For the first time in Congress, a transgender politician lobbies for an anti-discrimination bill

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Geraldine Roman takes the podium to lobby for an anti-discrimination bill based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), which seeks to define and punish discriminatory acts specifically directed against LGBTQs. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Congresswoman Geraldine Roman of the first district of Bataan — addressed by Deputy Speaker Sharon Garin as “the lady from Bataan” — looked radiant as she sat in the second to the last row inside the storied hall of the House of Representatives.

She was glowing. She would glow even as she fought back tears later on, a few minutes upon delivering her first privilege speech before the session hall. She would glow as she parried questions from her eight or so interpellators, including Rep. Rolando Andaya, Jr. of the first district of Camarines Sur, who would repeatedly address her as “Congressman.”

Clad in a white corporate dress and heels, her short brown hair neatly combed in place and her makeup flawless, the statuesque lady from Bataan politely corrected the gentleman from Camarines Sur. “Congresswoman,” she asserted, and smiled.

Before that Monday’s session of the 17th Congress opened, however, the first Filipino transgender congresswoman can be seen composing herself among her fellow elected representatives, as would a student behave in an otherwise rowdy high school classroom. From up in the gallery, empty chairs begged from the first row of the session hall. Lawmakers in the back reclined in their blue seats and checked their phones. A few formed tentative clusters, discussing goodness-knows-what while the deputy speaker spoke in front, banged her gavel, and put things in order. A persistent buzz pervaded the atmosphere. The roll call was deferred, because it seems that most were late, or absent.

The session opened at around 4 p.m.

For that session (as is usual on Mondays), Congress has granted three solons the opportunity to advocate for an issue through its privilege hour, and Roman spent approximately one hour and 18 minutes talking about the Anti-Discrimination Bill based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), a bill that seeks to define and punish acts of discrimination specifically directed at the members of the LGBTQ community.

Roman has openly stated that she wants to be more than just a transgender congresswoman, and that she refuses to be typecast as such. But that day, she lent her voice to an LGBTQ rights measure that has languished in Congress for 17 years, with the bill’s supporters and her own hoping that with the help of Roman’s political clout and dignified demeanor, the bill will finally get past Congress and into Senate, and become a law.

                                                           The turning point

Roman’s election as the first Filipino transgender congresswoman was an unexpected turning point, a “paradigm shift” in the battle for better LGBTQ rights, which has been desperately wanting for adequate representation before the twin law making bodies of the House and Senate. Since 1995 (when the first bill recognizing a third sex was filed) various groups had lobbied for an anti-discrimination bill in Congress. The Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network, in 1999, was formed with this aim, with Akbayan representative Etta Rosales filing an anti-discrimination bill in 2000.

Previously, Ang Ladlad — an LGBTQ political party led by Danton Remoto, a party whose registration has been the subject of religious and political opposition in 2010 — lost its bid for a partylist seat in that year and 2013. Ang Ladlad sought to represent the marginalized sector of LGBTQs, disadvantaged because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The party did not run this 2016.

Thus, it did not look like LGBTQ representation would become a reality in the Lower House anytime soon, if not for Roman, who, in May 2016, won by a large margin over her opponent in her home district in Bataan, surprising even international media with her landslide win.

It seemed that LGBTQ advocates, oft dismissed by a political culture still heavily influenced by conservative Catholicism, had found their champion.

“As much as I would have wanted to focus my entire energy to serving the people of the first district of Bataan, in the tradition started by my father and continued by my mother, I cannot turn my back at a group of people who have long suffered discrimination, and have long been denied adequate legal protection,” Roman stated in her privilege speech.

She paused, her voice breaking. “How can I turn my back, how can I turn a blind eye to the suffering that I myself have experienced at some point in my life?”

Together with fellow LGBTQ rights advocates Rep. Christopher de Venecia of Pangasinan and Rep. Kaka Bag-ao of the Dinagat Islands, Rep. Geraldine Roman raises a rainbow sign with the hashtag #equalitychamps. Photo courtesy of the OFFICE OF REP. GERALDINE ROMAN

“Dear colleagues, you know who we are,” she continued. “We are your brothers, we are your sisters, your sons and your daughters, and nieces and nephews. We are your family. We are your friends, your schoolmates, your colleagues at work, your Twitter and Facebook buddies, your neighbors. We are part of society.”

Roman turned emotional as she addressed the members of Congress, and a rare hush fell over the crowd. “We laugh, we cry, we love, and yearn to be loved. We are human beings. We love our families. We love our country. We are proud Filipinos, who just happen to be LGBT.”

“The question is: do we, as members of the LGBT community, share the same rights as all other citizens? Does the State grant us equal protection under our laws?”

Breaking protocol, members of the House and Roman’s supporters in the galleries clapped for her several times, and even gave her a standing ovation at the end. While Roman is espousing a House Bill that was drafted in the 16th Congress through the leadership of Rep. Kaka Bag-ao of the Dinagat Islands, it is expected that her considerable influence (she is, after all, part of an esteemed political dynasty) as well as her status as the “first Filipino transgender congresswoman” (and all the media attention that entails) will help drive a campaign pressuring Congress to pass the bill.

The campaign has already started. During her speech, she used the hashtag #equalitychampions to drum up publicity for the bill, already co-authored by more than 100 representatives in the House. She gave each of these allies a single rose, placed on their tables in the session hall, as a gesture of her thanks.

                                                         Heart of a woman

After Congress suspended its session to call the roll — a suspension which would lead to adjournment — Roman took the time to talk to a few friends in a coffee shop located in the Batasan’s south wing. “Award ba?” she asked of her speech, shyly laughing as she does.

She introduced us to Dexter Dominguez, more popularly known as the former comedian Teri Onor, who has been elected to a final term as provincial board member in Bataan. The election of two LGBTQ individuals to political posts in Bataan, said Dominguez, is proof of how gender and sexuality issues are not a hindrance for those wanting to serve in public office. “Hindi hadlang ang kasarian sa taong gustong manungkulan,” he added. “Dalawa ang puso namin, lalake at babae, at kapag naglingkod, pwedeng pagsilbihan pareho.”

“Pero ako, pusong babae,” interrupted Roman. Beside her was her husband, Alberto, with whom she converses in Spanish.

Also with Roman at the end of her first privilege speech — a sort of “baptism by fire” for newly-elected representatives — were Rep. Christopher de Venecia of the fourth district of Pangasinan and Rep. Cristal Bagatsing of the fifth district of Manila, both of whom propounded questions during Roman’s interpellation. The interpellation tested the readiness of a proponent to defend an advocacy or proposed legislation.

Among others, Roman had made it clear before the House that the Anti-Discrimination Bill was just that: a bill that punishes specific acts of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, two concepts she repeatedly defined that afternoon. The bill, she added, did not push for same-sex marriage, nor pushed for measures to change names and gender markers to conform to one’s gender identity. Those are measures, she implied, that can wait another day. That Monday, she was simply fighting against discrimination.

“Recognizing our rights and dignity will in no way diminish yours,” she has stated earlier. “We are not asking for special privileges or extra rights. We simply ask for equality. With inclusiveness and diversity, our nation has so much to gain.”