Sass Rogando Sasot. Reclaiming the Wronged Body
* Speech delivered during my talk in a Social Science 3 on Gender and Sexuality Class at the University of the Philippines-Diliman (6 October 2010 | 12 noon)
Before anything else, I would like to thank Ms Beatriz Torre for giving me this opportunity to speak with you today. To my dear friends in the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), thank you for being my source of strength and support all these years. To my lifemate, Aernout Schram de Jong, thank you for your endless patience and warmth, and for letting me enter into your heart, which is one of the safest spaces I can ever find in this world. Dear students of the University of the Philippines, marvelous expressions of the human form, a pleasant and life-affirming afternoon to each and every one of you!
The parade of nations of the 2009 Copenhagen Outgames had just finished. Naomi Fontanos, my friend and the current Chairwoman of STRAP, and I decided to skip the programme and to go back to our hostel to rest. Naomi, who served as the muse of the Philippine contingent, was wearing a traditional Filipino dress, while I was wearing a 50’s dress.
While we were walking towards the train station, we encountered two bulky tall guys. One of them approached us and casually asked me, “Why is your chest so flat?” Then they walked away laughing. I was stunned by his rudeness. Before I could say anything, Naomi stopped me, and said “Sassy, don’t mind them! Assholes!” Scared, we ran towards the train station.
This was not the first time I encountered such harassment. The scariest one was eight years ago. One night, while I was on my way home from a speaking engagement, a gang of teenagers who were hanging outside a 7-11 convenient store saw me and started debating among themselves whether I was a girl or a boy. One of them settled it and shouted, “Putang-ina walang suso! Bakla yan! (Fuck! No breasts! That’s a fag!)” Then they started running towards me, shouting “Bakla! Takbo! (Run faggot!)” Terrified, I ran as fast as I could. I screamed for help but there was not much people in the road, only cars and jeepneys speeding by. Luckily, I saw an empty cab. I immediately hailed it. I locked all the doors and asked the driver to drive fast. There I saw that the teenager closest to me was carrying a steel pipe. He banged the trunk of the cab with it. The driver was furious and tried to stop to confront the guy. But I pleaded for him to just go and hurry up. Only fate knows what would have happened to me if I had been too slow or if there had been no empty cabs that happened to be there.
I have also experienced being humiliated because of my body even in spaces one can consider to be safe, like in a human rights conference. Last June, I was in Barcelona for the International Congress on Gender Identity and Human Rights. We had just finished the affairs of the day. I joined the table of a group of transgender women having a lively chat. As I was about to sit, one of them stopped talking and shouted at me “You are in desperate need of boobs!” Every one laughed. I felt so embarrassed. I just smiled at her and asked myself, “How can a transgender rights activist bully and make someone feel bad about her body? Does she really know the point of what she was fighting about?” I have been harassed, humiliated because I have “the wrong body.”
August 2005, Washington D.C. Tyra Hunter was a passenger in a car that was badly hit by another car. The fire department personnel arrived on the scene and pulled the driver and Tyra out of the car. Tyra, who was semi-conscious, soon received treatment for her injuries but her pants needed to be cut open first. According to the witnesses, as soon as her pants were cut open, the fire personnel who was supposed to give her treatment stopped. He saw that Tyra Hunter had a penis. The firefighters started making jokes about Tyra while she was gasping for breath and in great pain. Some of the witnesses shouted at the firefighters to help Tyra. One of them even said to the firefighters, “It don’t make any difference, he’s a person, he’s a human being.” An EMS supervisor arrived and resumed Tyra’s treatment. Tyra was then rushed to DC General Hospital. Unfortunately, Tyra suffered the same fate. The doctor refused to give her adequate medical treatment. Tyra died because she had “the wrong body.”
December 2003, Nebraska. John and Tom, two male friends of the girlfriend of Brandon Teena confronted him at a Christmas Eve party. They found out earlier that Brandon Teena was not born with a penis. They pulled down Brandon’s pants for everyone to see. Later that evening, they raped Brandon and threatened to kill him if he reported the crime to the police. Nonetheless, Brandon proceeded to report the assault. On New Year’s Eve, Brandon was shot and stabbed to death by John and Tom. Brandon died because he had “the wrong body”.
