Country report: The Philippines

Sass Rogando-Sasot, TG activist, Philippines

Copyright Sass Rogando- Sasot to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

Author's website

Uploaded 27/8/2002

(Excerpts from a talk delivered at the Transsexual parenting adoption workshop convened by Dr. Stephen Whittle of Press for Change UK during the conference during a conference in Torino, Italy June 5-8, 2002 entitled MARRIAGE, PARTNERSHIP and PARENTING IN THE 21tST CENTURY: The current international situation and new perspectives for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and their families-a comparative approach. Text modified for TG-ASIA website

Introduction

Who are the trans people in the Philippines? What does it mean to be a trans person in the only predominantly Christian and partly Muslim nation in Asia? What kinds of life do we live? Where are we headed?

As a self-identifying and young openly male-to-female transgendered person (transsexual woman), I will try to answer these questions to the best of my knowledge.

And I find no better way of answering these question but with a short anecdote; an incident that my going to speak at a conference in Italy, my being an openly male-to-female transgendered person, and my engaging in transactivism have caused me. This just happened on the 26th of May 2002, a day before my twentieth birthday.

After six months of being away from my family and living quite independently, I returned to our house to get the travel bag - which I was supposed to use as I go here in Italy - that my mother had bought last January when I went back then to get my old passport. Also, I went there to inform her of the purpose of my going to Italy. I brought with me the conference invitation, the programme, some readings about transsexuality, and a letter ending with a wish that she finally accept me for what I am. And I quote from that wish: "I don’t want to be your son, and I couldn’t be a good son to you. I want to be your daughter, and I believe that I will be a better child if you could have just given me a chance to be your daughter…"

When she saw the letterhead of the invitation (which read as the International Gay and Lesbian Law Association and the Center for Research and Comparative Legal Studies on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity), she fumed with regret and anger. We had a lengthy, bitter, and emotional discussion, ranging from what I wanted to do with my life to comparing me to her bakla friends (her meaning here was gay) that she said are unlike me because I cannot command respect, this because I wear make-up and don women’s clothes and present myself as a woman. She also asked me if I could get rich when I attend this conference. I left our house without the travel bag and with these excruciating words I received from her: "If you accept yourself that you’re a transsexual, I don’t. I don’t approve of what you’re doing…you cannot command respect because you don’t even respect yourself…nothing will happen to your life if you will continue being like that…don’t bring shame to your family!"

 

Just like the first time I told her that I am a transsexual and I need to be a girl (I was eighteen years old then) she still refused to accept me.

My story is a microcosm of the situation of trans people in the Philippines.

An attempt to define "transsexual"

In the Philippines, the Western terms "transgender" and "transsexual" are not frequently used. The local terms bakla, tomboy, and the Western terms gay and lesbian are the ones commonly used.

The Tagalog term bakla is generally used by contemporary Filipino society to label men who show manifestations of femininity such as cross-dressing (including identifying as the opposite sex), and/or who erotically-romantically desire their same sex. It is also used to label those men who do things that are perceived by society as "unmanly/not-macho", including cowardice, or who fail to do things that are "manly / macho". On the other hand, tomboy, though not an original Tagalog term, is generally used to label women who show manifestations of masculinity (including identifying as the opposite sex), and/or who erotically-romantically desire their same sex. Also, the two terms have been considered by society-at-large to be synonymous with homosexual (bakla=gay, tomboy=lesbian). Bakla and tomboy are also popularly used in the Philippines to mean the "Third Sex".

"Gender identity" and "sexual orientation/preference" are very much conflated in the bakla/tomboy dynamics. For an average person in the Philippines (including most people who are labeled as bakla and tomboy), to desire the same sex/gender may also mean the desire to be the opposite sex/gender and vice versa. That’s why transgenders and transsexuals are clustered together as either gay or lesbian by Philippine society – to the average person a transsexual is a gay man who has undergone a "sex transplant". Transsexual also has been popularly used also to refer to those who already had gone through the entire sex reassignment procedure.

Moreover, a gay academic in my country wrote in his book, "transsexual is still more of a psychological label than anything else. Nonetheless, transsexualism can only be useful in the context of the eventual sex reassignment of the invert [emphasis mine], who is now also (or rather, has come to be) a transsexual." (Garcia, 1996, p79). He goes on: "these forms [referring to ‘transsexual surgical operations’] of psychic polyvalencies and sexual self-refashionings are to be hoped for, if the largely metaphysical…oppression [emphasis mine] by heterosexually constituted desire of Philippine gays should at last and finally be cast off." (op.cit.p339).

Throughout this paper, I will guiltlessly use the terms transgendered/transsexual/trans as used in the West. There is simply no local term in the Philippines (as far as I know) that is equivalent to these terms wherein one’s gender identity and/or gender expression do not dictate one’s sexual orientation and vice versa.

