Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hola, chica! Que tal?

Yesterday was my first class of Basic Spanish at the Instituto Cervantes Manila. A long time ago I made a pact with a friend that every year, as part of a conscious self-improvement program, we'd make sure to learn a new skill or do something outside of our comfort zones, something new or adventurous that will surely enrich us as persons. This is why last year I purposely studied Japanese and took and passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level 3 the same year.

Although I plan to continue studying Japanese in the future, this year I'm setting my eyes on learning this supposedly third most widely-spoken language in the world, next to Mandarin, Hindi or English, depending on who's doing the counting. My first experience with Spanish was with my very strict and stern but loving grandfather on my mother's side who passed away a little less than a decade ago. His name was Restituto Magistrado. But to us kids, we all lovingly called him Apay, a filial term for grandfather in Bicol where I grew up.

I carry Apay's last name of course which is also my mother's maiden name. It means magistrate in English. According to my Spanglish dictionary, Restituto may come from the noun restitucion, which means return or the verb restituir, which means to come back. So my grandfather's name, in English roughly means, the returning magistrate.

It's only now that I realize that my grandfather's name was indeed his destiny. Well, in a roundabout kind of way. Apay was no officer of the court but he was certainly magisterial. He ruled over our extended family household (which included our family, my mother's sister's family, a handful of my mother's other siblings and my grandparents, of course) like a dictator of a little kingdom.

Growing up, we were taught that our grandfather's word was the law. Whatever he said or commanded, we could only dutifully follow. In our household, everybody lived in fear of displeasing Apay. This was because he was also a little heavy-handed. He would slap you, bop you on the head or punch you depending on the severity of the crime you committed in his eyes. Although I witnessed it rarely growing up, still I did see my grandfather hit members of our family who to him were guilty of various infractions. It could be not beating the curfew that he set, not doing what he asked you to do fast enough, answering back, being disrespectful or disobedient, etc. And always always he would curse you in Spanish. He would say "Sin verguenza!" (literally, no shame) or "De puta" (whorish) or "Cabron!" (shameless).

My grandfather was an old-school household disciplinarian and one of the things we feared most in his bag of punishment tricks was the bugtong. Literally, it was THE stick. In fact it was a kind of stick made of very slender bamboo. It was different from a cane because it was slimmer and shorter but it was used for the same purpose: to whip or flog you senseless. We all feared it growing up because it drew blood and made serious welts on the skin that scarred. In my entire life, I saw my grandfather use it only twice, once on my brother and another time on an older male cousin who my father accused of stepping on his freshly made cement.But those two times were enough to instill fear of that stick in me. I never ever wanted to be beaten with it.

Of course I have fonder memories of Apay. I remember how, when I was 5 or 6, he would bring me to school in his bicycle and then pick me up after. He did it five times a week for a year until I became too heavy for him to carry on his bike. I also remember how proud we made him feel during the annual awarding of Honors that our Catholic school held each year before the end of the school year. My older brother and sister, including my cousins, and I all went to the same school and during the awarding ceremonies, our parents would ask our grandfather to be the one to pin our medals instead. My grandfather obviously relished this routine every year because all of us kids did well in school and always bagged all the awards. My grandfather took pride in getting up the stage the most times compared to the other adults present during the ceremony.

Finally, my fondest memory of him was watching him get ready for work, travel, an event or special occasion. This involved him shaving and "prettyfying" himself. It was an art and science all together because the whole ritual required him to start from sharpening his shaving razor to ending in his combing pomade on his hair using a finely-toothed comb. Apay took this ritual very seriously and would usually take an hour or more depending on his mood. What I remember most from this was the music.

Before he began, he would first put on records by the Los Panchos, a world-famous trio. He would then take out his paraphernalia of shaving razor, shaving cream, a brush, pomade, water and comb and start getting ready humming or singing along songs like Besame Mucho or Quizas, Quizas, Quizas. All of us his grand kids used to watch him do this on mid-afternoons when we were home and had nothing else to do. Sometimes when he was in a particularly good mood, he'd grab one of the girls and dance her around the room. He would twirl her around with shaving cream on his face and everybody would squeal and clap in utter delight.

I remember my grandfather now as I look forward to studying Spanish. Although I am not entirely sure if he did speak it, I thank him for bringing it close to my heart.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Growing up in a small town, I realized early on that it was easy to be marked as different and to be made to suffer for it. I was in grade school when I first heard of June (not his real name). He lived in my neighborhood and everybody knew him. Actually, people whispered about him behind his back. His popularity or infamy, depending on which side of the fence you were, was primarily because June was a very loud, flamboyant and effeminate 16 year-old.

