Friday 10 April 2015

Interview with Sass Rogando Sasot

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor 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: It is my campaign to raise funds for my post-graduate studies. I was inspired by Oxford University students who have successfully utilized 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 honors 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 and Diplomacy, still by Leiden University. Unfortunately, the University allotted only one scholarship grant to this program. 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 program, 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 every day.
Some may advise for me to do this master’s somewhere else, but I would prefer to do it here in The Hague, where this master’s program is going to be mostly taught. There are three major centers 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 works in practice. Among these three cities, it is cheaper to live and study in The Hague.
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 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 recognized right to change their legal sex. The 2007 Supreme Court decision on Mely Silverio’s case is to be blamed 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).
Monika: What other regulations are missing to defend the transgender community?
Sass: 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.
Monika: So how then should we interpret the social visibility of transpinays in the Philippines?
Sass: 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 to 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 moments 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 to fulfill the duties demanded in these institutions of influence and responsibility.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a 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 have 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 of 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 a woman.”
The physical changes that I’ve gone through are, 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 with 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 realized possibilities - and I aspire to be one of them.


All the photos: Courtesy of Sass Rogando Sasot.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska  

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