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Beauties demand rights

A transgender woman from the Philippines recently won an international beauty competition, but Filipina trans rights advocate Naomi Fontanos tells Gay Star News there’s more to transgender life than looking beautiful
Naomi Fontanos, founder of GANDA Filipinas, an advocacy group for transgender women in the Philippines

Transgender women are nearly as visible in the Philippines as they are in Thailand, but does that mean the have a full bill of rights? Far from it, says Naomi Fontanos, founder of transgender rights group GANDA (Gender and Development Advocates) Filipinas. She talks to Gay Star News about health and legal advocacy, using contraceptives as hormones, the Catholic church and beauty pageants.

Why did you decide to form GANDA Filipinas?

I have a very close circle of friends who are all transgender and around six months ago we decided to form our own organization because we felt that the Philippines will benefit from more transgender organizing.

GANDA Filipinas is just one of the many transgender groups in the Philippines now advocating for a better quality of life for the transgender community. We decided on that name because in the Philippines transgender women are culturally referred to as beauties. ‘Ganda’ means beauty in the Filipino language.

Do you know anything about the history of transgender women in the Philippines?

There are documents that are called the Babaylan Chronicles that were written by Spanish priests who came during the colonisation of the islands [late 16th Century].

According to these documents, there were male-bodied individuals in pre-colonial tribes and communities who lived as women - some temporarily dressed as women and others did full-time in the female role. Many of them acted as priestesses and they were known by various names.

So using modern precepts it’s probably safe to say they were the precursors of the modern transgender community.

What are GANDA Filipinas aims?

We want to focus on bringing about genuine gender equality because we feel that in spite of the gains of the feminist movement and the early lesbian and gay organizing in the Philippines much remains to be done in terms of genuine gender equality.

For example it was only recently that the feminist community welcomed the trans women community into their work. You would have thought that it would have been automatic for them to think that trans women are women! But it’s a reflection of the larger feminist movement and the shifts in the movement, the different schools of thought. It took some time for the women’s groups to welcome lesbian, bisexual and transgender women into their work.

Also within the LGBT community we feel that a lot of work needs to be done when we talk about gender equality. Many organizations are dominated by lesbian and gay activists which leaves out transgender voices.

And at the same time not a lot of advocacy groups in the Philippines are focusing on the larger frame of development like what it is the place of advocacy in social justice and how does it connect the issue of development. That’s a path that we want to take.

What campaigns are you working on?

We worked with another newly formed trans organization called TAO, which stands for Transpinay of Antipolo [a city near Manila] Organization. Like GANDA, they feel it’s important to use the language that people speak, and ‘tao’ means human.

We worked with TAO recently for the Stop Trans Pathologization Day of Action. It’s an international campaign that seeks to de-pathologize transgender identities from the diagnosis manuals of the American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization, like with the delisting of homosexuality decades ago.

For the next year we have decided to focus on transgender health advocacy because it’s a neglected issue and there’s no organization focuses on the health needs of transgender men and women in the Philippines. We want to work with agencies like the Department of Health and local social hygiene clinics.

In September we were part of a consultation with the World Health Organization, western pacific region, which has an office here in Manila. They had a consultation with members of the trans community in the Asia Pacific region just to ask the community how the medical establishment can respond better to them and their health needs.

What needs to happen in the area of transgender health in the Philippines?

There’s a lot that needs to happen! In Asia most transgender people have to pay their healthcare needs out of their own pocket, unlike in the West where healthcare is socialised. So for people who want to access hormones and surgeries that will affirm their gender, most trans people have to work really hard in order to earn enough money to be able to afford the costs.

Hopefully with our health advocacy we can have transgender healthcare concerns covered by insurance, publicly or privately. It’s a long time coming - but we’re free to dream!

And then at the same time maybe we also want to create change in the medical establishment to treat transgender people more respectfully and to provide competent healthcare for the members of our community.

