Against All Odds
At first glance, she looks fragile, but when she puts her mind into a project, she is a formidable force to reckon with. Hush blanketed the studio when Congresswoman Geraldine Roman of the First of District of Bataan
At first glance, she looks fragile, but when she puts her mind into a project, she is a formidable force to reckon with.
Hush blanketed the studio when Congresswoman Geraldine Roman of the First of District of Bataan briskly walked in. Svelte and elegant in a fuchsia outfit, she greeted everyone with warm smiles and handshakes. A longtime friend was there, TV/movie personality, Ai Ai de las Alas.
There was a brief exchange of congratulations—for the Congresswoman’s win in the elections and for Ai Ai as a recent Papal awardee.
And then it was time for the afternoon’s main business—the pride of Bataan certainly came prepared with three extra outfits, a few accessories and another pair of shoes. There was no need to redo her makeup or hairstyle, Congresswoman Geraldine prefers a subtle highlight on her eyes and an overall natural look which is truly becoming. She was also in a rush to return to the Batasang Pambansa as an important item for that day’s agenda was the the reimposition of the death penalty.
The camera loves her and the afternoon shoot was painless; the subject was no prima donna—a trait which endears her to all her constituents.
Coming from a political family, she spent her growing up years in Orani, Bataan. Almost teary-eyed, she describes the experience of being teased because of her gender-orientation by school mates as “one of the most unforgettable.” Young as she was, she was confused that led her to ask herself, “Why am I uncomfortable? Is something wrong with me?” Nevertheless, her parents, who were both legislators, Herminia Roman and the late Antonio Roman, Jr. gave her unconditional support.
The young Geraldine studied in Ateneo de Manila University (elementary and secondary school) and the University of the Philippines (European Languages). A scholarship gave her the opportunity to take up Journalism at the University of the Basque Country in Spain. Her fluency in Spanish, French, Italian and English gave her a good edge and enabled her to complete two master’s degrees (one in Journalism and one in Spanish Language & Literature). She reveals, “I love the years that I lived in Spain and I was a working girl there.” Long before she returned to the Philippines in 2012, the would-be lawmaker was working as senior editor for the Spanish News Agency.
She recalls her life in Spain as “happy and private” and allowed her to be herself, to come out of her shell. The Bataan lawmaker said in a previous interview that it was in Spain where, “I found a different world in which being a woman in a man’s body was okay and I blossomed literally.” In fact, her partner, Alberto is a Spaniard, a former camera man for a Spanish TV network.
With the full support of her family and the blessing of Jesuit priests who were her mentors and friends, Congresswoman Geraldine, took the big leap at age 26—sex-reassignment done in New York. It was a timely decision and got her prepared for the next chapter in her life—as a politician taking over the position of her mother who had reached the term limit.
The Bataan legislator admits, “When my father fell ill, I decided to come home and be with him. He has been a very loving and supportive parent so I knew it was time to give back and let him feel my love. We would have intimate conversations and one time, he asked me what was my purpose in life.”
Congresswoman Geraldine says, “The turning point in my decision to get into politics was when my father told me that since I have no children, my life could be without purpose. For as long as your life revolves around you—the I, myself, the me—and you don’t have others, your life has no true meaning.”
It was 2013 and her mother was on her last term as congresswoman. The second child in a family of four, Congresswoman Geraldine’s other siblings were not inclined to go into politics. She felt that this was what her father’s wish: to give more meaning to her life, she has to live for others. Again, she was teary-eyed when she remembered how her opponents tried to put her down “by awakening yung feelings of bigotry, hatred…they tried to make people think that I was unqualified because I happen to be a transgender, talagang old-style politics.”
She continues, “That was the worst experience of discrimination I had. It was extra painful dahil noon lang ako nakaranas ng below-the-belt attacks.” However, she got strength first from her father’s words of wisdom, “When you speak to people, you always try to awaken the goodness that is in their hearts and you won’t go wrong.” Apart from which, she was not a total neophyte in politics since her father was in Congress from 1988 and then her mother followed. “Lumaki kami sa pamilya na ang mga tiga-first district extension ng family namin.”
