Geraldine Roman wants to be more than just 'the transgender congresswoman'

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The daughter of two legislators in Orani, Bataan, Geraldine Roman never saw herself in politics. A conversation with her father about her life purpose and a real desire to effect positive change for people from all walks of life eventually convinced her otherwise. Photo by REGINE DAVID

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Do you want me to wear my pearls?” she asked after posing for a few shots. She walked into this photo shoot prepared. She did her own makeup herself, and her own styling, too. She knew exactly where her light was and what angle would be just enough for her cheekbones to frame a sweet smile. This was a woman who exuded calm confidence, a woman who would drop tita lines in between setups and take fierce and silly selfies with the crew. But despite all this, moments of self-consciousness would creep in.

And she has every right to be a bit sheepish. Before the elections, she was a private person, a journalist and housewife to a doting husband. Now, she has become the first transgender politician elected in the Philippines.

She is Congresswoman Geraldine Roman.

When news about her campaign and eventual win as the representative of the first district of Bataan broke out, it caused a media frenzy not only here but abroad as well. Roman, 49, became an overnight celebrity. She started being touted as this happy paradox, a beacon of light in this very contentious election season. Who would have ever thought that she would win in a country where same-sex unions are still considered taboo? Her inclusion in Congress gives Filipino LGBTs not only an ally in the government, but also actual representation by someone who knows what it is to be LGBT.

On May 17, the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, she was invited by the Australian embassy to speak about the importance of LGBT acceptance. She underscored how one’s gender should not be considered a hindrance when it comes to serving in government and helping people. She aims to prove just that once she begins her term.

Congresswoman Roman sat down with CNN Philippines Life after the shoot to talk more about that all-important subject, local politics, and the driving force behind her decisions. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Geraldine - Story 2.png At a recent Australian embassy event about the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, Roman underscored how one’s gender should not be considered a hindrance when it comes to serving in government and helping people. Photo by REGINE DAVID

You come from a family of politicians. Was being part of Congress something that you’ve set your sights on ever since?

No, not really. To be frank with you, this was not part of my life plan. I had a very quiet and private life in Spain, where I worked as a journalist. I would come home every year, especially during Easter, because I’m very active in our parish in my hometown of Orani in Bataan. But in 2012, I came home to take care of my father. He fell ill, and during one of our intimate conversations, he was asking me existentialist questions. He asked me, “What is the meaning of your life, Geraldine?” I told him, “Well, isn’t it enough that I earn money, I save and buy the things that I want, I get to travel?” And he told me: “No. What is the deeper meaning in your life? As long as you don’t help other people, your life has no true meaning.”

I took that as a personal challenge, to continue the legacy that he started. I was only 11 years old when my father started in politics. My father kept telling us that it is a privilege to be a blessing to others. We have been blessed so we have to pay back society and be a blessing to others.

During that time, I was also campaigning for my mother for the 2013 elections. That was when I was observing the whole political culture. Many people were actually thanking me, because at one point in their lives, my parents helped them. My parents were so quiet about helping a lot of people. And I thought to myself: “Well, I could do this. I have so many ideas.”

After living in Europe for so many years, you get to observe a lot of things, how they do things, and you bring home these ideas. This is the reason I ran for Congress.

What kind of family is the Roman family?

We’re very Catholic. We have very philosophical discussions on the meaning of life, relating everything to God and the will of God in our lives, His plan. We often deal with our purpose in life, and we talk about our mortality. It’s very deep.

We have this notion of public service as being a privilege. When you’re in a capacity to help other people, it is a privilege. What did you do in your life to deserve the situation you’re in? If you’re in a situation of being able to help others, take advantage of that situation. That’s our philosophy.

When people ask me, “What do you think made you win?” I say it’s not my personal charm; it’s not the mere fact that I’m a trans woman. I think it’s more of my parents. If you plant good seeds, they will bear good fruit.

 

How great was your parents’ influence on you in terms of politics?

Through my father, I learned that you serve the people well based on your beliefs. It is our belief that each person — regardless of his or her personal circumstances, gender or socioeconomic status, or educational attainment, or age — deserves dignity. Because we believe we are children of God and each one has a special purpose in life. So when you serve, you have to bear that in mind, always.

From my father I learned the philosophical side of this position, and from my mom, the practical. She’s very hardworking, so I got that from her.

When people ask me, “What do you think made you win?” I say it’s not my personal charm; it’s not the mere fact that I’m a trans woman. I think it’s more of my parents. If you plant good seeds, they will bear good fruit.

You know, we don’t have a perfect system in the Philippines. We duplicate functions, and sometimes, even as a congressperson, you have to exercise certain executive functions and directly provide people with assistance and services. Even if it’s not our duty, we assume it is, with open arms, with a positive attitude. We do it with pleasure. It’s nothing that burdens us. And I feel people feel that sincerity. And maybe that’s the reason they gave me a very large margin over my opponent.

