The mountains of Matnog, Sorsogon looked weary — its coconut trees totally felled or crownless. A tinge of gloom painted the town as it reeled from nature’s wrath.
Call it a perfect disaster: a natural calamity hitting a vulnerable community. It had already been months since a powerful storm struck the third class municipality, but recovery seemed snail-paced.
The damaged coconut trees would take two to three years to grow again, so farmers would be forced to plant other crops as they waited in despair. A gale warning was also in effect due to the monsoon winds, so fishermen were barred from sailing.
So that was the setting last February. And we were in town in search for Oca.
Everybody knew Oca. She was a household name. When we asked around for her, everyone was quick to reply, “Si Oca? Yung bakla?” (You mean, Oca? The gay man?)
We were pointed to an eskinita (narrow pathway) leading to a small barong-barong (shack), where Oca lived. But the house was locked and Oca wasn’t there. Her friends from a nearby beauty parlor told us that she was making rounds in the village.
One of Oca’s survival jobs was giving people haircuts and mani-pedi (manicure and pedicure). But because there were only two beauty parlors in the entire town, jobs were scarce. So Oca would go straight to her patrons.
After a few hours of waiting, we finally met Oca. Her natural tan perfectly blended with the light of dusk. Her denim shorts exposed her long legs. She greeted us with her signature beauty pageant strut.
32-year-old Oca lived alone. Orphaned at a young age, she was forced to work as a maid and dishwasher to survive. And due to the lack of equal opportunities in this country for transgender women like her, she was forced to take a shady job.
Oca: Mas mahirap mag ano talaga mag-apply ang ang tulad namin ‘yung mga long hair kasi ‘yung diskriminasyon nga ng mga ano ‘di ba? (It’s really hard for us with long hair to land jobs because of the discrimination.)
Writer: Nangyari na ba na ano, nag-apply ka ng trabaho tapos hindi ka tinanggap kasi bakla ka? (Has it happened that you applied for work and you weren’t accepted because you were gay?)
Oca: Oo, ilang beses, maraming beses na. (Yes, many times already.)
Writer: Ano ‘yung ginawa mo? (What did you do?)
Oca: Wala kaya nga, nag-ano na lang ako, nagtatrabaho na lang ako ‘dun sa website sa cyber nga. (That’s why I worked in a website… cyber [sex])
Depsite living in poverty all her life, in the cyberworld Oca said she felt like a queen.
Oca: Sa website ako pa ‘yung sinasabihan ng, “Wow, you’re so hot, you’re so gorgeous.” O, sa’n ka pa? Eh ‘di ‘dun na ako. Kada usap lang one dollar per minute kaagad ‘di ba? Kaysa naman dito kami sa Pilipinas, tuwad-tuwad. Nganga. Baka sipain pa ako.
(In the website they would tell me I’m hot and gorgeous. That’s why I chose to work there. Per chat I would earn a dollar per minute immediately. Unlike here in the Philippines, people might just might kick me.)
Writer: Ano ‘yung mga na-try mo nang trabaho? (What types of work have you tried?)
Oca: Sa bahay. Sa parlor. Pagkatapos sa canteen, dishwasher. Pagkatapos ‘yung pinaka-last ko na talaga, pag-online. ‘Dun na lang ako nag-aano. (At home, in parlors. And then in a canteen, as a dishwasher. After that, the online work.)
Oca is a transgender cybersex worker, who used to work in a cybersex den or what they call “studio” in Angeles City, Pampanga. They were paid a dollar per minute for private shows, but the cybersex operators took half of the cut.
Oca: ‘Pag sa studio, marami kaming model ‘dun. Sa isang bahay, anim na computer, anim na PC. Sa isang computer, dalawa kami na gumagamit ‘dun. (In the studio, there are many models like me. In a single house, there are six computers. Two would share a computer.)
Writer: Lahat ito beki? (Are all gays?)
Oca: Oo. (Yes.)
Because the studio took a huge cut from her earnings, Oca felt taken advantage of. So she decided to move to Matnog to go “freelance.” But unable to pay the piling Internet bills, Oca said she might just go back to the studio in Angeles.
The cybersex industry in the Philippines is an organized crime, like drug and human trafficking. Most cybersex dens are operated by foreign syndicates. In worse cases, the victims of exploitation are children and their parents are the accomplice.
GMA News reporter and Subselfie writer Tricia Zafra covered a cybersex den raid by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Valenzuela City in January 2010. The raid was conducted after three days of surveillance.
Tricia vividly recounts the scene: police found 10 gay cybersex workers in a cramped and dark apartment, two of them caught in the act performing in front of webcams. The room had a poignant smell. Sex toys were scattered everywhere.