I have used "trans" here as the umbrella term to refer to those people whose gender expression and/or gender identity is not congruent to the traditional gender expression and/or gender identity associated by contemporary society to their genitalia.

Transsexual is used here to refer to those people whose gender identity is not congruent that traditionally associated with their genitalia, whether they are pre-operative or post-operative. The term transgendered is used interchangeably with transsexual in this paper. Bakla is used here to refer here to male-to-female (M2F) without referring to homosexuality and tomboy is used here to refer female-to-males (FTM) without referring to lesbianism.

From microcosm to macrocosm

Trans people in the Philippines are very visible, especially male-to-female ones (mostly pre-operative, though some have modified their bodies through hormone in-take). You can see them almost everywhere. Female-to-males are less noticeable, maybe because they can easily pass or because "women" in the Philippines have greater space for gender expression compared to men.

Beauty pageants for male-to-female people are a cultural obsession in the Philippines. In fact, two national television station giants in the Philippines had M2F beauty contests in their noon-time variety show. As I revised this paper, I saw a new noon-time variety show pageant with FTMs as their contestants. It was entitled Chickboy! Also, M2Fs are most of the time being used as comic relief in television shows.

At first look, because of their visibility, it may seem that trans people in the Philippines are more tolerated than their Western counterparts. Nevertheless, this tolerance is eclipsed by prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization – not to mention the aggravation of these three by their class status. Also, the legal status of trans people (especially transsexual people whether they are pre-op or post-op) is still in legal limbo.

As "machismo" is very dominant in the Philippines, it is common to see male-to-female trans people being harassed (either sexually or verbally), and being ridiculed on a daily basis while walking in the street. To be read as bakla or tomboy in the Philippines, is tantamount to being vulnerable to harassment and ridicule. Even in television shows, male-to-female trans people are often used as comic relief. Some trans people are also barred from entering some establishments such as bars and restaurants.

Most don’t finish school because of conflicts between their gender expression and most schools’ strict enforcement to gender norms. I had a personal experience with this kind of discrimination. When I tried to enroll in the college department of my school where I finished my secondary education, I was not allowed even to take up the entrance exam. As I have mentioned, I was an openly transgendered person even in school. The admission officer told me that they were not concerned about who I might want to go to bed with but they were concerned about my gender expression (since it is an exclusive Catholic school for boys).

Generally, unemployment rate in the Philippines is very high. And in the case of trans people their being trans is an added impediment in getting good paying jobs. Either we are underemployed or not employed at all. Most male-to-female transgendered individuals support themselves and their families by being "entertainers" in Japan – known colloquially in bakla communities as "Japaneras". Some find refuge in being a fashion designer, working in salons, being a stand-up comedian in sing-along (videoke) bars, or working in show business. Even those who do finish college and get a degree find the act of acquiring a professional job a problematic one. This causes some M2F’s to think that their being transgendered is such an impediment that they should start complying with gender norms. Relatively speaking, since Philippine society allows a greater space for women regarding gender expression, FTMs have an easier way of acquiring a job (hiring a "woman" with short hair and wearing pants is different from hiring a "man" with long hair and wearing a skirt). Nevertheless, since being an FTM is strongly linked with being a lesbian/homosexual the risk is still very high, for our society is strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian-Islamic doctrine in regards to dealing with homosexuality. Also, the class status of the person and the openness of their family largely contribute to the nature and kind of job that they can have.

As mentioned earlier, the contemporary view about trans people in the Philippines is that they are just homosexuals who cross-dress, and/or change their sex. Because of this, the prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization that they encounter stems from their assumed homosexuality, and that they are violating gender norms. Not to mention the aggravation of this as contributed by their class status.

There is still no law in the Philippines making the discrimination against LGBT people unlawful. But, there is a bill filed by Representative Loretta Ann Rosales entitled "An Act Prohibiting Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity And Providing Penalties Therefore (House Bill 2784) which has already passed the committee level of the Congress last December 5, 2001.

The medical and legal situation: from hormones to marriage

Male-to-female transgendered people have access to hormones but their intake is mostly not medically supervised for it is very easy to obtain hormones in the Philippines. Hormones can be bought in most drugstores without any doctor’s prescription. Mostly, M2F’s buy birth control pills. I have no idea if hormones that FTM’s use can be easily bought.

Sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) is available in the country. There are two doctors who are currently practising SRS. Luckily, I got to find who they are and have personally interviewed them. The first doctor does not want me to disclose his name (he threatened to sue me if I did), so let’s just call him "Dr. A" ; his clinic is in a hospital in Mandaluyong City. The other one is Dr. Jaime Jorge MD whose clinic is in a hospital in Manila (the hospital is just next to the street where I grew up!).

