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Beyond barriers: Stories of trans women from all-boys schools

Eradicating toxic masculinity in all-boys schools is a crucial step in creating safer spaces for trans women enrolled in these instutitions.

For so many years, trans women have faced discrimination about their identity and self-expression. Even with the existence of legislation such as Section 3 of Republic Act 9710 or the Magna Carta of Women, cases of violence and physical abuse against trans women still persist, such as the murder of Jennifer Laude in 2014, where United States Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton justified his killing because he “felt he was raped.” Sadly, the country is still far from being a safe space for these individuals to tell their stories. But it can be more disheartening when one is in an environment where sexism and transphobia may foster. Such is the case for young trans women enrolled in all-boys schools. 

A 2018 article published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE reported that students enrolled in single-sex education institutions tend to be more “gender-salient”, describing the tendency of a person to use gender as classifying marks, as schooling experience affects one’s psychosocial growth. Thus, it may suppress an individual’s potential to explore and discover their self-identity during their formative years—with gender treated as a mere label. 

Yet, there are women who came out of the system, using their experience to provoke all-boys school systems to champion spaces of acceptance and visibility.

Ways to self-discovery

Growing up, Marita Anais (I, BECED) had always felt different. “I did not seem to be interested in things or activities that were considered ‘manly’,” she explains. Even if she wanted to explore activities that were traditionally considered “feminine”, this segregation of feminine and masculine interests during her childhood hindered her journey toward self-identity. 

Anais later came out as gay;  “But even if I got [that] figured out, I…felt like something was incomplete,” she notes. She was able to reflect on her own as the pandemic went on, assessing the things around her and—most importantly—herself. With support from her friends who were also part of the LGBTQ+ community, she finally found what she was missing: the comfort in identifying as a woman. 

Similar to Anais, University of Santo Tomas engineering student Jan Sta. Ana struggled with building up her confidence when she had the “urge to become or look more feminine” due to the possible negative remarks from the people around her. But when her school held a fair, “[I saw] this pretty doll—“doll” is an underground ballroom term for trans women—[and] I saw how she was so confident with herself.” Encountering someone who was self-assertive moved her, wanting to have that confidence for herself. “And [at that] time, I [wanted to] identify myself as a trans woman,” she further declares.

By recognizing and accepting their true natures, both Anais and Sta. Ana liken such reflections to being at peace with themselves. “[When I became my true self], I felt bliss and the sense of accomplishment in conquering myself,” Anais expresses. 

Living the truth

However, their journey toward self-discovery was filled with roadblocks. Since both were enrolled in all-boys schools, there were rules and regulations that didn’t properly recognize the rights of trans women or even the LGBTQ+ community. 

Sta. Ana explains that the environment in her previous school was only tolerant of trans women, not entirely accepting. Due to her school’s safeguarding of “patriarchal” or “macho-feudal” values, it discourages trans women from freely expressing themselves in these environments. She continues, “Mas pinapahalagaan pa nila (her former school) ‘yung [toxic] masculinity and religious values than protecting their very own students from discrimination and hate.”

(My former school gave more importance to upholding masculinity and religious values than protecting their very own students from discrimination and hate.)

One example is when the students at her school were prevented from trimming their eyebrows and wearing tight-fitting clothes, fearing that students would look more feminine. “I was usually caught by the guard wearing makeup or even [fitted] clothes,” she points out. These microaggressions further aggravated how all-boys school systems view gender as an either-or; anything outside traditional gender markers is deemed as questionable. “Why aren’t we allowed to express ourselves [in terms of] basic grooming? Samantalang ‘yung mga straight individuals sa amin, pinapayagan [alagaan sarili nila]. Since kailan pa naging associated [lang] ‘yung grooming sa pagiging feminine?”

(But straight individuals were permitted to take care of themselves. Since when did grooming become only associated with femininity?)

As for Anais, she mentions that there were still some occasions when her school remained mum about getting rid of discrimination, which she has been a victim of. “There [were] some formators who seemed disgusted upon seeing me or people like me,” she recounts, with their disapproval translated as words or expressed through body language. Yet, amid these instances, her former school did nothing to address these acts of prejudice. “Disgust may not be the same as discrimination, but it is important to keep in mind that the root of discrimination is disgust,” she reminds. 

On a bigger scale, she also notes how contradictory her school’s support for the LGBTQ+ community was, “We celebrated Pride week in June, but same-sex partners were not allowed during our prom night,” she recalls. This “disconnect in [accepting] all genders and sexualities” is what slows down the progress of these institutions to truly champion diversity, inclusivity, and visibility.  

Fostering safer spaces

But all hope is not lost. Sta. Ana notes that acceptance and understanding—the crucial first steps—start with us. Respecting trans women’s preferred pronouns, calling them by their preferred names, showing active support for the community, and finding solidarity in their advocacies all help foster safer spaces in and out of all-boys schools. 

However, the system itself must also change. This can happen when institutions such as all-boys schools’ systems eliminate the toxic masculinity hidden underneath their carpets. “It is one of the root causes of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and misogyny that is flourishing in Philippine society,” Anais stresses. By eradicating these enablers of inequities, it would allow people to live their truths freely. Hence, she calls for educational institutions in particular to properly educate students on being accepting of all genders and sexual orientations, regardless if the school is all-boys or not. 

Above all, it is crucial that the government plays an active role in propagating laws to ensure that trans people are protected anywhere. Reforms like the SOGIE Equality Bill are vital in protecting trans women from gender identity-based discrimination and violence, as well as asserting their inherent rights. While the bill was reintroduced by Sen. Risa Hontiveros last December 2020 after being rejected in the 17th Congress, it remains immobile in the lower house as of press time. 

Toward better days

With these in place, Anais sees a future where hate directed toward the trans community can be eradicated if schools systems make efforts to do so. While she emphasizes that it is important to begin with oneself—to love oneself fully—she also reminds that giving love and support to the trans community would uplift them and motivate them to keep going. “If they (trans women) combine [self-acceptance] with their goals in life, along with surrounding themselves with people who serve as their backbone for support, then ultimately, the world is theirs to conquer,” Anais imagines. 

Sta. Ana echoes these sentiments, noting how everyone is deserving of love and respect, especially those still defining their gender identity. The country still has many steps to go to fully become accepting of all people. But the engineering student says we can achieve that if individuals, institutions, governments, and other aspects of society truly recognize trans women’s right to live. 

“We have been here, we are here, and we will always be here,” she ends.

By Kazandra Vargas

By Danielle David Castillo

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