Refinery29 has partnered with Allison Rapson and Kassidy Brown, founders of the media company We are the XX, for a documentary series exploring the lives of women around the world. "A Woman's Place" features the empowering stories of female activists working for real change in their communities. This story draws on interviews conducted by Rapson and Brown, as well as additional reporting from Refinery29 in New York.
Geena Rocero vividly remembers when she first laid eyes on her California driver’s license at age 19: “It was beautiful, it was powerful, it was validating,” she recalled. For Rocero, an international model born in the Philippines, that photo ID card was about much more than being able to legally drive or establishing herself as a California resident. For Rocero, the power was in the gender listed on the card: female.
“All of a sudden, I felt like I could conquer my dreams, I felt like I could go anywhere in the world and announce to the world: 'This is where I am. Look at my ID.' It reflected who I am," said Rocero, who is transgender. Now, Rocero is helping lead the charge for equal rights and legal recognition for transgender people in her home country.
In some respects, the trans community in the Philippines occupies a uniquely visible platform in local culture. Unlike the U.S., where transgender models have struggled to be included, the Philippines' vibrant pageant tradition has long celebrated transgender beauty. Families flock to the popular beauty competitions, which are often timed to coincide with festivals. Some are broadcast nationally.
“Even the smallest village here in the Philippines celebrates fiesta,” Maki Gingoyon, an activist and former beauty pageant contestant, said. “And in every fiesta celebration, there is always a beauty pageant for transgender women.”
But broader cultural and political barriers remain in the battle to win acceptance and equal rights for trans individuals, advocates argue.
In the predominantly Catholic Philippines, transgender women and men cannot change their gender under national law. Confusion about the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation is widespread, thanks in part to the use of the term bakla to describe both gay men and transgender women.
The absence of full recognition and legal protection opens the door to discrimination, both in the workplace and in society as a whole. And, as the 2014 murder of transgender woman Jennifer Laude demonstrated, hate crimes remain a real threat. The Philippines had one of the highest rates of murders of transgender people in all of Asia from 2008 to 2014, according to the international Trans Murder Monitoring project.
Those troubling factors led the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines to tell the U.N. Human Rights Council that the transgender community is “one of the most marginalized and neglected sectors in the Philippines in terms of human rights protection, promotion, and fulfillment" in 2012.
Rocero and activists on the ground and abroad are trying to change that. They're pushing for the passage of an anti-discrimination law that would allow for gender changes on official documentation, a proposal that has long stalled in the country's government. They are also working to end stigma by encouraging transgender women to speak out about their experiences.
Gingoyon told Refinery29 that her goal is to “be legally acknowledged [for] who you really are, regardless of what’s between your legs.” She said she experienced the perils of discrimination firsthand, when she was denied access to the women's locker room at a local gym. She fought back with a campaign on social media that she said attracted broad support.
As a former pageant contestant, Gingoyon sees the competitions as a “platform to tell everybody our message...where we can tell everyone the things that we want to achieve, how we want to be perceived...to tell people about this sense of transgender women, and that we are not gay guys,” Gingoyon said.
But misconceptions still exist: Some major beauty pageants are still marketed as “Miss Gay” competitions. "Transgender" didn't even enter into the national lexicon until the early 2000s, when groups such as The Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) came into existence.
The conflicting treatment raises the question, for Gingoyan, of "why we are socially celebrated here, but we are not legally acknowledged and we are not legally protected."
Many transgender women and men report that the absence of those protections leads to difficulty finding work, particularly when it comes to jobs outside the pageant circuit or entertainment industry. Dr. Brenda Alegre, now a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong and a member of STRAP, said she applied to 50 jobs as a young transgender woman, with few results.
"It was impossible," she recalled. "I was from one of the four top universities. I was in the upper 20% of the graduating class."
She eventually found a job working in the human resources department of a music retail business; then, she moved on to join an international call center for 10 years. There, she found corporate policies provided her with some protections, like the ability to use the women’s restroom, though she continued to face some discrimination from local managers.
“They have a global mission and vision statements. Most should be gender-blind and sexuality-blind,” Alegre said.
Emmanuel David, an assistant professor of women and gender studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, interviewed dozens of transgender call-center agents in the Philippines as part of his research. David told Refinery29 that while tensions do exist still in such workplaces, the centers have created a “safe space” for many transgender workers.
Those call-center openings appeal to people who want to "make a livelihood without relying on the jobs stereotypically associated with trans women,” David said. These include positions in the beauty or entertainment industries, or sex work, he added. The agent positions, viewed as "cosmopolitan" roles, have even helped some transgender women achieve higher social and economic status.
Many local advocacy groups are now seeking to empower the transgender community to take advantage of those gains and continue to push for equal rights and recognition. The key to that effort, the groups say, is urging transgender women to speak up. Rocero points to her own experience coming out to the world as a transgender woman during a TED Talk in 2014. So far, her speech has been viewed more than 2.7 million times.
"I wanted it big. I wanted it big and loud, because I knew as well as you know that I was risking something," Rocero said.
Rocero used her TED Talk as a launching pad for her own advocacy efforts, speaking on LGBTQ rights throughout the world and forming the Gender Proud organization.
Earlier this year, Gender Proud teamed up with other organizations to host a series of workshops for transgender women and allies in the Philippines. They urged participants to share their stories to promote understanding of the community and the challenges its members face.
“Nobody knows our stories like ourselves,” Rocero told one group gathered for a seminar on speaking to the media. And finding the courage to tell those stories could help inspire the change Rocero and others are seeking, giving the country's transgender women the recognition and rights they deserve.
“We are already here,” Gingoyon said. “They just don’t know about who we really are, and how we want to be accepted and perceived in the community.”