‘The end goal is for people to see us as full human beings’: A transgender round table discussion

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Actress and writer Mela Habijan, PFTM communications officer and spoken word poet Slac Cayamanda, scientist and Bahaghari Metro Manila member Rey Salinas, UP Center for Women's and Gender Studies SOGIESC consultant James Montilla Doble, GANDA Filipinas executive director Naomi Fontanos, and PFMT internal communications head JD Cleofas. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Lfe) — When Gretchen Custodio Diez was barred from using a mall’s female restroom for being transgender, she became the talk of national news. Soon, myths and misconceptions about what it means to be trans became the subject of much debate, from the online sphere to public hearings. But rarely do trans voices get a say in these conversations.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with six transgender individuals to better understand the trans Filipino experience, from trans men and women themselves. We spoke to Naomi Fontanos, executive director of Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas; Mela Habijan, actress, writer, and lecturer on writing for media; Rey Salinas, scientist, educator, and member of militant and nationalist LGBTQ+ organization Bahaghari Metro Manila; James Montilla Doble, the SOGIESC consultant for the UP Center for Women's and Gender Studies and lecturer at the UP Diliman Department of Psychology; Slac Cayamanda, performance poet and communications officer of the Pioneer Filipino Transgender-men Movement (PFTM); and JD Cleofas, internal communications head of PFTM.

“When people meet a trans person, I want them to focus on that person as a human being. Not as a trans person but as a human being,” says Naomi Fontanos during the roundtable discussion. “You treat them in a human way; you don't fixate on their genitals; you don't fixate on their bodies; you don't fixate on their identities, but you treat them with respect as a full human person.”

“The end goal of our activism is for people to see us as full human beings. Beyond our genitals, beyond our gender identities. Just as people in this world. But of course, we're very far from that.”

Here are 12 things we learned from the discussion.

1. Being transgender is different from being lesbian or gay.

Two common misconceptions about being transgender are that it has to do with one’s sexual orientation, and that trans people are just “gay men pretending to be women” or “lesbian women pretending to be men.”

“Tinatawag [ang trans men] na tibo and someone na nagpapakalalaki,” says Slac Cayamanda. “Or nagpapakababae lang ‘yung trans woman.”

In the Philippines, there’s a common belief that being trans is “an extreme form of being gay or lesbian,” says Naomi Fontanos. “Parang, 'yun na 'yung pinakamalalang uri ng pagiging bakla o lesbiyana. Tapos maririnig natin sa maraming tao na ‘ok lang maging bakla, basta ‘wag magdamit pang babae o ‘ok lang maging lesbiyana, basta ‘wag magdadamit na pang lalaki.’”

However, this is far from the case. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) describes “transgender” as “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation.”

2. Being trans is not a Western concept. It has long been ingrained in our culture, but it was erased by colonialism.

It is sometimes argued that being transgender and gender non-conforming is a “new” concept, propagated by liberal Western ideas. But prior to colonization, indigenous communities worldwide have long had transgender and gender non-conforming members. They went by different names, such as two-spirits in Native American communities, and the hijra in India. In the Philippines, they were called babaylans.

“‘Pag tiningan mo 'yung kasaysayan ng ating bansa, makikita mo na kahit hindi pa dumating ‘yung mga Espanyol, meron nang mga tinatawag na [babaylan],” says Fontanos. “Mukha silang lalaki, 'yung kanilang katawan [ay lalaki], pero ang kanilang pagkilos ay babae. Sila 'yung spiritual leaders ng kanilang mga pamayanan.”

“Meron din sa mga Teduray sa Mindanao ‘yung konsepto ng ‘one who becomes a woman’ o mentefuwaley libun at ‘one who becomes a man’ o mentefuwaley lagey,” she adds. “So sinong nagsabi na hindi [tayong mga transgender] parte ng kulturang Pilipino, eh sa mga katutubong tribo nga natin, merong ganung konsepto na merong pangatlong kasarian o third gender?”

“At [hindi itinuring na] pangatlong kasarian [ang mga babaylan],” says Rey Salinas. “In fact, ‘yung transition nila into becoming a woman or a man was viewed as valid and legitimate. So it's really something na matagal nang parte ng kultura natin bilang Pilipino. What came here from the West apart from the religions ay ‘yung hindi pagtanggap.”

