Geraldine Roman is pushing more than gender boundaries

The trans woman in the Philippine government has been hailed by international media as an inspiration and a challenger.
IMAGE Rennell Salumbre

Just two days before the bill restoring the death penalty was approved at the committee level in the House of Representatives, another bill was approved, one that actually heralded a more progressive, tolerant and kinder society. The Anti-Discrimination Bill, now called the SOGIE Equality Bill, flew through its third hearing at the Committee on Women and Gender Equality early in December. There were the usual protestations from religious groups and conservative sectors—we need to assert our right to religious freedom, even if it means condemning homosexuality, because that’s what the Bible says—but the Committee had already heard this before and moved to strike down a section in the bill that would grant provisions for religious acts.

One of the resource speakers at the hearing, a religious leader, explained that all types were welcome to attend his church services, but what is he to do if one of the staff admits to being in a gay relationship, which is patently against their beliefs? Will the bishop be sent to jail for unhiring the guy? Why don’t the LGBT just form their own religion? One woman opined that the bill would have a chilling effect on businesses, which will be placed under tremendous pressure to favor LGBT people, and job-seekers who were straight would feel compelled to hide their heteronormative beliefs and maybe even pretend to be gay in order to conform to the bias. It was clear that their fear of an LGBT-friendly planet is their fear of being reverse-discriminated.


Congresswoman Geraldine Roman of the first district of Bataan, co-author and most visible champion of the Anti-Discrimination Bill, flawless in a blush pink shift dress, replied witheringly, “We do not change our position. Recognizing our basic human rights will in no way diminish yours.” This has been her constant rejoinder to objectors of the bill, people who claim to be for equal rights for everyone yet demand to maintain the status quo. Roman continued, “I’m sorry, but this is not a Bible-based bill. This bill is based on the Constitution. What we’re talking about is a group of people whose civil rights are being violated, and we as public servants are sworn to defend these civil rights. Not all are Christian, not all are believers. I refuse to enter into a doctrinal discussion. We have to talk about civil laws and rights and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The religious leader, indignant but knowing when to back down, retorted, “Many of our churchgoers in Bataan voted for you. I feel like the whole community of religions are being branded as one. I am against discrimination, I just want to appreciate what the Constitution affords us. We are for the upliftment of society.”

Roman, in a gentler tone: “There are no enemies here. We are all one. I want to assure the religious sector, your right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Constitution and reflected in the Declaration of Policy in this bill, and it useless to repeat it in Section 4.” She looked around the room. “When I campaigned in Bataan, my opponent was from the Evangelical practice, and he sent me to hell. I told him to go ahead.”

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The voices of opposition, though constant, is slowly becoming the minority, with the SOGIE Equality Bill receiving widespread support in the House of Representatives. The bill, which penalizes all forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE), has been around in one form or another for 17 years. It was first introduced during the 11th Congress by then-Rep. Etta Rosales (who would later become Chair of the Commission on Human Rights), but was usually thwarted by faith-based organizations and their allies in both Congress and the Senate (Sen. Tito Sotto is a reliable Anti-Discrimination Bill blocker.) The bill didn’t make it to plenary debates during the 16th Congress, but its supporters, also known as #EqualityChamps, are optimistic about this time around. What makes the 17th Congress different? Geraldine Roman.

Her presence in Congress was the necessary shot in the arm for the floundering Anti-Discrimination Bill. Rep. Kaka Bag-ao, one of the main proponents of the bill, had observed that their colleagues are experiencing firsthand what it’s like to interact with an LGBT person, and discovering that she’s no different from them.

Roman made international headlines when she won her Congressional seat last May, being the first transgender woman to be elected in the Philippines, and beating rival Danilo Malana with 62 percent of the votes. Her parents are the late Antonio Roman and Herminia Roman, who both served in Congress for a combined total of 18 years. Coming from proud Bataeño political stock might have assured her place, but Roman was still in for a tough fight, at least in terms of the insults thrown her way by her opponent, who would try to intimidate the people of Bataan by telling them that good Catholics shouldn’t vote for transgender people. Her historic win showed that provincial folk are actually very open-minded and they did not believe, as Roman was branded, that she would just be a one-issue politician. She has in fact several bills, projects and advocacies that target socio-economic reform, but the SOGIE Equality Bill will be the most high-profile one she’ll lobby for (until, that is, she brings out the gender-recognition and same-sex civil union bills, but baby steps.)


