Friday, 10 April 2015

Interview with Sass Rogando Sasot

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Sass Rogando Sasot, a transpinay (a Filipina trans woman of Philippine descent) advocating for the dignity of trans people, aspiring to become an international relations scholar and practitioner of diplomacy, and hoping to improve the visibility of trans folks in international politics. Hello Sass!
Sass: Hello, Monika! Thank you for having me here!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Sass: I am a passionate, reflective, dedicated, and determined person. I love to read, write, and reflect on what makes us human - the good, the bad, the ugly, and the divine. I am always a work in progress. This has meant different things in different stages of my life.
Right now, I’m on my way to becoming an international relations scholar, who has an affinity with classical realism, and a future practitioner of diplomacy, who wants to become involved in the field of conflict resolution and transformation. In the process, I would like to help improve the visibility of trans people in international politics.
Monika: You are in the middle of your gofundme campaign. Let’s promote it…
Sass: is my campaign to raise funds for my post-graduate studies. I was inspired by Oxford University students who have successfully utilised this platform to pay for their master’s.
In 2014, I graduated, magna cum laude, with a Combined Major in World Politics & Global Justice, minor in International Development at the international honours college of Leiden University, the oldest and most renowned university here in the Netherlands. This year, I got accepted into a selective 2-year MSc Programme in International Relations & Diplomacy, still by Leiden University. Unfortunately, the University allotted only one scholarship grant to this programme. 89 of us applied; I’m one of the unlucky 88. I can’t afford to pay the tuition fee myself, thus I’m reaching out to the world.
Receiving the 2014 Global Citizenship Award from
Leiden University College.
Other scholarship grants either don’t include my programme, have an age limit (I’m already turning 33 this year), have a nationality requirement (i.e. the Philippines is not included), or all of the above. After finishing my bachelor’s, I immediately looked for a job. But the work permit I have is only for a year (they call it the orientation year visa; international students can get after graduating).
I’ve been called by job hunters who were impressed by my CV, but they were disappointed to learn that I can only work for a year - most employers here prefer someone who has a work permit valid for three years. There’s also a rule in the EU that for some jobs, EU citizens, or their equivalent, have priority over foreigners. Right now, I’m doing an internship and a part-time job that pay enough for me to live everyday. 
Some may advice for me to do this master’s somewhere else, but I would prefer to do it here in The Hague, where this master’s programme is going to be mostly taught. There are three major centres of global diplomacy: New York, Geneva, and The Hague. Just like New York and Geneva, studying in The Hague means that you are exposed to how diplomacy work in practice. Among these three cities, it is cheaper to live and study in The Hague.
To those who would like to read more about my campaign, my story, motivation, and achievements, they can visit 
Monika: You were one of the co-founders of the pioneer transgender support and advocacy group in the Philippines – the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP). What is the present situation of transgender women in the Filipino society? 
Sass: There are different ways to approach this question.
From a legal angle, transpinays (trans women of Philippine descent) - whether they have or have not gone through SRS - have no recognised right to change their legal sex. The 2007 Supreme Court decision on Mely Silverio’s case is to be blame for this state of affairs. Prior to this decision, post-op transpinays have had successfully changed their legal sex through court decisions. If my memory serves me right, there were five transpinays who were able to do so. Four of these women have the same lawyer. I was able to talk to this lawyer sometime in 2004 or 2006 because a friend of mine sought his service. One of these women, Esperanza even married in a civil ceremony in the Philippines. Her case even became controversial in the US during an immigration proceeding in Nebraska in 2004. 
However, in September 2008, there came another gender identity related Supreme Court decision - the Jeffrey Cagandahan case. It involved an intersex person who wanted to change his legal sex from female to male. The decision practically said that “[Jeffrey] is the one who has to live with his intersex anatomy. To him belongs the human right to the pursuit of happiness and of health.
Thus, to him should belong the primordial choice of what courses of action to take along the path of his sexual development and maturation.” It seems that this case overturned the Silverio decision. I believe that it would only take a creative, knowledgeable, and passionate lawyer to see how the Cagandahan case can be used to allow trans people in the Philippines to change their legal sex. I highly recommend reading the blog articles of Naomi Fontanos regarding these cases. Naomi provided a concise comparative analysis of the two cases (Part 1 and Part 2).
