Monday, March 30, 2009

Summer is here!

Last Saturday, March 28, a member of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP),  held one of two farewell parties poolside at the Upper Penthouse of her building in Makati. Dubbed as The Sun-kissed Party, the event was attended by members of STRAP and their guests. It was a very hot day and the girls all came in their summer outfits.


I was glad to see the girls once again, of course. Meeting only once a month, we tend to miss each other a lot. The SGMs really help bring us together so we have a chance to catch up, share stories, strategize our activism, and of course give us space to enjoy each others' company.

Actually we were all together yesterday evening (March 30) to meet BB Gandanghari. BB worked till late Friday night last week so she could not make it to Saturday's SGM. Since she had a small window of opportunity to meet us all last night, we all agreed to see her and have dinner together. It was a lovely evening. We all trooped to a secluded spot in Makati and we had the resto's non-smoking area all to ourselves. Some of us who were meeting BB for the first time were of course enthralled by her.

What can I say? BB is one awesome woman. She was pleasant and very kind. Our dinner extended to drinks and we were with her for almost 6 hours last night. Not once did she say anything ill about anyone. She shared stories about her past and her hopes for the future. She truly is a woman who is well-connected to her humanity. She's a true a class act.

In the mean time, everyone is gearing up for a long holiday during this year's Semana Santa (Holy Week). Being a predominantly Catholic country, the entire Philippines goes on vacation during this time of the Christian Calendar. Holy Week commemorates the death and resurrection of Christ and this year Good Friday falls on April 10. I have already been invited to hie off to a place outside Manila near the beach for this occasion but have not made up my mind yet. For sure I will go to the beach this summer as I am not passing up on this heat. It's the best time to work on my tan and get that golden glow once again. I'm just so excited that summer has come and is really really here!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Liberation, BB Gandanghari-style

Below is an article published in today's (March 27, 2009) edition of Business World, a broad sheet here in the Philippines. You can find the article in the S4 section of the paper. It is also available online via this link.

BB Gandanghari

Liberation, BB Gandanghari-style
By Naomi Fontanos

As advocates for the Filipino lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, we watched in horror and disappointment as well-known members of our community, one after the other, came out on TV and other media disparaging Binibini (BB for short) Gandanghari. When BB Gandanghari first burst out into the scene, we, who make-up the T part of the LGBT community, were excited that at last someone as high-profile as BB had arrived and could potentially bring our issues to the fore and with matching beauty, wit, charm and aplomb at that.

That she was met instead with ridicule, criticism and nastiness only confirmed one thing that we have been contending with for some time now: that the LGBT community needs to do more in terms of educating society in general about equality and respect for diversity particularly in regard to transgender issues. For if those people who passed judgment on BB (and judge they did--from her fashion choices to her gender identity) had an inkling what the T in LGBT were all about, then perhaps they would have thought twice before they said anything in public to castigate her and cast aspersions on her motives for coming out.

The T in LGBT

The word transgender, contrary to popular belief, does not equal transsexual. In fact, it is an umbrella term denoting a wide range of people regardless of sexual orientation. The term was coined in the US in the 70s by Virgina Prince, a cross dresser and long-time advocate for the trans (short for transgender) community there to describe the process of changing her gender without changing her sex. Although in a very broad sense, the term transgender can actually include anyone from effeminate men to masculine-looking women, it is now more narrowly ascribed to people who identify as a gender opposite to the one assigned to them at birth (transsexuals) and those who express their gender in ways that are not traditionally associated with their birth-assigned one (cross-dressers, genderqueers, androgynes, etc.).

While only the term transgender is new, Jamison Green, a leading American transactivist asserts that transpeople have been known to exist in every race, culture and class of people since the beginning of time. According to Dr. Sam Winter , a leading researcher on the transgender phenomena in Asia, the Philippines shares along with other Asian countries such as Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, India, Thailand, China and others a culture of transgender shamanism that dates back to pre-colonial times. As in other ancient cultures, transgender people in these countries were venerated as a third gender, male-variant or female variant as they were thought to posses supernatural powers and thus worked as community healers and priestesses.

Unfortunately, as anthropologist and City University of New York Professor Emeritus Serena Nanda observes, the advent of colonial imperialism and “the imposition of European religions, cultures, law, and economies on non-Western societies, in most cases resulted in the marginalization or disappearance of indigenous alternative sex/gender roles.” The marginalization of transgender people, in fact, is widespread and continues even up to now.

