Geraldine Roman, a 49-year-old former journalist, survived a brutal campaign to win a seat in the national legislature — and a place in Filipino history.
CALAPAN — In the heat and dust of summer, Geraldine Roman campaigned for Congress in pearl necklaces and lipstick, and the yellow shirt of her party, the governing Liberals. In the end she won, though not before enduring a barrage of political mudslinging and character assassination attempts by rival candidates.
As a transgender person in a predominantly Catholic country, Roman was an easy target. Her victory was a remarkable accomplishment and political breakthrough for the Philippines. "At the start, my opponents tried to make an issue of my gender. But it turns out that people don't care. Their type of politics was one of hatred and bigotry," she says.
Roman returned home from Spain in 2012 to care for her aging parents, and to continue her family's political legacy. Her mother, Herminia, and her father, Antonio Jr., are both former congressional representatives. Roman will succeed her mother as the representative of Bataan, in Central Luzon, where her family has been a political force for three generations.
But the election result isn't just a triumph for the family legacy. It is also cause for serious celebration among LGBT rights activists. "I'm happy about it because we finally have a transgender person in a field besides fashion or showbiz," one activist explains. "This is about politics and leadership, about people being open to a gender that was once so despised."
The Roman Catholic Church continues to have a strong influence on this Southeast Asian nation, where roughly 81% of the population identifies as Catholic, according to the Pew Research Centre. Divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage are all illegal. And since 2001, transgender people have been unable to legally change their name and sex.
Earlier this year, international boxing champion and two-term congressional representative Manny Pacquiao sparked outrage when he described gay people as "worse than animals."
"Finally someone to help us'
Roman, a former journalist and senior editor for the Spanish News Agency, has been living as a woman for more than two decades, undergoing sex realignment surgery in New York at age 27. During the recent election campaign, she promised to provide more infrastructure, medical care, scholarships, and make government more transparent.
Her victory has inspired people across the country. Apol Acenas, a gay hairdresser in Calapan, is thrilled that the LGBT community finally has a voice in parliament. "There's someone to help us," he says. "Younger people especially need guidance. Many of us experience discrimination even from our parents. I struggled in life, and decided to get married to a woman to avoid being discriminated against."
A national anti-discrimination bill to protect LGBT Filipinos has been languishing in the congress and senate for 16 years. The bill would ensure equal treatment in the workplace, schools, commercial establishments and government offices. Roman has vowed to revive the bill, and also push for same sex civil unions.
There's no doubt she will face resistance. Oddie Quino, a religious leader in Calapan, says the Catholic Church is very clear on its teachings. Marriage, as instituted by God, is a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman, he says.
"They commit themselves completely to each other and to the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them," he says. "Same-sex unions contradict the nature of marriage."
Roman, a Catholic herself, is unfazed. "The body is just a shell," she says. "If you feel that by modifying the outside you can be a more loving, generous and happier person, then go ahead, because what's important is the heart."