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.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Naomi: How my family would take it. Until now, my parents continue to have a hard time with my trans status. My two older siblings love me for who I am but my parents still have some way to go before they finally and really make peace with who I am. But overall, my relationship with my parents is okay. We are past the drama and are all in a good place right now.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in Filipino films, newspapers or books so far?
Naomi: They leave a lot to be desired. While there are more images of transwomen in media now, they remain stereotypical. The limited portrayals still only show us as sex workers, pageant queens and show girls. Worse is when transgender women are portrayed as mindless creatures who do nothing but obsess about their looks. There is actually one indie film made based on that premise. It was truly blood-curdling.
Currently, there is a dearth of images of transmen in Filipino films, newspapers and even books. I guess it is all part of the evolution of media representations of us that are supposed to go from bad to good. I still dream of a time when Philippine cinema, for example, will genuinely celebrate being trans by not making a big deal out of it and focusing on tranpeople’s ordinary lives as human beings with hopes, dreams and desires.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Naomi: Things have vastly improved for transactivism in the Philippines. Before the millennium, there was a lot of transphobia even within LGBT circles. I still feel vestiges of that transphobia among LGBT advocates but to a lesser degree now. Just last year for example, we took part in an HIV and AIDS awareness photographic campaign. The gay man who met our group at the reception at first insisted that we signed up our names on the sheet provided for male participants. Thankfully, his own colleague corrected him, apologized to us profusely and excused his behavior. We let it go because it was a very public event, but you can image that this happens until now in many other places and contexts.

Ms Naomi Fontanos with volunteer-members for a GANDA Filipinas
New Year celebration.

In fact, HIV and AIDS activism in the Philippines continues to use the transphobic framework of lumping transwomen with men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM). So in our own community, the LGBTQ community that is fighting for rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), there are people who still do not completely embrace transpeople’s gender identities. Fortunately, there are more trans advocates now and we have also more allies within the LGBTQ community and in other social justice movements who are one in advocating for every person’s right to self-determination.
Monika: Is there anyone in the Filipino transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the USA in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Naomi: I hesitate to answer this question because Harvey Milk lived in a different context and time. Harvey Milk was a pioneer advocate and his life and death moved the American LGBTQ movement forward. Here in the Philippines, I see the same thing happen to our movement because of the murder of transwoman Jennifer Laude.
While Jennifer Laude was not known as a transactivist, the path of her life made possible encounters between her and feminists working on the ground in Olongapo City. I am sure she deeply understood their fight for social justice. While Jennifer Laude’s death is truly saddening, her case has also galvanized the LGBT community here. Not surprisingly, her death has also resonated within other social justice movements including those fighting for genuine Philippine sovereignty and freedom, nationalism, democratization, economic justice, etc. Jennifer Laude’s death is turning into a historical phenomenon in itself in very much the same way as Harvey Milk’s. 
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Naomi: Right now, when our time, energy and resources permit, we support lobbying efforts to get an anti-discrimination bill passed in Philippine Congress. We have been supporting this initiative in the last 15 years. It’s been a long and uphill struggle but we believe that victory is coming. We have also been contacted by the office of a certain senator who is interested to push for a gender recognition law in the Philippines. At this point, it is still too early to tell if something concrete will come out of our discussions. Definitely, this development is exciting to all of us here.
Ms Naomi Fontanos for the GANDA
Filipinas Facebook launch photo
campaign in 2012.
We are also trying to reach grassroots communities through our advocacy work to make LGBTQ people in these communities aware of their human rights. This way, they themselves can agitate for the change they want to see happen in society.
Definitely, transwomen can make a difference in politics. In fact, in the last two local elections, we’ve heard of transwomen getting elected in various positions including as members in their village or city council and local village chief. They follow the earlier achievement of Ms Ruvic Rea, who is recognized as the first transwoman politician in the Philippines.
There were also transwomen who ran for local posts who lost in the last elections. Politics in the Philippines remains highly traditional. To get elected, you need to have a machinery that will ensure your victory. You just cannot run with good intentions.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Naomi: It is very important but I am sure that at the mention of love, most people would think about romantic love. While having a deep, fulfilling and meaningful romance with a significant other does make life better, it is not the end-all, be-all for me. This may sound clichéd, but this much I know now: truly learning to love yourself is the best gift you can give yourself. All love must start at self-love. That love inside you will then radiate outwards and open doors for you to be able to love others.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Naomi: Strangely, I have! If it is not a biography, then perhaps I can write a work of fiction loosely based on my life. I have always dreamt of taking on a big project such as writing a book. I wish one day that the circumstances of my life will allow me to finally do that.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Naomi: I keep on writing articles that are advocacy oriented. Thankfully some of my work has been published in a broadsheet and online portals of news outlets. What I’d really like to write is fiction, though. That will be my target next year, and hopefully, more post-graduate studies. GANDA Filipinas continues to be my personal pet project as I want it to attract more transpeople who want to join the fight for genuine social change. 

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Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Naomi: I cannot simply assure them that it will get better. That would be irresponsible. I know the workings of the world enough to say that it can be a dangerous place out there for someone who is trans. But this is no reason for you to live in fear. This only means we need to hone our life skills more in order to survive.
What I can tell you is that you don’t have to go through this alone. Surviving the hardship of our life as trans is possible when you have a support system that is strong. That means different things to different people. To some, it can mean family. To others it can mean their friends, lovers, or even complete strangers.
The point is: choose to live, choose life, and never lose hope because if we did it, so can you.
Monika: Naomi, thank you for the interview!
Naomi: Thank you too!

All the photos: courtesy of Naomi Fontanos.
Done on 25 November 2014
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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