Dr. A was trained in John Hopkins University while Dr. Jorge was trained by Professor Atman(?) in Singapore. Since 1987, Dr. A has performed fifty-eight (58) sex reassignment surgeries of different nationalities (fifty-seven male-to-female and one female-to-male). Dr. Jorge has already performed more than 90 male-to-female SRS, since 1989. Dr. A’s treatment regimen consists of unanimous diagnosis that the patient is ‘transsexual’ from three (3) psychologists while Dr. Jorge needs only two.

When I asked them how much does this surgery costs, Dr. A refused to give his price. Dr. Jorge estimates his price at around 300,000 Philippines pesos.

Other transsexuals go to other countries in order to have the surgery. Mainly, they go to Thailand and Japan.

As for the legality of sex-reassignment in my country, these two doctors told me that there was an attempt in the early 90’s in Philippine Congress to make it illegal but the issue just died down.

When I asked the two doctors how many of their patients (Filipino patients) have had a successful legal change of sex, Dr. A told me that he had testified in court for 1/3 of his 58 patients and in all of these cases it was granted. Dr. Jorge had two patients who had a successful legal change of sex.

There is an absence of legislation in this area. While there is no law prohibiting a change in a post-op trans person’s birth certificate, there is also none (nor even a bill) to allow it. What we have instead are court decisions granting a "Petition for Change of Status" to post-op transsexuals (mainly all the cases I have heard are male-to-female cases), authorizing that their stated sex be changed accordingly in the records of the civil registrar. But, these are just decisions from the Regional Trial Court (RTC), no cases have been brought up yet to the Supreme Court. Also, this proceeding is very expensive and given the economic situation of trans people in the Philippines, this is such a burden besides the sex-reassignment surgery itself.

These little successes have been deemed insignificant by a decision on January 11, 2001 dismissing the first ever known case involving a trans person filed in the Philippines Commission on Human Rights. As has been reported in the appeal cases of the website of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), a complaint was filed by Gay Movement for Human Rights in the Philippines (GAHUM-Philippines) on behalf of a transgendered woman who was barred on two separate occasion from entering a dance club in Cebu City (the second city of the Philippines) for wearing women’s clothes and sandals (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission).

Commenting on this decision on 29 July 2001, the Regional Director of the Commission on Human Rights in Cebu (where the case has been filed), Attorney Alejandro Alonzo, was quoted in newspapers as saying: "They [gays] should wear proper attire, and I don’t think [Club Royale’s policy is] a violation because customers should follow the house rules. There should be appropriate attire because they are governed by dress code." He added: "If you’re a man, you should wear the apparel of a man or vice versa. Unless the court will [meaning:grant] the change of status to a particular gay just what happened in Metro Manila." (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission).

As for marriage, there was an attempt, by a Senator and a Congressman, to bar marriages of transsexual people in the Philippines and to prevent recognition of such marriages that might occur outside the Philippines (including, in the bill filed by the Senator, gay marriages). The Senator who filed the bill in the mid-90’s has already died. The Congressman filed his own version of the bill last year (primarily targeting transsexual people’s marriages) but no progress has happened yet. His bill seeks to amend the Family Code of the Philippines: limiting marriages to "natural born" men and women only and also to nullify marriages that have occurred between transsexuals and their partners.

Until today, whether a transsexual person who has legally changed her/his sex in the birth certificate can legally marry in the Philippines is still a dubious matter. Theoretically, she/he can marry but no test case has been heard yet. Marriages that involve Filipino transsexuals often occur in other countries where such marriage is permitted.

Moreover, it is very important to note that same-sex marriages are not yet permitted in the Philippines.There is a bill being filed by Representative Bellaflor Angara-Castillo popularly known as the Lesbian and Gay Rights Act (LAGRA) which allows domestic partnership for same-sex couples. But I am quite pessimistic whether same-sex marriages can be legally recognized in the Philippines. Given the weight of Judeo-Christian-Islamic morality in my country, this is such a hard stuff. We don’t even have divorce yet in the Philippines and the women’s movement is struggling very hard for recognition of reproductive rights.

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank the following people: Dr. Stephen Whittle of Press for Change UK, Ging Cristobal of Lesbian Advocates of the Philippines, Ms. Tonette Lopez of Gay Movement for Human Rights (GAHUM-Philippines), Ms. Jessica Umanos-Soto of Amnesty International-Philippines, Amnesty International-Philippines, Lorna Israel of Women and Gender Institute at Miriam College, Dale Adriano and Reggie Sato, Remjie Doronila, Jamison Green, Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network (LAGABLAB) Philippines, Jing Augusto, and Mely Silverio.

References

Garcia, J.N.C. (1996). Philippine gay culture: the last thrity years. Quezon city: University of the Philippines.

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Action Alert for August 9, 2001:Commission and Court Send Mixed Messages on Transgender Rights. IGLHRC website: http://www.iglhrc.org/world/se_asia/Philippines2001Aug.html

 

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