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Free spirit: Elle Aspilla is rewriting all the rules

It was the night before the prom and Elle Aspilla (III, BS-IBS) had just come out of the closet. It would still be quite a while before she would identify as a trans woman, but even back then, just embracing queerness was liberating. And what better time to be unapologetically herself than prom night? “Nagsuot ako ng damit na dinesign ko at tinahi ko rin […] na androgynous siya,” she shares. Elle wore a sleek black suit, high heels, and minimal makeup. 

(I wore androgynous clothing that I designed and tailored myself.)

She was well aware of the dress code and took pains to make sure that she wasn’t breaking any rules. But the next day, she found herself being asked to fill out an incident report in the Student Discipline Formation Office. Apparently, her outfit had raised a few eyebrows. Elle wasn’t having any of that. “Wala akong nilabag na handbook […] walang masama na nag-heels ako […]  hindi ako nakasakit dahil naka-nude na lipstick ako,” she explains.  

(I didn’t break any of the rules in the handbook. There’s nothing wrong with me wearing heels. I didn’t hurt anyone because I wore nude lipstick.)

So call her a rebel or a troublemaker, but for Elle, living her truth is the only way to live—even if she’d have to start conversations no one was ready for. From being a cheerleader in her early high school years all the way up to her historic win as the first trans Campus Secretary of DLSU Manila-Laguna, she has come to learn that if the rules have no inch to give, it’s time to make new ones. 

Bittersweet beginnings

A Lasallian Instructional Gift to Adopted Pupils scholar since Grade 7, most of Elle’s Lasallian journey during high school revolved around her academic and extracurricular endeavors. This left little room for her to unravel her individuality independent of her school life. “I was basically doing everything for others [but] not myself,” she admits. 

After graduating from senior high school, Elle came out as a trans woman and started her transition. However, the University wasn’t prepared for this change. Foreseeing the Laguna Campus’ lack of gender-neutral bathrooms to be an issue, she started sending letters to the school administration explaining her situation. She hoped that her concern would be addressed before she started her first term in college. Eventually, she was offered the Persons With Disability (PWD) bathrooms as a solution, which presented a new set of challenges for Elle since not all buildings have PWD restrooms and those that do are either locked, unsanitary, or both. 

As she is discouraged from using the female restrooms, Elle would even go so far as to avoid drinking water to reduce the likelihood of having to urinate. “It’s hard kasi may basic facilities na dapat nabibigay ng University pero hindi mo siya nakukuha kasi ganun iyong identity mo,” she explains.

(It’s hard because there are basic facilities that the University should be able to provide but you miss out on just because of your identity.)

Once, exhausted from a school event and with no PWD restroom in sight, Elle used the female restroom to freshen up. An administrator began calling her out, questioning her presence in the bathroom meant for “real women”. “May mali ba sa’kin?” Elle questions as she recalls the incident. 

(Is there something wrong with me?)

Headstrong charge

Such experiences have taken a toll on Elle’s mental health, causing her to miss most of her classes due to anxiety. And while the easy thing to do would have been to just quietly disappear and start over somewhere new, she knew things would have to change. “I decided to challenge the system,” Elle shares, “I don’t want any student or any individual to experience the same [thing] that happened to me.”

Gathering her courage, Elle filed for candidacy. What followed would be sleepless nights of intensive training and refining her platforms over and over again. “The campaign [during] the elections was a roller coaster ride. Actually, parang Space Shuttle pa nga,” Elle cheekily describes, referring to the famous ride in Enchanted Kingdom. 

As her bid for Campus Secretary thrust her further into the public eye, so must she face her old fears and anxieties. “If there’s one thing that I had to overcome during the elections,” she narrates, “it is the fact that there is a huge possibility that [a] transphobic person would attack me and question my capabilities as a leader just because I am a trans woman.” 

Often, these anxieties are a result of prejudice the trans community faces, with some experiences turning violent. Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring reports that the Philippines logs 58 murdered individuals between 2008 and 2020—possibly even more, painting a bleak picture of the country’s tolerance toward trans individuals. In spite of these challenges, Elle hopes to spread her message of peace and acceptance, starting with the Lasallian community.

Knowledge is power

After days of anticipation, the results were in and Elle won by a landslide. Weeks worth of blood, sweat, and tears finally paid off. She reflects that “it’s not just a win for me, but [a win] for the whole Lasallian community, and especially the LGBT community.” Though it took some time for the news to sink in for Elle, she slowly realized that she is now a part of history. “Medyo naiyak ako kasi parang I’m breaking the glass ceiling,” she tearfully bids.

(I became teary-eyed because it feels like I’m breaking the glass ceiling.)

With that in mind, she began her quest to mold the DLSU Laguna Campus into “a more inclusive and discrimination-free campus.” For starters, her plan for a centralized communication platform allows students to raise their concerns. She also aims to amplify the established Safe Spaces Act “by raising awareness and disseminating information through publicity materials and maximizing social media since that is our main platform.” 

Above all, “I’d like to incorporate [a] gender sensitivity program for the entire University, not just [for] the students but [for] the other members of the [Lasallian] community [as well].” It is through this platform that Elle plans to ensure that people on campus would gain a wider perspective on the plight of the LGBTQ+ community, encouraging discussion within the University. 

Reflecting the future

Through all the ups and downs that Elle had to undergo throughout her stay in the Laguna Campus, she is now seen as a symbol of hope for the trans community that resides within and even beyond the campus.

With her vision of transforming the campus into a safe environment where future Lasallian generations would freely express themselves, she hopes that this view would project how society should be—accepting and inclusive. “No student deserves to [submit to] fear just because of their gender identity, [and] all of us should have quality education, regardless of our gender identity,” she asserts.

For all the rules she has broken and all the rules she is rewriting, Elle Aspilla is far from done. At the end of the day, Elle wants to make one thing crystal clear: “I am an empowered trans woman, and I am ready to empower other people.”

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