Police suspected that the cybersex den was operated by a foreign syndicate. But tracking it down was another story. Police said that, meanwhile, they would file a complaint against those caught in the raid for violating Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code, a provision against indecent shows, and also for defiance of the e-commerce law.
During that time, the Cybercrime Prevention Act had not yet been passed. But now, cybersex if geared towards financial gain is considered a crime under the new law. And if the victim is a minor, the punishment is raised a degree higher than what is provided for in Republic Act 9775 or the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009.
Oca is just among the thousands of poor sexual minorities in the Philippines, who are either unemployed or underemployed due to lack of equal opportunities.
The Philippine Congress has yet to pass a national law that explicitly protects LGBTs from discrimination.
Advocates have been lobbying anti-discrimination bills since 1999. But proposals have been stalled by intense opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups in the Philippines.
The religious sector has persistently campaigned against every anti-discrimination legislation thinking that it might be a precursor to marriage equality.
While the Senate was a political circus and stealing headlines last September 19, when Sen. Leila de Lima was ousted as Justice Committee chairperson amidst a legislative inquiry on extrajudicial killings, a woman was quietly making history in the Lower Chamber.
Bataan 1st District Representative Geraldine Roman, the country’s first transgender congresswoman delivered her first privilege speech and not many would have probably noticed.
Roman: Dear colleagues, you know who we are. We are your brothers, we are your sisters, your sons and your daughters, and nieces and nephews. We are your family. We are your friends, your schoolmates, your colleagues at work, your Twitter and Facebook buddies, your neighbors. We are part of society. We laugh, we cry, we love, and yearn to be loved. We are human beings. We love our families. We love our country. We are proud Filipinos, who just happen to be LGBT. The question is: do we, as members of the LGBT community, share the same rights as all other citizens? Does the State grant us equal protection under our laws?
In her speech, Roman lamented the fact that there are even no direct references to lesbian, gay transgender and bisexual individuals in any of our existing laws. That is why the Bataan lawmaker authored the “Anti-Discrimination Bill on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity or SOGI.”
Once passed, the measure will prohibit discriminatory acts such as:
- Denying a person employment, promotion, transfer, designation or reassignment based on his or her gender identity or sexual orientation
- A school or any training institution refusing to admit a student or participant or chooses to expel him or her solely on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity
- A school imposing disciplinary sanctions, penalties, restrictions and requirements harsher than the usual that infringe on the rights of students based on gender identity or sexual orientation
- Harassing, punishing or restricting a student or a trainee due to sexual orientation or gender identity of his or her legal guardians
- Forcing a person to undertake any medical or pyschological examination to alter the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity
Roman said the bill also upholds the right of every LGBT individual to access or use establishments, utilities, facilities or services, including housing.
The bill proposes a jail term of at least one year but not more than six years and a fine of at least P100,000 to a maximum of P500,000 for violators. Under the bill, the Women and Children’s desks of the Philippine National Police will be mandated to process cases of discrimination or crimes against the LGBT.
A Difficult Cause
Being the sole transgender among 294 legislators in the 17th Congress, Roman knows that passing the bill will not be easy. But the lawmaker draws courage from her father’s vision of her.
Roman said her late father Rep. Antonio Roman Jr. wanted her first privilege speech to be an appeal to fellow lawmakers to look beyond gender and respect her not just for who she is but for who she represents. And she did as her father told her.
“Katulad po ng malugod na pagtanggap n’yo sa akin ay tanggapin ninyo ang pagiging pantay-pantay ng bawat Pilipino, LGBT man o hindi,” Roman said in the House plenary.
“Recognizing our rights and dignity will no way diminish yours. We’re not asking for extra rights or privileges. We simply ask for equality and diversity. Our nation has so much to gain,” the 49-year-old lawmaker added.
Roman has great laurels she could rest on: she comes from an influential political family, speaks three European languages and holds two master’s degrees. She had the time of her life in Spain as senior editor of the Spanish News Agency. Now she’s a respected lawmaker.
But in a parallel world are LGBT individuals who have a weak voice, yet to be heard, waiting for a day of liberation–in the case of Oca, freedom from a disadvantaged life that imprisons a vulnerable soul.
[Entry 176, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Ephraim Aguilar is a ukester, a vegetarian and a striving minimalist. Presently, he is an Executive Producer for News TV Live and Balitanghali Weekend and a News Producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. He was also previously a Southern Luzon Correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Journalism 2006, Bicol University. Read more of his articles here.