Besides the absence of a gender recognition law, there is also no national anti-discrimination law in the Philippines that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression. There are several local and city-level anti-discrimination laws but whether or not they are effective is another matter. I still have to hear a case testing the teeth of these laws.
During the 2007 Manila Pride March.
Despite these legal shortcomings, transpinays are very socially visible. You can see them everywhere. There is a strong and established pageant culture. Geena Rocero shared her fond and fabulous memories in this scene during her powerful Ted Talk in 2014.
A French journalist writing for Paris Match once asked me whether transgender activism in the Philippines has any meaning at all given our social visibility. He said, unlike in his country and other Western countries, he could see us everywhere in the Philippines. “Surely,” he said, “this visibility is a sign that we must be accepted in the Philippines.” I told him that equating visibility with acceptance is dangerous and lazy.
During the time of slavery, black people were very visible as it was such a routine to have black slaves. Yes, they were accepted in society but accepted as slaves. So any claim that people are accepted should always be followed with this illuminating question that gives acceptance a substantive meaning: Accepted as what? So if you say we are accepted everywhere because we are visible everywhere, you must ask yourself: Accepted everywhere as what? Visible as what? To be seen and heard everywhere does not always mean that you are seen and heard as an equal.
So how then should we interpret the social visibility of transpinays in the Philippines? I proposed this. What is revealed by this social visibility is not social equality per se. What is present and visible is the courage of transpinays to disclose and expose who they are to the eyes of the public. You see a lot of us because a lot of us are courageous. It is not very rare to see a transpinay who does not possess the spirit of a fighter and the delicate strength of a butterfly’s wings. After all, our ancestors, the asog and bayoguin, were warriors, healers, spiritual leaders, teachers, visionaries!
This courage runs through our blood until now and is now being exuded by transpinays whose political subjectivity has awakened. This is the courage being radiated by amazing transpinay advocates such as Dindi Tan, Kate Montecarlo Cordova, Rica Paras, Mikee Inton, Brenda Alegre, Magdalena Robinson, Disney Aguila, Bemz Benedito, Santy Layno, Shane Marie Madrigal, Hender Gercio, Brigitte Salvatore, Dawn Madrona, Charlese Saballe, and a lot more whose names have escaped my fragile memory. These women are taking Philippine trans activism into an entirely different level. Transpinays who are working hard to forge a brighter and much inspiring future for our younger transpinay sisters.
Yet this courage is now being undermined by reports of brutal murder stories of transpinays in my country. We are only hearing about the reported cases, they may just be the tip of the iceberg. Earlier, we seemed to have lived in the Philippines under the veil of ignorance about the violence committed against us. These violent stories seemed to occur more in the West.
But now, because of social media, we hear more often about these incidents within our own context. I have a friend who was murdered last year in her own home in the Philippines. She was stabbed several times, until now her case wasn’t resolved. High profile cases like the Jennifer Laude case put a spotlight on the violence against transpinays. All of a sudden, the fear becomes palpable.
Monika: Your activism brought you to the ECOSOC Chamber of the UN Headquarters in New York, where you delivered a speech on the rights of transgender people ...
Sass: It was one of the most frightening and emotional moment of my life. I arrived in New York without any speech. I couldn’t sleep the night before the event . A friend of mine told me to just say what’s important. I finished writing my speech an hour before the panel session. Then I spoke. The next thing I knew was tears were rolling down my cheeks and my body was shaking. I spoke what I felt was important: to say that we, like them, are only seeking to live our lives with authenticity. My goal was to connect from a primordial rather than on a policy level. I hope I was able to do that.