Transphobia: The prime mover of transgender oppression

It is common knowledge within the LGBT community that transfolk make up its most oppressed sector. Because they are transgender, they simply have no rights. Many a transperson also lose personal relationships with loved ones including family and friends who are simply unable to deal with that person’s transgender status.

This anti-trans prejudice/hatred which often leads to violence and discrimination is known as transphobia and exacts a heavy toll on many transpeople’s lives. According to Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in the US: “We have people whose lives are being destroyed, people losing their kids, people being murdered, people committing suicide out of despair, people losing their jobs.” Everywhere in the world, transpeople have been dying at a rate of one per month over the course of the last decade due to transphobic hate crimes. Ever since the International Transgender Day of Remembrance was launched ten years ago in 1998 to honor these senseless killings, more than 400 transgender people have died across the globe.

Thankfully, there is now a growing number of transgender activists in all continents who are starting to fight back, working painstakingly to reduce transprejudice and interrogate its evil twin, transphobia at every possible turn. Along with their allies, these transactivists have been toiling to secure for transpeople the most basic of human rights: equality under the law. A testament to the hard work they do is the growing number of states enshrining civil rights protections for their transgender citizens in countries like Spain, Turkey, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and many others. Today, human rights advocates are calling on the UN to adopt the Yogyakarta Principles, which is an application of international human rights standards not only in relation to sexual orientation but also to gender identity and expression as well.

Rethinking gender, reclaiming lives
One of the major lessons in the struggle for transgender liberation is the need to revolutionize how people think about gender. It has been noted that a key player in people’s transphobia is their understanding or lack thereof of gender itself. The prevailing discourse on gender purports that it is cultural, something that you are socialized into. In other words, if you are born with male genitalia, assigned a male gender at birth and are reared to be male, then you must turn out male. The same goes for those with female genitalia, assigned female at birth and taught female roles. Transpeople clearly negate this formula; but instead of fixing the theory to fit reality, experts have taken to blaming transpeople themselves for being who they are. Confounding the situation are people’s rigid notions of what it means to be a man or woman. As the writer Jennifer Boylan remarks “But gender is malleable and elusive, and we need to become comfortable with this fact, rather than afraid of it.”

And perhaps this is the lesson that BB Gandanghari brings to us. Gender diversity exists and it is high-time to teach our children to be comfortable with difference. More importantly, it is time to teach children that being different does not mean something is wrong with you. It also does not mean you are less of a person.

BB Gandanghari may very well be the face of the hundreds of thousands of transpinays (transgender Filipinas) who are here and exist in the margins of Philippine society. We are happy she is back home and we welcome her. Moreover, we applaud her for asserting her human right to be her true self: a cornerstone principle not only of the sexual liberation movement but as well as of the global transgender revolution, which has now reached these shores.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Not Rape Epidemic

Soon another International Women's Month will close. Before it does, I would like to share with all of you an essay that I first read on my favorite blog Transgriot. The essay, written by Latoya Peterson of Racialicious, appeared on Transgriot as a guest post.

I found the essay both moving and powerful. Moreover, it made me reflect on the kind of sexualization (and the violence that comes with it) that all women have to face all throughout their lives. It also reminded me of what Susan Brownmiller, in her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, observed: "Man's discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe."

Although many have since criticized this observation as simplistic and overly exaggerated, it finds resonance in the essay below. Do read it and tell me what you think.

The Not Rape Epidemic
by Latoya Peterson

Rape is only four letters, one small syllable, and yet it is one of the hardest words to coax from your lips when you need it most.

Entering our teenage years in the sex saturated ’90s, my friends and I knew tons about rape. We knew to always be aware while walking, to hold your keys out as a possible weapon against an attack. We knew that we shouldn’t walk alone at night, and if we absolutely had to, we were to avoid shortcuts, dark paths, or alleyways. We even learned ways to combat date rape, even though none of us were old enough to have friends that drove, or to be invited to parties with alcohol. We memorized the mantras, chanting them like a yogic sutra, crafting our words into a protective charm with which to ward off potential rapists: do not walk alone at night. Put a napkin over your drink at parties. Don’t get into cars with strange men. If someone tries to abduct you, scream loudly and try to attack them because a rapist tries to pick women who are easy targets.

Yes, we learned a lot about rape.

What we were not prepared for was everything else. Rape was something we could identify, an act with a strict definition and two distinct scenarios. Not rape was something else entirely.

Not rape was all those other little things that we experienced everyday and struggled to learn how to deal with those situations. In those days, my ears were filled with secrets that were not my own, the confessions of not rapes experienced by the girls I knew then and the women I know now.

