I was Jennifer Laude but, as luck would have it, my life didn't meet a tragic end.
When news broke out about the murder of the Filipino transgender woman in Olongapo City allegedly committed by a US Marine, I was reminded of a similar incident that happened to me 15 years ago. Like Jennifer, I was young and on the throes of discovering who I was. In 1999, I was a victim of violence, which I knew even then was triggered by the fact that I was transgender. Just like Jennifer.
This experience — long buried in my memory until Jennifer’s story broke — isn't the first nor last unreported incident against transgender people. And Jennifer wasn't the first transgender nor the last one to die from transphobia.
The Trans Violence Tracking Portal (www.transviolencetracker.org) reported 102 deaths among transgender men and women in 14 countries that submitted their data between Jan. 1 and April 30 of this year. It said that that number is just a small fraction of incidents happening internationally and also does not include those that didn't get reported to the police and the media. According to the portal, transgender people make up 1 to 1.5 percent of the world's population but about "400 times more likely to be assaulted or murdered" than the rest of the population.
While Jennifer Laude, 26, has become a statistic on the growing number of transgender deaths in the Philippines, her murder has drawn angry protests largely due to the involvement of the American military presence in my country to the investigation. The suspect, US Marine 1st Class Joseph Scott Pemberton who is part of the USS Peleliu stationed in the former US naval base in nearby Subic, is under US custody as part of the Visiting Forces Agreement between Manila and Washington, DC. Police said the victim was found strangled in a motel in Olongapo City, hours after she met the suspect at a nearby club. Rumors have swirled over possible motives for his action including "transpanic" — a term to mean the suspect isn't aware that the victim is transgender.
Back in 1999 when I got almost killed, the word transgender had yet to enter the lexicon. It was either you were gay or transsexual. I had been out as a gay man — and proud of it — for as long as I could remember. Everyone in my family, my close friends, and practically anyone I encountered in public knew I wasn't masculine. While I dressed in men's clothes at work, I sometimes wore dresses, skirts, and tank tops, plus makeup, when I went out with friends for a night out. My behavior was more feminine and I felt different around my gay friends.
But it was only while I was working in Saipan, the largest of the three inhabitable islands that comprise the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, that I began to assert my identity. I flew to the island in 1997 from my hometown in Manila after a local Saipan newspaper hired me as a reporter. Saipan is also a few hundred miles away from Guam, another US territory where the Americans maintain one of its largest naval bases in the Pacific. Several times in a year, some US fleets would stop in Saipan for a few days to a week for their R&R — rest and relaxation — for hundreds of their sailors on board. My offender was one US Navy sailor whose name I have completely forgotten now but whose unprovoked violence against me left a scar that won’t ever go away.
I met the unnamed guy at a popular club in one of the beachfront hotels in the tourist district of Saipan. He was Caucasian, about 20 or 21. He was tall, much taller than my 5'8" frame. He was with another sailor who was about the same age but shorter. I was with my other transgender friends and we were all dressed up to the nines in our heels just like any other night outs that we had on weekends. During R&R, the club would be packed with islanders and tourists mingling with US sailors in their white immaculate uniforms. My friends and I would stay until closing time at 2 a.m.
Around that time, we'd see drunk sailors staggering out of the club and being helped by those sober enough to carry them to waiting vans contracted by the US Navy to shuttle them back to their ships. But the two men we had just met decided to stay behind and kept us company. We were not drunk, as were the two, because as far as I could recall our conversation wasn't raucous nor overtly sexual. In fact, we learned they were from Texas where they enlisted in the Navy right after high school. In between exchange of personal details, I admit there was harmless flirting from our part and theirs as well.
I don't remember anymore how my friend Cutie and I ended up with the two men in my car. I think it was Cutie, the flirty one, who asked them if they wanted to go the beach. I was always reluctant to ask a man to come with me especially if he didn't know what I was beneath my dress. Cutie assured me she told them who we were. To ease my worries, I told them that we were just going to show them the beach and would drop them off to their ships afterwards. I was still on edge when I drove for about 10 minutes to a secluded part of the island. My fears were obscured only by the prospect of a consensual tryst. But even then I sill had doubt this was the best decision I'd made in my 30-year existence.
The beach was deserted when I parked my car on a grassy lot. It was around 2:30 in the morning. The moon illuminated the stretch of white sands while the sea was calm. It was eerily quiet when we walked toward the water, a silence broken only by four voices and nervous laughters. It wasn't too long when we became two groups of two. I made a choice to stick with the shorter guy who I thought was a lot nicer than the other one who was loutish.To cut the story short, yes we had engaged in consensual sex. There was exchange of partners. No, there was no intercourse. It was mostly us giving them oral sex.
It was right after his orgasm when the taller, brusque Navy man threw punches directly at my left temple while I was still on my knees. I don't remember how many blows I got from him but the impact hurled me lying to the sandy ground. I thought I was going to get knocked out but I quickly reached for one of my platform heels and lobbed it to his face. That one moment saved my life as I screamed and called Cutie's name. Shouting "binugbog ako (He beat me up)" several times, we sprinted to the car as the two Navy men ran to the opposite direction. Shaken but enraged, I drove until we saw them heading towards the hotel. We yelled and cursed them until they were out of sight.
We still went back to the crime scene to recover my platforms. Thankfully there was no bruise in my face to warrant emergency care. I had thought of calling the police to report the incident. But then I decided I didn't want to be in the news. I write the news for heaven's sake, I told myself. Besides I couldn't possibly live with the shame that would come hounding me in public if I went to the police.
That night there were several thoughts running in my mind why it happened. Some of them were guilt feelings and most were self-loathing. I had totally blamed myself for the assault. Perhaps what stuck most in recalling the events was what the perpetrator kept saying to me while he was trying to blow my brains out — “You're a dude! You're a dude.” Those words were powerful enough to strike at the very core of my essence as a transgender. I felt I deserved the punches just because he saw me as a man dressed as a woman.
If Jennifer survived the attack against her, would she think and feel this way, too?
(Dawn Saladores is a New York-based fashion, travel and beauty pageant blogger. Before that, she was an acclaimed journalist who had written for national and international news organizations in the Philippines. She was political reporter of Saipan Tribune, a publication in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.)