From the moment Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick at Stonewall, it has been quite a long way since many of those who preceded the LGBTQ+ community have tried to give language to identities that have always existed, regardless of the lack of recognition or acceptance by many. But even when homophobia and transphobia are supposedly things of a bygone age, the struggle persists.
Every movement is made possible by collectives who place themselves at the forefront of a cause, continuing the foundations built by the previous generations, having gone through hell and back for the community to become what it is today. The world remains an imperfect and cruel one, but every single one of these people is fighting for it to be a livable and safe space for everyone on the spectrum.
The Cebu United Rainbow LGBT Sector (CURLS) is one of the leading organizations in the city that engages locally and nationally regarding this issue, striving for better policy-making to protect the LGBTQ+ and working in the grassroots to give educational discussions to guide people in their journey of self-discovery, and to simply make the distinctions of the LGBTQ+ known as our country has only ever viewed sexuality as binary.
Last December 1, 2023, Lady Extraordinaire, a pageant competed by multiple transwomen, was made possible by CURLS with Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc. (PSFI) PROTECTS as one of the sponsors, giving emphasis on fighting HIV and AIDS and the stigma it is so well acquainted with.
Sugbo.ph had the privilege of interviewing three of the women who won in the pageant. We were testimonies of how extraordinary they really are.
Naya Marie (Lady Extraordinaire 2023), Jane Caballes (Lady Extraordinaire Youth Ambassadress), and Vojhn Ilaguison (Lady Extraordinaire Trans Health Ambassadress) are women who have very different paths in life but are all working towards the same goal which is gender equality and trans visibility.
Lady Extraordinaire 2023
Naya, Jane, and Vojhn initially never thought of themselves as being in any pageant. However, when they were informed that Lady Extraordinaire is an event that heavily focuses on advocacies, they knew they had to get their voices heard. 2023 was the third year the pageant was held, having the most contestants in the pageant’s history, with 21 women competing for the crown.
When asked about how the pageant went, they expressed how fulfilling the journey was as they were given the chance to be on an advocacy-focused platform, highlighting the evolution of pageants. Moreover, they were tasked to encourage 50 people to get tested for HIV and AIDS. Jane impressively exceeded the minimum and was able to convince over 100+ people to get tested.
The Advocacies of Jane, Vojhn, and Naya
- Jane – Partnership with Private Sectors for HIV Testing
Jane’s platform centered on partnerships with private sector to help with HIV testing, which is exactly why she was able to convince many people to get tested. Working in the BPO industry, her goal is to destigmatize the industry while destigmatizing HIV and AIDS within it. As a result of her campaign, even non-members of the LGBTQ+ in her company participated in the testing.
HIV and AIDS, since their widespread in the 80s, have always been misconceptualized as a “gay disease,” but it is high time society sees STDs for what they are – obtained by anyone regardless of sexuality and should nonetheless underscore the importance of sexual health.
As Jane said, “HIV is similar to other diseases that we should tag with a matter of urgency.”
- Vojhn – SOGIE-SC Education
“No one mentored me, like Naya, during my transition,” Vojhn mentioned as she explained why she works so hard in the grassroots to educate people about SOGIE-SC even before and outside the pageant. Her goal is to educate young transwomen grappling with their identity not only for them to know the steps to take after self-actualizing but to deconstruct the transphobia society has deeply ingrained in their minds that is most likely starting to sound like their own voices. Vojhn wants to let them know that what they are going through is normal, and if they already feel like they are women, then they are women.
Vojhn’s work transcends beyond her first pageant. She is part of the National Children and Young People Planning Forum and gives educational discussions regarding SOGIE-SC both in events and casual encounters to reach more people on the ground.
- Naya – Quality Education and Gender Equality
As a student herself, Naya recognizes the importance of everyone getting to exercise their rights, especially in a place deemed as where you “get to prepare for the real world”. Quality education is only achieved when gender equality is also in the equation; students are a school’s constituents, and an institution becomes optimally conducive for learning when all identities are protected.
Naya is an SSC Council in her school, working towards institutional policies that reflect her values and the needs of her community. Although not having had anyone to guide her in navigating her identity in her teens, now, at 21, she has realized that giving what she didn’t receive back then is her purpose.
Women and Hair
Vojhn said that the first sense of pride that transwomen feel in the first stages of their transition is their hair. Even way before they take hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a transwoman feeling her hair grow is a milestone in her identity. In a world filled with all-too-misplaced gender expectations and haircut policies, this is a point of struggle that every transwoman has faced, with some still continuing to.
She recalled how the very first time she organized something was when she led a group of transwomen to ask their institution to let them keep their hair which has grown over the years during the pandemic. The pandemic was a tragic time, but paradoxically, one that has given transpeople freedom in how they choose to present themselves. Vojhn went to lengths to talk to the school administration, asking them to at least just allow them to tie their hair to resemble a haircut, and as a result of the initial failure to convince them, she was able to tap into CURLS for help, which then connected her to a paralegal for better guidance.
What Vojhn underwent for the simple goal of getting to keep her hair was excruciating. Nonetheless, she was able to succeed in living her truth while still being in school despite everyone telling her she can get her freedom once she graduates. Vojhn said, “Yes, we can tie our hair because we can suppress our identities at school, but outside of that, this is our life. It’s part of our identity.”
Naya had a similar issue in her own institution despite it being a state university. As someone in the SSC, she was one of the people who made the first LGBTQ+ organization in her school after the pandemic named “Balangaw,” which is the local term for rainbow. In spite of a lot of people being scared to hold the kind of conviction Naya has in fear of losing their scholarship, she persisted in getting her platform recognized by the school. With the help of the city ordinance employing anti-discrimination laws, it was approved.
In Jane’s school, she and her peers also organized to ask the principal to allow transwomen to keep their hair. They were outright rejected and were told to just look for other schools, which led them to take it upon themselves to speak to the vice president of the university. In a landscape-defining moment, not only did the vice president approve the haircut policy amendment, but also offered to allow transwomen to wear the female uniform of the school.
“Only we can identify what our SOGIE-SC is and no other person … It takes courage for us to be able to present ourselves to the world, but having someone to talk to us is so helpful, as well as finding the right community … Listening and being open to SOGIE-SC helps the community so much. Listening to peers who are not like you is so important in having a different worldview that makes you a better person.”–Vojhn Ilaguison
“Despite the happenings in our society, I’ve always believed in one word: padayon. Layo pa ‘ta pero layo na.”–Jane Caballes
“Take the risk or lose the chance. Do something that you really want and go for the things that make you feel alive and happy because life is too short to be taken away by other people in life.”–Naya Marie
The triumphs of the community are incremental and slow, but steadfast are the actions of those in the LGBTQ+ community who have gone past the struggle of self-identity and are now fighting for the world to see them as they are. Reversing the conclusions made by a hateful past is hard, but if enough of us are shouting, then there will be no other choice but for our trans sisters and brothers to be heard. The SOGIE Bill protects us all. Destigmatizing HIV and AIDS protects us all.
The world is only as good as how it is able to be systematically fair to everyone. May we all embrace the spectrum and celebrate diversity. Live. Work. And pose.