Transitioning and Embracing Change

I had the fortune of interacting with Bataan first district Representative Geraldine Roman during the National Women’s Summit 2016 held last June 24 in Davao City. The summit’s theme, “What Women Want: Change!” was really fitting as we celebrate the election of the first Philippine President from Mindanao and the first transgender legislator in Philippine Congress. Change is, indeed, here.

The women leaders from all over the country warmly embraced Rep. Roman as one of them. In her message of solidarity, she said: “I was elected to represent only my hometown of Bataan but I have now also become a de facto representative of the LGBT community in Congress, which I am proud and happy to do.”

Yes, President Rodrigo R. Duterte is not the only superstar in the country now. Rep. Roman has her own legions of fans and supporters wishing her well.

People are making a big deal out of Roman’s election as the first transgender person elected to Congress and rightly so because it is a Congress that has still failed to pass the anti-discrimination bill.  So, perhaps, Roman’s gender has nothing to do with her election; it was her family name that helped her win.

But even if Roman got elected to Congress despite her being a transgender woman and not because of it, she now has an opportunity to raise awareness among her fellow legislators the kind of discrimination being experienced by transgender people and why it is important that we as a nation committed to promoting human rights must pass the anti-discrimination bill sooner rather than later.

In one of her interviews, Roman said: “The world and nature are not perfect. Gender is technically what is between our legs, but it is actually what is in our brain. It’s our identity and our consciousness. Life is complicated. I didn’t choose to be like this.”

Actually, sex is what is between our legs and the reproductive system we’re born with. Gender is our learned notion of what is masculine and feminine or how someone who is born male or female should act according to social norms.

Gender, like life, is complicated. There is gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.  These are three different concepts. Gender identity is someone’s personal identification as a man, woman, or a gender outside of societal norms. Gender expression refers to characteristics and behaviors a person identifies with that can be viewed as masculine, feminine, a mix of both, or neither. Sexual orientation is who someone is sexually attracted to.

Gender identity is who you really are (your consciousness, how you see yourself). Gender expression is what you show others and the world (how you act and behave). Sexual orientation is who you are sexually attracted to. Oftentimes, the three are neatly aligned based on social norms. But sometimes, they are not.

So a transgender person can identity as a woman, even though her assigned sex was male at birth, and may be straight (attracted to men), gay (attracted to other women), bisexual (attracted to both men and women), asexual (sexually attracted to no one).

Transitioning is a long, complicated process that involves more than simple surgery. Transpeople also have to go through personal, legal, and social changes. In fact, some may not even go through medical procedures at all. It is not simple for a lot of people.

When Rep. Roman said that she “did not choose to be like this” we better believe her. Because who would choose to go through all that trouble just for the heck of it?

People undergo a long and painful transition when the gender they were assigned at birth conflicts with their gender identity because not doing so can lead to “distress, dysfunction, debilitating depression, and, for some people without access to appropriate medical care and treatment, suicide and death,” according to the American Medical Association.

Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is not an illness or mental disorder. On the contrary, not being able to express your true gender identity is the one that can lead you to illness.

Gender dysphoria — a state of emotional distress caused by how someone’s body or the gender they were assigned at birth conflicts with their gender identity — is a widely recognized medical condition. If untreated, it can lead to severe mental health issues.

If the gender you were assigned at birth corresponds to your gender identity, then you are one of the lucky ones because you do not need to transition to be who you really are. For some people, they need to transition to live healthy, happy, authentic lives. And it is their human right to do so and we must do everything we can to support them.

President Duterte is committed to providing strong leadership to effect genuine change in Philippine society. That includes making our society more inclusive and eliminating all forms of discrimination. Under his leadership, Davao City passed an anti-discrimination ordinance, making it one of the first local government units in the country to do so. We are hopeful that now that he is the leader of the entire nation, the LGBT community will be embraced as an integral part of the whole country.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, July 7, 2016.