That moment was also one of the turning points of my life. When I looked at the diplomats, it dawned on me that they only interact with a trans person as a resource speaker rather than as one of their peers. This distance between us and them is something that has to be changed, I thought. We have to be inside these institutions rather than outside them. Diversity must not be something that these institutions talk about but something they experience inside rather than outside these institutions. But of course, we shouldn’t just be token trans people, we must also be competent. We must be able fulfil the duties demanded in these institutions of influence and responsibility.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Sass: I don’t really consider my experience as “transitioning.” I didn’t transition from being a man to a woman, but has grown from being a baby, into a girl, into a woman. I didn’t change; I unfolded. My friend Dee Mendoza, one of the co-founders of STRAP, has captured this in her interview with Metro Magazine’s 2010 International Women’s Month edition: “There was no transformation, there was just an AFFIRMATION. A declaration to myself and to the world that my gender is female and that I am a woman.
The word “transformation” is problematic to describe my experiences. It connotes a leap from point A to point B. In retrospect, I have always thought myself to be female since the earliest recollection of my memory. It was later blurred by the dictates of society and it became clear again to me when I reached the affirmative point in my life where I rediscovered I am woman.”
The physical changes that I’ve gone through is, to use Dr Brenda Alegre’s words, “part of my normal sexual development.” However, unlike other people, I have to seek help from the medical establishment. This process was difficult because not a lot of people understand it. So from time to time, I have encountered people in my life who have considered this experience as something bad, as a pathology, as some form of sin.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Sass: My first trans role model was Georgina Beyer. I was still in high school when I learned of her - thanks to the internet. She was for me hope personified. Before, I thought that women like us would not be taken seriously. Georgina’s story spanked me out of this miserable and horrible thought. I was able to meet her in 2009 during Second Outgames International Conference on LGBT Human Rights in Copenhagen.
She was one of the keynote speakers. I went to the microphone immediately after she spoke. I thanked her for the amazing things she did to my life. She has greatly inspired me to live my life as a monument to hope. In advocacy work, Jamison Green was my first mentor. Sometime in May 2001, I was about to turn 19, I emailed him asking him how to become an advocate for trans rights. He shared to me his experience and gave me valuable advice on advocacy work.
With Georgina Beyer at the 2009 Outgames International
Conference on LGBT Human Rights.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Sass: I have a lot. This blog space is not enough for me to mention all of them. But they are the women of trans experience who are passionate and excelling in what they are doing. They are the women who are serving as models of realised possibilities - and I aspire to be one of them.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Sass: For me, coming out is not a one time thing - it’s an endless process. Coming out is disclosing ourselves. Disclosure is a fundamental part of our lives as humans. In order to connect with another human being, we have to open up and let another person enter into our lives. Every disclosure is different. Our experience of it depends on the person we are disclosing to.
The hardest thing I’ve experienced is being able to convince my mother that my life wouldn’t waste away by living as a woman. My mother, just like every person in the position of responsibility, is prone to fear. The highly-publicised murder of Jennifer Laude reinforced her fear. If she could have her way, she would have wanted me to live like a gay guy - like Boy Abunda, a famous TV personality in the Philippines. This is because the images of gay guys she is exposed to are more positive and empowering.
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?
Sass: We can, but it wouldn’t be easy because LGBT is such a big tent. There’s a risk that our cause might be drowned by the various issues this group is fighting for. We have to be able to do our own thing, outside this tent. We would definitely need support from LGB folks, and from other people, to pursue our political goals. Because our issues intersect a lot, working together makes political sense.
But we must always remember that solidarity is not about getting in front of somebody and leading the fight, drowning her voices with our agenda, which she may or may not agree with. Solidarity is standing beside somebody, encouraging her to speak, lending her our power so that she can be heard. But she can't be heard if we are the one speaking all the time.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Sass: It’s improving, but we need more positive, empowering, radically different characters. I hope that we can have more trans characters whose storyline doesn’t revolve around being trans. I want to see a trans character who is in a position of responsibility, for example a film in which the President is trans. Perhaps a re-make of the Matrix, in which The One or Morpheus or even Trinity is trans? Perhaps a trans James Bond - why not?
I mean, why not have a new Dirty Sexy Money with a trans senator rather than a trans mistress? Real life already provides inspirations for such characters. The poet Lucille Clifton once said, “We cannot create what we cannot imagine.” Thus, if these creative outlets cannot create in a reel world other possibilities a trans person’s life can take, how can we create them in real life? Art must not just imitate or reflect life back to us, it must co-create a new way of being.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Sass: I’ve been exposed at a very early age to the political dimension of our life. My first exposure was by witnessing the brutal side of humanity’s struggle for power. I grew up in downtown Manila. The Malacañang Palace, the presidential office and residence, the seat of political power in the Philippines, was just walking distance from where we are. The historical Mendiola (now known as Chino Roces Avenue), as well as the bustling Claro M. Recto stretch, was just a hop away.