Naomi Fontanos (left) and James Montilla Doble. “‘Pag tiningan mo 'yung kasaysayan ng ating bansa, makikita mo na kahit hindi pa dumating ‘yung mga Espanyol, meron nang mga tinatawag na [babaylan],” says Fontanos. “Mukha silang lalaki, 'yung kanilang katawan [ay lalaki], pero ang kanilang pagkilos ay babae. Sila 'yung spiritual leaders ng kanilang mga pamayanan.” Photo by JL JAVIER

3. There is no singular trans experience. The transgender community is diverse, and one’s religion, class, ethnicity, disability, and age affect a person’s ability to express themselves and live freely as trans.

One of the biggest misconceptions about being trans is the assumption that one must be transitioning — taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or undergoing gender confirmation surgery — in order to identify as trans. However, one’s gender identity is not dictated by one’s ability to medically transition. As HRC defined it, gender identity is “one's innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither.”

“Hindi kailangan magpalit ng katawan, hindi kailangan magpa-opera para tawagin ang sarili mo bilang trans,” says Fontanos. “Kailangan lang ay ang pagtingin mo sa sarili mo bilang isang tao na may kasarian ay iba doon sa binigay sayo noong ikaw ay pinanganak.”

“Some of us can't afford to go under HRT or can't afford to [get] surgery. Or, for example, other trans people who just don't want to,” shares James Doble, who says that in acknowledging that trans people don’t have to undergo medical procedures to be considered as “real” trans men or women, we also acknowledge that there is no one way to be transgender. Ideals of what a trans man or woman should look like are merely stereotypes.

“In-e-expect kasi ng society na trans people have to transition in a certain way. For example, trans women have to be hyper feminine na mahaba ‘yung hair, naka-make up, naka-heels, and all of that,” he adds. “But what is common for all transgender people is that we see ourselves differently compared to ‘yung sex assigned at birth namin.”

It’s also vital to note that one’s class, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, HIV-status all play into how you express yourself and how you experience oppression. “There's a conversation to be had about how iba ‘yung form of oppression na hinaharap ng LGBT na mayaman ... sa trans person na nasa lower economic strata of society,” says Salinas. “[These are often] people who don't even get to transition to begin with.”

“May mga trans people, and not just members of the trans community but members of the LGBTQ+ community, na contractual, na magsasaka, na manggagawa, and they don't even have the time to focus on realizing their gender identity. Kasi they're being faced din with existential problems,” she adds.

“Lagi tayong may pagka-kahon kasi na ito dapat ang lalaki, ito dapat ang babae, ito dapat ang bakla, ito dapat ang tomboy, ito dapat ang trans. There's always an alignment to the given stereotype.” — Mela Habijan

4. Gender identity and sexuality aren’t tied together, and neither are gender roles and stereotypes.

As mentioned, being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. And gender stereotypes are just that — stereotypes. Unfortunately, there are a lot of gender stereotypes, and many trans people often feel boxed in by narrow definitions that people try to fit them into. For example, Mela Habijan shares that while she is into beauty pageants, she also has friends who have no interest in them.

“Lagi tayong may pagka-kahon kasi na ito dapat ang lalaki, ito dapat ang babae, ito dapat ang bakla, ito dapat ang tomboy, ito dapat ang trans,” Habijan says. “There's always an alignment to the given stereotype na ‘pag trans ka, ito ka lang, nasa parlor ka, nasa contest ka, sex worker ka, o nag-da-drag ka.”

“Another misconception is that when you're a trans woman, gusto mo lang lalaki. You're just attracted to a guy. Pero makikita din natin sa ibang representation, for example sa [Netflix show] ‘Tales of the City,’ there's a trans man na attracted to a man,” she says.

But while representation in media is slowly changing in the U.S. — we’re seeing more diverse trans characters who don’t fit into the stereotypical mould — the Philippines isn’t there yet.

