When Geraldine Roman was campaigning for a House post last May, her rivals described her as “a castrated chicken” who was bound to “shortchange” her constituents. Despite the slur, she handily won as representative of Bataan’s first district, a political victory that she attributes to her late parents’ good record as elected officials themselves, and not to her identity as the first Filipino transgender elected to national office.
But Roman, recently named one of Time magazine’s Most Inspiring Women of 2016, was being modest. Though trivialized by her political opponents, her campaign seriously tackled issues of gender and sexism.
On its online subsidiary Motto, Time described Roman’s success as the first transgender elected representative as “truly inspiring.” She was lauded for having lobbied consistently for an antidiscrimination bill, and for campaigning for more rights for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. (Roman is in stellar company. Among Time’s other inspiring women, chosen for “celebrating the power of girls and campaigning for gender equality worldwide,” are US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, performer Solange Knowles, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, and Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui.)
Time quoted Roman as telling her colleagues in Congress during her first privilege speech: “Recognizing [LGBT] rights and dignity will in no way diminish yours. 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.”
As the face of the LGBT community in Philippine politics, Roman has persisted in bringing to the table issues of discrimination that continue to bedevil the country’s gay population. Unlike most politicians, she walked her talk even during her campaign when, against the well-meaning advice of friends and supporters, she insisted on wearing pearls and makeup and carried a Japanese umbrella while on the stump, saying it was her “branding”—a way to present her real self to voters.
Seeking national office “is a statement that even transgender people can serve our country and should not be discriminated against,” she said.
Roman’s election was hailed as a “huge breakthrough” in a country where the culture of machismo continues to prevail and is often highlighted by a constant stream of sexist jokes from the country’s highest official.
In an interview with the Inquirer in July, she noted: “Members of the LGBT community are accepted and tolerated. But when push comes to shove, they have no legal protection.” She hopes to muster enough support for the 24 bills she has filed so far, including the latest incarnation of the antidiscrimination bill for the LGBT community, a measure that has languished in Congress for many years. The measure seeks to penalize discriminatory practices against LGBTs and to offer them equal state protection.
Roman, who has lived as a woman for the past 22 years and had sexual reassignment surgery in 1994, spent the past three months learning the ropes of legislative work and working to change the mindset of her House colleagues. It’s not an easy task, considering that not too long ago, boxing champ turned senator Manny Pacquiao labeled homosexuals as “worse than animals.” He has since apologized for the remark, but his rigid views are common among most politicians playing to the gallery, specifically the Catholic Church that remains a powerful force in Philippine politics.
The international recognition given Roman should pave the way for a more open acceptance of diversity and tolerance for differences. Her election is itself an indication that Philippine society is moving past bigotry and limited views into progressive thinking and a slow but steady acceptance of gender preferences.
She has a challenging role to play toward this end, and her citation by a prestigious organization should start a wellspring of support and act as a collective push to keep us moving forward.
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