Ms Hender Gercio’s highly-eloquent and courageous letter of complaint gave voice to one of the issues that transgender people face in schools and universities in the Philippines.
"On January 27, 2011, after our EL 181 class, Ms. Del Corro approached me and asked when it would be convenient for me to have a talk with her. I inquired about the purpose of the meeting and she told me not to worry and that it was something related to my subjects French 30-31 and EL 181. We had the discussion on February 2, 2011 after our French 30-31 class.
Ms Del Corro began by saying that she noticed me correcting my classmates whenever they referred to me using male pronouns (in French: il, lui) or male forms of address (in French: Monsieur). I replied that I identified and socially presented myself as female, and that addressing me as a woman was the appropriate thing to do. She then asked me about my biological sex. I told her that my legal sex (i.e. the sex/gender marker on my legal documents) was male, but I argued that this was irrelevant and ultimately misleading, because my legal sex did not accurately reflect my real-life identity, that of being a transsexual female.
Ms. Del Corro then admitted to me that she did not feel comfortable addressing me as female in class. She said “I am a Christian, and this is against my religious beliefs.” She also told me that she cannot separate being a Christian from who she was as a teacher. She then continued that she believed that homosexuality was a sin, and it was due to this reason that she cannot allow herself to accept and address me as female (I actually interrupted her to say that I was transgender, not homosexual/gay, but that did not affect her stance). Our conversation ended in a standstill, between my right to be recognized in my chosen gender in class and her right to her religious belief. We finally agreed to escalate this to you for a decision."
On 7 February 2011, Ms Gercio filed this complaint to Prof Wystan de la Pena, the Chairperson of the Deparment of European Languages of the College of Arts and Letters of the University of the Philippines.
A week later, Mr de la Pena held a dialogue with Ms Gercio and Ms del Corro.
In that dialogue, Mr de la Pena ruled in favor of Ms del Corro, giving the following reasons:
1. Ms del Corro cannot be required to address Ms Gercio as female because Ms Gercio is still legally male.
2. There is no university policy addressing transender students. This was made verbally.
Ms Gercio is stil waiting for a written copy of Mr de la Pena’s decision.Rightfully, Ms Gercio will appeal this case.
This case is a bit similar to the case of Rio Moreno which I wrote in my article "Our Brave New World: The Birth of Transgender Liberation in the Philippines."
"Rio attended Nursing school wearing women’s uniform. All her classmates and teachers referred to her as Miss Rio and treated her as a woman. Sometime in July 2008, after one of the security guards saw that Rio’s name on her ID was male, Rio was asked to go into the Office of Student Affairs (OSA). The OSA required her to wear men’s uniform and that she have to be identified and treated as male because Rio’s birth certificate says male."
The reasons given by Mr de la Pena to Ms Gercio are simalar to the reasons given to Ms Moreno. However, we have to give credit to the University of the Philippines because, as far as I know, they don’t require their students to dress according to their sex assignment at birth (or to their legal sex).
Moreover, the first reason given by Mr de la Pena is akin to the comment of Attorney Alejandro Alonzo, the Cebu Regional Director of the Commission on Human Right, in 2001 regarding the Jonathan Agudana Case: ""If you’re a man, you should wear the apparel of a man or vice versa. Unless the court will grant the change of status…." But this time, Mr de la Pena means: if your sex assignment at birth is male you should be addressed as a man unless the court will grant a legal change of sex.
The incident that happened with Hender Gercio at the University of the Philippines raises challenging questions:
1. In the absence of a university policy addressing transgender students, in this case a transsexual woman student, and in the absence of a Gender Recognition Law in the Philippines, which is the right and ethical thing to do: treat transsexual women according to their sex assignment at birth or according to their gender identity?
2. Is it justified to use religious beliefs, specially in a State University, to treat transsexual women according to their sex assignment at birth?
Mr de la Pena is limited by the current rules and regulations of the University of the Philippines (UP).
Certainly, there is no university policy that addresses transgender people in their school. Because of this situation, he couldn’t require Ms del Corro to treat Ms Gercio as a woman. Hence, Ms del Corro has not violated any rule, and therefore is justified in treating Ms Gercio according to her sex assignment at birth.
But does the absence of this policy mean that transsexual women studying in UP should be treated according to their sex assignment at birth?
There may be no specific policy but the University has principles, which can be evaluated whether they may or may not provide an insight on how to treat transsexual women in UP.
Ms Gercio is aware that there are no specific policy on transgender people in UP. So, in her letter of complaint, she invoked principles from the University Charter as well the Code of Ethics for Faculty Members of the University of the Philippines. She even explained that being treated according to her sex assignment at birth is harmful to her psychological well-being. In fact, Ms Gercio furnished Mr de la Pena a copy of "a FAQ sheet published by the American Psychological Association about transgender individuals and gender identity".
Ms Gercio’s arguments are very cogent. And her appeal to being treated with compassion should have shaken the religious fundamentalism of Ms del Corro and should have touched the humanity of Mr de la Pena. Yet, Mr de la Pena dismissed Ms Gercio’s arguments.
We need to know the reasons why Mr de la Pena decided that Ms del Corro didn’t violate the principles Ms Gercio invoked from the UP Charter and Code of Ethics. We don’t need to wait for the reasons, Mr de la Pena’s other reason provides a clue why this is so: Ms Gercio is legally male hence no one can be required to treat her according to her gender identity.
