Not afraid to share her wisdom and personal experiences, transgender Filipina model and social activist Geena Rocero visited the University of Florida on March 18. During her keynote speech in celebration of Women’s History Month, Rocero spoke about her sexual identity, cultural background and future endeavors as an activist.
While working for NEXT Model Management, one of the world’s most renowned New York modeling agencies, Rocero had to hide her expression from most of her co-workers. After her 30th birthday, she decided to embrace her once-kept secret and share it with the world.
Since Rocero came out to her peers and the world through her Ted Talk episode in March of 2014, she has worked extensively with multiple organizations including the UN, where she promoted the recognition of self-identified genders. As the founder of the advocacy organization Gender Proud, Rocero goes from country to country educating others on gender identities.
She explained that in the Philippines, only one blanket term exists and it refers to the whole spectrum of the LGBTQA+ community. “Bakla,” which means gay in Tagalog (Filipino language), is commonly used in a derogatory manner and carries the same connotations as the genderphobic ‘F’ word in America. But transgender individuals have been around for much longer than most people would fathom.
Today, Rocero continuing to spread her message in the Philippines through city tours and workshops, where she speaks on the extensive history of the transgender community.
What do you think is the advantage of being a transgender woman?
With my journey, with the stuff that I’ve gone through, despite all the pain, despite all the suffering, despite of all the difficulties, I believe I have a little bit more compassion to the world. To the world that’s been led to believe that gender is not a spectrum, to the world that’s been led to believe that you should follow what people expect you to be. What happens to understanding the pursuit of truth? I’ve always believed that as long as you are pursuing your truth, you can never ever, ever, ever go wrong. Whatever that means for you. Whether you’re an artist and your parents want you to become a doctor, but you really want to be an artist; become that artist. It will benefit your soul and the people around you.
As an Asian female, what would you say to those who come from such a traditional culture? Did you ever face any amnesty from the Asian community?
The reason why there’s been important conversation with Pacific cultures is because we’ve had gender-fluidity in our culture for the longest time…. In the Philippines, we have this thing called babaylan [who were] the spiritual leaders, the priestess. Transgender women were priestess. In India they have hijra. In Indonesia they have warias. In Fiji they have fa’afafine. In Thailand they have kathoey. So it’s part of the culture. The Buddhist goddess of compassion, [the] goddess Guanyin, is a transgender woman. So I can’t wait to have that conversation with the Dali Lama. [Laughter in the audience.]
But the moment colonization happened, that’s when those ideals were suppressed, and that’s when it passed into an Asian woman should be a certain way, all these stereotypes.
So, it’s part of our culture, especially in that part of the world. But the moment colonization happened, that’s when those ideals were suppressed, and that’s when it passed into an Asian woman should be a certain way, all these stereotypes. From my personal experience, I’ve been surrounded with powerful women. My mom was the breadwinner of the family, my aunties were business women. They would have…retail stories in little allies. I [grew up with] matriarchs. So coming from that perspective, as a culture, we seem to defy those labels that have been given, especially for what an Asian woman is supposed to be.
I share that story because at a young age I was so conscious about the circumstances that I was given, and how do I work around it. Because if I was just going to accept what was given to me I wouldn’t be able to flourish. If I believed people – at a young age I was constantly being screamed at and constantly reminded that I was supposed to be a boy – then what kind of life would I have lived if I didn’t pursue my truth?
So we all have our own little truth… You have to define it for yourself at the end of the day…. At a certain point I realized something, which is my own personal decision to not follow what I’ve been taught…. I needed to find my own truth and express that. We all have that when we’re talking about gender and sexuality…. It’s the innermost journey that we have to go through because it affects us in our society, in our environment, and in our community.
If I believed people – at a young age I was constantly being screamed at and constantly reminded that I was supposed to be a boy – then what kind of life would I have lived if I didn’t pursue my truth?
What would you say on making events geared towards women more inclusive to trans women, queer women, and the whole spectrum of what it means to be a woman?
