Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is #PressForProgress, a reminder to maintain the momentum of social movements and global activism that are striving for equality. Yet as more and more voices add to the discussion, those in the margins can be pushed even farther out of the conversation, their voices struggling to be heard.
Among the most vulnerable are transgender women, who face a multitude of risks specific to their experiences, from sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE)-based discrimination to sexual harassment and violence.
Many of these risks can be minimized with the proper implementation of laws like an anti-discrimination law and a gender recognition law, yet both see little to no progress at all in the Philippines, where traditional, conservative values still reign, and awareness of SOGIE is scarce.
Then there’s media representation, which perpetuates ideologies and shapes the way we view and think about people. Transgender women have gained a slight increase in representation in both local and international media in recent years, with Caitlyn Jenner and Angie Mead King coming forward to share their journeys. There has also been an uptick in mainstream T.V. shows and movies featuring transgender characters played by transgender actors. And though this is cause for celebration, there’s also concern over the lack of nuance in the type of trans woman welcomed to the screen.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, CNN Philippines Life sheds light on the struggles faced by Filipino transgender women by inviting a few members of the transgender community for a roundtable discussion.
On the panel are academic, activist, and International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA) Global Trans Secretariat co-chair Dr. Mikee Inton, LGBTQ health advocate and Islands of Southeast Asia Network on Male and Transgender Sexual Health (ISEAN) Secretariat Regional Program Manager Raine Cortes, PR director Janlee Dungca, and actress Mimi Juareza. Below are edited excerpts of the discussion.
What is the status of transgender women in the Philippines today?
Janlee Dungca: There has been a huge increase in visibility and representation within and outside the transgender community, but I think it's still very superficial. It’s still on the surface.
What people see now is still very glossy. Figures like Caitlyn Jenner, or locally, Geraldine Roman or Angie King, these are women in positions of privilege. But what most people don't see or aren't aware of are transgender women who lead normal lives. And transgender women have different profiles, have different characters and personalities. Not everyone is like Caitlyn or Geraldine or Angie. So we still need people to know that we differ as much as cisgender people differ in terms of personalities and backgrounds and we're not limited to a certain profile.
Raine Cortes: I cannot say that we're fully accepted or recognized because we do not have laws that are protecting our rights as transgender women. And at a level, we are tolerated because there are no laws that criminalize being transgender people ... Yes, that's true, we're becoming more visible, but in the level of being recognized by the state, there's still a difficulty in challenging that.
Mikee Inton: I want to pick up from where Raine was getting off on law and legislation kasi while there is no law penalizing homosexuality and transgenderism or anything, the law also does not help trans women. The way the law is structured, the way society is structured, it makes it very difficult for trans women to live their lives. To live our lives.
I think I really wanna stress the importance of passing legislation that makes it easier for trans women to exist in society. They have to have access to education, to have access to public spaces, to have opportunities that are afforded to other people. We're not asking for anything special, we're not asking for new laws to be brought up just for us. It's for everyone. We're asking to be treated the same way the law and society treats other people.
Aside from the anti-discrimination law, what are other laws that are important for transgender people?
Mikee Inton: I think primarily, the law that we need is a gender recognition law, aside from anti-discrimination. Because we're going around different countries, and even locally, we're going around with IDs that don't match our identities, with passports that don't match who we are. And sometimes, when you take your driver's license photo, they ask you to tie your hair back, they ask you to remove your eyebrows. And I'm like, “The point of an ID photo is to identify you.” I don't go around with no eyebrows. So you're not gonna recognize me from my photo.
I guess I really want to stress the key importance of a legal gender recognition law that will enable trans people to define who they are on paper. Maraming different kinds of structures ‘yan. There's a lot of models for that. There's the Argentinian model, which is probably the most progressive one, where there is no requirement that you present a psychologist's note saying that you have gender identity disorder, and there's no requirement for surgery. So I think that's the best kind of model. It's a model based on self-identification. I think it's the most empowering form of legal gender recognition.
