‘Though I tend to be typecast with LGBT rights, I want to assure everyone that my heart and my advocacy extend beyond the LGBT community,’ says Geraldine Roman, the first transgender woman in the Philippine Congress
“What is the meaning of your life?”
This question rings in her ears and brings her to a sentimental pause. Even with the commotion inside the august hall of the Philippine Congress, she remains composed in her seat. Geraldine Roman, representative of the 1st District of Bataan, looks at her watch and waits for her turn at the podium.
The question was raised by her father, Antonino, a respected finance minister who also served as a long-time representative of Bataan. In his sick bed, he looked at her daughter and waited for her answer.
“What do you want me to tell you? I work, I save money, I shop, I travel,” she answers.
“As long as your life revolves around ‘l’, ‘me’, and ‘myself’, you do not help others. Your life has no true meaning,” her father said. A few days after the new year of 2014, her father passed away at the age of 74.
Politics was never part of the plan of Geraldine Roman even though her family’s life revolves around politics. Born in 1967, and the second of four children, she was exposed early to politics but such early exposure did not make her feel entitled. At a tender age, she felt what inequality was all about.
A Never-Ending Battle
“I experienced being teased or bullied by my classmates but my parents, especially my dad, taught me how to stand up for my rights and how to be brave,” she says, remembering how her family has accepted her, without reservations, for what she truly is.
From her childhood in Orani, Roman moved to Manila to go to Ateneo for elementary and high school. In college, she attended the University of the Philippines. She then managed to secure a scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree in Spanish Language and another Master’s degree in Journalism at the University of the Basque Country in Spain.
“I used to have a very quiet and peaceful life in Madrid where I worked as a journalist for the Spanish News Agency and in other private news corporation,” she says. “I was living together with my special someone, a Spaniard. I was very happy there. I was surrounded by culture and the arts, which are things I feel passionate about.”
She returned to the Philippines in 2012, to attend to her father, who was then seriously ill.
“My father was diagnosed with fourth-stage emphysema. Because he had treated me with so much love and acceptance my entire life, I had to return the love. I thought I would just take care of him for a short period of time but he got weaker. During one of our intimate conversations, we would talk about the meaning of life,” reveals Roman.
It was hard to convince her at first, but learning how her parents touched the lives of their constituents firsthand, Roman knew she had a moral obligation and had a change of heart. She ran in the 2016 national elections and won 62 percent of the votes. Everyone took notice as she became the first transgender congresswoman of the Philippines. The media hailed her win as a milestone in acceptance while LGBT groups found their new role model.
Little did she knew that the election battle is just the start of many battles she would fight. Even though at the surface it seems that she is “accepted”, prejudice still creeps in, often manifesting in the words of “holier-than-thou” politicians. Roman brushes it aside and says she is ready as she “has been fighting battles all my life.”
What EQUALITY stands for
“As a child growing up, I had this discomfort of knowing I had the mind, the heart and the psyche of a woman trapped in a man’s body. My battle was transitioning into womanhood and then finally being liberated when I decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery at the age of 26. Now that I have settled that issue, I have other battles. Battles that do not concern myself. My focus now is on the people of the first district of Bataan, the LGBT community, and all sectors of society that are prone to discrimination and injustice. These are the battles I fight on a day-to-day basis wherever I travel, whenever I read the news. It’s a never-ending battle,” she explains.
Roman doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to those who continuously question her womanhood and even her relationship with God.
“I don’t have to reassert my womanhood every day. I’m very confident with who I am because this is my true self. My message is that we have to be true to ourselves but of course, there are people who cannot seem to understand and that I also understand. But you know what? I know my truth so I really do not mind them. Asserting one’s womanhood or sexuality is not necessary for anyone. You just have to be true to yourself and express yourself with sincerity.”
Today, Roman reveals that there are still critics who believe that the Philippine Congress is not a place for a transgender.
“But that is exactly what my fight is all about,” she says. “Do we always want to typecast the LGBT community? I find it very amusing, also disturbing, that they are okay as long as the LGBT members are boxed inside the fashion or entertainment industries. But they are afraid when LGBT members become part of Congress, the school, or the military. Why is that so?”
In her still short stint in Congress, Roman has detailed her eight-point platform which stands for “EQUALITY”.
“It is not just about gender equality but is a representation of my life’s philosophy. Each letter stands for different advocacies: E stands for education and the environment, Q and U for quality and universal healthcare, A for agriculture, L for livelihood, I for infrastructure, T for transparency in government, and Y for youth,” she reveals.
With Respect And Dignity
“All of us, regardless of our personal circumstances—whether we are rich or poor, our civil status, ethnicity, religious beliefs, all of these external circumstances—deserve equal opportunity because we are children of God and we are citizens of this country. We must all have the opportunity to become our best selves, to develop our full potential, and to become productive members of society.”
It is not only with words that Roman is pushing her advocacy. In fact, as of press time, she has filed 40 bills led by House Bill No. 267, the Anti-Discrimination Bill based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression.
“Though I tend to be typecast with LGBT rights, I want to assure everyone that my heart and my advocacy extend beyond the LGBT community,” she adds.
Her campaign for these advocacies has been met with support as well as criticism from the conservative sector.
“Fortunately, my colleagues have welcomed me with open arms. I had been warned beforehand that there is an Old Boys Club in Congress but to my surprise, there’s no such thing. They have treated me as an equal and with respect and dignity. They have looked beyond the gender issue,” she reveals.
Being a congresswoman does not shield her from criticisms, especially in the age of social media.
“I have bashers on social media since I started pushing for the Anti-Discrimination Bill. How do I deal with them? By holding on to my truth. I know I am fighting the good fight and what I’m fighting for is something that should be basic to all of us here in the Philippines and the rest of the world, which is equality. This is one tenet that I have to uphold.”
Death Threats And Inspiration
Some bashings online were threatening enough to be classified as “death threats”.
“I don’t mind the bashing. In fact, I have received death threats recently. They said that I was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord and that I had to be eliminated or else I would be a bad influence on society.
When you hold on to your truth, the criticism, the bashing, the suffering, and the pain that it entails just take the background. You just focus on what you have to do.”
With all the challenges, where does she draw strength and inspiration?
“First of all, I’m a very spiritual person,” she starts. “I know God has a purpose for me. For each one of us, even for members of the LGBT community, He has a special purpose. I am aware that there is a greater force that guides us in our lives. I believe that there is a God who created us. Knowing that there is always a reason why things happen gives me strength. We just have to trust God and find out what His will is for our lives.”
With her accomplishments, breaking barriers, for one, Roman was named as one of the “Inspiring Women of 2016” and one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2016”.
“For the longest time, women have been told that we are the weaker sex and that our natural traits and characteristics work against us. They say we are too sensitive. They say we are too weak. They say we are too fickle. But I believe that many of our natural characteristics are our strengths. We have the compassion, that natural capacity to embrace and accept other people, and understand their situations. So to all women who might be suffering from discrimination, do not mind the stereotyping. Do not mind the criticism. Do not mind the discrimination. Just do what you have to do. Comply with your responsibilities and know that as women, we have this natural strength that can push us through.”
“What is the meaning of your life?”
Now, Roman knows the answer. She stood up, straightened her clothes, went to the podium and carefully laid the paper entitled “House Bill No. 267”.
“Mr. Speaker!” Her voice rang loud and clear, for everyone to hear, reaching her father’s ears.