Well, me being here is a big statement.… You know, I’ve always had problems with singular word inclusivity because I feel like it was this thought of this tolerance and you’re just being tolerant. The word ‘tolerant’ is never an empowering thing for me. It’s my own point of view. But… I think what you guys are doing, understanding the intersections of all these identities that are all part of this spectrum of womanhood. That’s how you really define womanhood.
There’s a Simone de Bouvier quote that says, ‘One is not born a women, but rather becomes one.’ I think that that defines that. Activities like gathering, you know, transgender women of color and understanding the most important things that they’re going through and knowing, say, the differences between the women in Africa and America to and Asian Pacific woman… It’s to go deeper into those intersecting identities because at the end, it benefits understanding as a whole. And I understand that there are organizations that honor this spectrum of identities and I’m so happy to hear that you [all] are doing that here. I cannot be more proud to be with organizations and universities that honor that.
I wish that it was like that in the Philippines. I remember going back to the Philippines and there was no gender studies there. There was no intersectionality, but one day I remember talking to my seventeen year old niece. She was like, ‘Tita Geena, you know I’m studying gender studies and we’re talking about intersectionality,’ and I was like ‘What?!’ [Laughter.] I’m happy that it’s happening there now, but in places where you have an opportunity to do that, specifically here [in the U.S.], and to really understand those layers of intersections would just benefit everybody.
… Understanding the intersections of all these identities that are all part of this spectrum of womanhood. That’s how you really define womanhood.
There’s a new UN campaign called He For She that talks about including men. Men should be feminist, men should also be included in this space. It is not a war of gender binary again, but it’s a spectrum and molding together. It involves everybody.
What are your future endeavors?
Well, definitely follow Gender Proud on Facebook…Sometimes I feel like there are two Geenas. There’s Geena the Gender Proud activist, founder, all that, and there’s Geena the model, and media personnel…and sometimes it kind of blends together. He For She sponsored me to speak at the UN Commission Status Report… I’m happy that they’re including the LGBT spectrum in that, too. And that’s a good thing because the UN is changing.
So right now we have this big project we’re starting in New York City where we’re meeting these young trans youth, trans identified, gender non-conforming youth. And as a model, I want to impart that knowledge that I have and so we [sic] go and ask them if there’s a particular photograph that you can direct, how do you want to envision yourself, and their vision just lights up. We’ve done seven youth and we’re going to be doing eight more…We also give them tools. One of my dear friends…came into the LGBT center in New York City and gave them a public speaking workshop. Storytelling. I think it’s important for them to understand that their stories are valuable. It matters. There’s nothing more powerful than owning your story. Nothing more powerful.
There’s nothing more powerful than owning your story. Nothing more powerful.
So that’s one. I’m [also] currently writing my book. [Cheering in the audience.] There are a couple of TV projects that we’re working on… Exciting stuff for sure, and I’ll be back in the Philippines again middle May until…mid-June to do some Gender Proud work. So, definitely traveling around… I feel like I’m just catching up on my jetlag. [Laughter.]
So there are still some other projects… I just want to give you guys some context on some of the absurd things that have happened. In Miami there’s news on this bathroom bill that would require trans people to show ID to go to the bathroom. I had a layover in Miami. I was like, ‘Should I walk into the men’s bathroom for them to know? …And all these little things. But as much as there are projects, as much as there is visibility, it doesn’t translate into equality. It doesn’t translate to people understanding gender as a whole, not just trans, not just LGBT, but gender [itself] as a whole… My dream is to have this deeper conversation with the department of education to really introduce – I don’t know how, I don’t know when – gender at a young age…I’ve always had crazy dreams.
The one key thing I took away from Geena Rocero is that you are at your best when you embrace all of parts of you. Intersectionality between gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc. must be recognized and embraced. To know and to show who you are is key to owning yourself. From Geena Rocero we can learn much about identity and the fulfillment of our dreams.
“We live in a world [where] we’ve been led to believe that gender is a binary. That we’re just male or female…Those definitions have caused a lot of suffering,” Rocero said.
“I’m living my dream, the dream that I’ve always wanted at five years old: that I am the woman I am right now,” she proudly declared. “I am a woman, and that is enough.”