When I was twelve, my best friend at the time had met a guy and lied to him about her age. She told him she was sixteen and she did have the body to back it up. Some “poor hapless” guy sleeping with her accidentally would make complete sense - except for the fact that guy was twenty-five. He eventually slept with her, taking her virginity, even after he figured out how old we were. After all, it’s kind of a dead giveaway if you’re picking your girlfriend up at a middle school.

Another friend of mine friend shocked me one day after a guy (man really) walked past us and she broke down into a sobbing heap where we stood. She confided in me that when she was eleven she had a child, but her mother had forced her to put the child up for adoption. The baby’s father was the guy who had nonchalantly passed her by on the street. We were thirteen at the time, a few weeks shy of entering high school.

Later, I found out that she was at school when she met her future abuser/baby daddy. He was aware she was about eleven - what other age group is enrolled in Middle School? At the time, this guy was about nineteen. He strung her along in this grand relationship fantasy, helping her to cut school as they drove around and had sex in the back of his car. When she got pregnant with his child, he dropped her. However, living in the same area means she would run into him about once a month, normally leading to an outburst of tears or screaming fits on her end and cool indifference (with the occasional “you were just a slut anyway”) from him.

In high school, I had two Asian friends I was fairly close with. We would often end up hanging out after school at the mall with all the other teenagers our age. Occasionally, we would take the bus to the really nice mall in the upper class neighborhood, so we could be broke in style. It was there - in the affluent neighborhood - that my Asian friends dealt with the worst of their harassment. I can remember that each friend, on different occasions, was approached by older white men in their thirties and forties and quizzed about their ethnic backgrounds, ages, and dating status. These men always seemed to slip cards into their hands, asking them to call them later. My friends smiled demurely, always waiting until the man had gone before throwing their number away.

The years kept passing and the stories kept coming.

My ex-boyfriend had a friend who had been dating the same girl for about seven years. I found out the girl was eighteen at the time of their breakup. Eighteen minus seven equals what? The girl was eleven when they began dating while the man involved was nineteen. When the relationship ended, he was twenty-seven. I expressed disgust, and my ex had told me that while everyone else in their friend circle had felt the same way, the girl’s parents were fine with it, even allowing the guy to spend the night at their home. “Besides,” my ex offered nonchalantly, “she had the body of a grown woman at age eleven.”

Not rape came in other many other forms as well. No one escaped - all my friends had some kind of experience with it during their teen years.

Not rape was being pressured into losing your virginity in a swimming pool pump room to keep your older boyfriend happy.

Not rape was waking up in the middle of the night to find a trusted family friend in bed with you - and having nightmares about something that you can’t remember during the daylight hours.

Not rape was having your mother’s boyfriends ask you for sexual favors.

Not rape was feeling the same group of boys grope you between classes, day after day after day.

Not rape was being twelve years old, having a “boyfriend” who was twenty-four and trading sex for free rides, pocket money, Reeboks, and a place to stay when your mother was tripping.

My friends and I confided in each other, swapping stories, sharing out pain, while keeping it all hidden from the adults in our lives. After all, who could we tell? This wasn’t rape - it didn’t fit the definitions. This was Not rape. We should have known better. We were the ones who would take the blame. We would be punished, and no one wanted that. So, these actions went on, aided by a cloak of silence.

For me, Not rape came in the form of a guy from around the neighborhood. I remember that they called him Puffy because he looked like the rapper Sean “Puffy” Combs. He was friends with a guy I was friends with, T. I was home alone on hot summer day when I heard a knock on the patio door. I peeked through the blinds and recognized Puffy, so I opened the door a few inches. He asked if I had seen T around, and I told him no. The conversation continued, the contents so trivial that they are lost to memory.

So, I have no idea why he chose to pause and look me full in the face before saying:

“I can do whatever I want to you.”

My youthful braggadocio got the best of me, so I spat out, “Oh, what the fuck ever,” moving to pull the door closed.

Quick as a cobra, his hand darted past the screen, catching my wrist as I reached for the latch. A bit of tugging quickly turned sinister as I realized he wasn’t playing around.

He pinned me in the doorway, forcing me down to the floor barely inside my apartment. Holding my arm behind my back with one hand as I struggled against him, he calmly, deliberately allowed his free hand to explore my body. He squeezed my still budding breasts, then slipped his hands down my pants, taking his time while feeling up my behind. When he was finished, he let me up, saying again, “I can do whatever I want.” After he finished his cold display of power, he walked away.

