Beyond the pronouns: Why our trans sisters should have the same rights as cis women
It’s often mentioned that the Philippines is one of the very few LGBT-friendly countries in the world. Perhaps because of the representation we afford them on mainstream media and, recently, even in seats of legislation. Or the fact that they’re usually free to enter most establishments wih no threat of harm. We know many who identify as part of the spectrum—whether family, friends, or acquaintances—and we’re generally kinder to them compared to other cultures.
But this is barely enough when our knee-jerk reaction is to exclude them from conversations that concern or celebrate them. Exhibit A: This March is meant to be a month-long recognition of the triumphs won by women all over the country. And yet, our perception of what constitutes a woman is still painfully myopic and lacking in intersectionality. Not only have we heard vanishingly little about the contributions of our trans sisters, but we’ve also left them to fend for themselves in their fight for fundamental rights and resources.
Our collective relationship with them seems to be grounded more in tolerance: we accept that we have to see them around, interact with them, but allow misconceptions to shroud our understanding instead of countering or correcting them. It’s still commonplace to believe that our trans sisters aren’t actually being serious: that they’re just cross-dressers, resident beauty pageant participants, men wanting to be women—a label they’ll bear, as long as they don’t have the capacity to give birth. Sometimes, we deadname them or make the occasional “sabi ko na Barbie” comment, and still expect them to laugh along with us.
As a result, their existence remains “under constant scrutiny, shrouded in long-standing myths that frame [them] as deviant, troubled, and damaged by trauma,” according to an article by researchers from the University of Melbourne. Trans stories are often skewed or shadowed, their true experiences excluded from the very spaces they occupy. These conditions are the perfect seedbed for discrimination and abuse, and the fear of being the next victim keeps them from living a full and free existence.
While both trans men and women remain susceptible to forms of violence, it’s the latter that remains particularly vulnerable to hate crimes. The fact that we don’t have access to complete statistics is alarming enough: according to recent data from Metro Manila Pride, over 60 cases of trans murder have been reported since 2008, but the actual death toll may be much higher. Aside from the fact that victims are misgendered in police reports, family and friends are often silenced from speaking up when incidents occur—possibly due to societal stigma, or a sheer lack of trust in law enforcement.
There have been attempts to grant security to trans women (and men) in the Philippines, such as the Safe Spaces Act and the Philippines HIV and AIDS Policy Act. But both lumped the LGBTQ+ sector with differently abled or indigenous groups, when all three sectors have starkly different sets of needs that demand action in equally nuanced ways. The all-encompassing SOGIE Equality Bill could have been a potential solution, but conservative politicians and leaders of the Catholic Church have exhausted all means to keep it from passing in the Senate.
And so, to this day, The Fuller Project reports that a trans woman can be denied a job opportunity or interview without consequence, or face untoward discrimination if she manages to find employment. She can’t tick “female” when filling out a form, and she can’t marry a cisgender man. And despite the increased likelihood of mental illness, it’s not guaranteed that she will have access to comprehensive mental health services. While at least 18 cities around the country have enacted anti-discrimination ordinances to combat the inaction, what about those who don’t live in these progressive places? What does this say about us as a nation that advocates against discrimination while passively enabling it?
As of now, the future of total trans protection still seems bleak: the only reversal in sight is if we manage to elect a leader with an awareness of their importance that trickles down to our lawmakers. But thankfully, we can help create a more bearable environment for them to live in by committing to genuine allyship. One need not understand them completely to do so: this can simply be rooted in the understanding that they are people too, entitled to the same breadth and depth of rights inherent to all of us.
This can be through simple variations in the way we interact with them, such as making use of gender-affirming pronouns and switching to their preferred names, or reexaminations of how we isolate them on an institutional level — be it through workplace harassment or the deprivation of access to sanitary facilities. Or maybe, if we’re being ambitious, it can be in redefining how National Women’s Month is celebrated: reveling in the fact that we’ve come so far, but also remembering, in Audre Lorde’s words, that “we are not truly free until any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from [our] own.”