By Sarah Meier
Not often do we consider ourselves “lucky” on the spectrum of discrimination. As Filipinos, there is an inherent chip on our shoulder from years of colonial rule, marked by the continued obsession with skin-whitening, heightened brand consciousness, and an importance on hygiene; amoy-araw being a fascinatingly unique measure of apparent poverty. Classism is alive and well on our islands, and were we not such a homogenous society, so too might racism.
But when it comes to gender, things are a little bit different. I’ve written before about what rights are afforded to women in the Philippines, and while many things like the wage gap and sexist discrepancies in our family laws still remain unaddressed, two female presidents is still two more than some of the most progressive countries in the free world. Today, however, I want to delve a little deeper into the world of our transgender population.
I begin with a disclaimer that I do not pretend to even remotely know what it is like to be a transgender in the Philippines. But after reading Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out there were some observations that I picked up on in relation to our culture, versus the American one. Mainly that our language, and the way it is constructed, eliminates some of the most agonizing identity issues that the transgender have to deal with.
I’m talking about pronouns.
For those of you reading that still aren’t entirely familiar with what it means to be a transgender, allow me to begin with a feeble attempt at simplifying it. First, let me clarify that gender and sexual preference are two completely separate things. Gender, as many know it, is assigned at birth based on the genitalia we have as babies. Sexual preference determines who we are attracted to. A gay man, for example, knows he is a man who likes men. A gay woman knows she is a woman who is attracted to other women. The transgender world is a little more complicated.
It often begins with a person realizing they have been born in the wrong body, a chain of compounding events marked by that first announcement at the hospital. “It’s a boy!” (Or in more modern-day scenarios, at baby reveal parties, with the popping of a balloon or the cutting of a cake, insides spilling out in pink. “It’s a girl!”)
For many trans individuals, awareness comes relatively early on, school years posing a series of dilemmas. One story in which a young girl who identified as a boy, and honestly did not know the difference, was suspended from school for taking off her shirt when the basketball teams in the playground divvied off into “shirts” and “skins.” Another saw a child being reprimanded for going into the “wrong” restroom, propelling the young student to a point of confusion that they chose never to go to the bathroom at school, later developing a severe urinary infection. So to be trans, essentially means you look in the mirror and see a body that does not belong to you, in some way, shape, or form.
To show how much more complex it is though, let me add that sexual preference is not necessarily determined by either the assigned gender at birth or the gender they identify as. Sexual preference, as mentioned earlier, is another matter entirely. Also, there is a spectrum of where on the gender arch a person might fall. No two transgendered stories are ever quite the same.
As an individual chooses to transition, there are decisions to be made. Hormones and, later, surgery are some of the more difficult ones. But it is often the choosing of a name and a pronoun that are the gateway to beginning a transition in a public setting. Having called your cousin “he” for years, for example, might have to change one day, and erroneously reverting to “he” could be extremely painful for your cousin. Some transgender individuals choose to be referred to as “they,” taking into account a more fluid dynamic between their gender identities. In America, it is not uncommon to see e-mails being sent and seeing, in the signature, the sender’s name, contact info, and their chosen pronoun. It is part of an increasingly growing effort to become more inclusive of diverse gender realities. Mine, for example might read: “Sarah Meier, firstname.lastname@example.org, Pronoun: She.” Some offices, too, have a person’s chosen pronoun engraved underneath the nameplate on their door, or at their cubicle.
And this is where I bring it back to the Philippines. Discussing the topic in a diversity committee meeting in Brooklyn, I gasp slightly upon realizing it. “We don’t have gendered pronouns in the Philippines! Siya is the singular ‘they.’ Niya is the singular ‘their.’” It was a light bulb moment.
What was the bane of so many balikbayan Pinoys assimilating into America, jumbling up the “his and hers” was in fact the saving grace for an entire community! So high five to us for being unwittingly progressive.
Now, to become consciously progressive…therein lies our next adventure.