After he left, I closed the balcony door, locked it, and put the security bar in the window, even though it was broad daylight.

I felt disgusting and dirty and used. I remember wanting to take a shower, but instead taking a seat on the couch trying to process what had happened and what I could do next.

Fighting him was out, as he had already proved he was stronger than I was. I considered telling some of my guy friends, but I quickly realized I had nothing to tell them. After all, I wasn’t raped, and it would really come to my word against his. As I was the neighborhood newcomer, I was at a disadvantage on that front. Telling my mom was out as well - I’d only get into trouble for opening the door for boys while she was at work.

I gritted my teeth in frustration. There was nothing I could do to him that wouldn’t come back on me worse. So I got up, took my shower, and stayed silent.

A few weeks later, I ran into T and some other guys from the neighborhood while I was walking to the store with one of my friends. T informed us that they were going to hang out in one of the empty apartments in the neighborhood. This was a popular activity in my old neighborhood - some guys would normally find a way to gain entry into one of the vacant apartments or townhouses and then use the place as a clubhouse for a few days.

My friend was game, but I felt myself hesitate. The memory of my Not rape was still fresh in my mind and T was still friends with Puffy. There was also the possibility that Puffy would be there in the apartment, and that was a confrontation I did not want. I refused, and my friend was angry at me for passing up the chance to hang out with the cutest boys in the neighborhood. Since I had never told this particular friend what happened, I shrugged off her anger and made an excuse to head home.

A few days after that meeting, I was on the school bus headed to morning classes. The local news report was on and the announcement that came across the airwaves stunned the normally rowdy bus into silence. The voice on the radio informed us of a brutal rape that occurred in our neighborhood. Due to the savage nature of the crime, all six of the teenage defendants would be tried as adults. The names were read and a collective gasp rose from the bus - T’s name was on that list! Jay, a guy who knew about the friendly flirtation I had going with T, leaned over and joked “Uh-huh - T’s gonna get you!”

I remained silent as my mind was racing. The strongest, most persistent thought rose to the top of my mind - oh my God, that could have been me.

At the time, I didn’t know how right I was.

A few years later, I was a high school junior on top of the world. For the most part, memories of my Not rape had been buried in the back of my mind somewhere. My third year in high school was consumed by two major responsibilities: student government and mock trial.

When I was sixteen, I knew I was destined to be a lawyer and I took advantage of every opportunity that would push me toward that goal. I signed up for mock trial and as part of our responsibilities our trial team was supposed to watch a criminal proceeding in action.

On the day we arrived at the local courthouse, there were three trials on the docket: a traffic case, a murder case, and a rape case. Nixing the traffic case, we trouped into the first courtroom which held the murder trial, only to find that the trial was on hold, pending pre-trial motions. We turned back and went into the courtroom where the rape trial was being held.

Never did it cross my mind that I would walk through the doors to see to picture of my Not rapist, captured in a Polaroid and displayed on a whiteboard with the other five rapists being tried. The prosecution was speaking, so we were quickly caught up on the specifics of the case.

While the rape had occurred in 1997 and most of the defendants - including T - had been convicted in 1998, this was the trial to determine the fate of the last of the six, a man who claimed he had left the scene before any crime had occurred.

Through word of mouth, I had learned that T had been sentenced and he would not be eligible for parole until he was forty-six years old. (I have since learned that T should be released by the end of this year. His victim should be about 21 years of age.) I had also learned that the crime was a gang rape, but knew no other details.

The prosecutor pulled out a picture of the girl the six boys had brutalized. In the first photo she was bright-eyed and neat looking, her dark hair pulled into a high ponytail which complimented her fair skin. She was dressed in athletic casual wear, as if she was on her way to a track meet.

The prosecutor then pulled out a second picture, taken post assault. Her face was a mass of purple and red bruises. One of her eyes was blood red - the attorney informed us that she had received extensive damage to the blood vessels in her eyes. The other eye was swollen shut. Her lips were also bloodied and bruised. He placed the two photographs side by side. From photo to photo, the girl had been rendered unrecognizable.

Quietly laying out the facts, the prosecutor deftly painted a tale of horror. The girl had met T and another boy (my Not rapist? I still didn’t know his government name) on a bus. The boys had convinced her to come with them and they led her to a vacant apartment. Unknown to the girl, there were four other men also hanging out that day. She was forced to give oral sex to some of the men, and then she was beaten, raped, and sodomized. She was found in the apartment unconscious, surrounded by used condoms, semen, and fecal matter.

