Tuesday, October 28, 2008

From the sacred to the profane to the self: A review of The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela*

Oscar Wilde once observed that “The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” This was exactly my sentiment last Monday, 20 October 2008, after I attended the evening screening of the 10th Cinemanila International Film Festival at the Cineplex, Gateway Mall, at Araneta Center in Cubao, Quezon City. We were there for the Philippine premiere of The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela, or what its Icelandic director Olaf De Fleur calls this 80-minute combination of fact and fiction, a “visiomentary” of a transsexual from Cebu whose dreams of a better life take her from being an internet porn princess to the streets of Paris.

According to De Fleur, a “visiomentary” is a cross between documentary and narrative fiction filmmaking. Apart from this, the movie has no other pretensions. It is not about transsexualism. It is not about the “ladyboy” phenomenon or the highly sexualized version of Asian transgender women. It is not even about what most stories involving transgender characters are about: a coming of age, a reconciliation with and finding of the true self.


Many who have seen the movie have dismissed it. One commentator has already called Raquela “just another third world tranny” and the critics may be right in their skepticism. Raquela’s story, after all, is hardly remarkable by any measure and those who are familiar with the transgender community will readily attest that she is in fact a walking cliché: poor, uneducated, and turns tricks for a living. Tell us something we don’t already know, they say.

And yet there is something about Raquela that compels you to watch her: from her unorthodox looks to her inane thoughts about life to her ridiculously impish voice to her journey to Iceland to work in a fish factory and finally to her Parisian rendezvous with her porn web master. Raquela is the transgender shaman venerated in ancient times that the movie mentions in the beginning. She is also the prostitute walking the streets of Cebu. She is the royalty raised by poor farmers who will come back to reclaim her kingdom in the fairy tale told at the end of the movie. Raquela is also now the person, in front of us, who only wants a “chance to live a better life.” All these elements come together in a heartfelt way to reveal one amazing truth: that she is us.

*The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela has won Best Feature in the Teddy Awards at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, Best International Feature and Showtime Vanguard Award at the New York LGBT Film Festival, and the Jury Prize for its Special Contribution to Contemporary Film Expression at Cinema City.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What's in a Supreme Court decision (Part 4)?

I think that the main reason why Jeff Cagandahan’s petition was granted by the Philippine Supreme Court (SC) is luck. He was lucky to have had that set of judges who decided to be compassionate to his situation and permit him to change his name and sex in his birth certificate. The SC ruling on Dr. Silverio’s case said it all: “[n]o judge or court shall decline to render judgment by reason of the silence, obscurity or insufficiency of the law.”

So that is what exactly happened here. While with Dr. Silverio’s case the SC chose to affirm the “silence, obscurity or insufficiency of the law”, it chose to do the opposite with Cagandahan. The SC went out of its way to try to understand intersex conditions (albeit in a way that left much to be desired: by depending on Wikipedia entries) and ruled in a way that affirmed what legal expert Louis Swartz calls the common sense belief that that “the law should change with the times, be up to date, should be practical and realistic.”
In spite of the fact that the law is silent on both transsexualism and intersex, this did not stop the SC from making a ruling concerning the latter. And in the practical concern of resolving Jeff Cagandahan’s gender, the SC chose to be modern and realistic. Since Cagandahan’s CAH makes him male and since he presents and thinks of himself as one in spite of chromosomal and genital evidence to the contrary, then by all intents and purposes he is male.

Why did the same thing not happen in Dr. Silverio’s/Mely case? Simple. Homophobia and/or transphobia. If you read the SC ruling on Mely, the first thing that will strike you is the fact that it begins with a quote from two creation stories, one from Genesis in the Bible and another from the Martial Law-manufactured Philippine creation myth, The Legend of Malakas (Strong) and Maganda (Beautiful).