The first time I bumped into June in the street, I think, was when I was seven years old. I was stepping out of the gate early morning on my way to school when he suddenly appeared from nowhere in his high school uniform. Our eyes locked, he looked directly into mine, smiled and said in our dialect "Pretty!"

I was terrified, speechless. I didn't know what to say. I think I ran to school that day.

At home, relatives were already making comments about how "soft" I was. Once during a big family reunion, an adult family member remarked about how I acted like a girl. He said that if nothing was done about it I'd probably end up like June. Everyone had a laugh but I never forgot that day because my very embarrassed mother later on grabbed my arm, pulled me aside, slapped my face and shook me telling me to stop bringing shame to the family by acting swishy.

Later that night I cried myself to sleep and wished for God to fix me. I never ever wanted to end up like June.


One summer afternoon, the whole neighborhood was roused from a lazy siesta. We heard shouting and screaming in the street below. From the second floor of our apartment, we all rushed downstairs. Before we, the children, could even step out of the door, my mother blocked our way telling us sternly to stay inside. From inside the house, I saw adults lining the sidewalk, watching helplessly June being beaten to a pulp by his own father in the middle of the street.

I didn't see this myself but would later on put two and two together after seeing June with his small bundle of clothes leaving the neihborhood, badly bruised wearing dark shades. June's family disowned him and asked him to leave even before graduating high school.

That summer afternoon, I sat in the living room terrified by the crying sounds June was making outside. He was begging his father to stop. He was asking the people watching to stop his father. Nobody moved and June's father kept hitting him and screaming about what an embarrassment to their family he was.


The next time I saw June, I was a little older. He had arched brows, longish hair and the same open, easy smile. I think I was in Grade 5 and learned that June just joined and won a beauty pageant, a Miss Gay. I was having a book photocopied at a Xerox place in front of a local university that June was attending.

Behind my back I heard loud banter. I looked. It was June and his college friends. They were joking with each other and laughing very louldy. People were staring at them. From across the street, June caught my eye. Instead of looking away, I smiled at him. He smiled back, waved and mouthed the word, "Pretty!" and winked. Then they left.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Physical, physical...

Last Friday the 13th, of all days, I was scheduled for my annual physical examination (PE). Let me say at the outset that unlike other transwomen I know, I don’t dread routine medical check-ups. Even if I’ve met my share of medical professionals who didn’t know any better, still I am very comfortable in the presence of health care workers. This is probably because I come from a family of nurses who impressed on me growing up the utmost importance of one’s well-being and the merits of getting regular medical exams. So I always look forward to my annual PE and hate it when I miss it.

What I don’t like about it is the general confusion that ensues every time. At the University of the Philippines Health Service (UPHS) (formerly the UP Infirmary), where I went last Friday, you have to ask for your records before a consult and apparently, the UPHS has devised a new color scheme for patients along gender lines: yellow for female and green for male or maybe it’s the other way around, I’m not so sure.

Now for the sake of full disclosure I must say that save for an appendectomy I’ve never had any other surgery. Because of prolonged and regular intake of female hormones, however, I look the way I do in the picture below. So I detest official documents because they clearly do not reflect the person that I am now; and because I have not changed my personal data, my documents still reflect the name my parents gave me and the sex that I was assigned to at birth on which that name is based.


While at the window, the staff on the other side asked me, “Ma’am, are you a student, faculty or employee?” I said, graduate student so she disappeared into the room full of records. When she came back, she had my papers and a knowing look on her face. Thankfully she did not attach my record to a colored folder. I sensed a change in her though and this was confirmed when instead of calling me ma’am she addressed me by my last name and said, “Fontanos? Please proceed to triage.” Okay.

So off I went. The triage nurse was nice enough and just asked me what the PE was for. I said for my regular check-up. So she asked me to go to Room 1 and see the doctor there. The sign at the door said the doctor was out so I waited for a few minutes. Soon the doctor came smelling of cigarette smoke. Perhaps he came from a smoking break. I followed him inside. When I sat in front of him, he asked me what I was there for. I said for my annual PE. He said, “Why did they assign you to me?”