Raine Cortes: We need to remember that most anti-discrimination ordinances or bills are not specifically protecting people of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE). ...For example, in the Philippines, if we want to target protection for specific key populations such as transgender women, I would really strongly support the passing of a legal gender recognition law. And we have actually neighboring countries as well — Southeast Asia — who already have similar laws.
As mentioned by Mikee, there are different situations and criteria for each of these countries for you to be able to actually change your legal documents into the gender identity that you prefer. But I think regardless of this criteria, I think it's one step [forward] if other countries are already doing it.
Janlee Dungca: I'm not an expert on laws or anything legal, but I think as much as transgender people are fighting for their rights, we also need to educate the public. It needs to be two way. I'm thinking of something that will incorporate an educational system for academic institutions, public institutions, government offices, where their employees are actually aware and educated about SOGIE. We can start with SOGIE. They're well-versed on it, they know how to relate to transgender people, they know how these people feel, and how they identify. Kasi it starts there.
As much as we're fighting for our rights, if other people, especially non-LGBT, non-transgender people, are not educated about transgenderism or the transgender phenomenon, we won’t progress. So I want to push for something that really promotes awareness, education, and understanding. Because that's where acceptance begins.
Mimi Juareza: For me naman, I will just share what happened to me when I went [abroad]. Because I have two passports, isang female atsaka male. Ginamit ko ‘yung male passport ko. ‘Nung nasa immigration ako, dere-deretso ako. Walang humarang sa akin. Tapos, nung umuwi ako ng Pilipinas, bumalik ako ulit. ‘Nung ‘pag balik ko, gamit ko na ‘yung original passport ko kasi natakot ako [kasi] may nahuli. Ibang passport ‘yung ginamit. Kinalbo, kinulong sa Singapore. Tapos ang nangyari, ‘nung ginamit ko na ‘yung totoong passport ko na male passport, saka ako na-hold sa immigration. They held me for how many hours. [Another instance was] when I went to Hong Kong for an international film festival. I had my invitation pero ‘pag dating doon sa immigration, my red carpet was [at] 10 a.m., pero pinalabas nila ako ng 4 p.m. Tapos winala nila ‘yung documents ko, ‘yung invitation. Hindi ko alam kung bakit o anong reason, kung bakit nila ako hinuli even though I have my invitation.
So without these laws, whether you can go to another country or whether you can even go into a restaurant or a club, it depends on the person there at the door or at the gate? So the laws will really help to just formalize everything and make everything much easier and much safer for you.
Janlee Dungca: I think it's important to note that not all transgender women express as feminine. So, yes you [Dr. Mikee, Mimi] mentioned there are discrepancies in how we look in real life and in legal documents, or just in our identification and our expression. There are transgender women who are limited by resources, by rules in school, and in the workplace. So it's not about expression, it's really about identification.
Not all of the people who will be reading this know what it means to be transgender. As you mentioned, transitioning itself is not the be-all-end-all of identifying as a trans person. So could you guys talk about how being a transgender woman begins with the identity?
Raine Cortes: Well, the transgender identity is basically that your current gender identity [does] not match your sex assigned at birth [anymore]. So, for transgender women, it means that you were male sex assigned at birth, and now you live a life, you identify, and you see yourself as a woman.
And we need to debunk the myths of being a transgender woman, that all transgender women need to undergo medical transitioning process. Other people just undergo the social level of transitioning. It's not necessary that you need to look very feminine. That's the stereotype that we need to debunk. That when you hear the word transgender, people think that you are these inappropriate words, being "transformer," or having undergone gender affirming procedures already, that you are a post-op transgender person already. That's the common connotation here in the Philippines, that you have undergone that procedure.
But even though you haven't done any of those medical related procedures, as long as you know that you're a woman and you feel and you think [of] yourself as a woman, that's how you identify yourself, then that makes you as a transgender woman regardless of how your body looks like.
