Rowena Joy* (see pic above) is the title of a new mini-series being shown on GMA Network, a major TV station here. It is about a gay man, RJ who runs away from home after his homophobic father finds out about his sexual preference. RJ leaves for Japan to work and years later returns as a woman now called Rowena Joy. The show airs every Thursday night and so far it has had two episodes already.
It has its ups and downs of course. While at the same time portraying Rowena Joy as a kindhearted soul, the show also perpetrates the biggest misconception about transsexual women: that they are gay men who desire to be women, playing on that transphobic concept of "women trapped in men's bodies." In this case, the woman Rowena Joy has been unleashed and yet still acts and thinks like a gay man. The show gives me a feeling of being spoken for. I feel like the show was put together by a bunch of gay men who then decided that this is how a transsexual is, feels and thinks. It leaves much too much to be desired.
STRAP members were anticipating the show's first episode because one of our members, Gia, heard about it and told everyone about the show's initial broadcast. After seeing the first episode, Gia and I were sending each other text messages sharing our disappointment about the whole thing. Gia writes about it in her own blog which you can access here. We also decided to send the show a letter telling them what we think and it follows below:
Cast and Crew
Dear Cast and Crew of Rowena Joy,
RE: Reaction to Rowena Joy of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP)
We, the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), a transgender rights advocacy organization and support group for girls and women of transsexual experience, would like to commend you for wanting to tell the story of Rowena Joy. Given the dearth of positive and empowering images of transgender Filipinas or transpinays on TV, we welcomed the idea behind Rowena Joy and looked forward to its screening.
Sadly, after the first episode shown last 20 August 2009, Thursday, it was very clear to us that Rowena Joy was not being portrayed as a transsexual woman but as the embodiment of people’s misconception of what a transsexual woman is: a gay man wanting to be a woman. We in STRAP understand that this stereotype of us stems mainly from the conflation between sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to the Yogyakakarta Principles, the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, these two concepts are vastly different. Sexual orientation is understood to refer to each person’s capacity for profound emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to, and intimate and sexual relations with, individuals of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender. Thus, being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a sexual orientation. On the other hand, gender identity is understood to refer to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms.
Being transgender, therefore, is about gender identity first. For example, using your titular character Rowena Joy, if she identifies as a woman and is emotionally and sexually attracted to a man then her sexual orientation will be classified as heterosexual. She will only be homosexual if she is attracted to other women.
Transgenderism is indeed a complex phenomenon but thanks to a growing worldwide movement that advocates for transgender human rights, information is now available online and elsewhere if one wishes to understand the needs, issues and concerns that trans (short for transgender) people around the world face. We will be happy to direct you to these resources if you wish. We hope that in its quest to deliver superior entertainment, GMA Network will only tell any story with the utmost responsibility. Any show on a major TV network such as yours can either perpetrate ignorance and inequity or promote enlightenment and equality. We hope that in telling the story of anybody, including a person of transgender experience, you will look at them not just as caricatures but as human beings above all.
The wind of change is blowing across the world and more and more trans people are coming out of the shadows and breaking stereotypes and barriers by openly living their lives as they are and succeeding against all odds in their chosen fields. Television, itself, has many examples. There is Isis King, the first transsexual woman contestant on America’s Next Top Model. Then there is also Calpernia Adams, the first transsexual woman to have a dating show called Transamerican Love Story. There is also Candice Cayne, a trans actress who plays a trans character on Dirty Sexy Money. The STRAP membership certainly reflects this change and we are very proud to have members who are working in IT, education, marketing, design, human resource development, fashion and other professions.
Against the backdrop of this worldwide evolution, we know that more and more trans people will be seen on TV. We hope that GMA Network will truly live up to its being Kapuso (one in heart) with its audience including its transgender viewers by letting trans people play themselves and allowing them the space to tell their stories with their own voices. We in STRAP look forward to the day when one’s trans status is no longer an issue and trans characters on TV are shown living perfectly normal lives.
Thank you for you time. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. We will be happy to start a dialogue.
Society of Transsexual Woman of the Philippines
I really do not mind other people talking about being trans as long as they get it right. But this one misses the point sorely and manages nothing but keep the status quo. I find no liberation in Rowena Joy. In fact it does nothing to the trans cause and traps all of us in its ignorance and transphobia. Trans women are not gay men! I hope, once and for all, that gay men will stop deciding for us what our lives are like and have the grace to let us speak for ourselves. We certainly do not dare to speak for them and so they must accord us the same respect.