I was bewildered by the question and said I didn’t know. He said, “Can you go back to the triage and ask?” Then he took a look at my record and had a moment of realization. He apologized profusely and said, “Oh my God! Wait, I’m so sorry. I’m so embarrassed!” I told him not to be as there was no need to. It turns out that part of the gender segregation scheme of the UPHS is assigning male patients to male doctors and female patients to female ones. So the kind doctor was confused that a female patient was sent his way. I was oblivious to this and honestly do not mind the gender of my examining physician. Growing up I’ve consulted with all sorts of doctors, male, female, young and old. In fact last year, I had my PE done in a hospital at the Ortigas Central Business District and the doctor was a trans woman! It does not really matter what the gender of my doctor is but apparently it does to some people. Isn’t this a subtle kind of gender discrimination though? Shouldn’t we be teaching people to be comfortable in their own skins dealing with people of any gender and that includes our own personal physicians?

The male doctor and I had a laugh about his confusion. He checked me using his stethoscope and gave me slips of paper for lab tests, dental and X-ray. I went to the dental clinic first where a doctor examined me. It was uneventful and when the dental exam was over she asked me to come back for fillings and a cleaning. I passed by the lab next and gave them a ready stool and urine sample. A nurse there also got a blood sample from me. While doing so she said I had very nice hair and looked cute. I smiled and said thanks. When I told Carl, a guy I’ve known for ages, about this he asked me what was wrong with that picture. Of course there is nothing wrong with getting compliments from other people, it’s just that it seems when complete strangers realize or learn that you’re trans, barriers are simply broken. They act like they’ve known you for ages and tend to ask, albeit unwittingly, all sorts of intrusive questions—something that they will never do in regular conversations with other non-trans men and women. The questions range from the usual, “Are your boobs real?” to the more offensive, “Have you had a sex transplant?” First of all, you never ask a woman if her boobs are real upon first meeting and second of all, there is no such thing as a sex transplant! That medical procedure has not been invented yet. But that’s another story for another time.

That day I felt like I was having a Calpernia Addams moment. Calpernia is a trans activist in the US on whose life the movie Soldier’s Girl is based. After a great tragedy in her life she went on to achieve celebrity status and starred in the first ever US reality dating show featuring a trans woman (ala the Bachelorette) called Trans American Love Story. She has a hilarious video on YouTube called Bad Questions to Ask a Transsexual and I urge you to watch it here. You can also visit her web site here.

After the labs, I proceeded to my last stop for the day, the X-ray unit. I handed the guy at the window there my Form-5. He took it, logged it and asked me “Ma’am where is the patient?” A little chagrinned, I told him that the patient was me. Another round of apologies followed. The guy said, “I’m so sorry Ma’am. I didn’t know.” I said it was okay and then I was asked to proceed inside where the X-ray machine was. There, the Calpernia Addams moment went into full swing. Clued in on me by the guy at records, the X-ray guy said “Hey I know another girl just like you. She had a sex transplant already. Her boy friend is a foreigner. Do you have a boy friend? Is he a foreigner? Have you had a sex transplant?” Arghhh! Onli in da Pilipins!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gay movie titillates

The mind, that is. And the movie that I’m referring to is Jay, last year’s Best Full-length Feature Film at the Cinemalaya, a festival for independent movies. Last weekend I went to SM Megamall to catch an afternoon screening of this digital film and I was not disappointed.

For the record, movie-watching in Manila has become so expensive that really it will take a lot to get me to watch something on the big screen. Nowadays, I will only go see a film if a) it’s something that I really like (which is rare); b) it stars people I like; c) it or a cause related to it is something that I’d like to support; d) it came highly recommended by a credible person; and/or e) it’s free.

Anyway the last movie with a cause I supported was Aurora, another digital indie. Starring Rosanna Roces (who I love by the way,), Aurora is the story of a social worker abducted by Moslem rebels. Deep in the jungle, Aurora was raped by one of her abductors. Because of the rape scene, the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) gave the film a double-X rating thereby making its commercial release impossible. According to the MTRCB, the scene was gratuitous reviving the enduring debate in Philippine Cinema on freedom of expression and the need to regulate it.

The producers, in a campaign for the movie, screened Aurora at the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI) which is immune to MTRCB powers. So I went. As expected, the scene was benign. Would the movie have been the same without the scene? Definitely not. The solution is not to delete the scene but to get rid of the MTRCB altogether. I’ve never believed in censorship and agencies like the MTRCB have no right to tell me what is gratuitous sex or not. I’d like to be the judge of that, thank you very much. But I digress.

Back to Jay. It’s a movie that satisfies 4 out of the 5 criteria I mentioned above. It was obviously not free but it got my interest because critics have been commenting on how intelligent this film is. So I already liked it before even going to see it. As well, I like one of its stars, Coco Martin, a young actor who is being hailed as the King of Indies in the Philippines. He not only acts well he is very easy on the eyes. And of course it is an indie, which is all the more reason to support it.