In the Philippines, sex reassignment surgery has been conducted since the 80s but the technology has only recently improved so you can imagine the older generation of transgender people who were the early beneficiaries of the procedure, they naturally regretted having the procedure because 20 years ago it was imperfect so many of them were very unhappy with the results.

So we want doctors to study transgender healthcare. We want them to include transgender customers in the medical curriculum to study administering SRS [sex-reassignment surgery] or other transgender surgeries.

What’s the legal situation for transgender people in the Philippines?

Very bad! The transgender community is in legal limbo because we’re not recognized in the gender we identify as.

In 2001 a law passed that allowed changing the name of Filipino citizens on birth certificates, but only based on clerical errors. So you cannot change your name because of your gender identity. And then, just two months ago in August, a law was passed allowing Filipino citizens to change the gender written on birth certificate but also only based on clerical errors. You can’t change your gender if you identify as transgender.

And there was a Supreme Court decision in 2007 that denied the application of a transsexual Filipina to change her name and her gender on her birth certificate.

It’s very very tough for transgender Filipinos now to change their gender in documents. So many of us are able to present ourselves socially in the gender that we identify as but the documents remain the same.

How does this create difficulties?

It’s difficult in many situations. It attracts prejudice into our lives. For example when we travel we attract more attention at immigration counters because our documents do not match our social genders.

At the same time when we apply for jobs many transgender people will get turned down because most human resource personnel will think that we have fraudulent documents or we’re trying to consciously fool people in the work place, because our documents do not match our identities.

And also it becomes problematic when we access different social services for instance in hospitals, or in the penal system. Transgender people are still put in wards of the sex they were assigned at birth, even if they present otherwise. That can be psychologically tough for many transgender people.

I’ve been reading about the Reproductive Health Bill, a much contested bill in the Philippines parliament that aims universal access to contraception, abortion and sex education. How does it affect transgender people?

When contraceptives are given out for free at the local clinics many transgender people are able to use those free hormones, because contraceptives contain hormones. And hormones are very expensive so many poor trans people would seek the help of the local social hygiene clinics for their hormonal needs. If the RH bill is passed I think it will help the community, even in a limited way.

But of course like any other national law, the Reproductive Health Bill is silent on the needs of the LGBT community. It’s highly skewed towards women but it’s quiet on the needs of lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender Filipinos.

And now I think there’s some controversial language that most lawmakers are trying to get rid of. I think it has a section that mentions sexual orientation and lawmakers want that removed.

Is there an anti-discrimination law that criminalizes discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity?

No. Legally we are very vulnerable because there are no laws to protect us in any way, even from the most minor act of discrimination, there’s no law that protects us against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

If an establishment, like a restaurant, refuses someone like me service, there’s nothing I can do about that. I just have to take my money elsewhere. And if for example a trans person in school is asked to not enrol because of his or her gender identity then there’s nothing that person can do because there is no national anti-discrimination law.

And recently a lot of hate-crimes have targeted members of the LGBT community and most of those crimes have gone unsolved and neglected by the police. Because the victims are LGBT they are not a priority.

There has been a clamour to pass a hate crimes law but I think it will be a long time coming. But there are small changes happening, but they are few and far between, very sporadic developments.

What changes and developments?

Recently a local ordinance was passed in Cebu [city on a central island], an anti-discrimination ordinance. But it’s only city-wide so it only protects members of the LGBT community in that city. Hopefully the ordinance will be replicated in other localities.

In Quezon City [Metro Manila] actually the local government is quite progressive. They have a very active gender and development council. And it actually enacted an ordinance that penalises discrimination against homosexual men and women in the workplace. But it’s only an employment protection for gay and lesbian people. It leaves out people who are bisexual and transgender.

Hopefully working with the gender and development council in Quezon City we can get the law amended so that it can be expanded as to who it protects.

In Manila they had a progressive leadership a few years back, but then another mayor was voted in who prohibited the free distribution of contraceptives, so that impacted many women and transgender women.

How does the Catholic church affect the fight for trans rights in the Philippines?

