Trigger warning: This article mentions sensitive content
MANILA - On February 24, 2023, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), also known as the Aglipayan church, ordained the first trans woman clergy in a Christian denomination in the Philippines.
Rev. Wylard “Wowa” Ledama is a former nurse who became a deacon after discovering her passion to serve the church.
Calling it a “coronation” instead of an ordination, Ledama recalls the unbelievable journey she had to go through as a transgender seminarian – the first in the church’s 121-year history.
“[It was] my biggest mountaintop experience wherein parang nakita ko na napakalawak ang daigdig upang ibigay ko ang kulay [sa] mundo,” she told ABS-CBN News.
From Clinic to Clergy
“I never awakened in a man’s body,” said Ledama, as she reminisces growing up in the quiet city of Pagadian, Zamboanga del Sur with her grandmother.
“Hindi ko na-experience ‘yung grabeng identity crisis talaga because in the first place, I was raised by my lola as a woman,” she added.
Despite the acceptance she received from her grandmother, she shared there was still some resistance from other family members now that she's "out and proud." Her decision to join the seminary also caused a rift between her and her mother.
After graduating Nursing in 2014, she was on the track to work abroad, in London, United Kingdom, a career move discussed and agreed upon within the family. She, however, decided to take on a different path.
“Pinalayas ako ng bahay and thankfully, my diocesan bishop in Pagadian which is Bishop Antonio Ablon, welcomed me in the cathedral,” she said.
The IFI’s statement in 2017 called “Our Common Humanity, Our Shared Dignity” affirming their LGBTQI+ members, solidified her passion to serve the church.
“Hindi ko kailangan maging lalaki para mag-serve ka sa altar because the ministry of Jesus, ministry of God is open to everyone, because our soul has no gender,” she said.
In 2019, she went AWOL as the head nurse of a hospital in Pagadian and spent 20 days with Indigenous People in Bukidnon. It was there when she decided to leave her career as a clinical nurse and aspire to become a priest.
"Now, I am open for the physical pains, for spiritual pains, emotional pains, to be catered upon because now I am a registered nurse and a clergy," she said.
The IFI is described as a progressive, independent Christian denomination in the Philippines. It traces its origin from the struggle of the Filipino clergy against racial discrimination and friar domination within the Roman Church in the 19th century.
Trials of a Trailblazer
The seminary offered a different set of trials for Ledama as she becomes the first transgender seminarian.
Despite being recognized and registered as a female seminarian by her local diocese, she was placed in a male dormitory.
“My goal at that time [was] to really pursue priesthood. So, whatever I am facing to, kailangan ko siyang i-face [kaya] nag-stay ako sa male dormitory,” she explained.
On her third year, Ledama shared that three of her co-seminarians sexually harassed her, prompting her to seek help from the women's desk of the seminary.
However, the person in charge of the women’s desk did not report the incident to the rector of the seminary, according to Ledama.
The aspiring priest was instead transferred to a dormitory, separate from both the men’s and women’s, for her safety.
“Ang nangyari, walang na-impose na discernment man lang or sort of punishment doon sa tatlong nang-harass sa akin,” she said.
Still on the road to priesthood, the incident left her anxious about her future in the church, she said.
“They are releasing a persona non grata to me and then maybe I will not be ordained as a priest kasi kailangan ko pa kumuha ng ‘fit for ministry’ sa kanila at dahil nga galit sila sa akin at dahil nga brinoadcast ko,” Ledama said.
Although disappointed with the seminary’s response to the incident, Ledama said she still hopes this matter will be resolved.
“I’m still hoping for the good, for both parties. [I’m] open for dialogue,” she said.
After her ordination, representing as the first trans woman clergy in a Christian denomination in the Philippines, Ledama hopes that there will be more members of the LGBTQI+ community serving churches in the same capacity as hers.
“Nakikita na natin, nakikita na ng buong Pilipinas na ang pagpapari, ang pag-ministry ay hindi nakakulong lamang para sa mga lalaki at ito ay open para sa lahat ng mga tao,” she said.
She also desires this will open doors for the LGBTQI+ community in terms of legislation, negating the idea that the Philippines is “not yet ready” for laws protecting and promoting the rights of queer people.
“It opens now the discussion whether to make the country more accepting by passing the SOGIE bill or by making any other bills that would uplift [and would] prevent discrimination from sexual minorities,” Ledama said.
For members of the LGBTQI+ community who want to pursue priesthood or any pastoral service in their churches, Ledama has this to say: “Kunin natin ang space na mayroon tayo, ang human rights na mayroon tayo, ng respeto at dignidad na mayroon tayo kasi part iyon ng pagiging tao.”
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