My blood ran cold as I tried to process what I was hearing.

T was capable of this? The prosecutor was still speaking, and he made mention that there appeared to be one main ringleader with the other five guys going along for the ride. My teammates sat in rapt attention while I tried to figure out how soon we could leave. On one hand, I realized that my Not rapist and T were behind bars already, instead of roaming the streets to do this to someone else.

And yet, a part of me wondered if I should have spoken up. If I had told someone, anyone, could I have prevented this from happening? I regarded the girl’s picture once again. It is pretty rare to see the expression “beaten to a bloody pulp” illustrated in real life. I should have said something, I thought to myself, I should have tried.

My internal monologue was interrupted by the defense attorney taking the floor. He pointed out his client from the photos lining the wall, and calmly explained how his client was present in the apartment, but left before the attack began. He built his case, explaining that his client was generally a good kid, but outnumbered, and that his client opted to leave the area instead of participate in any wrongdoing. He then turned to the jury and said:

"You will also hear that —– wasn’t such a good girl after all. You will hear that she skipped school. You will hear that she smoked marijuana. You will hear that she willingly skipped school to go smoke marijuana with two boys she had just met."

My mouth fell open out of shock. There wasn’t even a question of consent in this case - the damage to the girl’s face attested to that. And yet, here was this defense attorney trying to assassinate the victim’s character. For what? Why was what she was doing that day even relevant in the context of what she experienced?

The defense attorney finished his opening statement and the judge started dispensing instructions to the jury. I forced myself to swallow the bile in my throat. As the judge dismissed the court for a break, I scooted out of the room and took a deep breath of air. My team went for lunch, and I persuaded them not to go back to watch the next part of the trial.

That day in court was the day I fully understood the concept of being raped twice - first during the act and then later during the court proceedings. That was also the day I realized that telling someone about my Not rape would have netted a similar, if not more dismissive response. I had no evidence of the act, no used condom wrapper, no rape kit, no forced penetration.

If the defense attorney was attempting to sow the seeds of doubt in the face of indisputable evidence, what would have happened if I had chosen to speak up?

This is how the Not Rape epidemic spreads - through fear and silence, which become complicit in perpetuating the behaviors described here. Women of all backgrounds are affected by these kinds of acts, regardless of race, ethnicity, or social class. So many of us carry the scars of the past with us into our daily lives. Most of us have pushed these stories to the back of our minds, trying to have some semblance of a normal life that includes romantic and sexual relationships. However, waiting just behind the tongue is story after story of the horrors other women experience and hide deep within the self behind a protective wall of silence.

As I continue to discuss these issues, I continue to be surprised when revealing my story reveals an outpouring of emotion or confession from other women. When I first began discussing my Not Rape and all of the baggage that comes with it, I expected to be blamed or not to be believed.

I never expected that each woman I told would respond with her own story in kind.

I am twenty-four years old now, ten years removed from my Not rape. I still think of the girl who was assaulted and hope that she was still able to have something of a normal life. As I matured, I came to understand more about the situation. As the years passed, my shame turned to anger, and I began learning the tools I could have used to fight back.

At age fourteen, I lacked the words to speak my experience into reality. Without those words, I was rendered silent and impotent, burdened with the knowledge of what did not happen, but unable to free myself by talking about what did happen.

I cannot change the experiences of the past.

But, I can teach these words, so that they may one day be used by a young girl to save herself.

Not rape comes in many forms - it is often known by other names. What happened to me is called a sexual assault. It is not the same as rape, but it is damaging and painful. My friends experienced statutory rape, molest, and coercion.

What happened in the courtroom is a byproduct of rape culture - when what happens to women in marginalized, when beyond a shadow of a doubt still isn’t enough, when your past, manner of dress, grade point average or intoxication level are used to excuse the despicable acts of sexual violence inflicted upon you by another.

Internalized shame is what I experienced, that heavy feeling that it was my fault for allowing the sexual assault to happen. There was a fear that if I spoke up, people would look at me differently, or worse, wouldn’t believe me at all.

Without these words, those experiences feed off each other, perpetuating a culture of silence and allowing these attacks to continue.

With the proper tools, we equip our girls to speak of their truth and to end the silence that is complicit in rape culture.

Teenaged girls need to know that dating an older man will not make them cooler, and that older man cannot rescue them from their parents. Teenaged boys should be able to help as well, trying to keep their friends away from predators. (My male friends did this for me a few times if they were around, coming to my aid of some guy started acting up. For some reason, the simple presence of another man is enough to make these kind of men leave.) Adult men should be cautioned about the effects of the actions and how most of these girls are not of the age of consent. And parents should be made aware that their children are being targeted by predatory men and that they should stay vigilant.