Mimi Juareza: Especially in the Philippines, parang ang dami pa ring taong hindi nakakaalam kung ano ang ibig sabihin ng transgender. Like, may naririnig ako, isang tao, ang gusto nilang ang ibig sabihin ng transgender, isang bakla na nag-pa-opera na.
Mikee Inton: Perhaps the confusion roots from the fact na, in Tagalog kasi, in Filipino, marami tayong terminologies for genderqueerness. Binabae, bakla, bayot, bantot. Tapos in 2002, biglang merong STRAP (Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines) which introduced "transgenderism" and made it more popular. So, this is a two-hour lecture so...
Ano ba talaga ‘yung difference ng bakla at trans? If you wanted to be politically correct about it, sasabihin mo na ‘yung bakla magkaiba sa trans. Kasi these are different universes of thought. The bakla comes from a very specific historical trajectory, from babaylan to bayot to binabae ... to bakla. Transgenderism is pathologized. It comes from psychiatric discourse. Psychology. It's a mental illness. Or it was a mental illness. Certain forms of transgenderism are still considered a mental illness. So ‘yung paglapat nung word na transgender sa bakla, medyo complicated.
If you want to be simplistic about it, pareho lang ‘yan. Ano ba ang trans? ‘Yung utak mo iba sa katawan mo. Ano ba ang bakla? ‘Yung puso mo iba sa katawan mo. So both of them root from a kind of inversion where the internal, whether spiritual or intellectual, mental, is a mismatch with the body. So pareho lang ‘yun eh. ‘Yun nga lang, maraming uri ng trans, marami rin uri ng bakla. At maraming overlaps.
But is it offensive when someone calls you bakla?
Raine Cortes: I think there's a big divide on that. [For some transgender women,] it doesn't matter if they are still being called bakla or gay because that's the culture that [we have] here in the Philippines.
Even I before, when I didn't know what the word transgender was, I knew that I was very feminine, I was very female, but being called as a bakla was okay at the time. Until eventually, I learned about being transgender. So I think it depends on the person. It depends on the transgender person if she feels okay still being called bakla.
Mikee Inton: But that's the thing kasi. Bakla is both a sexual orientation and a gender identity and a gender performance.
When I entered STRAP in 2011, the first thing they told me was "Don't call yourself bakla. You're not bakla. Don't call your sisters bakla. They're not bakla. Bakla is a bad word." But why? Why is bakla a bad word?
Parang, in banning the word bakla, you're simply affirming all the negative connotations of being bakla. And the bakla is good. Let the bakla prevail! UP Babaylan. Quote ‘yun.
So my thing is this. If you're identifying as trans, that's fine. if you're also identifying as bakla, that's also fine. And there's also space to identify as both. I identify as both. I'm trans and I'm also bakla. Bakla is the word that I grew up with. It was hurled at me as an insult, but I made peace with that and I reclaim it and I know that there is power in reclaiming that word.
Janlee Dungca: I think it depends on the context, on who's saying “bakla.” Like, similar with Raine, prior to identifying myself as trans and being aware of the transgender identity, I was also identifying as bakla. So now that I identify as a woman, other people who are not aware of the transgender identity, when they call me bakla, I'm not offended but I don't feel comfortable. I feel more comfortable being called as a woman because I am a woman.
But kunyari, my barkada, they call me bakla, that's okay because we call each other bakla all the time. It depends on the context, it depends on who's saying the term.
But also, I think nga, as I mentioned earlier, it's important to know that expression is not dependent on identity. So, we have different identities but due to, as we mentioned, limitations in our resources, we will not always be able to express parallel to the identity that we have. And that's okay. Maybe not okay, but that's the case. And we have to live by it for now.
So I feel especially bad for transgender women who identify as women but cannot express as women, because they're the most misunderstood. Especially, with kunyari, nanonood ako ng T.V. kasama ‘yung mom ko. She refers to me as a woman, [pero kapag] makakakita siya ng someone sa T.V. [na] hindi siya sure kung bakla or trans, sasabihin niya agad, “Bakla ‘yan. Hindi naman siya mukhang babae.” Sabi ko, “Eh hindi naman ganun. Kailangan mo siyang tanungin para malaman mo kung babae ba siya, kung bakla ba siya, kung lalaki ba siya."
