Transempire | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Transempire

/ 01:15 AM October 22, 2014

The murder of Jennifer Laude in Olongapo, with a US Marine being held as the suspect, has resulted in a term, “transgender,” being used all over the media often with some confusion. I thought I should write something not just about transgender persons but also about cultural attitudes in the Philippines and the United States toward them that may explain why this hate crime occurred.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines “transgender” as “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.”

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An older term, “transsexual,” was used mainly in the medical world to refer to people who are convinced they were born into the wrong body.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the concern, especially among US physicians, was to come up with criteria on who a “true” transsexual was, which then became the basis for allowing “sex change” surgery.

“Transgender” was a term that came about more recently, in the context of the struggles of “sexual minorities” for civil rights as described by the term “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). I will save the alphabet soup of gender and sexuality categories for another column; I just want to emphasize that the term “transgender” is very political, describing struggles for rights and social acceptance.

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The word has spun off many terms, including the abbreviations “TG” and “trans,” A “transman” is someone born a woman but whose identity is that of a man.  A “transwoman” is someone who was born male but whose gender identity is that of a female. Laude is an example—born Jeffrey but described by relatives and friends as having always looked at herself as a female, and thus adopting the name Jennifer.

TG different from gay

Transgender is not the same as sexual orientation, which refers to the sex of people you are attracted to.  Fasten your seatbelts as I try to explain the possible configurations:

A person can be a transman attracted to men.  As a woman, this transman’s sexual orientation would be straight or heterosexual, but if she transitions to become a male, and is still sexually attracted to men, she would now be gay or homosexual.

Transgenders have become very assertive about their rights, fighting for “transinclusiveness,” meaning a recognition of transgendered people and protection from discrimination.  This means fighting “transphobia” or a fear, even hatred, of transgenders. The transphobia is often tied to homophobia or a fear of homosexuals since people confuse sexual orientation and gender identity.

There are all kinds of TG organizations and support groups today, including online sites offering advice for transitioning, which is moving from one gender to another, usually through medical treatment such as the use of hormones. Women transitioning into men will take testosterone, leading to masculinization, including the growth of facial and body hair. Men transitioning into women will use oral or injectable estrogens, sometimes combined with a drug to suppress testosterone. The result is the enlargement of the breasts, and skin becoming finer.

The APA warns people not to be too quick with labeling. There are people who choose to be androgynous, meaning mixing male and female clothing and behavior, but are simply gender nonconformists rather than transgenders.  Likewise, there are transgenders who are content not to have hormonal treatment, or sex change surgery, the term giving way to more politically correct ones like “gender reassignment.”

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TGs in PH

The transgender in the Philippines goes back in history; the Spanish missionaries wrote about cross-dressing men described as bayoguin, or asog, among other terms, who performed religious functions.  Similar categories exist in Southeast Asia, such as the waria in Indonesia and the kathoey in Thailand and Laos.

The term bakla seems to be more recent, but is mainly identified with men taking on feminized roles, and later used to refer as well to gay men, again because of the idea that a gay man has a pusong babae (a woman’s heart).  In recent years, the English “TG” now seems to have entered Filipino, to clearly distinguish transgenders from gay men.

TGs in the Philippines face discrimination, including violence, but are, at the same time, accepted for certain professions. Until a few years ago, one could take the bakla/transgender role if you were low-income and worked in a beauty parlor, or in a dress shop.  Today, as LGBT advocacy has grown, the range of professions for TGs has expanded: as store clerks (especially in the tiangge), government offices (my last passport renewal was processed by a TG), even as gas station attendants.

When did transgenders, transwomen in particular, enter the sex trade?

It’s hard to say, but I remember seeing them in Makati even in the 1990s.  Even earlier than that, there were many transgenders who worked in Japan at the height of the “japayuki.”  These TGs worked in bars that catered to Japanese men who knew the “women” were actually transgenders.

Many cultures allow a gray area for transgenders, including having boyfriends.  The Japanese men who go to TG “japayuki,” Laude’s German boyfriend, and local men who establish relationships with TGs do not look at themselves as gay.  As far as they are concerned, their relationship is with a woman, defined beyond biology.

TGs have tended to suffer more discrimination in the United States compared to, say, western Europe, because US culture tends to be much more rigid about gender roles, with hypermasculinized (John Wayne, Rambo types) and hyperfeminized (models, beauty queens) roles set up to emulate.

In many larger urbanized areas in America, gender expectations have become more flexible, with greater acceptance of androgyny (a mix of male and female traits in one’s clothing, body movements, and overall behavior). But in smaller cities and rural areas, there is still a very strong mix of homophobia and transphobia.

I can only speculate about two possible scenarios in the Laude tragedy.  One is the US Marine picking up Laude for sex, thinking she was a biological woman, and going into a rage when he discovers she’s transgender.  The other is the GI already harboring strong homophobia and/or transphobia, and looking for a victim.

Some 660 US military personnel are permanently stationed in the Philippines under the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, with another 1,500 coming into the country occasionally to participate in “war games” through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.   

Each “war game” revives the sex industry in the towns hosting these visitors.  Sex work makes the situation more volatile with all its power dynamics, the client feeling he is entitled to whatever he wants from the sex worker.  It is worse in the context of an unequal relationship, of a soldier from a former imperial power, America, visiting a neocolony, the Philippines, still in a “transempire” state, wanting to be sovereign yet dependent on a former colonial master for “security”.

Before Laude’s case, we already had many problems with visiting US servicemen’s sexual R&R (rest and recreation) activities, mainly with women as victims.  In Laude’s case, US soldiers’ condescending view of the “natives” became even more problematic, mixed with homophobia and transphobia.  The Laude tragedy shows how questions of national sovereignty are projected into the personal, into bodies and sexuality.

(E-mail: [email protected])

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TAGS: Jennifer Laude, LGBT, sexual R&R, transgender, Visiting Forces Agreement
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