Adults, particularly older women, should take an active interest in the young girls they know. My boyfriend has two younger sisters. One of them recently entered her teenage years. Her body started to develop and she has attracted more male attention. I notice small changes in her - how she looks at the floor a lot more than she used to, or how she seems uncomfortable going anywhere without a group of girlfriends. She still looks like an average teenager but she is often hesitant and uncomfortable, unless she is around her peers. However, I knew her before she developed so quickly. And I notice the change that a year (as well as taking the metro to and from school) starts. I’m fairly certain she’s trying to navigate the minefield of male attention she receives.

After all, I’ve walked that same field as well.

Finally, we need to cast a critical eye on how rape culture is perpetuated on an institutional level. From how hospitals distribute rape kits to keeping tags on questionable verdicts, we must take the lead in telling the criminal justice system that rape apologists and enablers will not be tolerated.

But above all, we must give girls the tools they need to defend themselves against sexual predators.

The small things we can do - paying attention, giving the words they need, instilling the confidence in which to handle these situations and providing a non judgmental ear when a student or teen approaches us with a problem - may be the best, an perhaps only, weapons they have to continue the fight against this epidemic.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Japanese connection

Contrary to popular belief, the relationship between Japan and the Philippines did not begin only during the second World War but, in fact, dates as far back as the 16th century when Japanese immigrants established several Nihonjin-machi (literally Japanese people's towns or Japantowns) in Manila and elsewhere. Soon after, an isolationist policy that lasted for more than 200 hundred years closed off Japan from the rest of the world which also led to the disappearance of these Japantowns. During the turn of the 20th century, huge numbers of Japanese once again began migrating to various parts of the Asia-Pacific in search of greener pastures.

One offshoot of this wave of economic migration was the establishment of a Japanese enclave in Southern Philippines, in Davao, in Mindanao. Also known as Davaokuo, the enclave was a bustling economic hub that attracted many Japanese who wanted to make a killing on the abaca (Manila hemp) trade. Davakuo , according to historians, had its own Japanese restaurants, hotels and a movie theatre. Before the war, an estimated 20,000 Japanese people were living in Davao and put up their own schools, newspapers and Shinto Shrine. Many of these Japanese settlers intermarried with locals as well. Today, very little remains of Davaokuo but the Japanese connection remains strong with the establishment of a school there, Philipinne Nikkei Jin Kai (PNJK) International School, 20% of whose student population is of Japanese descent.

The Davaokuo was only one of the many interesting tidbits regarding Philippine-Japan relations that was mentioned in a lecture I attended last Wednesday at the University of the Philippines Asian Center. Given by Dr. Nobue Suzuki from Chiba University, the lecture traced the complex ties between Japan and the Philippines from before the war up to the present. In the course of her presentation, Nobue Sensei surprisingly made mention of a group of people that I feel have often been neglected when talking about the Japan-Philippines connection: Filipino trans women.

Pageant for Filipino transwomen in Japan

It is common knowledge both in the Philippines and Japan that from the 80s onwards, the Land of the Rising Sun has been home to thousands of transgender Filipinas. The picture above shows transgender Filipino women competing in a beauty pageant in Yokohama. Recruited as singers and dancers, these Filipino transwomen go to Japan on entertainer visa and work in the so-called "water trades" (mizu shobai), in bars, restaurants, and sex joints along with other Filipina japayuki (Literally Japan-bound; a slang term for Filipina entertainers in Japan).

Many of them were displaced when in 2005 under the pressure of the United States, the Japanese government launched a campaign against human trafficking. The policy was used as an excuse to get rid of foreign nationals working in nightclubs. Categorized as "trafficked humans", many of them were laid off and had no other choice but to go back home. Others chose to stay in Japan illegally and risk being deported or worse imprisoned or fined for overstaying.

Because Japan has no comprehensive immigration policy to speak of as pointed out by Nobue Sensei, many migrant workers including transwomen end up powerless in the face of clean-up jobs like the 2005 policy against human trafficking. Many of the transwomen working in the water trades also end up, more often than not, being recruited by clubs and bars that are in fact fronts for organized crime groups in Japan like the Yakuza.