What are your thoughts on political dynasties?

Maybe we should ask the voting population why they vote for people who come from the same family. I don’t think you can fool people. If people really feel that these politicians are inefficient, or that they’re bad or dishonest, or they do nothing, I don’t think they would vote for these people. The mere fact that people from the same family are elected into office means that they must be doing some good. So to legislate the will of the people, for me, it defeats the purpose of a democracy.

Pagalingan lang naman yan, eh. You just have to show that you’re performing and doing well. If you deprive a person of his right to run for public office simply because he or she happens to be the brother or sister or the son or daughter of an incumbent politician, I don’t think that’s fair.

Geraldine - Story 3.png "There were moments that I wanted to back out. But I said, 'No. I have to prove myself.' Because I have good ideas, I know what I’m fighting for. And I know that I would come out a stronger person." Photo by REGINE DAVID

Do you think being a woman in Philippine politics is an advantage or a disadvantage?

There are certain individuals who try to make an issue out of gender. I’ve heard other politicians say, “Hay naku, babae lang ‘yan. She’s just a woman, what can she do in Congress?” I remember when Vilma Santos was running for office, they said, “Oh, she’d spend most of her time making herself up.”

My God, if they discriminate against women, can you imagine: What about transgender women? I know some people raise their eyebrows or talk behind my back, but I don’t mind. I’ll just do my work, and I’ll do it well. And maybe by doing so, I can convince them that we’re just ordinary people and we deserve respect. The same respect that you would want from other people.

During the whole campaign, was there ever a point where you doubted that you were going to win?

There were moments when I wanted to back out because of the personal attacks that were being hurled at me by my opponents. I was warned about this, but I never thought that it would hurt that much.

First of all, there were jokes about my anatomy. They mocked me for having taken that decision to undergo sex realignment surgery. What really hurt me the most was when they judged my relationship with God, because my entire life, I have tried my best to maintain a relationship with God and to be a good person. And for people who do not know me, who do not know my heart, to judge me, especially in public, it was painful.

 

There were moments that I wanted to back out. But I said, “No. I have to prove myself.” Because I have good ideas, I know what I’m fighting for. And I know that I would come out a stronger person.

As for the victory, was I sure about the victory? Yes, I was. Because as I’ve said, my parents had planted good seeds for the past few decades. They planted good seeds for 38 years, so I had no doubt about my victory.

I know some people raise their eyebrows or talk behind my back, but I don’t mind. I’ll just do my work, and I’ll do it well. And maybe by doing so, I can convince them that we’re just ordinary people and we deserve respect.

It’s refreshing to see someone like you, a transgender woman, win in Orani and several other towns in Bataan. There’s always been this notion that people in more rural areas of the country would be more conservative.

Yes, people would tend to think: “Oh, they’re very simple. Ergo, their mindset must be different. It must be close-minded and conservative.” Well, surprise! People here are much more open.

I can attribute this to the fact that the media and even the entertainment industry have dealt with the phenomenon of transgenderism. There have been teleseryes like “Destiny Rose” and also some important personalities who have come out as transgender. We have Caitlyn Jenner in the U.S. and BB Gandanghari here in the Philippines. Little by little, people get exposed to the idea. It’s not something that comes out of the blue. With exposure comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes acceptance and tolerance. Thank God I was able to avail of these developments in our society. So far, I have not heard any kind of condemnation from the Church.

One is born a transgender person, so he or she has no choice. And when you have no choice about something, I don’t know why there should be moral judgment attached to that condition. Even before undergoing my sex realignment surgery, I’ve been a practicing Catholic, so just to be sure, I had to consult the Jesuits at Ateneo de Manila University, where I was educated. And they told me this: “Geraldine, the body is just a shell. If you think by modifying the outside, you can become a more loving, more generous, and happier person, go ahead, because what is important is the heart, and God looks at the heart and not what you have in between your legs.”

So for me, the Church I belong to has not treated me with rejection. In fact it has been a source of consolation for me, even during my growing years, when the internal struggle was very intense and I would often get depressed. The incidence of depression among transgender people is very high, until they have that definitive moment when finally, their body is aligned with their psyche, with their mind, with their heart. So the Church was a source of consolation for me.

Do you see this as the beginning of your political career, and are you aspiring for a higher position?

Hay, naku, one step at a time! Let’s take things one step at a time. I want to serve, I want to serve my district. As I said in my previous interviews, my loyalty is to the first district of Bataan, so the socioeconomic welfare is my priority.

