What made you become an activist for the human rights of LGBTI people?
I fell into activism quite by accident. I was in my early 20s and taking a class on gender studies when my friends told me about STRAP – the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines. I went to an LGBT bazaar carnival that my friend had helped organize and saw that STRAP had a booth. I took fliers and briefly chatted with some of the girls – turns out a few of them came from the same high school as me, and it seemed quite like an unlikely reunion. I came to my first STRAP meeting in June 2011, where I met several other transwomen – an important step for me, personally, because while I had always been surrounded and supported by my gay friends, I had never had much contact with other transwomen. Being at that meeting was a liberating experience for me – knowing that my experiences as a trans* person were shared by others, and that there was a group where I could come and be myself.
With my STRAP sisters, we were exploring the concepts of the SOGIE framework and working on ways to localize these universalized ideas. While working with Transgender Europe on the Transrespect vs. Transphobia project, I slowly began to realize the importance of learning about your rights as a trans* person, and in dialoguing with governments and policy-makers to open up spaces for trans* acceptance in various contexts.
I was already teaching university level classes at that time, so my interest in STRAP as site for advocacy was, at first, very academic. I always tried, as much as I could, to incorporate issues of gender in my classes, as a way of at least getting the discourses of gender out to the students (many of whom would not have been able to take classes on gender because of restrictions in their curriculum). I was always interested in identity politics and social movements, as well as queer representations in the media. In 2014, when I was invited to the ILGA World Conference in Mexico as a resource speaker on colonization and sexphobia, I learned that a new Trans* Secretariat was being elected. The former head of the secretariat, Tamara Adrian, had called a caucus of the different trans* groups, and we had agreed that the next secretariat would come from Asia. I was happy to put STRAP forward to be considered for the position, and the caucus had agreed: that’s how I ended up on the ILGA World Board.
Quoting from a STRAP statement: “Much as most of you perceive this country to be LGBTI friendly, I think the more appropriate is LGBTI fiendly”. What barriers do LGBTI people still face in the Philippines? Is the prejudice against gender non-conforming people still strong in the country, even if the traditional culture was full of figures (asogs, bantuts, babaylanes etc) whose gender expressions defied a restrictive sense of the gender binary?
This is a very complicated question. We at STRAP have always said that visibility is not acceptance, but mere tolerance at most. In the Philippines, while we do have a very rich history of gender-crossing and gender-fluidity, we also have over three hundred years of Spanish Catholic rule (1526 to 1898) and roughly fifty years of rapid “modernization” under the United States (1898 to 1946).
The Catholic Friars tried to root out non-normative genders and sexualities through their moral missals; and when the US reformed the education system and introduced psychiatry, the gender nonconformists were pathologized. So basically the bakla (an umbrella term for gender non-normative people who were assigned male at birth) has become doubly oppressed: on one hand, you have religious conservatism saying that the core of our very being is immoral, and on the other hand you have doctors and psychiatrists telling us that our genders/sexual orientations are abnormal.
But it is not just those two things: there is also a very strong class aspect to this kind of oppression especially in urban, globalized places. While our Babaylan ancestors were treated with respect and performed essential ritualistic functions in pre-colonial societies, which were taken over by Catholic priests during the Spanish era, the contemporary bakla has become relegated to the relatively lower class beauty industries (as beauticians, couturiers, etc.). In fact, many urban gay men don’t like calling themselves bakla because of its associations with both effeminacy and the lower classes, in the same way that many transwomen prefer being called transpinay rather than bakla because the term can be used as a pejorative. So one of the things that I try to do in STRAP is to reclaim the bakla. My rallying call has always been, “The bakla is good. Let the bakla prevail.”
You are co-chair of STRAP, an organization that describes itself as “the pioneer transgender rights advocacy and support organization in the Philippines”. What kind of work are you doing on a local level? And what issues, in your opinion, should be addressed most urgently?
STRAP is primarily a support group for transwomen. When it was founded in 2002, it was originally meant as a group for all trans* people, but since our membership then included only transwomen, the founders decided to focus the group on them. In 2008 STRAP also coined the term transpinay, a combination of the prefix ‘trans’ and the colloquial word for Filipina, to localize the transgender identity. Many of the subsequent trans* groups (TransMan Pilipinas, for example) have begun to adopt this term.