Slac Cayamanda (left) and Mela Habijan. “As you transition, [your family] transitions as well,” says Habijan, who advises young trans individuals that coming out and transitioning is a process for everyone in the family, and change will not come quickly for everyone. Photo by JL JAVIER

5. Access to facilities like public toilets shouldn’t be about looks. And allowing trans people to use the restroom aligned with their gender identity poses no threat to non-trans people.

When trans woman Gretchen Custodio Diez was detained for using a female restroom at a Quezon City mall, it became national news, sparking debates even among legislators on who gets to access what restroom. There was an obvious lack of understanding as to why the use of a restroom aligned with one’s gender identity is important.

“The issue of access to facilities,” Fontanos says, “is about your identity. And being able to go to facilities that align with your identity is an affirmation of who you are as a person.”

She also points out that the theory that women’s safety will be jeopardized when trans women use the female restroom is merely a myth. “There are already studies that debunk issues of safety and privacy for people who are not trans who share toilets with trans people. There is not a case in the Philippines where a trans woman used a toilet and there was predation or violence or sexual abuse.”

Fontanos also advises people to be wary of fake or manipulative articles, such as one article that stated that a young girl was harassed by a trans woman in a public place. In fact, the event took place in a private home. And even then, Salinas says, the crime has nothing to do with the perpetrator’s gender identity. “[They didn’t do it because they’re trans, but] because they're a bad person. We should not punish the entirety of the trans community just for a fringe situation.”

“You're pitting trans women against cis women and children on this unfounded fear that trans women will harass cis women and children,” says Doble. “So ang problema doon, hindi trans woman. Lalaki,” says Fontanos.

The group agrees that trans people are more at risk than cisgender people every time they use the restroom. “Sa case ni Gretchen, mas klaro na ang mas vulnerable talaga sa violence ay 'yung trans person at hindi 'yung non-trans person,” says Fontanos. “Kasi hindi nga siya nakapasok ng toilet. Hinarang na siya at kinaladkad na siya nung janitress. Klarong kaso 'yun ng diskriminasyon.”

Many trans people, including singer Ice Seguerra, who admitted so in a Facebook post, go to lengths to just avoid using public restrooms altogether, such as drinking less water. This doesn’t just create mental distress, but can cause medical conditions such as UTI.

Doble says that the issue doesn’t just affect transgender people. Gender non-conforming individuals and even people who don’t fit into the stereotypical mould of what a male and female should look like, experience tension, fear, and even confrontations.

6. Being trans doesn’t mean “being born in the wrong body.”

While this is a common statement that is used to simplify the concept of being trans, many transgender individuals find this harmful. “Kasi sa simula pa lang, parang meron nang mali,” says Fontanos.

“Ako, dahil matagal na akong namumuhay as a trans person, comfortable naman ako sa body ko … hindi ko talaga nafefeel 'yung disconnect ko with my body na I was born in the wrong body. I think I have the right body, the body that works for me right now, a body that can also attract people to me sexually, emotionally, and physically, and I feel that there's nothing wrong with my body.”

Rey Salinas (left) and JD Cleofas. “Even on the level of biology, we understand na sex is far more complicated than just the presence of a vagina or a penis,” says Salinas. “There's no longer any excuse for people to try to justify their hatred or lack of acceptance for trans people or any gender non-conforming people.” Photo by JL JAVIER

7. According to biology, there are definitely more than two genders.

Contrary to popular belief that there are only two genders — male and female — biologists have long understood that sex is not binary. According to Scientific American, “biological sex is far more complicated than XX or XY.”

“I'm a scientist and my background is in molecular biology,” says Salinas. “Even on the level of biology, we understand na sex is far more complicated than just the presence of a vagina or a penis ... It's so much more than that and even scientists understand that. The information is out there when it comes to social sciences and when it comes to biology. So there's no longer any excuse for people to try to justify their hatred or lack of acceptance for trans people or any gender non-conforming people.”

8. SOGIE isn’t limited to transgender or LGBQ+ people. Everyone has SOGIE.

There’s another common misconception that LGBTQ+ people are asking for special treatment or additional rights when calling for the passing of the SOGIE Equality Bill. However, the aim of the bill is simply to provide everyone with legal protection against SOGIE-based violence. To be clear, SOGIE stands for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression. SOGIE doesn’t just apply to LGBTQ+ individuals, but rather everyone who has a sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression.

