By Kevin de Vera
June 6, 2019
Born this Way, a Caterpillar to a Beautiful Butterfly
I met a wonderful lady who later on became my friend while fighting for the Reproductive Health Law be upheld. We went to a number of mobilizations together, to talk to people and key decision-makers, to assert and demand that people’s rights to reproductive health be upheld. She is Bb. Ruffa Torregoza (Ms. Ruffa), from GAYON Albay LGBT Organization (GAYON).
Bb. Ruffa Torregoza (Ms. Ruffa) is a staunch advocate of human rights, diversity, sexual and reproductive health, LGBTQ Rights and sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE) and equality. She is a transwoman who recalls that from the moment she can remember, she was a young girl who transformed into an empowered woman. She is from Legazpi City, Albay.
A small-town girl, dalagang Pilipina, and a probinsyana who lived an ordinary childhood, loved and supported by her own family. “There is no coming out moment for me... they (my family) knew from the very start that this unattractive caterpillar will turn into a beautiful butterfly,” she glamorously replied when I asked her how was her family to her for being her while growing up.
In most SOGIE and Gender forums I have attended, I often hear Lady Gaga being quoted, “I'm beautiful in my way 'cause God makes no mistakes, I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way.” This contains a powerful message telling people that you are fine just the way you are.
It’s a philosophy which basically tells people to be brave because you are wonderful just the way you are. That no matter how people judge you for being you, may it be because of your sexuality and beliefs, if you do good to your people then by all means you are on the right track. A very empowering message especially to the LGBTQ community, and at the same time, I think this message wants to tell all the people to be gender and culture sensitive, to be open and accepting, and to share a common sense of love and humility across all cultures and gender.
Bb. Ruffa firmly believes in Gaga’s viewpoint and envisions a world that will see the LGBTQ community not as members of the LGBTQ but as humans, who are part of the same world, under one sky, sharing one sun during the day and one moon during the night. “I envision a world with no space for discrimination and stigma… a world without judgement… and a world that will teach us that the essence of life is respect, regardless of one’s status in life, race, culture, religion and SOGIE,” she said with hopeful smile in her eyes.
She is a community organizer and proficient in discussing human rights, SOGIE, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS. She was a youth leader and peer counselor during her younger days. She is a HIV community-based screening (CBS) motivator. She has served GAYON for 10 years and has served the organization as an officer for the past years. Currently, she is the Vice President of GAYON. She's been invited to local, national and international forums and conference to talk about her stories, successes and experiences. In her locality, she serves as a role model and icon for young LGBTQs.
A Beautiful Perspective: Instead of Counting Misfortunes, Count your Blessings and Successes
“It was my grandma who got me my first make up kit,” Bb. Ruffa blissfully shared. Growing up as LGBTQ, she was much accepted and supported by her mother and grandma. It is not easy to be different from the rest of her friends. Boys are expected to grow up to be a man, but in her case, its different. At a very young age, she fought hard to accept her identity so she let others to accept her as well. “I was able to love and accept my inner truth, the real me first, then everything follows - acceptance and love from my family,” she added.
Home, in most cases, is our haven – the safest place there is for all of us. But the reality of our lives is not confined in the four corners of our homes, not bound by warmth of our families, and not fixed to those who are always there to accept us. The reality is that we need to cross-over walls and get out of our comfort zones to be able to see a bigger truth about the world. Bb. Ruffa who has been loved by her kin as a child also experienced the bitter reality of a society which does not exactly share the same values of her own family. She started to experience forms of discrimination for being transwoman in high school. “I think at some point in my life while growing up, I was treated differently at school and in the community” she shared. Despite all these, she would ignore discriminatory acts against her, the shaming and bullying, and would always fight for what she knows right.
“It's my experience that made me who I am today,” she proudly said. As a person who survived a society which was not ready to accept those who do not conform to the mainstream, she would rather tell about tales of her wins than her difficulties… she would rather talk about her success stories than talk about how she was ignored, belittled, and left behind.
I know Bb. Ruffa as a person who seldom talks about her struggles. She is the kind of person who would rather tell her peers how she was able to overcome her fears, how she was able to resolve her problems and how she was able to stand up again after she fell down:
“I always share my experience, especially the role of my family, in my journey in life as transwoman and how I succeeded sailing the tempest waves of the sea. As much as possible, during LGBTQ gatherings, I really don’t want to talk about things that really hurt us as LGBTQ persons. I want to talk about happy moments, triumphs, successes and how beautiful it is to live, love and be loved. By inspiring others, especially, the young LGBTQs – through this they will realize that they must be strong and understand that life is so beautiful and we must not allow anyone to take it away from us.”
In Bangkok, Thailand, during the ‘2015 Being LGBT in ASIA’ dialogue, she was invited to be part of the 15 Asian LGBT leaders to talk about their experiences in their respective countries. The speakers before her shared about their unpleasant experiences – being discriminated for being LGBTQ. The hall was gloomy filled with sorrow, till Bb. Ruffa took the stage for her turn to share. She did not dwell in her negative past, but shared her triumphs as a young LGBTQ leader in her community. With her closing message, she totally rocked the hall:
“I am not asking the world to understand me. We should not be asking the world to understand us! Because there is nothing wrong of being who we are. We must learn to love and accept ourselves first and everything will follow. Our greatest enemy in this world is not them, its not the cruelty of the world towards us, its not the world we live in, but our very own self. Stigma and discrimination start within us. We should not talk about how the world hates us, but we should show the world how we love ourselves and our world, for the world to love us back.”