In the last 20 years, I know for a fact that nothing has been done by the Philippine government to protect the rights of Pinay transwomen working in Japan as entertainers. Meanwhile, I have insider information that once again Japanese recruiters are back in the Philippines looking for transgender showgirls. I hope that my Pinay transsisters this time around will start looking out for themselves and not agree to working conditions that will dehumanize them. I also hope that they will start standing up for themselves and demand legitimate recognition as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) who contribute to our foreign-remittance-dependent economy including all the rights and privileges that come with such recognition. I also hope that collectively they will work together to shatter the "bad girl" reputation of the japayuki and raise the status and improve the image of all Filipina women in Japan.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

LGBT sectoral representation in Congress: Too big a dream?

Ang Ladlad

In response to the call of "new politics" in the country, the Party-list Law also known as Republic Act (or RA) 7941 was enacted in 1995. The passage of RA 7941 was in keeping with the Constitutional provision under Article VI, Section 5 that 20% or about 55 of the 250 seats in Congress must be occupied by representatives "elected through a party-list system of registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations.”

The main idea behind the party-list system was to level the political playing field, so to speak, particularly for so-called marginalized and under-represented sectors of society like peasants, women, farmers, fisherfolk, etc. Some form of this system is favored in some European states and elsewhere. With such a system in place, the political process is not left to be dominated by big political parties alone. Unfortunately, the implementing rules of RA 7941 are far from perfect and in the last elections in 2007, opened the law to abuse. The Commission on Election (COMELEC) allowed to run party-list organizations which in fact had ties to the big political parties.

The country is now gearing up for another election year come 2010 and Ang Ladlad, the national organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Filipinos plans to run once more after it was disallowed by the Commission on Election (COMELEC) in 2007 from seeking representation in Congress. In prepartion for the upcoming elections, Rainbow Rights (R-Rights) Project, Inc., a legal and policy think tank composed mainly of lesbian and gay lawyers, invites everyone to a forum on the party-list law this coming Saturday, 21 March 2009, 1-4 pm at the UP Film Insitute (UPFI) Ishmael Bernal Gallery. Entitled, Giving Voice to the Pink Vote, the forum is co-sponsored by Ang Ladlad and the UPFI and is open to all LGBT-identified and LGBT-friendly organizations and individuals who want to learn more about the workings of RA 7941. For inquiries, please call or text the current chair of R-Rights, Atty. Angie Umbac via 0919.354.0808.


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). Photobucket

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:


General Manager
Aruba Restaurant

Dear Sir:


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.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

At last a children's book with a transyouth character


It’s called 10,000 Dresses and is written and illustrated by Marcus Ewert and Rex Ray respectively. I have not read it yet but I know that it has been getting rave reviews. Below is how one site,, describes it:

Every night, Bailey dreams about magical dresses: dresses made of crystals and rainbows, dresses made of flowers, dresses made of windows. . . . Unfortunately, when Bailey's awake, no one wants to hear about these beautiful dreams. Quite the contrary. "You're a BOY!" Mother and Father tell Bailey. "You shouldn’t be thinking about dresses at all." Then Bailey meets Laurel, an older girl who is touched and inspired by Bailey’s imagination and courage. In friendship, the two of them begin making dresses together. And Bailey’s dreams come true!

This gorgeous picture book—a modern fairy tale about becoming the person you feel you are inside—will delight people of all ages.

I already checked local bookstores here and predictably, they don’t have it yet. I hope that 10,000 Dresses gets distributed in the Philippines though for I cannot stress enough the importance of having a book such as this around. It not only affirms the existence of gender diversity in childhood but also gives it a face and voice. Bailey is the youth embodiment of the “gender that dare not speak its name.”

Growing up, people around me always pointed out how different I was from the other boys. I was soft, feminine and preferred “girly” things. They would whisper about me or the way I acted and every time they had a chance would tell me, one way or another, that I must change, must try to conform or there would be consequences. Sometimes I would just shrug these comments off. Sometimes they would really get to me. I lost count of the many times I would hide in my room and cry over the things that people said. One way I learned to cope was by burying myself in books.

We’ve always been a reading family thanks to my college-educated parents. I read my first novel when I was 12 which was itself a culmination of reading various prose and poetry since I learned how to read when I was 6. I’ve never stopped reading from then on. Reading to me started out as a form of therapy, an escape to the world of words. When the real world got too much to bear, I would pick up a book, cuddle up in bed, stay in and read till it was time to get back again to the business of attending school, doing house chores, participating in family activities, etc. But what began as a coping mechanism ended up becoming a pleasurable hobby.

I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Always, however, I would get a feeling that something was missing. In college, a literature teacher who was openly gay hit the nail on the head when he said, “Much of the literature we grew up reading was not meant for an LGBT audience” or something to that effect. And it really made sense!