We got into advocacy work when we started working with TGEU on the Transrespect vs. Transphobia project. We have also begun dealing with issues of HIV and PLHIV, as a few of our officers have undergone specific trainings as Peer Educators. We have also been very active with issues of Trans* Health, both physical and mental well-being, and we have been doing lectures on the SOGIE Framework and Transgender Issues - which we call a SOGIE 101 and a Trans*101, respectively - for people in various communities, schools, institutions and even the Philippine National Police. We have also been organizing and participating in global events that focus on trans* issues, like the IDAHOT and the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
The most pressing issue right now, in terms of LGBTIQ advocacy in the Philippines, is the lack of a comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law. Two bills have been submitted to the House of Representatives, and they have been languishing in Congress for about sixteen years now. We have had very little support from politicians, and we have faced strong opposition from religious conservatives. While there are a handful of city ordinances that protect against discrimination based on SOGIE principles, we at STRAP believe that a national law is necessary to protect LGBTQI Filipinos in both urban and rural areas.
STRAP is also representing the ILGA Trans Secretariat: what would you like to achieve during your term, both on a global and a regional level? How will your commitment evolve?
As the Trans* Secretariat we work very closely with Zhan Chiam, ILGA’s Gender Identity and Expression officer, and we are organizing the regional conferences, especially the upcoming ILGA Asia one.
We have a two-fold goal for the Secretariat – the first of which is to strengthen the regional trans* caucuses and provide easier means for trans* activists to come together and share not only their personal experiences, but also the ways through which they have navigated their own complex and context-specific political situations.
Our second project for the Secretariat is a Trans* Terminologies Project, which we have been working on with various groups from around the world. It is basically a collection of terms used to refer to trans* or gender-variant people in different parts of the world, with a short write-up explaining the history of the terms and whether or not trans* people use them to refer to themselves or whether the terms are too oppressive to be reclaimed. This started with an initiative from Helen Kennedy and Ruth Baldacchino, the Co-Secretaries General of ILGA, who are working on a primer for journalists that orients them on which specific terms they may want to use in writing about queer people in the news.
Being an academic, I thought I would push that idea forward and create a space for trans* people to talk about their local terminologies and how these words are used in their specific cultural contexts, in the hope of finding possible similarities or differences in how different languages create the trans* concept and identity.
Aside from activism, you are also a researcher interested in discourses on LGBTI people and cinema. How is our community represented in movies and TV shows in South East Asia? And, on a more global level: do you feel the high media visibility of people like – say - Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox can help raise awareness on trans people’s human rights issues?
One of the things that interested me most, when I was starting my research on queer people in South East Asian Cinema, is how incredibly similar we are – the kathoey, the bakla, the mak nyah, the waria. Films across the region tend to portray our identities using similar narrative tropes, and I thought it would be incredibly interesting to look at points of convergence and divergence in terms of filmic representation. A question that has always been lingering in my mind is: why are our local identities/terms so similar? Across diverse cultures and histories of colonization and the influx of modernization and globalization, our identities remain relatively the same. The terminologies we use to refer to ourselves may have expanded, but I believe there is a common thread that continues to run through our queer identities to this day.
As a person who studies the media, I know how important visibility can be. But I also think that representation automatically entails exclusion – this is why I believe that we have to go beyond visibility and examine more closely the kind of representations that we have in the media. I think Caitlyn and Laverne are great, but we also have to acknowledge that not all trans* persons share their experiences: as westerners, they enjoy a great deal of privilege that is not shared by trans* people in contemporary post-colonial contexts. I think it is something that has to be acknowledged and thought of more deeply.
Also, I believe that we can’t expect all trans* people to be activists, or to be politically engaged. Celebrities may get the discourse of transgenderism out there, but I think it is still up to the activists and the academics to do the required leg work of generating and disseminating information about trans* issues and ensuring that our world becomes more welcoming and safer to live in.
[interview by Daniele Paletta]