The recent elections in the Philippines have come with a few surprises – not only with the presumed president-elect, but also, with the country’s first transgender Congresswoman.
In a deeply religious country, where divorce, abortion and same sex marriage is banned, 49-year-old Geraldine Roman, defies the current political climate.
Madonna Virola has her story from Calapan city.
The election of Geraldine Roman, the first Filipino transgender politician, is being hailed as a political breakthrough.
In the heat and dust of summer, Geraldine campaigned in pearl necklaces and lipstick, and the yellow shirt of her party, the administration’s Liberal Party.
But she wasn’t spared from political mudslinging, or character assassination by rival candidates.
“At the start, my opponents are trying to convert my gender into an issue and it turns out that people don't mind,” says Roman, “Their type of politics was a politics of hatred and bigotry.”
Geraldine returned home from Spain in 2012, to care for her ageing parents, and to continue her family’s political legacy. Her mother, Herminia, and her father, Antonio Jr., are both former congressional representatives.
Geraldine will succeed her mother as the representative of Bataan, in Central Luzon, where her family has been a political force for three generations.
Her election has elated LGBT rights activists.
“I was happy about it because finally we have a transgender who is not only known in some other fields like fashion, business, showbiz, at least this is a different field,” says one activist, “This is about politics, leadership, and people’s trust on a gender, which was once perceived on a low status by other people.”
The Roman Catholic Church has a strong influence on the Southeast Asian nation, where divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage are illegal.
According to the Pew Research Centre, 81 percent of Filipinos identify as Catholic.
And since 2001, transgender people in the Philippines 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”.
Geraldine has been living as a woman for more than two decades, undergoing sex realignment surgery in New York at age 27.
A former journalist and senior editor for the Spanish News Agency, in the recent election campaign, she promised to provide more infrastructure, medical care, scholarships, and a transparent government.
Geraldine election has caused ripples of inspiration in the Philippines.
Apol Acenas, a gay hairdresser in Calapan told me that me that now the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, or LGBT community will have a voice in parliament.
“At least we have a voice,” he says, “Someone can help us, especially the younger people 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.
It’s one piece of legislation Geralidine has vowed to revive. She also intends to push forward gender transitioning and same sex civil unions.
Yet there’s no doubt she will face resistance.
Oddie Quino, a religious leader from 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, “Man and woman are equal. However, as created, they are different from but made for each other. Same-sex union contradicts the nature of marriage.”
But Geraldine, a Catholic herself, remains unphased.
“The body is just a shell,” she says, “If you feel that by modifying the outside you can be a more loving, a more generous a happier person. Go ahead because what is important is the heart.”