Her presence in Congress was the necessary shot in the arm for the floundering Anti-Discrimination Bill. Rep. Kaka Bag-ao, one of the main proponents of the bill, had observed that their colleagues are experiencing firsthand what it’s like to interact with an LGBT person, and discovering that she’s no different from them. “It’s true, when I was lobbying for this bill, I would approach each congressman and congresswoman and they would sign, no questions asked,” says Roman, who arrived at the shoot wearing the white pants and pink blouse she was photographed in (she also did most of her own makeup.) As of December, only a few more signatures were needed for a majority, or “konting kembot na lang.”

Fellow newbie Rep. Christopher de Venecia, a co-author and congressional BFF tells me, “Geraldine is the personification of change. She is a beacon of hope and a bright light in the 17th Congress who would one day become a supernova in her own right. I see how people respond to her—always a heady mix of fascination, unfamiliarity, and fondness as she carries on her father and mother’s name. It’s something that eventually turns into admiration.”

The LGBT communities, it can be said, have been emboldened by the changes that have bene happening here and around the world. In the US, love won, and Filipinos are starting to see what they must fight for, and how they must fight. “Lumakas ang loob. I receive hate mail from the opponents, blaming me for this change in attitude in the LGBT, from passive and resigned, to more assertive.” Roman understands that visibility matters, and she keeps her social media accounts active and open as “Miss G,” or sometimes “Mom” as she’s called by her Equality Babies, and she shares messages she receives from ordinary LGBTs who experience discrimination in their daily lives. This interview for Esquire was just one of several engagements she would have in a given week; the more the public know gets to know of Geraldine Roman as a person, the less stigma and misconceptions there will be attached to being a transgender woman, and the more sympathy and support she can garner for the Equality Bill. In the Senate, the bill has its Equality Champ in Risa Hontiveros, but we can expect known Reproductive Health opponents Manny “Gays are Worse Than Animals” Pacquiao and Tito “Go Back in the Closet” Sotto to raise a stink.


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"Puberty is the most difficult stage in a transgender person's life, because your body is actually developing in the opposite direction,” Roman says about the time she began to question her identity. “You develop secondary male characteristics, and in my case that was kind of traumatic for me.” She confided in her dad, telling him how unhappy she felt, thinking and feeling one way but having a different body. He cried a little, and took her to a psychiatrist, who after a few sessions said that there was nothing to be done: this is the way you are. The elder Roman treated Geraldine like he did his other children, and was a loving, supportive parent throughout what must have a tumultuous period in Geraldine’s life. “I didn’t know what being transgender was. Awareness at that time was very low, I actually thought I was gay. Back then, there was no distinction between trans, homosexual—everything was bakla.”

After the rigidity of an all-boys high school, the liberal atmosphere of UP allowed Geraldine to reassert her identity and express it openly. But it was only when she won a scholarship and took up her master’s degree in Spain that she truly unfurled. She had an epiphany in the department store El Corte Ingles—while looking for the men’s toilet, she was redirected to the ladies’ room. Here, then, was a place where she could live free. Being able to use the correct public restroom is not a small matter for transgender people, and neither is it for those who seek to restrict their use. Last year in the US, a high school bathroom discrimination case went all the way to the Supreme Court and became a hot-button issue, well, until Trump won. (Earlier in 2014, Quezon City passed an ordinance that required unisex toilets everywhere, but this still does not address the discrimination a transgender person might receive inside public restrooms, whether or not gender-neutral.)


Seeking counsel from the Ateneo Jesuits, Roman was told that the “body is just a shell,” and so she underwent sex realignment surgery in New York at the age of 26. Soon after, she was able to legally change her name and gender on her birth certificate. In 1994, there was no Philippine law concerning the change of entries on the grounds of SRS, so the regional trial court in Balanga, Bataan, interpreted the vacuum in her favor. Today, the lack of a gender-recognition law works against transgender petitioners, ever since the Supreme Court in 2007 ruled against petitioner Rommel Silverio, who had undergone sex reassignment surgery and wanted to be renamed Mely. Justice Rene Corona quoted both Genesis 5:1-2 and the legend of Malakas and Maganda in the introduction to his opinion, but concluded with recognizing that “there are people whose preferences and orientation do not fit neatly into the commonly recognized parameters of social convention and that, at least for them, life is indeed an ordeal. However, the remedies petitioner seeks involve questions of public policy to be addressed solely by the legislature, not by the courts.” And 10 years later, here we are.


“The legislative part, trying to negotiate your way through Congress and lobby for your causes, that is new to me. But the part of listening and attending to people’s problems and talking about ideas, that’s not new.”

