Monday, July 6, 2009

How a weekend of fun turned into an opportunity for change

by Naomi Fontanos

Me at the pool of the Renaissance Hotel

My good friend Rica Paras and I wanted to have a fun and relaxing 4th of July weekend and were vacillating between going to the beach and staying in the city. Rica, who graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) with honors and has been working for the same multi-national company in the last six years, decided for us to just book ourselves at the Renaissance Hotel in Makati City for a night, to redeem her accumulated points for staying in various Marriott hotels around the globe due to her work. As a Globally Certified IT Consultant working in one of her company’s big accounts, Rica’s job not only requires her to put in long hours but also to travel to her company’s various headquarters around the world training people in sales, product distribution and finance. Every time she is on a business trip, her company books her in a Marriott hotel so she has stayed in Marriott hotels in Frankfurt, Madrid, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, Sydney, Cincinnati and many other cities. Because of this, she has been rewarded a few nights’ stay for free in a Marriott hotel of her choice anywhere in the world.

I, on the other hand, work in education research for one of the constituent Universities of the University of the Philippines (UP) System, where I graduated and now am pursuing my Master’s degree. I got the day off from work and was very excited to spend the whole Friday until Saturday morning with Rica, whose company I really love. Rica is such an enjoyable person to be with. She is funny, laid-back, generous and sweet. From an A-student at Philippine Science High School in Iloilo to the self-supporting college student at ADMU, Rica has struggled long and hard to get where she is now. Yet, her success has only kept her grounded. All throughout her climb up the corporate ladder, Rica has remained a supportive big sister to her younger siblings, a very kind daughter to her parents, and a reliable and loyal friend. Moreover, not only is she a successful professional but also a loving partner to her boyfriend of 5 years. Suffice it to say, Rica’s hard work and personal achievement have benefited and touched many people around her. Even the weekend that we planned for ourselves was in fact an act of Rica’s generosity.

Our stay at the Renaissance Hotel was not only our chance to take time off from the demands of our jobs but also our time to get to know each other more, enjoy each other’s company and bond as friends and sisters. More importantly, our weekend stay at the Renaissance Hotel was Rica’s gift to me. Even if she did not know that my birthday was just a few days ago, she kindly offered for us to use up one of her reward stays in a Marriott hotel. She actually decided for us to check in the Renaissance Hotel in Makati because she has never been there and wanted to enjoy the amenities of a Marriott hotel in her own country for the first time.

Little did we know that our planned weekend of relaxation, sisterly bonding and merriment would be spoiled by the prejudice of some of the hotel’s staff. On July 3, 2009, Friday, at 12 noon, Rica and I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel and properly booked ourselves. After presenting our ID cards and registering at the front desk, we were impressed by the receptionist who with a sincere and warm smile told us “Thank you Ms. Paras and Ms. Fontanos for allowing us to take care of you. Here are your keys and enjoy your stay at the Renaissance Hotel!” We thought it was a good start to a fun-filled weekend.

We excitedly went up to our assigned room on the 9th floor and after settling down and unpacking, Rica offered to doll me up so she could try out her makeup skills on me. While she worked on my face using her makeup kit, we swapped stories about our families, our college days and the latest showbiz gossip. When we were both satisfied with the way I looked, we decided to hit the pool on the 3rd floor where we took a whole album of pictures of me styled and outfitted by Rica herself. We were laughing all the way as both of us pretended to be in an amateur fashion shoot. I was the model while Rica was the stylist, creative director and photographer. After tiring of taking pictures, we took a dip in the pool and stayed there till late in the afternoon talking about our hopes and dreams for the future.

Rica poolside

At around 5 pm, we decided to freshen up. We collected our things and made our way back to our room. On our way out, Rica suggested for us to drop by the sauna in lieu of our plan to go to the gym. It was then that our day started going downhill. We asked the floor receptionist where the sauna was and with a malicious look on her face, she said, “The sauna is that way. Please go straight down the hall to that room” pointing to the room at the end of the narrow corridor. As we crossed the hall and neared the room, we realized that the receptionist pointed us to the MALE shower room.

Perturbed, we both looked back at the receptionist who was then at the other end of the hall, watching us like a guard dog as she stood a few steps away from her station. Rica tersely told her, “We’re women!” after which we went into the FEMALE area and proceeded to the sauna. We were there for about 15-20 minutes when the same receptionist came in. She took an empty basin lying around but before she stepped out, Rica asked if we could have two towels. The receptionist nodded her head, came back with the towels but upon her return, looked at us and said “I’m sorry but what are you?” I was starting to get angry and looked at Rica who told her again “We’re women.” The receptionist said “Ah okay” and giggled as she stepped out of the sauna.