Of course, behind every strong heart is a supportive family. As a little girl, she remembers her protective father. She would be discouraged to play around boys and is required to be at home before five in the afternoon. “My father taught me to present myself as a strong young woman, and he told me to never allow anybody to look down on me as a person… if suntukin ka sa daan kahit talo ka, siguraduhin mong makasuntok ka din kahit isa (if someone punches you, make sure to throw at least one punch back)… it’s not all the time that I (referring to her father) and your siblings will be there to protect you,” she shared.
GAYON, a community-based organization provided her comfort. It paved a way for Bb. Ruffa to see the larger picture of the LGBTQ community. It gave her opportunity to be part of a bigger community. GAYON also empowered her to strengthen her commitment in fighting for human rights, especially LGBTQ rights.
It is also this organization that enabled her to help those who cannot fight for themselves. Just like how she was supported by her family, she also supported LGBTQ friends and sisters as her own.
Life of a Beauty Queen - My Crown is my Pride
What is the essence of being a woman? Sounds familiar? A common question asked in beauty contests. For Miss Universe fans, Sushmita Sen in 1997 answered this question - “Just being a woman is God’s gift. The origin of a child is a mother, a woman. She shows a man what sharing, caring, and loving is all about. That is the essence of a woman.”
Bb. Ruffa when asked, “being a woman is indeed a gift from God and this gift comes great responsibility. As a woman, we should break the stereotype that we are weak. Women are strong, and yes we are strong and independent who are willing to teach the world that CARE is the framework of our existence: it is a Community effort to uphold the rights and welfare of all human being and we are all Accountable to ensures that each of us enjoys every rights that we have… it is our Responsibility to protect and love one another regardless of who and what you are… and to show Empathy – we should not just put ourselves into the shoes of others, but we should be with them in their journey. Through this framework we may able to create a world that we are all dreaming of. For me that is the essence of being a woman.”
She shared about an actual beauty contest she joined in the past. When it was her turn for the question and answer part, the emcee gave her two bottles of sodas, one was Pepsi and the other was Coke. “The question was, if I am to choose between “Pepsi and Coke”, which would it be and why,” she said. Quite a tricky question, and here is her answer:
“Coke and Pepsi both advertise that they don’t have sugar and everyone enjoys a bottle of soft drinks... if I am to choose between the two, I'll choose the one which reminds me of a beautiful lesson in life, and that is Coke.”
“Let me share a story - years ago when my father and I were sitting under the avocado tree while enjoying our glasses of coca - cola he told me a beautiful story about a terrible fight that happened inside him. A fight between two wolves. The other wolf is represented with compassion, empathy, care and justice while the other one is represented with envy, greed, selfishness and hatred. I asked my father who won the fight? (sabay inom ng coke), and my father said, ‘it’s the one that you always feed’.”
While sharing her road to beauty queen story, she became emotional. “I realized that each and every one of us has the power to choose our path and which journey we want to take. The future of world lies in our hands.”
Becoming a beauty queen as a transwoman was not about winning the crown. She believes that every girl, woman, transwoman are beauty queens – “you just need to believe that you are you and you are beautiful,” she said. To her, being a transwoman and being a beauty queen is not about the title, the fame and the glamour. But, “It’s about being able to accept and embrace who you truly are… being able to let the world see your worth as a proud transwoman, because that’s your crown, that’s your pride,” she added.
Like the Colors of the Rainbow, you are not Alone
The rainbow colors display diversity. You may just be one of the colors, but together, it is a community. Every year, June is the month when LGBTQ community celebrates Pride Month. June became a significant month for the LGBTQ rights advocates as it is when the Stonewall Riots took place back in 1969.
Pride Month is being celebrated globally in various ways. However, for Bb. Ruffa, Pride is more than a celebration… that pride should not be just celebrated by festivity and glamour, but be celebrated by remembering the LGBTQ activists, especially transgender women who fought first against the cruelty of the world. “Pride should be honoring the LGBT personalities who came before us and it should be a reminder to everyone that our pride as human should be preserved and respected.”
LGBTQ community is not alone in this fight. Bb. Ruffa lauds her friends and people she may not personally know who see her as a human, a person with dignity, and not just a Barbie doll. She expressed that while fighting for her rights, she also respects and fights for the rights of others. She is thankful for the champions like Hon. Kaka Bag-ao and Akbayan Party-list in the House of Representatives (18th Congress) and Sen. Risa Hontiveros and other allies of LGBTQ community for supporting the SOGIE and Equality Bill.
Once in a while, Bb. Ruffa would talk to her fellow transwoman, especially those young trans who just started their transition. She would always tell young trans that becoming a woman does not necessarily need blocking your male hormones or increasing female hormones in your body. Being a woman is simply having a heart of a woman.
When asked, which color she is in the pride flag, Bb. Ruffa said she is definitely orange. Orange symbolizes healing. She sees that her purpose in the fight for LGBTQ rights is to heal the wounds and scars of the past. When I asked her, what kind of world would you want the next LGBTQ generations to live in, her answer made me want to have the same thing. She said, “I envision a world where there is no more need for advocates and activists who will fight for the rights of others and walk for those who cannot walk... a transformed world where love and respect prevail.”
The dream of the LGBTQ community and its friends and allies – a nation coming together for the rights of the LGBTQ – like a beautiful rainbow, diverse but united.