Cayamanda stresses that in order for the fight for the SOGIE Equality Bill to persist, “we have to also really take [away the notion that SOGIE is just for LGBTQ+ people.] There are a lot of allies ... who say ‘I'm an ally of the SOGIE Equality Bill and I want my LGBTQ+ friends to be happy.’ But the SOGIE Equality bill is not just for LGBTQ+ people. It's for everyone.”

“We're all in this together,” adds Fontanos. “We're trying to change society so that it's better for all. In the end, that's not only the responsibility of LGBTQ+ people, that's everybody's responsibility.” She shares that Bahaghari Metro Manila head Bernadette Neri reminded her once of an important Filipino concept — kapwa.

“Tayo ay kapwa. ‘Pag tayo'y may nakilalang tao, LGBTQ+ man siya o hindi, kailangan ituring mo siya bilang kapwa mo tao.”

“That burden for advocates is a very heavy burden to carry,” says Doble. “Kaya nga we need other people who want to step up to actually step up and help us along this journey na ipasa ang SOGIE Equality Bill and other future legislations for the LGBTQ+ community.” Photo by JL JAVIER

9. Discrimination in the workplace is still very much alive. And it goes back to gender stereotypes.

Though Salinas and Fontanos both currently work in institutions that are progressive, they recognize that this is a privilege that not everyone enjoys. “It’s like a bubble,” says Fontanos, who works in UP. “It doesn't reflect the entire system. [Even in UP,] there is still a lot of transphobia and homophobia.”

“Ako, I'm really lucky to be working in Ateneo. Kahit ‘pag dating sa pronouns, from the beginning my boss asked,” says Salinas. “A couple of months ago, she sent me to the U.S. So my documents [don’t reflect my name and my gender identity], but she started to talk to me in a non-antagonizing way, coming from a position of wanting to understand. Pero it also makes you think about other people who are less fortunate in that regard.”

Fontanos shares that when she used to work in a call center, she said the company received complaints from female employees when she used the female restroom. When her bosses refused to do anything about it, she quit. But even today, Fontanos shares that she knows of a company that explicitly chooses not to hire trans people. “When they see that you're trans, they will automatically disqualify you. They will not even ask you to take the test.”

“Kaya sobrang importante ng Anti-Discrimination Law,” says Doble. “To prevent 'yung experiences like this from happening in the workplace, and so that LGBTQ+ people can live their full potential. Kasi sobrang limited na nga ng options namin as trans people, so we can't live the lives that we want.”

Cleofas points out that a lot of the discrimination that happens in the workplace goes back to prevailing gender stereotypes. When he was growing up, his mother took over his grandfather’s auto shop. He noticed that employees and suppliers would always undermine her for being a woman. “Palagi siyang minamaliit ng mga mekaniko dahil babae siya, na parang, ‘wala ka namang alam sa pag-aayos ng kotse.’”

But when his father managed the shop, there were no such problems. When Cleofas took over after his father died — and by this time he already passed as male — he says, “Nakita ko na 'yung respect ng mga tao sa akin ay kung paano nila nirespeto 'yung tatay ko. May something talaga sa workplace na nilalagay talaga 'yung tao sa [kahon] na ‘ito lang 'yung pwede sa babae, ito 'yung pwede sa lalaki.’”


“Tayo ay kapwa. ‘Pag tayo'y may nakilalang tao, LGBTQ+ man siya o hindi, kailangan ituring mo siya bilang kapwa mo tao.”— Naomi Fontanos


10. Coming out and transitioning takes a long time and a lot of adjustment for everyone in the family.

“As you transition, they transition as well,” says Habijan, who shares that she came out to her family two years ago by writing them a letter the day before her birthday. “For the longest time before I came out, the biggest fear was ‘will I be accepted?’ Kasi tanggap na ko bilang bakla. Nag-come into terms na sila na ang anak nila ay bakla. And then biglang, ah hindi, ang puso niya ay babae.”