The SC could have chosen to understand transsexualism. It is after all a medical condition recognized globally. (And there is a Wikipedia entry on it!) Add to that a ton of case law from all over the world that spotlights the issue. Just two years ago in 2006 even the South Korean Supreme Court allowed a female citizen who transitioned to male to change his gender in his registry. In his decision, ruling Justice Kim Ji-hyung said “If one is clearly recognizable as the opposite sex in both appearance and individual and social life after having sex-change surgery, he or she has the right to pursue dignity, value and happiness as a human and live humanely.”
In Europe, countries like Spain, Poland, Germany Lithuania, Romania, Netherlands, and Ireland grant legal recognition to their transsexual citizens. The UK, for instance, has a Gender Recognition Law in place that recognizes the gender of British transsexuals and their right to legal name and sex changes in documents. In Australia and New Zealand, marriages where one spouse is transsexual are now recognized. In Cuba, sex-reassignment surgery is sanctioned by the State. In some American states and jurisdictions, trans people are protected by gender-identity-and-expression-inclusive laws. In Asia, countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, China, HK and Japan all have trans friendly laws. The SC could have turned to all these to render an objective judgment but it did not.

Partly to blame in what happened is probably Mely’s own legal team. In Part 3, I said that even if Mely’s lawyer informed the court that she did not identify as the gender she was assigned at birth, he did not justify it properly. The main reason why Mely identifies as female is because that is her gender identity. And the reason why her gender identity is directly opposite to her birth-assigned sex is because she has a condition called transsexualism. They could have introduced the discourse of transgenderism/transsexualism into their argumentation but they did not. Instead they skirted the issue and simply attempted to appeal to the court’s sense of humanity. That tack did not serve them well. And in the end, unlike in Cagandahan’s case where the court was properly educated on intersex conditions like CAH, the SC in Mely’s case remained ignorant about transsexualism and its attendant issues and concerns.

So what you have here is a ruling that is clearly influenced by Judeo-Christian bias. If you compare the Cagandhan and Silverio rulings, you will see that in the former the SC uses gender-appropriate pronouns while the same could not be said of the latter. (It is mentioned somewhere as well that perhaps it is the patriarchy at work in the Cagandahan decision: a female wanting to be male is preferable and more laudable than a male wanting to be female.) In the SC ruling against Mely, she is repeatedly referred to as a he and is described as someone whose “female anatomy is all man-made. The body that he inhabits is a male-body in all aspects other than what the physician has supplied.” In denying Mely, the SC in fact touched on the issue of marriage. It said that Philippine law does not allow the marriage of a “man to another man who has undergone sex-reassignment.”
So where does this leave us, transsexual Filipinos? The only way out is through legislation. This is also what the SC said, in fact, in ruling against Mely. A law needs to be passed that will recognize the gender a transsexual person identifies as. Until that time comes, going to the courts may be the wrong thing to do. Besides, this SC ruling on Mely puts all Filipino transsexuals in a precarious legal footing. Just last year, a trans woman’s case was also brought to the CA by the OSG. After reviewing her case, the CA overturned a favorable lower court decision on her petition for a name and sex change in her birth certificate. Clearly, the local courts now cannot serve as the sole venue to clarify our legal status. Thus, the time has come for the transgender and transsexual community to come together and ask our Congress to pass a law that will recognize us, our gender as people and our rights as citizens of this country.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What's in a Supreme Court decision (Part 3)?

One of the major issues we, transsexual people, have to contend with is our legal status. Regardless of where we are in our transition (which I define here as the optional process of changing our gender expression and anatomy through hormones and surgeries), we as a community are in agreement that legal recognition of the gender we identify as and not the one wrongly assigned to us at birth should be available to all. Without a law that recognizes transsexualism as a physical and biological condition, however, many Filipino transsexuals have had no other recourse but to go to the courts for a legal change of name and sex.