In 2016, the Bataan politician won the congressional seat for the First District of Bataan with an impressive 62 percent over her rival. Geraldine Roman, thus made history by being the first transgender to be elected in Philippine Congress. Her victory did not go unnoticed even abroad and Motto, an online subsidiary of Time magazine, named her as one of the “Inspiring Women of 2016.” She joined the ranks of former US First Lady Hillary Clinton, pop star Beyonce, award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini among others.
Since her political victory, Congresswoman Geraldine has filed 30 bills; she is vice chairperson of two committees and a member in seven. She is the co-author of the Anti-SOGI (Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity) Discrimination Act that has been on the shelf for the last 17 years in Congress. During her first privilege speech, the Bataan representative clarified, “Recognizing our (LGBT) rights and dignity will in no way diminish yours. We are not asking for special privileges or extra rights. We simply ask for equality. With inclusiveness and diversity, our nation has so much to gain.”
She is also working on a bill that will establish a national scholarship agency. The congresswoman explains, “The government gives scholarships but through different agencies, iba-iba ang rules so I said why not just one agency whose sole mandate is to process, disperse, maintain a database of scholars. It will handle primary, secondary, tertiary, post-graduate, foreign grants, scholarship loans—huwag nang idaan sa politicians. But if they (senators, congressmen, etc.) want to allocate some of their funds to the scholarship agency, why not?”
For the people of the First District of Bataan, Congresswoman Geraldine has filed bills covering agriculture improvements, health, environment, tourism and education. For the latter, she wants the minority tribe (Aetas) of her district included. She is also looking into poverty alleviation bills, “Malaki ang problema natin sa poverty, para maintindihan kong mabuti, sabi ko—ilagay mo ang sarili mo sa mga nangangailangan, at isipin mo na lang na mabuti’t ikaw ang hinihingan ng tulong—this is what motivates and helps me put things in the right perspective.”
The triumph of Congresswoman Geraldine is also seen as a victory for the LGBT community. She refuses to be labeled a hero saying that she’s just a politician who happens to be a transgender. “What I want my brothers and sisters (in the LGBT community) to understand is that my winning the election is already a statement and that like anyone else, we can all serve our country…gender has nothing to with performance.”
As to the issue of same-sex marriage, the Bataan lawmaker clarifies, “I am pursuing for the legislation of civil union between persons of the same gender. I don’t want to call it marriage because the term carries religious and sacramental connotations. Ang sa akin, more of civil rights.” She also looks forward to the day when like her, transgenders will have all pertinent papers changed (passports, bank accounts, deeds of sale, etc.) legally stating that they are indeed female. “After I got all my papers, I think nagkaroon nang paghihigpit; but let’s give them a chance to live happily without fear of prejudice and humiliation. This is the heart of the Anti-SOGI Bill.”
One of her bills which merits attention is the Caregiver Welfare Act, she explains, “Dapat may proteksiyon ang sector na ito—may contract, scope of work, benefits, compensation among others.”
Congresswoman Geraldine’s caring heart is felt by her constituents and members of the LGBT community. The mother in her comes in full force for her two nephews (half-Brazilians), aged six and four. “My sister—their mother—died two years ago. Iba ang happiness na ibinibigay ng mga bata, masayahin sila at malambing.”
Also providing her a break from Congressional responsibilities is her 30-minute run five times a week. She is into swimming, dancing and occasional singing. Pop star Beyonce is on top of her favorites saying, “Her songs invite you to move so I burn calories, too parang dance workout, di ba?”
The Bataan representative prefers more fruits and vegetables in her diet, takes vitamins C and E regularly, avoids too much sun exposure, hydrates with water and moisturizes her skin. That answers the question of people who admire her smooth and almost flawless complexion. She is turning 50, (although she does not look it) and is proud of it.
The Bataan representative is aware that it’s still a long way off from goals particularly the LGBT issues but she is optimistic. The Anti-SOGI Discrimination Act has the support of at least 100 representatives to date. And more have been touched by the Bataan lawmaker’s appeal in her privilege speech, “Sana po, katulad nang inyong malugod na pagtanggap sa akin, ay tanggapin ninyo nang pantay-pantay ang bawat Pilipino, LGBT man o hindi.” The LGBT community, she says, is an extension of her Bataan constituency. And both of her “constituents” have found a real champion in Congresswoman Geraldine. WT
By LINDA M. DE LEON
Photos by EDWARD DELA CUESTA
Makeup by LEONARD & CO.