If you happen to be part of the LGBT community and an advocate of diversity and inclusion, you definitely have an idea of one of the spectrums of the rainbow, the transgender people.

With all the heat that is going on inside the senate regarding the passing of the Anti-Discrimination Bill and the hatred and bigotry flowing on social media, it is good to have a glimpse on some of the things we need to understand about our friends from the transgender community.

We may not have experienced their struggles, but that doesn’t mean we need not be empathetic; that is humanity.

I talked to Yanyan and Bubbles, both LoveYourself volunteers, and asked them to share a part of their life with us, plus tell us why the new Victoria Health and Wellness Center that focuses on transgender persons is such a groundbreaking project.

When did you realize that you are a transgender woman?

Yanyan: I was a late bloomer. Years ago, I experienced depression, which I believed was due to identity crisis.  [I was] questioning myself. Then I realized that I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t fit to be gay. I started researching and learning things about transgender people. And by October 2015, I believed in myself that I am a woman. I felt I am a woman. Then I started taking Hormonal Replacement Therapy (HRT) as part of the transition process.

Bubbles: When I was in high school, I believed that transgender women were more accepted than crossdressers, so I decided to undergo HRT. But my HRT was interrupted because my parents and relatives found out about it. When I finished college, I restarted undergoing HRT, and eventually, they just accepted me because the physical changes were becoming visible.

How did your family take it?

Bubbles: Slowly. The changes in my body did not immediately become visible. And I was not even wearing women’s clothes. But when I was reviewing for my board exams, I tried wearing women’s clothes. And I was surprised that my mother was the one buying my clothes. I felt happy because she was very supportive.

Until now, they accept me for who I am. But there are times they become concerned about my future – family, relationships, and all those typical things that an LGBT member is concerned about.

Yanyan: When I was in high school and I thought I was gay, it was a struggle with my family since my father was strict. But they just kept on telling me to finish my studies and find a stable job before anything else.

The process [of acceptance] was gradual. Remember how mothers love to purchase underwear from Avon? I tried to wear those panties and brassieres, and my mother was wondering why her undergarments went missing. When she found out, she asked me, “Bakit mo ginagamit ang mga iyan?” Then I told her that I felt differently. Then eventually, she was the one buying me women’s underwear and even dresses.

I was accepted very well. But my father became stricter. He doesn’t want me wearing shorts and short skirts. He scolds me.

Since you identify as women, what are your regimens or “rituals” to maintain your womanhood? And how important are these for you?

Yanyan: For me, well, since I was younger, I was already vain. I always apply lotion and moisturizer. The only difference is I am using products for females and, of course, the addition of hormones. I take hormones twice a day before I go to sleep. Every time I take hormone, I feel that I am really a woman. The physical changes I see add to my “completeness.” It’s like a road to womanhood.

Bubbles: I suggested to Yanyan to double her dose to increase the estrogen level of her body and, of course, to “block” the androgen. I also take my pills every day before going to sleep. I suggest to take your pills the same time every day. But there were instances that I failed to take them due to my busy work schedule. Hormones, for me, are very important because I think I am more accepted by the society [when I take them]. But that doesn’t mean that all transgender people should take HRT or need to cross-dress. No. Transitioning is not that.

What do other people need to know about transgender women?

Yanyan: We are women. We are not gay men. Women!

Bubbles: We deserve the same respect people give to women because we are women. We are not some flesh that you run to when you are in need of sex. We also have dignity.

How do you handle your love life?

Yanyan: It is a challenge. You need to explain everything to them. You need to educate them with SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression). And it also hurts that some men agree and pretend they understand and accept you, but at the end of the day, all they want from you is your body.

What I also notice is that more TGs are into relationships with foreign men because they are more open[-minded] than Filipinos.

Bubbles: I prefer hetero cisgender men, though it is a challenge nowadays, especially if the guy is family-oriented with very conservative roots. Another challenge is how society sees it [the relationship]. It is still taboo in the eyes of the majority, and therefore, it is difficult for some men to enter into a relationship with us.

How did you get involved in the HIV advocacy?

Yanyan: It started when my friend turned out to be HIV reactive. We were used to drinking alcohol  in a shared glass, and we thought we had contracted the virus through that. So what I did was I researched about HIV and testing centers, and I saw LoveYourself online. I found it cool because of the campaigns and the message it sends across.

