She wears a blue dress with billowy sleeves, A ribbon wrapped around her small waist. Her nails are long and pale, her fingers long and delicate, her hair long and smooth and straight. There is vanilla in her tall cup of fluffy coffee, and she drops her chin on her palm when she talks about falling in love for the first time. He was 16, she was 17, and even now, she remembers how he held her hand for the first time. There has never been anyone serious since then, after all, she considers herself a 19th-century romantic, and requires sparks and true love.

Her name is Sass, although when she was born 27 years ago, the doctor said she was a boy.

Sass is one of the co-founders of STRAP, the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines. At 3:30 on a sunny Monday afternoon, she gives an impromptu lecture on defining what a transgender is.

There are four terms to understand, says the girl in blue dress. First: gender assignment—the legal sex, the male/female box on the passport and the birth certificate. Second: gender identity—the gender felt, the gender “you believe yourself to be.” Third: gender expression—the outward manifestation of gender, the clothes, the hair, the flick of the wrist, the swing of the hip or the manly gait. Fourth: gender preference—who a person is attracted to, romantically, sexually.

The transsexual, says Sass, is the person with a gender identity opposite to the gender assignment. Transsexualism is a medical term, which is why many of them prefer to be called transgender.

Sass says society believes in linear gender: A male must believe himself a man, dress male, and love a female. There are many permutations to gender, she says, and is herself a woman born male who loves men and adores three-inch heels. Her shoe collection includes red leather peep toe stilettos from Janilyn, and patent leather beige pumps from CMG (“I got them on sale. What’s your shoe size?”).

Three days before her birthday, on the eve of STRAP’s anniversary, she and her friends went to celebrate in Ice Vodka bar, on the third level of Greenbelt 3. It was a Saturday night. She wore a short black dress, and high heels, and led the way into the bar.

The bouncer stopped them at the entrance. He said they were dressed inappropriately. Sass says otherwise. She says they were dressed decently and tastefully. Perhaps he meant they were dressed like women.

Sass insisted on seeing the manager. They let her in, her friends were left outside. She was met by Belle Castro. Sass asked why she and her friends were being kept away.

Miss Castro, says Sass, was sympathetic, even respectful. She explained that “people like them” were not allowed into the bar every Friday and Saturday. She said that there was an agreement between all the bars in Greenbelt, including Absinthe, and Café Havana, and Ayala Corp., owners of the Greenbelt complex.

The reason for the policy, she was told, was that many foreigners were complaining that they were being misled into thinking that “people like them” were real women. Sass called them discriminatory. The manager said that it was their “choice” to implement the policy.

Sass left. Her friends plied her with alcohol, told her to forget it, and said that it was OK, there are other bars, and that they were probably just ahead of their time. Sass was angry. She walked back to Ice Vodka, and asked the manager why she was being f— discriminated in her own f— country—and why f— foreigners had the right to kick her out of a bar. The manager asked her to speak decently. Sass walked out.

When Sass tells her story now, her voice rises shrill. “Decently?”

Sass went home, to her loft with the red stairs and white walls, to the small room where she keeps her computer and studies long distance under a grant from the United Kingdom. She could not sleep, could not forget, so she sat down and wrote a letter, the same open letter that is now circulating in blogs and forums online. She called it People Like Us.

She began with a quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt, that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. “My friends and I have been made to feel inferior approximately five hours before I wrote this letter. I’d like to sweep this incident under the proverbial rug but there is no more space to accommodate it.”

She apologized for swearing at Ms Castro, but it is the only thing apologetic about the letter.

“This may not be the proper forum to raise this concern. But is there any reliable legal forum to address this issue? Reality check: there is no antidiscrimination law in this country. And if you’re discriminated, there seems to be a notion that you’re supposed to blame yourself for bringing such an unfortunate event to yourself.”

It was a short letter, but Sass says it was longer before she cut it down.

“I am standing for myself. I am standing for people like us. I am standing up because I, am, very tired of this incivility. We have long endured this kind of treatment for far too long. Enough.

“People like us would like to be treated just like any other human being. Just like those foreigners who complained about our existence: With dignity.

“You know the civilized and ethical thing to do: Stop discrimination in your establishments.”

The next evening, Sass walked into Ice Vodka, clutching her letter. She was met by Ms Castro, who asked her how she was even before reading the letter. The manager said she was hoping to see Sass again, because she had a sleepless night, and could not understand why she would do such a thing. “It melted my heart,” says Sass.

Ms Castro told Sass that the policy was a result of a security briefing about crime prevention in Greenbelt that included transgenders as prostitutes.

Sass sent a letter to Ayala, and got an immediate call from Ayala Property Management. A meeting was set. At the meeting, they reiterated what they told her initially, that they do not tolerate discrimination in their premises, that they don’t ban “transvestites” in their premises. Sass suggested they use the word transgender. They clarified their policy about surveillance of suspected sex workers, and said they did not apply specifically to transgenders, but all suspicious individuals. They admitted, Sass claims, that immediately equating being a transgender to being a sex worker is wrong. Ayala has promised to investigate the matter. Sassy says that everything felt surreal. “They actually listened to me.”

Their letter came after the meeting. “…We empathize with you .… We wish to clarify that we do not have any agreement whatsoever with Ice Vodka Bar or other merchants in our mall to prohibit transsexual women from entering Ayala Mall. Rest assured that we have noted your recommendations and will brief our merchants to be more sensitive in attending such matter to prevent the recurrence of the same incident.”

The girl her classmates in all-boy San Beda College nicknamed “Sassy” is happy, and before she said goodbye, she showed off a picture of her in her old school uniform. Khaki pants, a white shirt and leather shoes—and the same wide, wide grin.

Jun 15, 2008 under General | 1 comment

Tarpaulin gods

I will apologize in advance for anything that will be construed as an endorsement in this column. I am well aware, due to recent events, that politicians are willing to do anything—almost anything, anyway—for their names to be in print and a few seconds of airtime, negative or not-so-negative. Which is perhaps why senators are now at luxury to rewrite their resumés with the customary slashes of the aspiring starlet: singer/host, chef/endorser, and, in this case, senator/laundry detergent endorser.
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Jun 8, 2008 under General, Politics | no comment