Roman lived what she calls a private, quiet life in Madrid for two decades, working as a journalist and living with a partner whom she’s been with for nearly as long. In 2012, she returned to the Philippines indefinitely to take care of her ailing father, never forgetting how kind he was to her in spite of him being the “epitome of a macho Filipino politician.” At the same time, she was also helping her mother campaign in the 2013 elections. “I was already beginning to toy with the idea of joining public service,” Roman says. “I was enjoying talking to so many people, exchanging ideas. I had my own ideas accumulated from living in Europe.” Her dad was starting to bug her about the meaning of her life, given that she didn’t have any children. “He told me, as long as your life revolves around yourself and you don’t help other people, your life has no true meaning. That was the deciding factor for me.”

Though she harbored no political aspirations when she was younger, winning the congressional seat at 49 felt like the continuation of a tradition. Roman always associated the work of her parents with their work in their district, and every year she’d come home from Spain to spend time with them in Bataan. “The legislative part, trying to negotiate your way through Congress and lobby for your causes, that is new to me. But the part of listening and attending to people’s problems and talking about ideas, that’s not new.”


I ask how truly gay-friendly the Philippines is, referring to a global ranking made in 2013. “It’s just on the outside,” Roman answers. “There are many members of the LGBT, but the question is, are they accepted or simply being tolerated? And to what point, do we want to mainstream them or typecast them, are they OK as long as they’re in the fashion or entertainment industries?” We acknowledge the few gays at the top of the corporate ladder, and the interesting fact that BPO centers have become a haven for transgender employees, mainly because they can present as women over the phone. Those with limited work options might often turn to sex work, or find themselves in dangerous situations. “It’s not only a problem of gender bias but also economics. It’s hard to be poor in the Philippines, but it’s doubly hard to be poor and gay.”

If you’re unaware of discrimination here because Filipinos purport to love the LGBT, consider the example of one hotel and restaurant management student and trans woman who, despite having high grades, was unable to finish her course because she couldn’t secure an OJT. “All the hotels required her to dress like a man,” Roman says. “When this bill passes, these hotels will be accused of discrimination. What does gender identity have to do with her qualifications?” Even upscale BGC nightclub Valkyrie had at one point denied entry to a couple of celebrity trans women on the grounds that cross-dressing was not allowed.


Only when the SOGIE Equality Bill is passed into law can we call ourselves a gay-friendly nation. The moment the LGBT community has the same access to education, health services, and employment that the rest of us enjoy is the moment their dignity is respected. Says Rep. De Venecia: “What this bill will do is define specific acts of discrimination and criminalize and penalize offenders. Yes, it’s punitive, but I believe it’s necessary to even out the playing field. Granting basic rights to the LGBT community—one that hinges and would in essence celebrate and uphold equality—is in no way a diminishment of another’s.”

The religious sectors, Roman reaffirms, are not the enemy—not the bill’s, and not her own. “I’ve been very open about my Catholicism. In fact, being Catholic helped me cope with the discomfort of growing up as a transgender person. And it gives me a greater purpose in life.” On her Facebook page, she posts that “the Church I belong to has not treated me with rejection. The incidence of depression among transgender people is very high, until they have that definitive moment when finally, their body is aligned with their psyche, with their mind, with their heart.”

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Though LGBT concerns are expectedly Roman's flag to fly, the congresswoman did not win on the basis of one particular agenda. She has much more to offer—being a trans woman does not define how she will lead. The letters in her platform “EQUALITY” stand for the different areas she’s involved in: education, the environment, quality and universal health care, agriculture, livelihood, infrastructure, transparency, and the youth. Her assistant, Anna, lists the various legislation she’s proposed, among them acts that will create a national scholarship agency, expand PhilHealth to cover mental health patients, protect the welfare of caregivers, provide free internet in all public libraries, establish cancer treatment centers in every region, and an amendment to the Election Code, originally filed by her mother, that will prevent the substitution of a candidate on the grounds of COC withdrawal (sound familiar?)


“I don’t regret joining politics, except I don’t really have time for myself anymore. My husband is complaining already,” Roman sighs. “He’s been very supportive. I feel guilty, he moved here for me. He said he couldn’t live without me.”

So this is a message for Alberto, the man from Spain who stuck it out with Geraldine: Thank you. Thank you for accepting Geraldine even after she told you her life story back when you first started dating. You said: the only thing that mattered was the present, and your future together. Thank you for being an example for men everywhere—supportive of their trailblazing women, secure in their manhood. Love won. Thank you also for now sharing her with us, the Filipino public, who look to Geraldine as a beacon of hope in a pearl necklace, a bright light in a short bob. It is a time of much despair in our country, but we believe love will win, because that’s what love does.

This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue. (Styling: Clifford Olanday. Shoot Direction: Paul Villariba. Makeup: Joan Teotico. Hair: Mayve Canamo)

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Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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