Bubbles: I discovered LoveYourself in an app. There was a pop-up message about an upcoming HIV mass testing, so I was encouraged [to go]. I got myself tested and a volunteer told me about how someone can volunteer. Coincidentally, I saw Kenneth Dacion, who was my batchmate in college. He encouraged me to join the organization. More than the encouragement I got from Ken, the way volunteers treated their clients gave me that desire to help my community.

What do you do in LoveYourself?

Yanyan: I do counseling. I am a trained counselor for both individual and couple clients. I also help in events when it comes to video editing.

Bubbles: I want to be a counselor, but my work schedule prevents me from attending the training. So what I do is during my rest days, I go to Uni to do the decking. It’s like a receptionist job. I am the frontline volunteer for the center.

What is the relationship of HIV and the transgender community?

Yanyan: I have to share this: I believe there is a disconnect with the IHBSS (Integrated HIV Behavioral and Serologic Surveillance) data because TGs are still classified as MSM (men who have sex with men). From that, it is difficult to gather data exclusively for the transgender people. We can’t identify if the community is really at risk, though we all know that transgender women are really at risk because some of them are engaged in sex work. When it comes to transmission, some self-medicate and use IV drugs (e.g. glutathione).

What does LoveYourself need to do to reach a larger TG audience?

Yanyan: Well, LoveYourself started to cater to MSM, and I am glad that they opened their doors to the transgender community. There is a high risk of HIV infection among the transgender people. Therefore, more campaigns should be done to address their needs – more campaigns that are TG-centric and more TG volunteers.

Bubbles: More information dissemination. We need to find that market. There is a market out there.

How was the Victoria Health and Wellness Clinic born?

Yanyan: It started when Vinn Pagtakhan and Dr. Loyd Brendan Norella of ISEAN HIVOS were in Jakarta. While they were inside a cab, they thought of having a TG center similar to Tangerine, a TG clinic based in Bangkok and the first in Southeast Asia. Vinn and Doc Lloyd applied for funding and was approved. Then it materialized into this [Victoria Clinic].

LoveYourself had its soft launch of the center last December 2016, and primarily, we offer three levels of services. Level 1 is HIV counseling and testing on transgender concerns and basic baseline laboratory procedures and screenings for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Level 2 includes hormone management, advanced laboratory, and pre-SRS (sex reassignment surgery). Level 3 consists of more advanced medical procedures.

What are the things you need to do for the community to understand you better?

Bubbles: I always believe in continuous education. I believe that proper information dissemination is very important. We need to educate people with the differences between a transgender woman and a transsexual. The community also needs to understand our needs as women. And I think on our part, I believe in taking that bold step to reveal yourself to the people around you, especially to your family and relatives, because acceptance starts from being authentic.

What is your message of empowerment and encouragement to your fellow transgender women?

Yanyan: Laban lang, Bes! It is very challenging. Change is challenging – emotionally, physically, and even financially. When you transition, you have to make sure, deep within yourself, that you are a woman. You really need to take time for yourself to dig into your core. You will experience different forms of harassment from the outside world, and all you have to do is to ignore them. And one more thing: Do not ever settle for anything less. Do not lower your standards when it comes to relationships just because you are having a hard time finding a partner. You should not do that to yourself. You have to be true to yourself.

Bubbles: Transitioning is not like a U-Turn slot where you can turn back from where you were before. For those undergoing HRT, there is a chance you will become sterile, and therefore, your chance of having a biological family lowers. This is why you really need time to know yourself, to know more about your deeper understanding of your identity. Discrimination will always be there, but the judgment of other people is the last thing you want to think of. They don’t matter. As long as you are becoming true to yourself and not hurting anyone, do you.

We came to the end of the interview and how I wish I had more time with these beautiful ladies. Their stories opened my mind to a wider horizon about the truths that hide behind the fragile faces of transgender women (and men).

I encourage you to go out there and talk to a transgender man or woman, and let their stories inspire you and change your perspective towards them. Believe me, once you understand and accept their truth, you are helping the world a better place to live.

Text by Ruben Jay C. Alvarez Jr.
Photos by Kevin Tuazon, edited by Mark Long
Video by Kevin Tuazon, edited by Yanyan Araña

LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.

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