Jay apparently is the feature-film debut of its writer, producer and director, Francis Pasion. Drawing from his experience working in TV, Pasion creates in Jay a biting commentary on how modern TV with its current obsession with “reality” manipulates the truth for effect.

Jay centers on two Jays, both gay. One is alive and is a TV producer (played by Baron Geisler) while the other is dead, a victim of a brutal murder. The movie chronicles how the former in his pursuit of a TV exclusive shamelessly maneuvers his way into the lives of the loved ones left by the latter. What follows is a satire on media ethics. See it when you can. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

How about some humor on this day of love?

The story below is a little dark but made me laugh. Happy Valentine weekend everyone!

The love story of Ralph and Edna...

Just because someone doesn't love you the way you want them to, doesn't mean they don't love you with all they have.

Ralph and Edna were both patients in a mental hospital. One day while they were walking past the hospital swimming pool, Ralph suddenly jumped into the deep end. He sank to the bottom of the pool and stayed there.

Edna promptly jumped in to save him. She swam to the bottom and pulled him out.

When the Head Nurse Director became aware of Edna's heroic act she immediately ordered her to be discharged from the hospital, as she now considered her to be mentally stable.

When she went to tell Edna the news she said, 'Edna, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you're being discharged, since you were able to rationally respond to a crisis by jumping in and saving the life of the person you love. I have concluded that your act displays sound mindedness."

"The bad news is, Ralph hung himself in the bathroom with his bathrobe belt right after you saved him. I am so sorry, but he's dead.'

Edna replied, 'He didn't hang himself, I put him there to dry. How soon can I go home?'

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Magna Carta of Women passes Senate's third and final reading

On Monday, 18 out of 24 Philippine Senators approved the Magna Carta of Women (Senate Bill or SB 2396) which seeks to empower all Filipinas and protect them against all forms of discrimination. It will still be tweaked in a "bicam" conference involving both upper and lower houses of Congress but it's already a done deal. So come March 8, Filipino women the world over will have more reason to celebrate International Women's Day.

The passage of the Magna Carta, like the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB) that seeks to penalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression and that of the Reproductive Health Bill, which gives parents the right to choose what type of family planning method they want, has been delayed by strong opposition of lobby groups for the Catholic church. Right-wing conservatives have criticized the bill's usage of the term "gender" which they claimed was a cover-up for LGBT rights. Allowing the Magna Carta of Women, according to them, would allow lesbians and gays to marry and even adopt children.

That is hardly the case of course but Catholic lobbyists love making up these straw man arguments against bills that affirm the human rights of people. At the height of the debate on the Reproductive Health Bill, for instance, the right-wingers said the bill would allow abortions when there was a clause in the bill that expressly forbade it. During hearings on the ADB, the same lobby groups showed up saying the bill would allow same-sex marriage when it did not. Both the Reproductive Health Bill and the ADB have been languishing in the lower house for at least the last three Congresses.

I am sure that the women's groups that worked hard for the passage of SB 2396 did their best in arguing their case on the merits of the bill. I just wish though that the bill or its proponents offered a critique of the one thing that got the Catholic lobbyists' goat: gender. I have met many feminists who still believe that gender is merely a social construction with not basis in biology. The experience of many people including those with trans and intersex histories of course refute this and yet many in the women's movement refuse to acknowledge this fact.

Certainly, gender cannot just be purely a matter of culture. Otherwise how do you explain trans people's formation of gender identities opposite to the one they've been socialized into based on their sex assignment at birth? As well, many intersex children with ambiguous sex characteristics, chromosomes and genitalia raised as one gender grow up identifying as the exact opposite. Social constructionism alone will fail to explain such phenomena.

Still the passage of the Magna Carta of Women is a landmark victory for all womankind. And although I am not entirely sure where trans women stand in view of this bill, it is a victory that we must all celebrate.

Outrage Mag features PinayTG

One of our supporters and media partners when we organized the annual Manila Pride March last year was Outrage Magazine, the first and only online publication geared towards the Filipino LGBT market. In its short time of existence, Outrage has attracted a substantial and devoted readership both here and abroad. The first time I read an issue, I thought "What a cool mag!" And this cool mag has an equally cool editor-in-chief, M.D. dela Cruz Tan or Mick, as he is called by everyone.

For their 6th issue, the magazine decided to feature so-called "shakers and movers" in the Pinoy LGBT community. I am one of the ten people they profiled and you can read about that here. So I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mick and all the people behind Outrage whose hard work and devotion make this innovative mag possible. I heart Here's wishing you 60 issues and more!