Was it difficult to make that distinction as you were coming to terms with your identity because of how blurred the lines are between being bakla and being a trans woman?
Raine Cortes: I think in my case it was not hard to distinguish between being bakla and being a trans woman. I think it's more of how other people would be using those terms.
If I may add, there's also another relevant issue between trans women who identify as trans and those who identify as women. So there are people who want to be mainstream into the gender binary, that they're only [either] man or woman, and don't necessarily believe that they are women of transgender experience.
Mikee Inton: Ako, I've always been bakla, I've always been trans, I've always kind of wanted to occupy those spaces in between. Like, I don't believe in the gender binary. Even my sexual orientation is not dependent on my kabaklaan. And I've always seen these in between spaces as important in terms of how we kind of try to disentangle the binary. If we're really against gender binary, then you have to make a space for that. For queerness.
And I always make it a point that people know I'm trans. Kasi I'm privileged. I'm passable. Take me out anywhere and I look like a cisgender woman. And that's a privilege. Kasi you don't get harassed, no one kicks me out of the female bathroom. It's a privilege that is not afforded to many other people. But I still make it a point to tell people that I am trans because I don't want to erase that queerness in me. Because that's where I'm coming from. That's where my politics is, that's where my academic work is, that's where my activism is. It's in these spaces of queerness and claiming queerness.
Janlee Dungca: During the early stages of my transition, I used to just identify as a woman. But slowly, as I was transitioning na, as I was getting to know more about the whole transgender experience, I started reclaiming my transgender identity.
Maraming stages ‘yan eh. Na parang, sa una iisipin mo na babae ka kasi nga may binary. Subscribed ka to the binary system of gender. So babae-lalaki lang. But then, for me personally, as I was transitioning, na-realize ko na bakit ko ikakahiya ang pagiging transgender ko kung doon ako nanggaling?
Ngayon, I would say mas may deeper understanding or mas may openness na ‘ko in my part na iba-iba tayo ng experience. Maybe for other transgender people, mas nag-wo-work sa kanila ‘yung binary system. For others hindi. It doesn't make them less.
[To Mikee] You spoke about passing privilege. Is that a big issue in the trans community?
Mikee Inton: Yes! Because you don't get harassed! If you look like a cisgender woman, you walk around, even if you experience the same kind of catcalling that cis women experience, but you don't get kicked out of bathrooms, you don't get kicked out of locker rooms. So yes, it is a privilege.
Raine Cortes: And that privilege actually creates an internal divide within the transgender community itself. That's why there's a stereotype that trans women need to look very feminine.
Janlee Dungca: So nagkakaroon ng hierarchy. Kung ikaw ‘yung pinakamaganda, nasa taas ka. Kapag hindi ka passable, or hindi ka maganda, nasa baba ka.
Mikee Inton: Eh paano ‘pag passable pero hindi ka maganda?
Janlee Dungca: Nagkakaroon ng hierarchy based on how you look on the outside, which is so sad because transgender women have so much more to them.
Raine Cortes: Kasi ‘yung media portrayal din naman, ang minemainstream is ‘yung passable type of transgender women.
Janlee Dungca: So ‘yung understanding of the general community is that you have to be passable in order for you to be called a transgender woman. Like my mom, may sumali ng Ms. Q & A sa “It's Showtime.” [Sabi niya,] “Hindi siya mukhang babae, hindi siya trans.” But we have to make them understand that it's not about looking feminine or expressing as feminine that makes you a transgender person. Again, it's identity.
Mikee Inton: There's also an economic side to this.
Yes, because obviously not all trans women can afford to transition or even take Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).