Perhaps some of you here have also experienced being humiliated, bullied, and harassed because of your body. The experience does take a toll on your self-esteem, leading you to ask yourself “What’s wrong with me?” Oftentimes we weigh this reflection against our societies’ demands for a particular kind of body. So before we can even appreciate the uniqueness of our form, we already feel the pressure to transform it into something more palatable to the tastes of other people.
Consider transsexual bodies. These are the bodies that were born without the genitalia and other sexual characteristics that are considered appropriate for the gender identities of their inhabitants. These are the girls and women who have penises and testicles, whose puberty didn’t command the growth of breasts, and who are incapable of pregnancy. And the boys and men who have vaginas, ovaries, breasts, and who aren’t capable of producing sperm. And of course within this general description, there are various permutations of what a transsexual body looks like. To the eyes of Mother Nature, this is one of the countless configurations of the human form. It is sad that we tend to appreciate people and ourselves not with the naked and embracing eyes that Nature has given us but with the prejudiced and limiting eyes that the conditionings of our societies have produced. So to some people, the transsexual body is an undesirable, freaky deviation from the norm that should not be allowed to exist.
I understand that an explanation of our existence by some expert opinion can be our lifeline against the different forms of violence and discrimination wielded against us by those who are disturbed by our existence. There are different scientific and religious theories that have been offered to explain us. I find that all of them seem to revolve around that famous statement that “We were born in the wrong body” or its other form “Trapped in the wrong body”.
For us transsexual people, this statement has been a convenient explanation to make people understand why we live with a gender that does not match the gender associated with the genitals we were born with. However, the realization that “I am born with the wrong body” and the action one takes in order to “right this wrong body” cannot be divorced from the traditional beliefs about how a female or male body should look like. We live in our bodies and our bodies live in a particular society. The moment we stand naked in front of the mirror, the reflection that we’re seeing is not necessarily being seen by naked eyes for our eyes are adorned by the conditioning of our societies. We were conditioned to consider those who were born with or do have vaginas and breasts as girls and women while those who were born with or do have penises as boys and men.
I identify and live my life as a woman, I look at myself in the mirror and I see a penis and a flat chest. How do I convince you that I am a woman? By feeling wrong about it? By hating the genitals I was born with as well as the body my puberty sculpted? By feeling trapped in this body? By transforming this body so that it can resemble the form of your woman? But is this body really wrong? What made it wrong? Who made it wrong? God? Scientists? Politicians? Theorists? Or me?
I am a human being inhabiting a transsexual body. Why am I inhabiting this body is a question that I cannot answer. I know that some dare to answer it by virtue of their whims, religious beliefs, scientific research, or various theoretical discussions. Yet what is the point of subjecting the existence of people like us under the microscope of various opinions? We exist, therefore we are and we do not need to prove and justify why we exist in order to be.
I am a human being who is neither in a wrong body nor trapped in a wrong body but a human being who is expressing her beingness in one of the various forms of the human body. I am not in a wrong body. I am in this body just like how you are in your body. I am not trapped by my body. I am trapped by your beliefs. And I want to reclaim this body from those who want it to breathe and be fed by their dogmas.
And I want to reclaim the body of the Tyra Hunters of this world from those who ridiculed and shamed it to its death. I want to reclaim the body of the Brandon Teenas of thus world from those who raped it so it could be put to its “right use.” I want to reclaim the bodies of all those who have been killed because their bodies have been wronged by the life-denying righteousness of those drowning in their hatred.
And to reclaim this body is to reclaim the inherent dignity and liberty of our bodies to live according to its own elegance and intelligence.
Friends, the next time you look at yourselves in the mirror, consider appreciating your bodies. Perhaps as you marvel at its reflection you might feel a deep, abiding sense of gratitude for its mere existence - after all, it is through your body that you can sense and be sensed by life. Remember this feeling the next time you encounter another human being for it will bring you closer and closer to appreciating the bodies that are different from you. Those bodies are not there for you to ridicule, hate, and eradicate but for you to get intimately and directly acquainted with the diversity of the creation of life. The same life that allowed you to exist. And one of the greatest ingratitude you could do to life is to wrong other bodies.