Trans Rite of Passage: A Personal Story Towards Acceptance and Advocacy

“Finding strong support systems is critical to our survival. Without them, continuing to fight for equal rights in a world full of prejudice against the LGBTQ+ would be difficult. Without support, we are easily conditioned to accept the status quo, to the point where even expecting our equal treatment is asking for too much.”

By: Martha de la Paz

I dream of a better future for LGBTQ+ Filipinos. Being a trans woman myself, I have always been inclined to pay it forward to the LGBTQ+ community, knowing my coming-out story is unlike the stories of many others like me. While I still experienced hardships and adversity, I was fortunate to have a strong support system with my family, friends, and colleagues, which led me to obtain a career in the health sector where my transness was never seen as an issue. I am keenly aware, however, that not every LGBTQ+ individual has the same opportunity as me, so my heart chooses to serve my community. I hope that every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex Filipino, and everyone else who is part of the spectrum can receive the acceptance and support that I did. By being a part of the Samya Stumo Fellowship at ThinkWell, and listening to the stories of my community, especially those who are not provided the opportunity to let their voices be heard and understood, I will be able to provide a new lens to my fellow policymakers. We deserve a lens that acknowledges LGBTQ+ Filipinos as bona fide members of our nation and celebrates us by providing inclusive and responsive health services.

The importance of support systems

Support has always been the backbone of my sense of security. Without my friends and family, I wouldn’t be the woman that I am today, imagining a better society for LGBTQ+ Filipinos and fighting for a cause bigger than myself. Looking back, however, the journey to self-acceptance wasn’t always smooth. I was feminine as a kid: I liked playing with toys marketed for young girls, and I enjoyed the company of my female cousins and friends the most. Because I was inclined to feminine traits, I often was ridiculed. As early as eight years old I was already being called bakla (gay) because of my feminine behavior. While I didn’t fully understand what being “gay” meant at the time, I felt ashamed. I was introduced early on to the stigma that surrounded that word. This was further reinforced by my years in a boy’s Catholic school. With strict dress codes, haircut requirements, and intolerance for femininity and homosexuality, we were taught that boys should be nothing but masculine and straight. I grew up in an environment where feminine actions or tendencies would result in bullying or persecution. When I realized that I was attracted to the same sex in middle school, I did everything to conceal it. I befriended straight masculine guys to blend in and avoided gay friends who came out of the closet early. Homophobia was part of my everyday life until I  started to make friends who are confident and proud of themselves. They were able to express their authentic selves despite how they were treated in school. Being surrounded by people who were unapologetic about who they were and accepting me regardless of my sexual orientation inspired me to do the same. Despite fears of not being accepted by other peers, I knew that I had friends who would accept me at the end of the day. Fortunately, straight friends didn’t treat me differently when I finally came out. It even enabled me to build deeper friendships with them because I tore down my walls.

My acceptance of my sexual orientation paved the way towards discovering my true gender identity. Not to be conflated with each other, sexual orientation and gender identity mean two very different things. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s physical, romantic, emotional attraction towards other people, while gender identity reflects a deeply felt and experienced sense of one’s gender, whether as male, female, a blend of both, or neither. The distinction is unknown to many Filipinos because it was only recently that trans people, individuals whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth, became widely visible because of media. So, like other trans Filipinos, I had to come out for a second time as a trans woman. And because I was able to receive strong support from old and new friends, accepting my gender identity became easier. My environment also played a significant role in facilitating my transition. The lack of strict dress codes and haircut rules in my university allowed me to express myself, paving the way for me to become the woman I am today. There were other trans students like me, from whom I learned the basics of SOGIESC and the differences between being gay and being trans. They supported me in my ascension into womanhood – changing my name to Martha and using the women’s restroom in school.

Finding strong support systems is critical to our survival. Without them, continuing to fight for equal rights in a world full of prejudice against the LGBTQ+ would be difficult. Without support, we are easily conditioned to accept the status quo, to the point where even expecting our equal treatment is asking for too much. While I was fortunate to find mine, others do not have this same luxury. By doing this project, my goal is to transform health systems into better support systems. By sharing stories of how support empowered LGBTQ+ individuals to have better health and lives, I aim to begin discussions on how health services can be a means to provide support. For example, mental health providers that treat stigma, discrimination, and ostracization as critical factors for depression and anxiety can give LGBTQ+ people better support. Additionally, primary care staff teaching parents the importance of providing children unconditional support will promote better physical and mental health for LGBTQ+ youth.

Education as a vehicle towards acceptance

Transitioning in a country where people do not understand the difference between being gay and trans made me realize my role in patiently educating the people. Coming out to my parents as a gay adolescent was easy. I will never forget the day my mom told me that she had always known and still loved me for who I am. I will never forget when my dad said he accepted me no matter what because me being a good person is what matters to him. When I told my parents that I am trans and a woman, it was difficult for them to adjust. I had to patiently explain that sexual orientation and gender identity are distinct, and people can have gender identities opposite to their sex. The disparity reflects the greater degree of marginalization the trans community faces in the Philippines and globally. They were also concerned about the possibility that I get gender confirmation surgery since it was against their Catholic beliefs that I tamper with God’s design. In response, I shared the story of Geraldine Roman, the first trans woman elected to the Philippine Congress. Before undergoing gender confirmation, she received the support of Jesuits, who told her that what was important to God was our heart, not whatever was between our legs. They were also concerned that I would experience more discrimination as a trans woman. I told them that for as long as they were by my side, I could withstand any discrimination that came my way. Again, I was fortunate that my parents’ love for me prevailed. Since then, my life has been continuously educating people about SOGIE and the value of LBGTQ+ lives.

Education is an important tool in developing a more inclusive health system. By sharing examples of how inclusive health providers positively impact our community’s health-seeking behavior or the exact opposite, I hope fellow policymakers recognize the need to implement SOGIE sensitivity training for health workers. With various LGBTQ+ organizations already providing this, we can also tap and scale up these initiatives. Creating a cadre of SOGIE-inclusive doctors, nurses, and other health workers will promote LGBTQ persons to feel comfortable seeking health services because they feel accepted by the system.

The power of stories

Through my project with ThinkWell, I aim to provide an avenue for LGBTQ+ Filipino. Enabling their voices to be heard, then translating those into policy and concrete action. As I begin my work, I’m coming to realize the power of storytelling; not only my personal story but also the stories of other LGBTQ+ Filipinos who share the same difficulties in navigating the health system and achieving the acceptance and recognition we truly deserve. I believe every story is worth hearing, whether it be circumstances within a health setting or their personal stories as LGBTQ+ individuals.

By the end of the fellowship, I will use all these experiences to raise awareness on LGBTQ+ health among policymakers in the Department of Health. We need to start discussions to increase their understanding of our different health needs and the social factors that make our health complex, as well as determine current efforts that provide us opportunities to begin the portfolio. As we begin the work, I envision the creation of a policy framework that outlines strategies as our first major output that I hope will pave the way for the development of LGBTQ+ inclusive primary care and specialty care services, including sexual and mental health, as well as increase the inclusivity of our health providers. Along the way, I also hope to increase the participation of LGBTQ+ individuals and organizations in the health policy process. By increasing the representation of my community, it will not only institutionalize my project but also pave the way towards inclusive policy development.

My journey with the Samya Stumo Fellowship is only the beginning of my life-long mission. Although I am aware that the battle for equal rights will be hard, I am not alone. The voices of my community, as well as the support of my friends, family, and colleagues, will keep me continuing to create reforms that build an inclusive Philippine health system that celebrates our LGBTQ+ uniqueness and create tailored fit programs that respond to our health needs.