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Why He, She or They Matters: A Postscript to Jennifer

The costs of misgendering Jennifer Laude.
by Ara Eugenio
Sep 24, 2020
Photo/s: Jico Joson

U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton is back home after serving five years in jail for killing Filipina transgender Jennifer Laude on Oct. 11, 2014. The American said he was blinded by rage because Laude hid the fact that she was born a man.

Such "trans panic" could be used as a defense in court for as long as trans women are considered "pretenders," analysts said. Pemberton was originally charged with murder, but was later downgraded to homicide, allowing him to avail of early release on account of "good conduct."

Dumbfounded after he killed Laude in an Olongapo City motel room in October 2014, Pemberton reportedly told his fellow soldiers by phone: "I think I killed a he/she.” He would claim that Laude “raped” him when she gave him oral sex.

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“For as long as people consider trans women like Jennifer Laude to be pretenders and deceivers (i.e. a man pretending to be a woman), people like Pemberton are afforded the possibility of employing a trans panic defense,” said Raymond Macapagal, a social psychology professor in UP Diliman. 

The trans panic defense is a legal strategy where a perpetrator claims to have acted violently upon discovering the “true” identity of the sexual partner which was hidden. Had Pemberton been convicted of murder, he could have been meted a life sentence. Instead he got at most 12 years for homicide.

Are transgenders accepted in the Philippines?

While courts have generally been unforgiving of trans panic, the fact that it was still used in the Laude case highlights the lack of acceptance of trans women in the Philippines.

“Many of my foreigner friends are always amazed at how "accepting and open" we are of gender nonconformity, [often asking], "why are there so many ladyboys here?"). Yet, we have people who believe Jennifer Laude deserved what "he" got because "he" was not forthright about "his" true identity with the killer Pemberton,” Macapagal said.

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In some news reports, Laude was referred to by her birth name, Jeffrey, which is a case of deadringing that is just as harmful. Though some also wrote stories around her mother's term of endearment for her breadwinnerGanda, which means beautiful in Tagalog.

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The failure to use an individual's preferred pronoun is seen as an insult within the LGBTQ community. The proper reference using he/she/they matters, because it’s one way of characterizing people in a way that they identify to; it makes them feel seen.

While oftentimes misgendering is done unintentionally, there are also those who purposely misgender people, adding up to the “microaggressions” that LGBTQ people face in a society that is still largely unaccepting or uneducated. 

Even Jollibee was confused at one point. In 2017, gender queer transcriptionist, Bunny Cadag, claimed to have suffered discrimination, claiming they did not receive a call back for a second day at work. Cadag claimed it was because of the way they dressed. As a gender queer, Cadag is referred to using the neutral pronoun they, not by he or she.

The past was more accepting, what happened?

While Philippine society today is very heterogeneous with varying levels of acceptance of gender and sexual diversity, there is historical and anthropological evidence of more complex gender systems, according to Macapagal. 

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The Babaylan or the ancient priestess or shaman, for one, was highly regarded in what used to be a matriarchal pre-colonial society. Most of the time, these female community figures were actually trans women or those assigned male by birth, but later identified and was accepted as female. This level of understanding on the complexity of gender and sexual identities prevailed until the Spaniards came and brought the common sex and gender dichotomy, along with other simplistic notions of gender which materialized through religious dogma.

Until today, the same simplistic beliefs on gender continue to proliferate in predominantly Catholic Philippines. The same simplistic views also continue to discriminate against the likes of Jennifer Laude, women like Rey Valmores-Salinas who was among those arrested without a warrant when they attempted to hold this year's Pride March at Mendiola. 

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Trans women are often at the risk of violence, Salinas said. Since the historic Stonewall Riots that took off the global movement for LGBTQ rights, unfortunately, not much has changed as the same culture of violence pervades here and abroad, particularly evident in how she suffered in the hands of armed cops herself while in detention.  

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Salinas said that they caught one police officer watching porn and fondling himself while on guard duty. As much as the experience was traumatic, Salinas said that it's also fairly common for women like her to face such acts of harassment and discrimination.

And in Jennifer Laude, in Salinas, and in every other gender-based crime against trans women, the personal is always political. 

“These backward views on Jennifer derail from the real conversation: that there exist the material realities of imperialism and US military intrusion which directly enabled the hateful crime that took Jennifer’s life,” she said. 

“This affects women like me in concrete ways, because now, there exists a legal precedent where if a US soldier murders a trans woman Filipina, he gets jailed for as little as only 6 years. And while people are stuck degrading and dehumanizing Jennifer, the Visiting Forces Agreement persists, US military bases continue their operations, and hundreds of US soldiers continue to dock across the country, violating more and more women and LGBTQ+ Filipinos,” she said, echoing sentiments of anti-imperialist groups.

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“For as long as these remain, all of us are Jennifer. All of us have crosshairs on our heads and are prime targets for violence,” she said. 

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