But at the same time I have to think of laws that will benefit the LGBT community because I know. I know what it’s like to suffer discrimination. I’ve been there, and I want a better life for them. And I was also able to avail of a legal name and gender change. To my knowledge, hindi naman bumagsak ang ekonomiya ng Pilipinas dahil nagpapalit ako ng kasarian. It does not signify the moral decline of the entire nation, you know? To all those doomsday prophets: No. What makes you close your doors to the possibility of these small things that are already being implemented in other countries, and with much success?

I am living proof that, given the chance, people can lead normal lives and become productive members of our society, and be happy. So why deprive them of this possibility, of this opportunity? Why be selfish? Why should we be chained to our prejudice and our biases, you know? Let other people be happy too.

Geraldine - Story - 4.png Roman believes that the novelty of the inclusion of people who identify as LGBT in politics will soon become the norm. "We can tell if we have matured as a society when we no longer talk about gender," she says. Photos by REGINE DAVID  

What kind of bills are you seeing now for the district, based on your experience and what you’ve seen?

For my district, mayroon akong eight-point platform called “EQUALITY,” which means equal opportunities for all regardless of their personal circumstances. E stands for “Education,” Q and U for “Quality” and “Universal healthcare,” A for “Agriculture,” L for “Livelihood,” I for “Infrastructure,” T for “Transparency of government,” and Y for “Youth.” So my goal is to pass a bill for each of these advocacies, and if I get five out of eight, that means success already, pasado na ako. All these will benefit my district, of course.

You know why I’m attending to all of my media interviews? In the hope that maybe, with my popularity will come more assistance and aid. I’ve spoken to several governments who have liberal administrations, and they want me to succeed. And they told me, “Well, if your success means that we have to help you with your projects, construct school buildings or improve hospitals, we will help you.” Anyway, that’s part of what they normally do already, but we can channel it too. So that’s the reason I don’t mind all this media hype.

You’re an advocate of the Anti-Discrimination Bill. How much of a battle do you think it will entail to have it passed?

People are more open-minded. I’ve spoken to a lot of legislators, incumbent and incoming, and we’re already planning how to revive the Anti-Discrimination Bill.

We have to re-analyze it. I’m sure there are more situations that we can add to this bill. The more specific it is, the better. This is so we can cover daily situations in all aspects of life and prevent discrimination not only for LGBTs but also discrimination on the basis of age, for example. I know of a lot of cases where qualified people, just because they’re 35 or 40, they cannot find jobs anymore. We should prevent that. We should illegalize that. Or people, just because of their physical attributes, are unable to find good jobs. These are the things we want to do away with.

Are there LGBT issues that you are setting your eyes on?

Civil unions. I know it’s not exactly same-sex marriage, but you have the rights and privileges without offending religious sensibilities. So for all practical purposes, it’s the same banana. We have to start from somewhere. If we’re too militant and too intransigent, inflexible, we won’t go anywhere. We have to be diplomatic and maybe be willing to reach a compromise, meet halfway. There is also this possibility of allowing transgender women or men who have gone through sex realignment surgery to apply for legal name and sex change.

I am living proof that, given the chance, people can lead normal lives and become productive members of our society, and be happy. So why deprive them of this possibility, of this opportunity? Why be selfish?

Of course with politics come controversies. Are you bracing yourself for more inquiries into or attacks on your marriage?

Oh no, that’s a totally private issue. Everybody knows I have a partner of 18 years, but that person is an individual with his right to privacy and I’m just asking everybody to respect that.

But during your campaign, it was used against you.

Ah, it was nothing naman. Nasabi ng kalaban ko, “Naku! Karumal-dumal ang kasalanan niya. Nakiki-apid siya sa kapwa lalaki niya.”

But people were turned off by my opponent. They know my partner is a kind person. We live in our community. We’re just normal people. You can see us buying groceries at the supermarket or having a snack. Kumakain kami ng pancit palabok. We join processions. We’re part of the community. So when they started attacking me, and when they tried to involve my partner, it wasn’t effective. Despite the attempts of my opponent to fill people with hatred and bigotry and prejudice, people still chose to listen to the good side of their heart.

The Philippines has now elected its very first transgender woman in Congress. Where do you think we’ll go from here?

I don’t want to be typecast as “the transgender woman.” At the end of my career, I want people to know me as Geraldine Roman. “She was a good legislator, she helped a lot of people, and she did her job well.” Yun ang gusto kong mangyari.

Maybe more people with my condition from the LGBT community would be encouraged to join public service. The mere fact now is it’s a novelty. The succeeding cases won’t be novelties anymore. In time, it will become normal. We can tell if we have matured as a society when we no longer talk about gender. We’ll just talk about individuals and what they have to offer: their platform, their agenda, and their capacity to serve our country. That is my hope, and that is how I see things in the future.

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Watch the video below for a behind-the-scenes look at the photo shoot: