World News

A Transgender Paradox, and Platform, in the Philippines

Posted April 29, 2018 4:20 p.m. EDT

MARIA RESPONDO, Philippines — Angel Cabaluna dusted makeup onto her thighs, styling her hair in loose curls with smoky eye shadow glittering on her lids.

As this hamlet of cornfields and concrete houses geared up for festivities honoring its patron saint, and as some people gathered in prayer, Cabaluna, 20, was primping to compete in an annual transgender beauty pageant.

“This is our passion,” she later said.

Dominated by conservative morals taught by the Roman Catholic Church, the Philippines is also one of Southeast Asia’s most tolerant countries toward gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people. And lawmakers are taking steps to ensure national legal protections that would penalize discrimination against them.

At the pageant, children sat cross-legged in the dirt, crowded close to the spindly stage where the contestants spun and danced in red feather headdresses, gold brocade and clouds of tulle. The crowd laughed and cheered as they delivered flowery speeches, weaving jokes with witty rhymes, beauty-queen platitudes and proclamations on gender equality.

In a nearby chapel, the pageant’s blaring pop songs mixed with the steady rhythm of churchgoers reciting the rosary.

About 80 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic, and the church’s teachings often dominate public life in the Philippines. Still, Cabaluna, who considers herself very religious, said: “LGBT are now accepted. We are very welcome.”

While there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality in the Philippines, there are no laws specifically protecting gay or transgender people, either.

Geraldine Roman, the country’s first openly transgender member of Congress, is spearheading efforts to broaden legal protections in the Philippines.

For nearly 20 years, conservative politicians, backed by Catholic and evangelical groups, have thwarted anti-discrimination measures, arguing that they would infringe on people’s right to religious expression.

But in September, with Roman at the helm, a bill prohibiting bias on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression passed the House of Representatives unanimously.

The speaker of the House, Pantaleon Alvarez, followed the success by introducing a civil partnership bill that seeks to give gay and transgender couples the same legal rights as married ones.

“They have the right to support each other,” Alvarez said. “It’s the duty and obligation of the government to protect them.”

A survey published by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that 73 percent of Filipinos said gay people and lesbians should be accepted by society. By comparison, near neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia polled at 3 percent and 9 percent.

Attitudes in the Philippines were comparable to countries like Britain and Italy, and ahead of the United States, where acceptance is at 60 percent. The survey found that tolerance is correlated with rich, secular societies.

Cabaluna, an accounting student, feels accepted by her family and says that gay and transgender people are “rampant” at her university. And while she finds the pageants thrilling, she also sees them as a platform for advancing gender equality.

At church, “we are allowed to wear girls’ clothes,” Cabaluna said. She has heard priests preach the same thing her mother told her: Regardless of your gender, what matters is being a good person before God and family.

Still, the widespread tolerance hides deep veins of disapproval.

The Rev. Renante Rabanes, who offered the Mass at the festivities for St. Vincent, the hamlet’s patron saint, said: “Transgenders are against the church. They are destroying what God gave them.”

That night, Cabaluna was crowned queen of Maria Respondo, in a pageant far better attended than the Mass.

Jan Gabriel Melendrez Castañeda, an advocate on behalf of gay and transgender people in Southeast Asia as part of several organizations, said, “Filipinos are used to contradictions.”

Castañeda says that unlike other countries in the region, such advocacy groups can operate legally and relatively safely here.

Still, 41 transgender people were killed in the Philippines between 2008 and 2016, the highest rate in Southeast Asia, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project of the organization Transgender Europe. A study published in The Philippine Journal of Psychology in 2014 found that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Filipinos were twice as likely to contemplate suicide as their heterosexual peers.

President Rodrigo Duterte said while campaigning in 2016 that he supported same-sex marriage, and he says he has relatives who are gay.

“Definitely, the gays were created by God,” Duterte said on the campaign trail.

As a teenager he examined his own sexuality, he said: “When I was in high school, I did not know if I wanted to be a girl or a boy.”

Duterte’s supportive statements have not translated into changes to laws yet, though. Roman, the transgender legislator who is a member of Duterte’s political party, has expressed frustration that the anti-discrimination bill has not received more backing from him. She says passage would need “more political will.”

“Many politicians in this country speak in favor of LGBT rights when election time approaches,” Roman said. “But when push comes to shove, they don’t show the love.”

The measure is the first of its kind to reach the Senate, where it is being held up by red tape, including bureaucratic maneuvers by Sen. Joel Villanueva, a staunch evangelical Christian.

“Obviously, it’s just a delaying tactic” enabled by Sen. Vicente Sotto III, the majority leader and a conservative Catholic, Roman said. If the bill is not passed by the end of this Congress in 2019, it will effectively be killed. However widely tolerance extends, without laws against bias, people can still discriminate with impunity, as Roi Galfo, 33, found out.

Galfo had always felt accepted. Her mother supported her transition to life as a woman. She got jobs working with the government, as an assistant to a local politician and at a string of call centers.

At the end of a month of training at one call center, the human resources officer told the group that all employees must use bathrooms according to the gender they were born with. Galfo was the only transgender person in the room.

Galfo was immediately defiant. “What would you feel if someone as pretty as me was in the male bathroom while you are trying to button and zip your pants?” Galfo asked. “Would you be comfortable with that?”

Told to file any complaints with the personnel office, Galfo was shaking with anger by the end of the meeting. Her co-workers tried to comfort her, one manager buying her ice cream. “It didn’t help,” Galfo said. “The damage had been done. I was already humiliated.”

Not only did she not go back to the company, Galfo filed a case against it under a local anti-bias ordinance in Quezon City. About 40 towns and cities across the Philippines have similar ordinances against discriminating based on someone’s gender identity. Ordinances serve as moral guidelines, but it is only in Quezon City, where the call center company was located, that the ordinance carries the force of law.

Here Galfo’s access to recourse under the law is unusual, but Castañeda, the rights advocate, says he sees a new level of assertiveness among Filipinos.

“Now people say, ‘This is not right. We can take action,'” he said.

“Even the fact that our nation is contemplating these issues is changing how people see their place in society,” he added. “Where there used to be just anger, resentment and fear, now there’s a new component of hope.”

The Quezon City ordinance remains weak, and after 1 1/2 years, Galfo is still awaiting a decision. Meanwhile, she is channeling the experience into a campaign for local office in the city of Valenzuela, where she lives.

The elections on May 14 may be a chance for Galfo to turn acceptance into political power. “I know I will be very much heard if I’m in the position,” she said.