and says 'Actually, no, could you call that person she?' And you think, logically, 'No, how can I? He's got a penis. So it's, she got a penis, but that doesn't make sense! Because only he's got a penis'. So it's all new. You can't learn it just like that," he comments. "If a person has breast cancer and it spreads to her womb so she has a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, does she stop being a woman when she's lost all the major components that make her a woman apparently? So why is a (biological) male also not a woman just because he has genitals of a different variety? It's the difference between what's in your brain and this machine we walk around in."

In the end, it all comes down to freedom of self-expression. Transgenders simply want their feelings and personal wishes to be taken into account. They want to be accepted as fellow human beings, not on the basis of their conformity or non-conformity to the results of the biological accident of conception, but on the basis of the self they have determined.

"Is our genitalia all that we are?" Dee asks. "Is it really what defines our person, is it really what drives us to love? .... The genitalia is just a part of a person. It does not define a person. Gender identity is more important than that, because gender identity is your being. It's who you are."

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