As It Happens

Meet the Philippines' first transgender congresswoman

In a devoutly Catholic country, where divorce is still illegal and the LGBT community still censured, voters elected Geraldine Roman, the first transgender woman to join the Philippine Congress.
Geraldine Roman has been elected the Philippines' first transgender congresswoman. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

The votes are still being finalized, but we know two things from this week's election in the Philippines.

One, they will have a new controversial president in Rodrigo Duterte.

And two, Geraldine Roman will be the country's first transgender congresswoman.

This, in a devoutly Catholic country, where divorce is still illegal and members of the LGBT community often face discrimination. 

Geraldine Roman on the campaign trail. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

The congresswoman-elect spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Bataan, Philippines. Here is some of their conversation.

Carol Off: Ms. Roman, congratulations. 

Geraldine Roman: Thank you so much. 

CO: Why do you think so many people voted for you in Bataan? 

GR: Mainly because my parents have been in public service for the past three decades. My father started way back in 1978. And then my mother continued his footsteps. And now it's my turn. 

They were telling everybody, 'Why do you vote for a person like this? She's immoral. She's a sinner.'. . . The people here are more intelligent than that.- Geraldine Romano, transgender congresswoman

CO: Did the fact that you're a transgender woman play any role at all in your campaign? 

GR: Well, at first my opponents tried to convert it into an issue. They resorted to character assassination and they tried to use my gender against me. They were telling everybody, 'Why do you vote for a person like this? She's immoral. She's a sinner.' They even tried to make fun of me for the usual stereotypes of the limp-wristed gays that are so common here in the Philippines. But fortunately, this type of politics, this politics of discrimination, the hatred and prejudice and bigotry didn't work. The people here are more intelligent than that. 

Geraldine Roman, the Philippine's first transgender lawmaker. (Courtesy of Geraldine Roman)

CO: You mention that part of the character assassination was accusing you of being a sinner. We know that the Philippines is conservative. It has strong Catholic roots to it. And you were campaigning in a farming community. Was it a case that it didn't matter to people, that this not a significant thing to consider in this election campaign? 

It's very hard to grow up a transgender child. My source of consolation was the [Catholic] Church.- Geraldine Roman

GR: Well, to begin with, I am a practicing Catholic. With regard to my relationship with the Church, I have never felt rejected by our parish priest or the other priests I have come to know in my years of living here. In fact, I can even say that when I was a child growing up — you know it's very hard to grow up a transgender child — my source of consolation was the Church. And we Catholics refer to the Church as our mother; Holy Mother, the Church. And it is virtually a mother to me, you know. It offered spiritual consolation. But my opponents . . . they were very self-righteous in their attitude. And that turned off people. 

CO: You've said elsewhere that you take your position in parliament with a plan to further more than just LGBT rights. But I do want to ask you about LGBT rights and what laws you would consider trying to change. 

Geraldine Roman at a campaign rally for the national election in Orani town, Bataan province, May 6, 2016. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

GR: I want to make one thing clear. I was voted by the constituents of the first district of Bataan. So my main loyalty will be towards my constituents and my priority will be their social economic welfare. In short, I'm just another congresswoman, following in the footsteps of my parents, and I just happened to be transgender. With regard to LGBT rights, I want to tell my brothers and sisters in the the community — although LGBT rights person[s] are not my priority — the mere fact that a person of my condition has been able to enter Philippine Congress is already a statement in itself, sending a clear message to our society, to Philippine society, that people of my condition are capable of serving the country and should not be discriminated against. There are two particular laws that I am considering. Maybe three. One is the anti-discrimination bill, which has been languishing in our congress for the past 16 years. Second is the possibility of having same-sex civil unions. And the third one would be the possibility of changing the legal name and gender for people who have undergone sex reassignment or sex-realignment surgery.

CO: How much support do you think you'll get from incoming President Rodrigo Duterte, given the fact that he has joked about rape and he has said he would kill criminals — but the same time, he has made remarks that he seems to support LGBT rights. Do you think that you'll get support from him? 

Our new president-elect is not exactly a politically-correct person . . . But I think his actions speak louder than his words.- Geraldine Romano

GR: Ironically, our new president-elect is not exactly a politically-correct person. He has made very insensitive remarks. But I think his actions speak louder than his words because in Davao City — that's a city in the south where he used to be mayor — he has approved very LGBT-friendly ordinances. They have very clear anti-discrimination ordinances. So I guess he's very open-minded with regard to LGBT rights. 

CO: And do you think you'll get support from him in your initiatives? 

GR: Why not? The problem is not getting the support of the president. The problem would be to get the support of my colleagues in the 17th Congress, which will start this July. I am told the majority of the congressmen and congresswomen are very conservative. So it's a long battle. But I'm not giving up. I will have to convince them — maybe just by showing to them that I am an LGBT person, I'm a transgender woman, I'm a normal person, [and] I have the capacity to serve in our country. Maybe by showing to them the best of myself, they will open their minds to people of the same condition. 


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