Rica and I were already upset. Around 10 minutes later, we heard a knock. We said “Yes?” and the lady who knocked opened the door. It was another hotel attendant and she said “Good afternoon SIR! I’m sorry but you have to transfer to the male sauna.” To which I replied, “Do not insult us. Do not call us sir! How dare you barge in here and ask us to transfer to the male sauna. Who do you think you are and who do you think we are?” The attendant said, “I’m sorry but it is policy.” Rica retorted, “It is policy? Show me the policy! Don’t you think people will be scandalized more if they see female bodies in the male sauna? You will have to drag us out of here!” The attendant closed the door and we stayed in the sauna. Another 10 minutes passed and the sauna door opened once more. This time, it was the duty manager with a male guard beside her. The male guard peeped in and then the duty manager in the same hostile tone said “I’m sorry SIR, but it is policy that you have to transfer to the other side.” It was my turn to ask and I said “Policy? What policy? Is it written in black and white? Show me that document first!” The duty manager answered, “Well based on your registration, you checked in under MALE names.” I said, “Those are our legal names and we didn’t have a choice on the matter; but they do not determine our gender!” The duty manager replied “But it is policy that if you are male, then you have to use the male area and if you are female, the female area.” Exasperated, Rica just said “Can you just let us finish please?” The male guard rudely barked “Five minutes!” after which he and the duty manager left.

Rica and I took our time. After getting ourselves decent, we stepped out and proceeded to the reception. There the pool attendant, a lady guard, another male guard and the receptionist were on stand-by. Upon seeing us, the receptionist said “I will need your signature to sign out MA’AM” and handed us the forms that we signed on our way in. I took my form, signed it and when I looked up, the pool boy who was looking by said, “I apologize for the inconvenience MA’AM but it is policy.” I said, “Inconvenience? This is an INSULT! Policy? In my book this is DISCRIMINATION!” After signing out, Rica and I both asked to be escorted to the office of the General Manager (GM). The lady guard perhaps misheard us and said the manager was waiting for us downstairs. So we took the elevator going down and stepped out into the lobby. The lady guard accompanying us directed us to take seats near the front desk and wait for the manager who would see us shortly. Rica and I were surprised when it was the same duty manager who sat down with us. I introduced myself and Rica to her politely and immediately told her that we felt insulted and disrespected with what happened earlier. The duty manager said, “I’m sorry but I did not insult you.” Rica said, “But I felt insulted with what you did!” I asked the duty manager, “Tell me, who was harmed by our use of the female sauna?” She just looked at me. I told her, “No one was harmed right? But by asking us to use the male area, do you know that you are actually harming us psychologically?” Then she said, “I am sorry but it is our policy.” Rica then addressed her, “You keep saying that it is policy. We want to see the policy because I have been using other Marriott hotels before all around the world and I have never been treated like this. Only in my own country have I been insulted and disrespected in a Marriott hotel!”

The duty manager addressing Rica said, “Yes, I checked our records. I know that you are our Silver Member. There is actually no written policy but based on the names that you registered under…” Rica cut her short and said, “I am registered as MISS in the records. You can check it for yourself!” The duty manager said, “But they are MALE names…” I cut her short and said “Again, those are our LEGAL names. They do not determine our gender! Besides, do I look male to you?” to which she said, “Well your looks are deceiving.” I could not take it anymore and said, “Tell me, whose needs needed to be satisfied with your insistence for us to transfer to the male sauna? Who needed to be happy to see us embarrassed and humiliated by being asked to transfer to the male sauna? No one right? Because nobody was complaining! Then it is only you who needed to be happy. It was your personal prejudice and bigotry that needed to be satisfied with your insistence that we use the male sauna. Because people like you will stop at nothing to embarrass and humiliate people like us. Because people like you can only feel good about themselves after putting down people like us. Because as far as you are concerned, people like us do not have the education, the money, and the right to be in a hotel like this. So I hope today, you made yourself very happy. I hope today you are very proud of yourself!”

To which the duty manager said, “Yes I am very proud.” I said, “Well then this conversation is finished. We want to see the GM so we can file a formal complaint. We also want to escalate this to the International Customer Service. You are a modern hotel but your attitudes are stuck in the Middle Ages!” Rica and I stood up and went back to the room. That night after dinner, we tried to see the GM but he was already off-duty. Rica and I spoke to the night duty manager Jhun and asked him to make an appointment for us to see the GM at 9 am the next day.

On Saturday morning, July 4, 2009, Rica and I got ready to meet with the GM. At a little over 9 am, we went to see him. Rica recounted to the GM what transpired the previous day. The GM was understanding and apologized outright for what happened. He thought that the situation the day before could have been better handled. Rica told him that all we wanted was to relax for the weekend, use the hotel’s amenities and enjoy ourselves; but instead what happened, happened and now we had to use up what little time was left for us to enjoy the hotel by seeing him just to complain. Rica told the GM that she felt it was important for him to know because as someone who has been using the services of Marriott hotels around the world, not once has she encountered any bad experience except at the Renaissance Hotel and in her own country at that. She added that if the Renaissance Hotel could treat people like us that way, then what’s stopping the hotel staff from mistreating others based on skin color, religion, disability and other petty reasons.

The GM thanked us for coming to see him and personally informing him of what happened. He said that the Renaissance Hotel always aims to make every customer happy and comfortable and that what happened to us went directly against what the whole hospitality industry stood for. He asked us if we wanted to dialogue with the day duty manager. We agreed. He stepped out to fetch her and sat all of us down together. The duty manager started by telling us that what took place the day prior was also very difficult for her; but for whatever it was worth she wanted to extend her apologies to us. Rica told the duty manager that as a manager herself, she knew that there were ways of treating people without disrespecting them. She added that for the weekend, she just wanted me and her to have a great time but it was ruined by the incident at the sauna which Rica felt the duty manager mishandled.

