MANILA, Philippines – Heart Diño’s victory as chair of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman Student Council (USC) is generating a lot of media attention. And why not? Heart is the first transgender woman to win as USC chair in the flagship campus of the state university.
Her candidacy was widely reported in online news sites and the blogosphere. Her victory last March 1, 2012 was reported by both local and international news media. It even landed on the front page of the March 3, 2012 issue of a major Philippine daily.
Reactions to news of Heart’s victory run the gamut from celebratory to condemnatory. On the one hand, people marvel at UP Diliman students’ openness to and celebration of diversity. They are glad that a transgender person has finally been elected to the highest position in the USC. On the other hand, there are those who deplore her election as an affront to heterosexual persons’ supposed entitlement to elective office. They are obviously not aware that UP Diliman elected an openly gay student as chair of the USC in 1997 and a transgender woman as member of the USC in 2002.
There are those who would rather suppress Heart’s expression of her gender identity. For instance, a UP Diliman organization accused Heart of using her gender identity as a gimmick to bolster her campaign. It appears to suggest that Heart should deny or at least downplay her gender identity and instead dress up and comport herself like her two male opponents during the campaign. What is sad about this obvious lack of understanding of gender identity is that it came from a supposedly progressive organization in the state university.
There are several reasons why Heart won as USC chair. Those who criticized Heart for supposedly capitalizing on her gender identity conveniently ignored her sterling performance as an incumbent member of the USC. Her stint as head of the USC Gender Committee demonstrates her ability to bring students’ issues to the attention of university administration and to articulate them before national policymakers. Her party’s platform of working for students’ empowerment through greater transparency, promotion of equality and non-discrimination, and elimination of fraternity-related violence obviously resonated with a lot of students. Indeed, it could be said that many students embraced Heart’s timely message of change.
There is no doubt in my mind that Heart won because her track record and her party’s platform appealed to a lot of UP Diliman students. I suspect that the fact that she is a transgender woman is no longer an issue with many students. After all, she obtained the highest number of votes for a USC councilor in the elections last year. Her victory this year is affirmation that the faith reposed on her by her fellow students last year was not misplaced. Besides, ang mga Iskolar ng Bayanhave always been known for being discerning voters. So their embrace of the candidacy of an outstanding student leader, who happens to be a transgender woman, should not be that surprising.
One can only hope that Philippine society takes its cue from UP Diliman students and starts electing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) candidates into public office. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the last decade, there is an apparent increase in the number of openly LGBT candidates running for and winning local elective positions. Young LGBTs have been winning in large numbers in barangay and Sangguniang Kabataanelections. I predict that the 2013 national elections will bring many LGBTs to public office, including Congress.
Leaders who eschew traditional gender norms are not culturally alien to this archipelago. J. Neil C. Garcia, the preeminent scholar of Philippine gay culture, found that male-to-female transvestism and effeminacy among some men were accepted as conventional aspects of spiritual practices during pre-colonial times. Dr. Garcia found that our colonizers’ imposition of Western religious and cultural values degraded “gender-crossing as a social status, a degradation caused by, and that may be evidenced in, the subjugation of women and the masculinization of the cultures of the Philippines as a whole.”
Unfortunately, our imported Western religious and cultural values have become deeply entrenched in our country’s public policy. The Supreme Court, for instance, has ruled that sex assigned at birth is immutable. In Silverio v. Republic(2007), the court ruled that a transgender woman who has undergone sex reassignment surgery is still a man under Philippine law, and that her petition to change her name and sex in her birth certificate cannot be granted. Instead of repudiating this ruling, Congress has decided to entertain a bill that forecloses any possibility for transgender persons to administratively change the entries in their birth certificates.
UP Diliman students were perhaps merely being true to the traditions of their pre-colonial forebears when they elected Heart. Or perhaps they were just being wise voters to whom the gender identity of a candidate is a non-issue. But their message is clear: a candidate who has proven herself in the service of her fellow students deserves to win. It does not hurt, of course, if such candidate is also very articulate and a BS Mathematics magna cum laude graduate, and has a hardworking organization behind her campaign.
It will take years, perhaps decades, before the Philippines returns to its pre-colonial roots and becomes more accepting of the diversity in the sexual orientations and gender identities of its people. But change is in the air. Heart’s victory mirrors the victories of many openly LGBT local politicians in different parts of the country. Very soon, they will be occupying positions that will allow them to influence the crafting of public policy.
Venir Turla Cuyco is the founding chair of UP Babaylan, the first LGBT students’ organization in the Philippines. Heart Diño is a current member of UP Babaylan. UP Diliman USC’s first openly gay chair and first transgender councilor were members of UP Babaylan.