Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Interview with Naomi Fontanos

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Naomi Fontanos, a Filipino trans rights advocate, one of the founders and current Executive Director of transgender rights group GANDA (Gender and Development Advocates) Filipinas in the Philippines, and blogger. Hello Naomi!
Naomi: Hello Monika. The pleasure and honor are all mine. How lovely indeed to finally have a conversation with you.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Naomi: I grew up in a small town in the Philippines where the country’s superstar also comes from. I was a straight-A student from grade to high school. In high school, I graduated on top of my class and went on to attend the Philippine’s national university, which is like the Harvard of the Philippines, the University of the Philippines Diliman.
There, I earned a degree in education. I am a licensed teacher and currently work as an education consultant. I love languages, fashion, music, art and travel. I love to write, read and watch movies in my spare time. Best of all, I love to sing. I love doing karaoke and love spending time with friends this way.

Ms Naomi Fontanos during the 2013
GANDA Filipinas Halloween celebration.

Monika: You have been a transgender activist for many years. Could you name some of the most important initiatives that you took part in?
Naomi: In 2008, I became the first transgender co-coordinator of Task Force Pride Philippines (TFP), a network of lesbian gay bisexual transgender and queer (LGBTQ) organizations formed in 1999 to organize the annual Metro Manila Pride march. To date, no other transperson has ever achieved that feat.
In 2011, I was one of three transwomen petitioners in a communication sent to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) asking the HRC to compel the Philippine government to address the situation facing transgender Filipinos. The other two courageous women who filed that case with me are Juliana Giessel and Rio Moreno. Sadly, Rio Moreno was brutally murdered in March 2014. We honored her memory in the 2014 Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR).
In 2012, I along with my friends Princess Jimenez, Yasmin Lee and Seanel Caparas founded Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas to locate transactivism in the framework of human rights and development work that was rooted in the socio economic, political and cultural context of the Philippines and the ASEAN.
Monika: How did the Filipino transgender movement evolve, starting from the Babaylan Chronicles, immigration to Japanese clubs, and establishment of GANDA Filipinas and other support groups?
Naomi: Transgender Filipinos have been a historically marginalized sector. From Spanish colonial times up to present, social forces have been at work to push us into the margins of society. The Babaylan Chronicles are a testament to how Spain used sword and cross to vanquish gender diversity that was a hallmark of pre-colonial Philippine tribes and communities.
The waves of migrant transgender Filipinas who worked in Japan as skilled entertainers also demonstrate the exploitation by the state of its own citizens as export labor to keep the economy back home afloat. In spite of their contribution to the Philippine economy, these generations of transwomen Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) in Japan remain unrecognized officially by the government and have not been given the credit they deserve.

Ms Naomi Fontanos during the 2013
GANDA Filipinos Christmas celebration.

This reflects how little transgender people are valued in the Philippines. Oppression is a reality for us, and we feel it acutely in our daily existence. Anti-transgender prejudice starts in our homes, spills out into our communities including schools, workplaces and public spaces and is institutionalized by the state through anti-transgender policies or laws.
It is no surprise that at some point, transgender Filipinos felt the need to fight this oppression through collective struggle. The proliferation of transgender groups all over the Philippines is a sign that many trans Filipinos want social change now and demand that the government protect our rights as citizens of this country.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the Filipino society?
Naomi: The situation is far from ideal. Until now, discrimination is rampant. Our marginalization through time has also narrowed down our life chances. In the Philippines, if you are a transgender woman, you have very few options. You find yourself either in the beauty, entertainment or the sex industry. This script has been written for us that many transgender Filipinos accept it as their fate. Not that there is anything wrong with these fields, but growing up, most transwomen would be led to believe that they cannot do anything else.
Thankfully, things are slowly changing and more and more transwomen now are taking roads that are less travelled, so to speak, shattering the “trans ceiling” created for us and finding success as lawyers, teachers, doctors, nurses, information technology specialists, researchers, academics, writers, artists, etc. But most of us remain more the exception in those fields than the rule. The capitalist system has also served to perpetrate the gender binary and has been traditionally antagonistic towards gender diversity. Businesses including government offices are still not open and easily accessible to transpeople who want to work in these spaces.

Ms Naomi Fontanos with volunteer-members of GANDA Filipinos.

All these hint at the depressing state of transgender rights in the Philippines. Until now, there is no law that would allow us to change our name and gender in the birth certificate like the gender recognition laws in places such as the UK, Spain, Argentina, Denmark and other countries. Comprehensive, affordable, and quality transgender health care is almost nonexistent in the Philippines. 
Many transpeople in the Philippines continue to rely on the black market for hormone supply or body modification services. Because health care is expensive and not subsidized by the government, most transpeople are known to self-medicate. We have many reported cases of botched “silicone” injections. Poverty exacerbates the situation.
Many transpeople in the Philippines struggle economically while also confronting a culture that treats us like second-class citizens and imposes its own pressures on us on what it means to be trans. You also face a different set of issues if you are transgender and young or aging, incarcerated, have a disability, HIV positive, displaced by conflict or war, migrant, a victim of calamities, are in conflict with the law, belong to an ethnic or religious minority, etc.

Ms. Naomi Fontanos with local
transwoman celebrity, Ms Justine Ferrer,
pioneer member of GANDA Filipinas.

Monika: The perception of the Filipino transgender community is often influenced by the successful participation in transgender beauty pageants, just to mention Kevin Ballot - the first Filipino transgender to win an international beauty pageant. There are many arguments in favour of and against such pageants. What is your view in this respect? 
Naomi: You have to look at its history to have a bigger view of beauty pageants. They originated in the circus as a form of entertainment. By its nature, pageants are meant to be a spectacle and objectify its participants. In the Philippines, we like to call ourselves a pageant-crazed country. I am not sure if that is a good thing or not.
On the one hand, many people recognize that pageants can be exploitative, sexist and set oppressive standards of beauty. On the other hand, many well-meaning, level-headed and progressive people are actually now using beauty pageants as a platform for their advocacies. I recognize that as a good thing albeit in a limited way. Outside the world of beauty pageants, men and women including LGBT people continue to face gender-based abuse, violence and discrimination.
In the Philippines now, there is also a disturbing trend of holding pageants for transpeople who supposedly fail beauty standards. They are like pageants for “ugly” transpeople and while many Filipinos find these pageants amusing, I personally find that they can be equally demeaning as pageants for transpeople who are considered beautiful.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Naomi: I started taking hormones on and off when I was 19 back in university. It was not really hard to find hormones but back then they proved expensive to a college student like me. Sadly, medical care for transpeople in the Philippines remains such that transpeople who want to undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or surgery have to pay for those out of their own pockets.

Ms. Naomi Fontanos dressed
as a queen.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Naomi: Yes. In university, I was lucky to have been part of an LGBT student organization which counted among its members a beautiful, smart, generous and kind transwoman. She was a famous beauty queen during her time, too and went by the name Jenny Syquia. She was simply Janet to all of us. Many of us adored her for being a well-grounded, self-made and quiet force of a woman.


All the photos: courtesy of Naomi Fontanos.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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