Today I went to the University of Santo Tomas (UST), one of the oldest universities in the Philippines, to give a Transgender 101 talk to a freshman Nursing class (see pic above). A group of students in the class sent me an invitation saying that they wanted to work on a paper on transgender issues in the Philippines.
I began the session by reminding the class that in the past, during Spanish times, UST was an all-male school. As years went by, UST underwent a “sex change” of sorts when it started taking in female-bodied students. I patterned this short introduction from a personal story by Atty. Kim Coco Iwamoto, a prominent trans activist in the US, who during her time in law school at the University of New Mexico (UNM) faced opposition on her use of the women’s toilet.
Talking about gender in a way that resonates with students always gets their attention. I am always happy when I see them have their own Eureka moments in their seat when they realize the injustice that a binary gender system can wreak. For these students, gender is something that they take for granted every day. It is always good to remind them that such is not the case for many transgender people for whom gender may end up being like a daily cross to bear.
The session was only good for one and a half hours and it was not enough to cover everything. I was only able to break down the key terminology and cut the lecture short to allow the students to ask questions. I was glad when someone asked about the issue of transgender health and how things are in that area for trans people in the Philippines. I told them that transgender health care is non-existent in the country. Ten years after the new millennium, medical practitioners from different fields remain unknowledgeable about the health needs of transgender Filipinos.
I told them about my own discriminatory experience a long time ago before I started hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I wanted to be supervised by an endocrinologist and so went to see one at the Makati Medical Center, supposedly a world-class hospital at the heart of the Makati Central Business District where I was working at that time. The endocrinologist I saw was a middle-aged woman who looked sharp around the edges. At the start, she was quite pleasant. She had me seat in front of her and asked me to tell her my story. So I did. I told her that I wanted to begin HRT and I wanted to consult her on the process. I told her that I had many questions about it and would be glad to hear her expert opinion. She listened to me patiently but after 15 minutes proceeded to tell me with a distinct odium in her voice “I’m sorry but I cannot do what you are asking me to do. It is against my religious beliefs.”
I was flabbergasted when I heard her say this. At that time I was young and naïve. I did not know for sure if doctors could actually refuse a person treatment based on their faith. Because I am normally flexible, I did not pay the issue much mind. I just forgot about it and moved on to the next available doctor. I told the class that now I see that it was a clear case of prejudice at work because doctors are not supposed to judge their patients. They are supposed to provide health services to those who need them most. They are there to ensure the well-being of all regardless of who they are.
I told the class that I hope that when they become professional health care workers themselves that they will not let their own personal biases get the better of them. Transgender people who seek help for their health deserve competent medical care as much as the next person. I told them never to forget an idea usually associated with the Hippocratic oath of doctors which can also apply to them: “First, do no harm.” That is their only mandate as health care professionals, to do good and do no one any harm.
Because health care is in itself expensive, and doctors and nurses are ignorant of transgender issues and hospitals become very intimidating environments for trans people, many of them end up self-medicating which can prove hazardous to their health. I told the class that I hope that they will make sure that in the future, the medical profession becomes a kinder and more compassionate profession as it was originally envisioned. Furthermore, I told them that the main reason why I make time to meet young people and talk to them is because I have faith that they will actually change the world for the better.
This is really the reason why we go out there, why we go to Universities and Colleges all over the Philippines and abroad too when possible. We are not only talking to them about our issues, we are also recruiting them into a global project. That is to recreate a world that will uphold the dignity of all and give everyone an equal chance at life. Every single head in that class was nodding in agreement when I told them this and for me that was enough.
I know that advocating for the human rights of transpeople will be a long battle to win hearts and minds. But I am always hopeful and talking to the young is always a good start. When I was looking at every single fresh face in that classroom today, my heart was filled with hope and ardor. I knew that they understood what exactly I was saying. I love these kids. Their desire to learn about, comprehend and empathize with us is truly humbling and touching.
After my talk, we had a jolly time taking pictures. I particularly relish this group picture that they took below. I guess it says it all.