Is this reason valid? The 2008 Supreme Court decision on the Jeffrey Cagandahan case provides an insight.
Jeffrey Cagandahan was assigned female at birth. Later on, he was found out to be intersex. During his puberty, he developed secondary male characteristics because of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. Because of "his mind and emotion" – which is male – and the development of secondary male characteristis, he asserted that he is now male and his documents should reflect this. His petition was granted by a regional trial court but was overturned by the Court of Appeals. In September 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr Cagandahan.
Looking at the footnotes of the decison, one can see that the Supreme Court of the Philippines was informed by M.T. v. J.T., the first case in the United States that ruled that post-op transsexuals can marry people who have a sex opposite to their post-operative sex. The Cagandahan Decision quoted from M.T. v. J.T.: "“It has been suggested that there is some middle ground between the sexes, a ‘no-man’s land’ for those individuals who are neither truly ‘male’ nor truly ‘female’.” The Cagandahan Decision further added that: "The current state of Philippine statutes apparently compels that a person be classified either as a male or as a female, but this Court is not controlled by mere appearances when nature itself fundamentally negates such rigid classification." (Emphasis mine).
Later on, the decision said that ruling in favor of Mr Cagandahan "….gives respect to (1) the diversity of nature; and (2) how an individual deals with what nature has handed out. In other words, we respect respondent’s congenital condition and his mature decision to be a male."
The Supreme Court respected Mr Cagandahan’s "congenital condition", in other words, a condition present at his birth AND most importantly, his "mature decision to be male".
In deciding about the case of Ms Gercio, Mr de la Pena could have been informed by the valuable insights of this Supreme Court Decision, which are:
1. When the Cagandahan decision affirmed that "nature itself fundamentally negates such rigid classification [of sex]," it affirmed that our rigid conventional views about sex are not supported by Nature.
Ms Gercio cannot be evaluated according to our conventional views on sex: that someone who has a penis, or who was assigned male at birth, is male and will live and should live as male. We must take into account the latest scientific information about gender identity.
2. We have to respect people’s "congenital condition".
According to MedicineNet.com, a condition that is congenital is one that is present at birth. Ms Gercio has a transsexual condition. In Transsexualism: The Current Medical Viewpoint published by Press for Change UK, transsexualism is defined as a conditon where there is "a strong and on-going cross-gender identification, and a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex." And that "the weight of current scientific evidence suggests a biologically-based, multifactorial aetiology for transsexualism".
There are brain studies as well as genetic studies that give evidence to the biological basis of transsexualism (please Google them). Given this evidence, the transsexualism of Ms Gercio is as natural as the intersexuality of Mr Cagandahan.
Some may say that Ms Gercio has a penis and therefore should still be treated as male. The question is, in which part of the body gender identity is located? Is it in your genitalia? Or is it in your brain? As what Dr. William Reiner of John Hopkins Hospital wrote in "To Be Male or Female — that is the Question,"the organ that appears to be critical to psychosexual development and adaptation is not the external genitalia, but the brain."
Indeed, the University of the Philippines has no policy on how to deal with transgender students, but as an academic institution, it should go beyond the limitation of its rules regarding this matter.
There was also no Philippine law regarding intersexuals, but the absence of that law didn’t stop the Supreme Court from seeking information elsewhere, which even include Wikipedia. There ‘s a lot of information about transsexualism. Mr de la Pena is either lazy or stuck in his own prejudice.
Waiting for a court to change Ms Gercio’s gender before Ms Gercio can be treated as female is inhumane. As Ms Gercio has said, and as what psychologists can prove, doing so would harm the psychological well-being of Ms Gercio.
Moreover, does Ms Gercio need to secure a court order in order for the University of the Philippines to understand transsexualism, to evaluate the science behind it, and therefore, to respect Ms Gercio’s congenital condition?
As for the question "Is it justified to use religious beliefs, specially in a State University, to treat transsexual women according to their sex assignment at birth?"
The answer is No.
Religion is not a valid reference when it comes to gender identity. The act of determining our sex at birth is not a matter of religion. It is the medical institution that determines our sex at birth and not the Church. Insisting that the Catholic doctrine is the authority over the biology behind gender identity is like insisting that the Catholic doctrine is the authority behind astronomy.
The sun does not revolve around our planet and our gender identity is not in our genitalia, it is in our brain. This is not the realm of morality but of neurology.
Finally, let’s say Jeffrey Cagandahan is a student of Ms del Corro. Will Ms del Corro insist that Jeffrey be addressed as female? Perhaps she wouldn’t if she would inform herself about intersex conditions. Her religious belief would surely bow to science.
Now can Ms del Corro afford the same consideration to Ms Gercio’s transsexualism, which like intersexuality has a biological explanation?
Let me end this by quoting the Supreme Court decision on Ang Ladlad, "as far as this Court is concerned, our democracy precludes using the religious or moral views of one part of the community to exclude from consideration the values of other members of the community." And the Supreme Court decision on Estrada vs. Escritor, "Religious teachings as expressed in public debate may influence the civil public order but public moral disputes may be resolved only on grounds articulable in secular terms."
(Sass Rogando Sasot)