I was four when I witnessed the 1987 Mendiola Massacre. Six when I woke up to helicopters hovering on top of our house during the 1989 coup d’etat against President Aquino. It was very seldom to see Mendiola without a protest rally. I think it’s a bit misleading to think that there’s any moment in our lives in which we are not active in politics, i.e. not participating in the struggle for power. This struggle for power is what brought into being the state of affairs in which we live now and in which we would live in the future Even being apathetic is being active in politics. One cannot be apathetic without choosing to be one. Apathy is a response to and not an escape from politics.
During a talk with the students of University of the Philippines.
I have participated in lobbying campaigns before. When the anti-discrimination bill was first presented in Philippine Congress in the early 2000, it was just addressing sexual orientation. I was one of the voices that encouraged the main proponents of the bill to include gender identity and expression. The proposed bill was revised to include these categories.
Though it has not been passed into a law yet, this trans-inclusive bill became the prototype of anti-discrimination laws passed at the local level. My libertarian side, however, cautions me about relying on the coercive power of the State to effect social change. Laws’ normative power comes from two things: fear and internalisation.
People either obey laws because they fear the consequence of doing so, afraid of experiencing the harshness of the State’s coercive power, or people obey laws because they believe in what the law tries to accomplish. The latter is what we should aim for. This entails educating the public, shaping a more inclusive mindset through dialogue and by being positively visible in different institutions of influence and responsibility.
Trans women can make a difference in politics if they are competent and passionate in politics. I won’t vote for someone because they happen to have the same identity as me. You see, when you assume these positions of influence and responsibility, the decisions that you are going to make will affect everyone regardless of who they are. Thus, trans women, just like anybody else, can make a difference in politics if they have an insightful mind, a visionary outlook, and a strong sense of duty.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Sass: A nice pair of heels is a must. Hahahah! Well, I'm not really following trends. I dress according to my mood - which is usually laid back - and according to the situation. What you wouldn’t see me wearing is jewellery. It’s very very very rare to see me wearing any item of jewellery. I’m not fond of them.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Sass: There’s this line in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, one of my favourite films, that aptly sums up what I think of love: “Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Love is what makes life worth all the fuss. But love here doesn’t just pertain to romantic love but love in all its manifestations - passion in what we do, appreciation of our own version of humanity, trust in our ability to thrive and flourish. Without these, my life would have been meaningless.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Sass: I am now working to realise my aspiration of becoming an international relations scholar and practitioner of diplomacy. This is where most of my energies will focus on in the next ten or twenty years of my life. Getting into that selective 2 year MSc in International Relations & Diplomacy brings me a step closer to this goal.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Sass: I recommend that they love themselves a little bit more and live their lives as a monument to their souls. Their greatest saboteur is not society but themselves. I’ve said this somewhere else before and I would like to repeat it here. The challenges we trans people face exist in a vicious circle. Each point in that circle feeds on each other, giving this cycle a momentum that is very difficult to counteract.
During a poetry reading session in the Philippines.
One crucial point in that circle is our internalised transprejudice, which is a set of practices and beliefs whose underlying assumption is that trans people are not human beings, therefore they don’t deserve respect and appreciation. The danger starts when we start acting on that assumption by engaging in reckless, irresponsible, and self-defeating behaviour. I have struggled with this myself.
Trans people should start being aware of how they have internalised the prejudice and bigotry against them. When one becomes aware, one can be able to arrest the damaging effects of internalised transprejudice. We trans people cannot stand up and claim our rights, or even love wholeheartedly, without first reclaiming ourselves from prejudice and bigotry. This is a difficult and long process, but it needs to be done so one can fully live.
Monika: Sass, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: Courtesy of Sass Rogando Sasot.
Done on 10 April 2015
© 2015 - Monika 

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