I never saw someone like me in any of the things I read. In fact the first time I encountered a trans character in a novel was when I read Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series. I was already 19 then I think. When I did, I didn’t think that it was too late though. On the contrary, I thought exactly the same thing when I heard about 10,000 Dresses: “At last!”

It is my wish that this little gem of a book helps parents of gender non-conforming children look at their own kids with kinder, more compassionate eyes. More importantly, I hope that this book will end up in the hands of those same gender non-conforming kids so that they will see themselves, feel right and have hope.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

LGBT people in the Philippine Military? What's new? We've always been there.

Yesterday someone who works for a major TV station (let's call her Lily) called me up regarding the latest, breaking news that some members of the top brass of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are now actually inclined to accept gays and lesbians in the military. Lily, however, was more concerned about terminology. She wanted to know the correct terms that their their News and Current Affairs department should use to report the story in Filipino.

"Shall we use bakla and lesbyana?", she asked. I told her that lesbyana (a direct translation of the word lesbian) was fine but bakla might prove to be more problematic. Firstly, the terms that the general Filipino viewing public are familiar with in referring to the Pinoy LGBT community are bakla and tomboy.

Bakla as a term is traditionally associated with effeminacy, "softness", weakness and sometimes even, cowardice, which fall under the purview of gender. Thus, I have always maintained that bakla was originally meant as a gender term and NOT a sexual orientation term. Currently, however, the term has become "homosexualized" meaning people tend to think that bakla is the indigenous equivalent of homosexuality when it is not; but this has not stopped many non-effeminate Filipino gay men from using the term to identify themselves with. Thus, gender identity and expression continue to be conflated with sexual orienation in the Philippines.

Moreover, contrary to what some people may think, bakla as homosexual invisibilizes transgenderism. And although it could have been, bakla is definitely not the equivalent of transgender. Thus, organizations like the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) have felt the need to coin a term to specifically denote transgender Filipinos. Hence, the launch of the transpinay identity in the 2008 Manila Pride March. Transpinay pertains to transgender (trans for short) Filipina (pinay for short).

The fact still remains, however, that bakla as a term continues to carry stigma such that when someone who is not LGBT calls someone bakla in an obviously unsympathetic manner, the term only serves as a pejorative. Same goes for tomboy. So my answer to the question on what term to use regarding LGBT people in the military was LGBT, of course. Although problematic in itself, LGBT at least holds a certain currency. It is recognized globally to pertain to our community. It is more inclusive as compared to just bakla and tomboy and it is also more diversely representative of us all. Lastly, it came from the community itself. And of course, it can always stand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Bakla/Bayot/Bantut, Tomboy and Transgender to include indigenous identities. That, however, still does not cover everyone in the community (such aspeople who identify as MSM, silahis, third sex, etc.) and thus needs to be reconsidered.

Lily, however said that the army personnel they interviewed only mentioned gays and lesbians. Okay so I said use those terms then. Last night when I saw the news, both English and Filipino broadcasts used the terms gays and lesbians at least over at the concerned TV channel and its subsidiary.

Interestingly, the army officers who spoke on cam were in a consensus that the AFP should not discriminate echoing the current global thinking as regards LGBT people in the military, that qualification and not discrimination should govern the recruitment process--something that is becoming clearer and clearer to many nations recently. Argentina, for example, has just ended its ban on LGBT people following the lead of progressive nations such as Canada, Great Britain, Israel, Sweden and many others.

Sadly, some of the military men interviewed last night still fell back on citing stereotypes suggesting that if gays will be allowed in the military then they should behave, not be loud, should be respectable, etc. This is not good, of course, because it privileges only one kind of being in the world. And so what if a man is effeminate that does not say anything about his sexual orientation, gender identity and most importantly military abilities! Also, if women in the Armed Forces can be mannish why can't the opposite be permitted?

Anyway, I was happy to hear one reporter tell a general that there are, in fact many gays and lesbians in the military. Exactly. As I've always maintained, whether you like it or not, we've actually always been there.

Monday, March 2, 2009

UNEQUAL UNDER THE LAW: Transgender women in the Philippines

In celebration of International Women's Month, the Rainbow Rights Project, a legal and policy think tank composed of LGBT lawyers, in cooperation with the University of the Philippines Paralegal Volunteers Organization (UP PVO), Ang Ladlad Partylist and the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), cordially invites you to a forum on trans rights:


Hope to see you there!