Commentary: Solidarity

THIS month I celebrate the first anniversary of The Manila Times’ welcoming me to its roster of political columnists. This publication made me the first openly transgender woman in the Philippines to be given a regular political column in a national broadsheet.

More than a personal feat, I consider this as part of the quest of transgender people in the Philippines to have a seat at the table. The resistance against having their voices marginalized and relegated to talk only about their struggles and sob stories associated with their identity.

I grew up during a time when there were very rare instances of models of possibilities to people like us outside the entertainment, beauty, fashion and sex industries. Our career choices were limited both by societal prejudice and our own internalized transphobia. Since I co-founded the pioneer transgender rights organization in the Philippines in 2001, the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), I have witnessed the opening up of possibilities for people like us. I have witnessed the cracking of the glass ceiling.

The election of Geraldine Roman to Congress and President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointment of Cy Seguerra as the chairman of the National Youth Commission (NYC) are milestones in that march towards breaking the pattern of marginalization. For the first time in our country’s political history, we have two openly transgender people holding positions of power and influence.

Seguerra recently resigned, yet he leaves his legacy of being the first out-transgender man to ever lead a government agency. And though helped by the track record of her political family, Roman’s election was quite extraordinary. During the campaign her being a transgender was used by her opponents against her. The people of the first district of Bataan didn’t reward her transphobic opponent. Roman didn’t just win, she was given an overwhelming mandate to lead when she got 62.1 percent of the votes!

The extraordinary rise of transgender people to power and influence happened in the context of political division in the Philippine transgender community between those who hate and support Duterte. Some have strong connections with Akbayan, the partly list allied with the Liberal Party, which has been maneuvering to return to power. Unfortunately, this grand political narrative prevents the Philippine transgender community from taking advantage of the growing clout of transgender individuals that now have influential voices in Philippine politics.

I blame the lack of historical perspective and political sophistication for this failure to leverage that clout. We surely have different political views in the community. Difference is unavoidable, but we have a choice on what to do about it. We can either let that difference be a source of creative friction or use difference as a source of division that would retard our ability as a community to advance policies that would help our people flourish.

When Roman voted for the death penalty, she was suddenly disowned from the transgender movement by some activists who think they are its vanguards. Worse, they almost tolerated the slew of transphobic assaults Roman received from supporters of the Liberal Party. One transgender activist tried to launch a campaign to lobby the ECHO Foundation in the Netherlands and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) to strip me of the awards they gave me in 2013 and 2014 just because I support Duterte’s campaign against shabu, I believe Bongbong Marcos was cheated, and that I admire Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

In our community, we may be divided on the issues of the death penalty, Duterte’s decisive action on the shabu epidemic, the Marcoses, GMA’s legacy, etcetera, but we must remind ourselves of the very point why the transgender movement was formed in this country: as a national resistance against transphobia. We must not let whatever differences in our community erode that foundation and goal.

The rise of influential transgender voices in our national politics will continue to face conscious and unconscious resistance from those who think that we would be better entertaining them than shaping public opinion on issues of national importance. Even in the circle of the so-called “progressive” movement, that’s the case.

What we need now in our community is solidarity. Solidarity is not about forcing ourselves to agree on issues that may be related but not central to our movement. It’s about recognizing that there are issues that we must prioritize in order to keep our movement inching forward. It’s about supporting transgender voices to be heard wherever they would like to speak, whether we agree with what they say or not.

We don’t live in a world where there are lots of transgender people being given an opportunity to be in a position of influence. What we have right now is a rare instance of transgender people being in that position. Either we participate in tearing these people down or stand in solidarity with them despite our differences. I lived at a time when a Roman or a transgender woman political columnist with over half a million readers was impossible. I don’t want to go back to that time. I prefer to build on these gains, no matter how imperfect I deemed them to be, and use them as a springboard to keep our community moving forward.

(Published in The Manila Times on April 12, 2018)

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