“But surprisingly, my dad said, ‘If you think you'll become a better person as a woman, then go live your life,’” she says. “Nakatulong din perhaps that they saw my friends and my father particularly asked, ‘Ano ang ibig sabihin ng trans?’”

“Minsan kasi, parang kunwari, ‘pag nabigla ka na parang nabuhusan ka ng malamig na tubig. Pero dahil nga siguro inunti-unti ko sila [they slowly understood],” she says, sharing that she first grew out her hair, then made adjustments with her wardrobe, before fully coming out. She also said she tried to understand when her family would call her by her old name. “They’ve always known you as this person, so it’s hard for them to just drop the name that they’ve been calling you.”

There is research that suggests that family acceptance — even just one member of the family — reduces the risk of mental illness and suicide in a transgender individual.

But the group points out that it is also okay if you don’t want to come out to your entire family, or if it takes a while for them to adjust.

For Cayamanda, coming out was simply a matter of telling his mother that he would be going to Malaysia on behalf of his organization, PFTM. While they never discussed it afterwards, Cayamanda suspected that she looked up the meaning of transgender on her own. “With my mom, syempre may sense of pride siyang naramdaman na, ‘Uy, ipapadala ka,’” he says. “Usually that's the thing about parents … they want us to go places … Tapos sinabi niya sakin na parang, ‘Kung ano man 'yung ginagawa mo, masaya ako para sayo.’”

“We have to take [away the notion that SOGIE is just for LGBTQ+ people],” says Cayamanda. “The SOGIE Equality bill is ... for everyone.” Photo by JL JAVIER

11. There is a need for more sensitive storytelling of trans narratives.

Five years ago, trans woman Jennifer Laude was killed by U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton after revealing her trans identity. As the incident caused a media firestorm, the media struggled to identify Jennifer by her correct pronouns, used her old name in reports, and portrayed her as a male. When Gretchen Diez’s issue happened, there were far less issues than before, marking a significant change in how the media tells trans stories.

However, Fontanos and Doble note that when it comes to trans deaths, there is still an issue of sensationalizing the crime, particularly in terms of highlighting graphic details and sending out clickbait headlines. Such was the case with the recent death of trans woman Jessa Remiendo.

“I just hope the media would be more cautious and sensitive, especially in detailing the ways that they are killed. Because those details can be triggering to people who are reading them or seeing them. And they're also insensitive to the loved ones left behind,” says Fontanos. “It's retraumatizing particularly to members of the LGBTQ+ community who have, historically, experienced so much violence.”

There are several media guides that news sites and publications can turn to when reporting news about LGBTQ+ incidents, such as the GLAAD Media Reference.

12. Fighting for their basic human rights takes a physical and mental toll on trans and LGBQI+ people. This is why it’s integral for straight, cisgender allies to help in the fight for gender equality.

“That burden for advocates is a very heavy burden to carry,” says Doble. “Kaya nga we need other people who want to step up to actually step up and help us along this journey na ipasa ang SOGIE Equality Bill and other future legislations for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Salinas mentions that there are many opportunities for straight and cisgender people to partake in efforts to change the system. “For example, Naomi is part of a lot of orgs. So I assume there are a lot of projects there for people who want to be allies. Sa Bahaghari, we're launching a mass campaign called Achib Dis Bill 2020 because we want to pass the ADB by 2020. These are opportunities that should not just be populated by members of the LGBTQ+ community. This is something that should be open to everyone regardless of your SOGIE.”


It has been five years since Jennifer Laude’s death. Since then, transgender people in the Philippines are still getting killed and are still denied access to human rights such as the right to self-identify and the right to sanitation — where sanitation is defined as “services that provide privacy and ensure dignity, and that are physically accessible, affordable, safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable.”

While a pervading culture of trans and homophobia is a huge part of the problem, with LGBTQ+ acceptance remaining conditional, there is no law that currently protects LGBTQ+ people from SOGIE-based discrimination.

This October, Jennifer Laude’s death anniversary also falls under the same day as National Coming Out Day. As more years go by since her death, the hope of most transgender people is that coming out would no longer be a matter of life or death.