Prior to the Supreme Court decisions on Jeff Cagandahan (Republic of the Philippines vs. Jennifer Cagandahan) and Dr. Mely Silverio (Silverio vs. Republic of the Philippines), there has been a substantial number of trans women whose petitions have been granted by local judges all over the Philippines. It is safe to assume that these cases were favored by the courts on the same grounds as Dr. Silverio’s was by the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) that heard her case: equity, the fact that the petitioner has undergone medical procedures resulting in significant bodily changes and the fact that the petitioner identifies as a gender directly opposite to the one assigned at birth.

Unfortunately, the first two reasons proved shaky when put through legal scrutiny as demonstrated in the Silverio case. The SC argued that granting Dr. Silverio’s request would raise public policy questions that equity alone could not justify. Moreover, even if there was no law that disallowed sex-reassignment surgery (SRS), there was also no law that legally recognized it. On these two points, Dr. Silverio’s petition was denied by the SC.

So it was shocking to see the SC rule in favor of Jeff Cagandahan because while the intersex and transgender rights movement agree that intersex conditions and transsexualism greatly differ, our issues do overlap. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Cagandahan and Silverio. Both had biological conditions that invalidated the sex assigned to them at birth. Both were seeking the same judicial relief: a change of name and sex in the birth certificate. Both cases raised quality of life issues. Both were about gender identity.

The SC could have sided with the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) which was questioning the lower court decision that favored Cagandahan’s request, easily taken its cue from the Silverio ruling and denied Cagandahan by citing the same reasons it did in Silverio’s case:
1) there is no law that allows change of first name on the basis of intersex
2) there is also no law that allows change of sex in the birth certificate due to intersex and
3) that equity alone cannot justify a change in a person’s name and sex in the birth certificate

The SC could have also raised the same public policy questions it hoisted against Dr. Silverio but it did not. Instead it ruled in Cagandahan’s favor which for me, more than anything, emphasizes the arbitrariness of the law. In the Silverio ruling, the SC argued that sex as a status is permanent and that sex assignment at birth, based on genital inspection and when not attended by error, is immutable. The Cagandahan decision contradicts this. According to the SC, in Cagandahan’s case gender classification at birth is inconclusive. But the same argument could have been used to favor Dr. Silverio because she was assigned one sex at birth and grew up identifying as another. In fact because of her condition, recognized globally as transsexualism, Dr. Silverio availed of medical procedures to align her identity with her body. She underwent hormone replacement therapy and various gender affirming surgeries which should have been enough to show the court that her genitals were not only mutable her sex assignment at birth was inconclusive. Clearly, Dr. Silverio is living proof that genitalia alone do not determine gender.

In the Silverio decision, the SC defined male and female saying female is “the sex that produces ova and bears young” while male is “the sex that has organs that produces spermatozoa for fertilizing ova”. Cagandahan has internal female reproductive organs. His genitals are ambiguous. It is not known if he produces sperm. Where does he figure then in this SC definition of the sexes? Clearly, this definition is problematic because it is simplistic and unrealistic. There will always be people like Cagandahan and Dr. Silverio who will never fit such a narrow view. Does this mean that they will forever be in legal limbo? Apparently not as shown by the SC when it ruled in favor of Cagandahan. There are actually many other intersex conditions that will challenge the definition of what is male and female in the Silverio case. Cagandahan’s condition known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is just one example. I wonder though if someone intersex came forward and petitioned the court to recognize him/her as not male, nor female but intersex. Would the court have allowed it?

Finally, the SC in the Silverio case reiterated its duty of merely applying and interpreting laws and not creating or amending them. Because no law allows the recognition of the gender a transsexual identifies as, then Dr. Silverio’s sex assignment in her birth certificate cannot be changed. But the same facts apply in the Cagandahan case. There exists no legislation recognizing the gender chosen by people with intersex conditions! What’s more, there is also no law that mentions or even acknowledges their and their condition’s existence. So what gives?

I will try to answer this in the fourth and hopefully final part of this post. For now, I leave you these thoughts to ponder on. Happy weekend everyone!