In a very big way. The Philippines is majority Catholic and there are major archdioceses in different parts of the country. In the archdioceses the voice of the church is very very strong and it meddles in the political affairs of the communities. It tells people which policies to support and which politicians who will be elected. So if there are progressive thinking politicians the church will most likely ask the faithful not to vote for them in elections.

But there are many transgender people who are devoted to the church, so many of them were disappointed when a few years back the church prohibited transgender people participating in a church related activity - a summer festival called Flores de Mayo.

The original custom was to chose the most beautiful young women in the community and ask them to parade, wearing the flowers of May and portraying different saints of the church but then the practice was neglected until someone said maybe if we have transgender people doing the parade that will get people interested in the custom again.

And so it started a national trend. The parade in the summer would showcase transgender beauty queens. So transgender women were becoming more visible, but not really more accepted. It was a platform for acceptance, definitely, but the church reacted to this practice and said they will blacklist parishes or churches that will allow transgender women to join the parade.

Are transgender women visible in entertainment and TV?

They are quite visible, because we have a vibrant beauty pageant culture in the Philippines and it includes the transgender community. Beauty pageants are a national passion so in every village, in every city.

Now there are pageants for young people, pageants for fat people and for transgender people. Transgender pageants are national. In every village you will find a transgender pageant. And they hold transgender beauty pageants on daytime TV shows.

Also on TV transgender women are very visible because many are very talented and many are quite intelligent so there are many reality shows on TV with transgender contestants - dance contests, fashion design contests.

Some are treated respectfully while others are not. It depends on the transgender contestant if she demands to be treated as the gender that she identifies as. But sometimes the staff or the hosts of the shows are not very well-educated on transgender issues so they will probably use the wrong pronouns. But it’s probably not meant disrespectfully but it leaves a lot to be desired.

I heard Filipina transgender entertainers were popular in Japan?

There was a time when Japan was recruiting Filipina transgender entertainers to work in clubs in Japan. They were the breadwinners of their families. They sent their siblings to school and sent money back home. They were part of the Filipino diaspora. The overseas Filipino workers phenomenon.

Japan opened it’s doors to the entertainers in the 70s and it lasted till around the 2000s. But then the UN asked Japan to enforce an anti-trafficking policy so it effected this. They weren’t really badly treated but they weren’t protected well enough because if the clubs decided to close down Filipina transgender women were really left out in the cold with no where to go.

So many of them had to come back to home and had to revert to working in the salons and working as entertainers in cabarets. But there are only two cabaret clubs and there are thousands of entertainers so were do the others go? So many of them did sex work, travelling around southeast Asia as sex workers.

Is the country proud of Kevin Balot, the first Filipina transgender to win an international beauty pageant?

I think it’s 50/50. Of course the LGBT community is celebrating her victory but the general populace is stlll very homophobic, transphobic and closed-minded. If you go into online forums for example or check out websites that carry news articles about her victory you will get a mixture of supportive and discriminatory comments.

But I hope that her win opens doors for her and I’m really hoping she can use it as a platform to advocate for greater change for the community.

Has Balot said anything political?

Most beauty queens in the trans community are not very political because beauty pageants in general are not political.

I hope Kevin will educate herself on the issues that the community confronts but in case she’s not well-versed on the issues then people will understand, you know. We will not fault her to that. She has the freedom to be who she is and we don’t have expectations of her as a political advocate.

But we’re proud of her for reaching a milestone and achieving something that’s never been done before.

Is there a negative side to the transgender beauty pageant obsession?

While we do celebrate beauty pageants and we know that they are a source of income for many of our members, and they are also great platform for the visibilty.

But pageant culture can be very oppressive to our community in terms of settling idealised standards of beauty. Because there are women in the Philippines of all shapes, sizes and colors. A person like Kevin Balot would be held up as an ideal and that can be oppressive to others who do not look like her.

Beauty pageants are not the end all and be all of trans women in the Philippines, we are capable of so much more.

Find out more about GANDA Filipinas.  

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