I pointedly told the duty manager that when we travel abroad nothing of this sort ever happens to us. Only in our country do we get treated so inhumanly because of people like her. That is why, in spite of the fact that we love our country very much and think it is a very beautiful country indeed, we feel that we must leave it because no matter how hard we work, no matter what good schools we come from, no matter what we personally achieve, people like her will always make us feel bad about ourselves. Rica told the duty manager and the GM that even if we accepted both of their apologies, we still felt that the proper redress to what occurred the day before was for us to document it and lodge a formal complaint within the Marriott system. Rica asked for the GM’s email address and told him that we will send him our letter the soonest time possible with recommendations on how to handle transgender guests and ensure that the Renaissance Makati City Hotel Manila is able to provide the best quality customer service to all its clients regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Rica left the GM her calling card while the GM gave both of us his.

Rica and I poolside at the Renaissance Hotel

We thanked both the GM and the duty manager for their time and willingness to listen and proceeded to the pool. We only had an hour left at that point to have our morning swim. After enjoying the pool for the last time, Rica and I went back to our room. A few moments later, a fruit basket was delivered to us (see pic below). It was from the duty manager accompanied by a personal letter of apology from her. Rica and I both thought it was unnecessary but still Rica thanked her anyway by telephone.

Fruit tray with manager's apology letter

At 12 noon we left the room with our overnight luggage. Rica and I both went to the front desk to inform them that we were checking out. The duty manager was there again and handed us a gift certificate for two to a free lunch/dinner buffet at the hotel restaurant valid for the next 3 months. We were in a rush to leave because I had a Spanish class to attend at 1 so we just accepted the envelope it came in with and went our way.

All in all it was all’s well that ends well. The Renaissance, as historians have noted, was an important period in the history of the world. It is considered as the transition period that brought the human race from the “darkness” of the Middles Ages into the “light” of Early Modernity. Furthermore, the Renaissance was characterized by a renewal of interest in culture and learning initiated by Humanists, scholars who wanted to understand the world by looking into the past and focusing on the genius and uniqueness of every human person.

We hope that after this incident, the Renaissance Makati City Hotel Manila will begin exemplifying what its name stands for. As part of the global Marriot organization that has made a pledge to social responsibility, community engagement, diversity and inclusion, the Renaissance Hotel is compelled to practice what it preaches. Their commitment to the human rights cause, in particular, behooves them to ensure that their practice of hiring caring employees closely hues to a culture of non-discrimination such that it is crystal clear to every single member of their management and staff that they exist to serve and provide the best brand of hospitality based on the idea that all their clients are equal, deserving of respect and dignified treatment, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.


Monica Roberts said...

It never fails that when you're having a wonderful time (and happy belated birthday, sis) some jerk is going to find a way to mess with your positive vibe.

Glad things did turn out positively for you and Rica

PinayTG said...

You are right Monica. It never fails. Also, transphobia seems to follow Murphy's Law that when it rains it pours. That night, we got bad attitude from the hotel security guards, wait staff at the resto where we ate and a cabbie that passed us by on our way back to the hotel. It's like a transphobic conspiracy. All we wanted was to have fun. :(

Dawn Selya said...


I feel for the two of you. I'm Pinay myself but began my transition when I left the country 10 years ago. It saddens me to read stories like these. I'm glad that I don't have to deal with such discrimination in my adopted country. How can I be a proud Filipino when my countrymen look down on transgendered people like me and you?

Please keep blogging stories like this. It is painful to read them but it's better that we know what is happening than be kept in the dark. Bravo!

And you two look fabulous inspite of the unfortunate incident. That's real grace under pressure.


PinayTG said...

Thanks Dawn! I have visited your site. It is wonderful. Keep telling your stories too.



Leona Lo said...

I'm appalled at how they treated you - I recently used Renaissance Marriot in KL too!!! I'm going to email them in the Philippines to remind them that the news has travelled internationally and we are watching them closely. I would like to discuss with you and Monica how we can press for greater change not just where we are but regionally and globally too. It seems that the three of us are somehow linked not just by our shared status as transgender women - but also our desire to see justice done. If I were there with you and your friend I would have given the duty manager such a tongue lashing she would regret the day she stood on the side of evil. The GM may have sent you a fruit basket, but I'd bet my last dollar that they would inflict the same pain on someone more vulnerable and less outspoken. Perhaps we should petition them to let you run a seminar on gender diversity.

PinayTG said...

Dear Leona,

I agree with you. We did email the GM our grievance letter and he's replied in turn. I hope to publish our exchange here ASAP to tell you what we asked for in out complaint. Thanks for the support as always. Please go ahead with that letter to the GM. I will furnish you his email within the week. :)

Hope you're having a great weekend. :)

Monica Roberts said...

Tell Rika next time she's in Cincinnati give me a heads up.

It's on;y a 90 minute drive from Louisville.