What are you, really – a boy or a girl? Pat Bringas, a transgender woman, grew up confronting this question as soon as she started acting differently as a boy at the age of five, and until she went to grade school where she gravitated towards girls because she wanted to do girl things.
But for Devine Leviste David, another trans woman, evading the question while growing up by hiding from her family every time she sat down to urinate when she was a little boy, was helpful. She didn’t want to pee standing but liked to do it the female way.
“I knew it was wrong and it wasn’t normal but I felt that was the day I told myself to start being whom I was. But I realized the process was difficult,” Devine said
For Pat, she had to be reminded by her parents that she was a boy when they put her in an all-boys school. “But I still looked for female friends so again, I found the gay boys to play with,” she said.
Now young adults, Pat and Devine feel relieved when they look back at their unique childhood rites of passage. Also fresh from their most recent transitioning years, they found their place in society as transgender persons, and in a world that is increasingly experiencing its own transformation in awareness and knowledge of sexual diversity.
Transgender is part of the LGBT or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (and progressively, LGBTQIA) to include queer, intersex and asexual — spectrum of sexual orientations and gender expressions. Only recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) re-categorized TG from a “mental disorder” to “sexual orientation” in its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems to reduce stigma, help TG individuals have better social acceptance and improve their access to health care.
The WHO define transgender (“TG” or “trans”) as a term to describe people whose appearance and characteristics are perceived as gender atypical and whose sense of their own gender is different from the sex that they were assigned at birth. Trans women identify as women but were assigned as males when they were born. Trans men identify as men but were assigned female when they were born. Some TG persons seek surgery or take hormones to bring their body into alignment with their gender identity.
Pat said she achieved a certain clarity about her sexual orientation in college when she joined Babaylan, the organization of LGBT students of the University of the Philippines Diliman, where she was also a councilor in the UP Student Council. At that time, the student council also made history when it had its first trans woman, Heart Diňo, as president.
“I would say I set myself free during that time,” said Pat. “I was happy to finally have friends who are like me. My Babaylan sisters were my role models as they were very inspiring and assuring that there’s nothing wrong with living your true self,” she said.
Her college years also helped her realize what she wanted to do as a young professional, from enrolling first in mechanical engineering then transferring to architecture which are both male-dominated, and finally, to film. She now works as a media practitioner.
“I imagined the grasa (grease) if I continued into mechanical engineering,” she laughed as she thought about what might have been. She said her work in film and the entertainment industry is a comfortable setting especially for someone with her gender identity.
Devine’s journey wasn’t that easy, but it was aided her independence, having lived separately from her family when she was young and being spared from restrictions and judgments about how she looked and the way she dressed up. However, college was abruptly stopped when she tested positive of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) on her junior year, or one year into finishing an Information Technology course at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in 2009.
“I didn’t know about HIV that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) that has no cure so I thought I will die immediately,” she said. She tried to look for jobs so she could feel how it is to earn money and spend it before she dies. She was fortunate to be invited by peer educators doing counselling and HIV testing for the Quezon City health department, the same health workers who urged her to get tested during their outreach work in a bar one night when she was with friends.
Devine is now a trainer under the Take the Test Project, an organization that provides confidential HIV counselling and testing. She conducts orientations for medical workers. She works with persons who help her take care of herself, who share her dreams and who accept her and her sexual orientation and state of health.
In her work, she believes that TG women have limited access to healthcare services, which can expose them to infections such as HIV. She said many LGBTs living with HIV still face stigma and discrimination when accessing health services, using public places and facilities. This is one aspect in the country’s health care system that has yet to be addressed, especially the unique reproductive health needs of TG women.
Although they may have different struggles, Pat and Devine share the experience of having relationships as TGs. Pat has just got out of a five-and-a-half year relationship that she described as her happiest times so far, while Devine is currently living in with a male partner.
Both also thrive in a time when the Philippines has a growing tolerance to LGBTs not just in communities but in government as well. There are now LGBT police desks, a 2013 anti-bullying law that includes LGBT children and more than 20 local ordinances that prohibit mistreatment of LGBTs.
In Congress, there is a pending SOGIE (sexual orientation and gender identity and expression) equality bill that seeks to prevent acts of discrimination based on people’s sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
The Philippines is listed one of the most gay-friendly nations, ranking 10th in a 2014 Pew Research Center survey of 39 countries, that are tolerant of sexual orientations and gender minorities. There is also now the first TG woman in the Philippine National Police apart from the first trans woman in Congress.
All these may strengthen the resolve of many TG women, but Devine said the environment and day-to-day life can still be challenging. She recalled that she was able to fight off an attempted sexual assault in 2014, but was brushed aside by persons manning the barangay hall when she filed a complaint about the attack.
“Ayaw mo nun? Lalaki na lumalapit sa iyo (Don’t you like it? It’s the man who’s coming on to you),” she quoted a barangay official who scoffed at her, so she thought of going to higher authorizes, but changed her mind. “I know there are women’s desks that also handle LGBT cases in police stations, but I told myself, why bother when the barangay (officials) don’t even help me?”
Devine criticized the barangay official’s thinking as similar to many people’s impressions about TGs – that they are asking to be attacked or abused because of the way they look, dress up and act.
Pat, who said she joins the Pride March and other similar events, stressed that dressing up is an expression and celebration among TG women. “The pride march is our only chance to be ourselves, to celebrate our truths and be in solidarity with people who accept us for who we are,” she said.
Devine said parades and pageants are occasions for trans women to have safe venues to express their identities. “Nothing compares to an opportunity when we can put across our self-identified personas,” she said, recalling the time she donned a dress during a Santacruzan, the ritual procession in May, because the dress didn’t fit her female cousin. “I was a little boy in a dress and everyone was laughing at me. But people didn’t know that times like that are important to our self-expression.”
Self-identities can also be difficult for Devine who has yet to navigate a flawed system for TGs to be able to change their names. Her identity cards and documents still carry her masculine name: John Dave Mare David. “Parang sumpa (It’s like a curse),” Devine said of her real name that stops her every time she goes to a government office or immigration because her photos in them don’t match her feminine looks.
But Pat, whose birth-assigned name is Patrick, was able to change her name due to the Clerical Error Law of 2001 that she took advantage of even if the name change was not about her being trans but correcting a clerical error or changes to gender markers.
Pat may have passed this one but apparently, TG women have yet to wait for a proper law that can allow them to change their names because they want to but without proving whether or not they underwent sex reassignment procedures. This specific item is covered in the pending SOGIE bill.
The world may be transitioning too but it would take some time. Meanwhile, as Devine put it, TG women still run to their LGBT friends for comfort and safety because the world out there is not yet that kind. “People still stare,” she said.