Transsexual women (11/01/2007)
HONOLULU — This is not an easy piece to write. It’s probably the most unusual and unprecedented case the Philippine Supreme Court has had to deal with in its history. It will be many, many years before the high court can have some kind of “transgender law” to guide its future deliberations on transgender cases.
The Court recently denied the petition of Rommel Jacinto Dantes Silverio, a transsexual, to change the entries in his birth certificate in the Office of the Civil Registrar — specifically, his gender from male to female and his first name to “Mely.” This despite the fact that Silverio had undergone what is technically called a “sex-reassignment surgery” in Bangkok in 2001 to become a biological woman. The Court, however, ruled that while the petitioner “may have succeeded in altering his body and appearance through the intervention of modern surgery, no law authorizes the change of entry as to sex in the civil registry for that reason. There is no special law in the country governing sex reassignment and its effect. This is fatal to petitioner’s case.” The Court concluded that it is up to Congress, if it chooses, “to determine what guidelines should govern the recognition of the effects of sex reassignment.”
The riveting story of Rommel/Mely Silverio is detailed in an intimate Internet account titled “My Life as a Transsexual Woman,” which he/she divides into: (1) pre-gender transition from birth to 1995; (2) pre-surgery days in Hawaii from 1996 to 2000; and (3) post-surgery life in the Philippines from 2001 to the present.
It was as a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa that I came to know Rommel very well. His late mother Anita I knew back in Manila. He was all of 230 pounds but over time I could notice a gradual change in his appearance. He had embarked on a regimen of female hormone pills and estrogen shots. I teasingly told him one day that he was becoming “sexy” but to be “careful.” By the end of 1996, he had already lost 50 pounds. He continued the routine until he lost another 30 pounds. So by now, he was down to 155 pounds evenly distributed in his 5’8” frame. He was becoming a woman and gaining a “greater sense of self-esteem and confidence.”
He went on to defend his dissertation on youth sexual behavior in 2000, and had acquired a “boyfriend” who consented to have him go to Bangkok for the sex change. For about three hours, a renowned Thai surgeon performed vaginoplasty and breast augmentation, increasing her breast size from A to D. Her recovery and post-surgery therapy lasted 18 months, after which she introduced her boyfriend, the man she was going to marry, to her family.
While Rommel had become Mely, for which she was ecstatic, several problems arose. The name on her passport was that of a man and inspectors couldn’t reconcile this with the tall, svelte and well-dressed woman standing in front of them. She had to have two sets of documentation all the time to attest to the fact that Rommel and Mely were one and the same. Bank personnel would do all sorts of checking, so she would seek out only those that already knew her to avoid any confusion and embarrassment. And so on. She could have easily come back to the United States where she wouldn’t have these hassles.
But discriminatory comments such as that the Philippines is not ready for transsexual women like her only increased her resolve to be treated equally and justly. Such remarks only “added fuel to my desire to be regarded as a professional colleague, to be treated with respect as a woman, and to be given a fair chance at life in general.” She escalated her personal struggle to attain “full legal recognition as a woman here in the Philippines, my country of birth” by petitioning the courts to change her gender and first name. The Court of Appeals denied her petition, which was a devastating blow. I am certain that the Supreme Court verdict upholding the lower court was even more devastating.
So, what now? I have great compassion for Mely — whom I will always remember as Rommel — who is really a very bright and likable individual. What does it matter really — Rommel or Mely, man or woman — it’s the same human being! And she has gone through the whole process with extreme pain of validating the essence of her identity and humanity. What more can we ask? But the law as they say is cruel, but it’s the law.
As a footnote, the large majority of transsexual (TS) transitions work out very well over the long term as documented in Lynn’s “Transsexual Women’s Successes.” However, in some cases, complete TS transitions “fail to meet very unrealistic expectations, and way too late the transitioner may realize that undergoing sex reassignment surgery (SRS) was a BIG mistake.” Among the “regretters” is Renee Richards, who was born a male but transitioned as a female via surgery in 1975 at age 40 and became a famous tennis player. She wished she had not done it, but too late. She realized she would always be seen as a transsexual and never as a real woman that she had earlier hoped to become.
My only hope for Rommel/Mely is that she won’t regret the biggest decision she made in her life, and that society will become increasingly tolerant, if not accepting, of diversity in all its possible senses and meanings.
Belinda A. Aquino is director of Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she has been professor of Political Science and Asian Studies.
I only heard about Ma’am Mely Silverio ( formerly Rommel Silverio) when I was in college in UPD. A friend of mine who is in a higher batch than me told me stories about Ma’am Silverio. Well actually Ma’am Silverio was her professor in Social Stat 180 then. She’s a really a brilliant teacher according to her. I wished I could be her student but unfortunately, she had to go on a sabbatical leave I think.
Upon reading this article only made me think that we really need laws to protect the LGBT. UP babaylan has been pushing for the Anti-Discrimination Bill which until now haven’t been passed in Congress due to the fear, I believe, that by approving the bill our fellow LGBTs will ask for gay marriage at once ( paranoia.. duhh). We can’t blame the Supreme Court for not allowing her to change her name on her legal documents into her female name because there isn’t really a law that could make it possible. Philippine society isn’t really ready for transexualism yet, but at least treat transexuals equally just like ‘hetero’ men and women. If only Congress sees this situation and be pragmatic about it without thinking about prejudice and bigotry there shouldn’t be a problem.
The dichotomy of nature vs. nurture is very evident in this issue. People still have the notion that everything is determined by nature and cannot deviate from it, thus making homosexuality an “abnormal” thing because there is a notion that people should act and behave according to their nature. I believe that the basic premise of our lawmakers is coming from that notion of pre-determination. On the other side of the dichotomy, nurture, has a notion that everything is socially determined. Some social theorists think that homosexuality is influenced by the people around you and not because it is inherited. These 2 dichotomies have been long debated and until now there is no unified answer as to why homosexuality exists. This issue has been there for centuries and were initiated by “hetero” people who wants to study the absurd. Isn’t it very insulting that “hetero” people have to do that because they think they “normal”? Why don’t we change the situation, why don’t we gay people study why there are “hetero” people? Why are you acting the way you are?
Coming from a social science background, I understand where homophobia and bigotry comes from. People act the way they are because that is how they were socialized in this world. All that they have to do is know how to listen and understand where “we” are coming from too. It is hard to debate with people who are closed minded and would not accept the fact that “we” co-exist in this world. We will always be struggling for our existence and do an extra effort to be accepted in this society.