Mikee Inton: Yeah, in order to pass, you need hormones, you need dresses, you need makeup, you need surgery. There's a lot of things that are at the same time a privilege of passing but also a privilege of economics. Not everyone can afford to look passable.
Raine Cortes: So it's like an issue of instead of being seen as a transgender identity, you are being reduced back to an expression. That you need to express feminine rather than going back to your gender identity and really seeing you as a transgender person.
Janlee Dungca: And it's also dangerous for transgender women [that] because of the concept of passability, most transgender women want to be passable. So, they spend so much time, so much resources on wanting to be and to look passable, or some of them even get depressed because they don’t look passable and they can't do something about it. So it becomes the end-all-and-be-all of being trans. [They might think] “Okay, in order for me to become accepted, to become passable, I must look passable.” But it shouldn't be the case. You should not be passable in order to be understood.
It's definitely very important for media to have representations of different kinds of transgender women. Not just the Caitlyn Jenner type or the Angie Mead King type.
It seems like the idea of passability is also rooted in misogyny, in that women have to look a certain way, they have to subscribe to beauty standards to be accepted by society. And sort of in line with that, have you ever felt alienated in discussions of feminism and discussions among women?
Mikee Inton: Ah! I teach feminism! I think that people need to be most disabused of is the thought that there's only one kind of feminism. That it's just one big thing. It's all women, all together. It's not that. There are many many kinds of feminisms. My brand of feminism is, guess what? Queer feminism. So I look at LGBT people, I look at trans people, I look at queerness not just from a western vantage point, but also from a very local, indigenous vantage point.
Are there certain kinds of feminisms that are exclusive of trans people? Yes. Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). Thankfully, hindi naman siya masyadong uso sa Pilipinas. At least we have that going for us. But that doesn't mean that the wider feminist movements in the Philippines are also accepting of trans women. A lot of them are quite mum about this. So we've kind of had to pull ourselves together and do the work that we want to do ourselves. We kinda have to create our own space within the feminist movement in the Philippines.
Raine Cortes: That's why there's a separate trans movement, not necessarily part of the women's empowerment movement. These are two different movements that are going on ... The feminist groups here in the PH are not against, or I would say exclusionary radical feminists, compared to other feminist groups in other countries.
How can people be of help to the trans community, and how can they be more respectful to transgender women?
Mikee Inton: Stop asking about our private parts!
Mimi Juareza: I want to ask if it's proper to ask somebody if they've ever undergone sexual reassignment?
Mikee Inton: Siguro it's context eh. Kung close, yes.
Mimi Juareza: Kasi in my case, I've never undergone any surgery. Tapos, for example, may artista sa set, tapos ‘pag nalaman nila na may transgender tayong kasama minsan magtatanong sila in front of many people. Para bang ... di ko alam kung ano isasagot ko. Kailangan ba talaga sagutin ito? Importante ba ‘yun? Mas tatanggapin niyo ba ako ‘pag operada ba ako?
Janlee Dungca: ‘Yun dapat maintidihan ng mga tao. For most people, they randomly ask about these things kasi for them they're trivial. But it's not trivial. Do I ask you “How big are your boobs?” when I first meet you? No, diba? So why would you ask me if I've undergone surgery if we've just met? Context! Kung kunyari close tayo na barkada, keri lang.
Mikee Inton: Also pronouns. If you're not sure what pronouns a person uses, just ask!
Raine Cortes: Don't assume. As we said, people express differently. Not just because the person has long hair, is very feminine, that we automatically say "ma'am." Maybe she might not want to be called "ma'am" or "she." So it's just better to ask if you're not sure.
Janlee Dungca: Or refer to the first name. Or use a general term.
Raine Cortes: Remember that gender identity is self-determined. You can never determine it for somebody else. So it's better how he or she would like to self-identify, what his or her sexual orientation is.
Janlee Dungca: Ako, whenever I get asked this question, I say two two-word statements. Number one: don't assume. Because expression is not parallel to identity. So you don't base anything on the appearance. Number two: ask sensitively.