“Nothing comes free,” Mara La Torre, a 27-year-old model and call center agent, told herself as she walked into a hospital room in Manila, Philippines, for a physical examination. “If you want to win, you’ve got to sacrifice something.”
The Miss Universe Philippines pageant had just announced it would accept transgender women as contestants if they could present “legal documents” stating that they are female and have undergone gender confirmation surgery. La Torre was at the hospital that day in late June to obtain a medical certificate as the doctors who performed her gender confirmation surgery on Thailand’s black market wouldn’t give her documentation.
Feeling her dream of joining the pageant within reach, La Torre bit her tongue as she went through the physical examination with a male doctor the Manila hospital assigned to her.
“Right after, I literally felt I was sexually violated,” La Torre told VICE World News.
She said the doctor had not worn gloves, touched and poked her genitals unnecessarily, and made inappropriate comments even as she became increasingly uncomfortable, lying naked from the waist down on the exam table.
She steeled herself with the thought that she at least had what she needed to join the pageant. But when she finally faced the screening panel in a virtual audition weeks later, it didn’t matter that she had a medical certificate stating she was female.
“They told me that I was being disqualified because we [transgender people] couldn’t change our passport to reflect ‘female’ on that document. That’s what I was told,” she said. “Why did they say they were accepting transgender women? I felt that I was cheated.”
In a country that’s still debating whether to pass a law protecting LGBTQ persons from discrimination, the pageant’s rejection of La Torre was emblematic of the many dead ends transgender people face in a society that tolerates but doesn’t fully accept them, cutting to the heart of a wider fight to be recognized and understood.
Naomi Fontanos, co-founder and executive director of the NGO Gender and Development Advocates Filipinas, said the case spoke to structural issues impacting transgender people in the Philippines. She said that asking transgender applicants to submit documents not required of their cisgender counterparts constitutes a form of “procedural discrimination.”
“Why did they say they were accepting transgender women? I felt that I was cheated.”
“This is the classic story of so many trans people: You don’t get a job, then you can’t afford healthcare, you’re unable to pay rent,” Fontanos told VICE World News. “So many trans people end up homeless in the streets, they get into trouble, they end up doing illegal activities because larger society just won’t include us.”
By saying transgender women could join the pageant but then making them “jump through hoops” to do so, the organizers merely paid “lip service” to inclusivity, said Marie Aubrey Villaceran, deputy director for research and publication at the University of the Philippines Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.
“If you bar transgender women from joining Miss Universe Philippines or from participating even in the application, it means that you don’t see them as women,” Villaceran told VICE World News.
Speculation as to whether Miss Universe Philippines would allow trans contestants had been mounting ever since the organization opened in late 2019. Observers hoped it would mark a new era for pageantry in the country as it separated from the traditional, decades-old organization, Binibining Pilipinas, previously responsible for selecting beauty queens for international contests.
The Miss Universe Organization as a whole changed its rules to accept transgender women in 2012, and in 2018, Spain’s Angela Ponce became the first transgender contestant to advance to the global pageant. Because of this, the Filipino trans community expected the local franchise to follow suit.
Then, in late May this year, came the news they had been waiting for.
Miss Universe 2011 third runner-up Shamcey Supsup-Lee, now Miss Universe Philippines’ national director, told local media that the pageant would welcome transgender women “as long as they have legal documents to prove they are now female and they already underwent gender reassignment surgery.”
While the announcement made waves in the pageant-crazy country, dividing opinion among fans, it meant the world to La Torre, who had long fantasized about joining what Filipinos consider the most prestigious of beauty contests.
“Growing up, I always wanted to have a platform for my voice to be heard, and to empower and inspire people,” La Torre said.
She thought the required documents wouldn’t be a problem as she had papers and ID cards bearing her lived identity as a woman.
“I thought they were just minor things,” she said. “But I never expected that such a minor thing would give me one of the greatest pains that I would have to carry in my life.”
After getting her medical certificate, La Torre emailed the pageant her application and documents, expecting a callback. She counted on what the pageant’s communications director Voltaire Tayag had announced during a media conference—that they would be “screening all of the applicants who have successfully complied with all of the requirements.”
Days later, when she saw other pageant applicants, all cisgender women, posting on social media that they’d received emails and been invited to a virtual screening session, she sought help and found transgender advocate Fontanos online.
“I never expected that such a minor thing would give me one of the greatest pains that I would have to carry in my life.”
Fontanos’ group sent Miss Universe Philippines an email to follow up on La Torre’s application. The organization didn’t reply to that email either, but soon after, La Torre got a response, and she was given an audition slot on the last screening day.
It didn’t go as she expected.
“The panel, they weren’t even friendly to me,” La Torre said. “They kind of lectured me about submitting fake documents, so I felt they were insinuating that my documents were fake.”
For years, La Torre has been living in stealth—presenting as a woman but not revealing that she is transgender as she navigates life in the Philippines. She has been using her lived name—Mara La Torre—on almost all official documents obtained since she turned 19.
She can’t, however, use her lived name and gender on her passport as they are based on a citizen’s birth certificate, which cannot legally be altered on the basis of gender confirmation. The pageant panel said La Torre’s “male” passport disqualified her from competing. She tried to reason with them at her online audition, but they “dropped the call abruptly.”
La Torre assumed that her other documents—social security, health insurance, employment ID cards—would fulfill the pageant’s requirement of “legal documents to prove [trans applicants] are now female.” She was therefore taken aback when the pageant panel talked about “fake documents.”
La Torre had submitted several official identification documents to the pageant, some of which bore her lived identity. But there’s a catch: the Philippines’ Anti-Alias Law prevents transgender people from using their lived name and gender on official documents. It’s unfair to trans people because it leaves them no way to officialize their lived identity, said Evalyn Ursua, a prominent women’s rights lawyer based in Manila.
“You have, then, a significant segment of our population living in a sort of legal limbo. That’s really a problem,” Ursua told VICE World News. “We need a law passed by Congress to officially recognize the changed gender identity of transgender people.”
To back her use of her lived identity on some documents, La Torre presents an “affidavit of discrepancy” stating that she is the same person named on her birth certificate. A litigation lawyer based in Manila who spoke to VICE World News on condition of anonymity said this affidavit was questionable, but Ursua found no issue with it, saying the document states the truth about La Torre’s identity.
“You have, then, a significant segment of our population living in a sort of legal limbo. That’s really a problem.”
La Torre said no question over legality arose when she used her lived name in court pleadings when she filed a lawsuit against security guards who prevented her from using a women’s restroom in 2014.
But regardless of the validity of her documents, these nebulous legal wrangles simply underscore the great lengths trans people in the Philippines must go just to live a normal life.
“Part of the torment of being a transgender individual in the Philippines and in other parts of the world is the fact that you’re always misgendered,” said Villaceran, the gender studies expert. “If you’re constantly moving about in a world that tells you, you are not who you believe you are, it has great impact on you.”
Although the pageant organizers followed the law, Ursua said they “should have made clear” that transgender women couldn’t technically join the pageant. While Miss Universe Philippines creative director Jonas Gaffud was later quoted in media reports clarifying that the pageant would be unable to accept transgender applicants, Ursua said that because the original statement inviting them to join came from the pageant’s highest officer Supsup-Lee, “her statements are going to be perceived as official.”
The litigation lawyer who spoke anonymously said Miss Universe Philippines “needs to change that [requirement] because it’s impossible for transgender people to obtain ‘legal documents’ under the current laws in the Philippines.”
“What Miss Universe Philippines did was problematic. They should correct it and set the rules clearly,” the lawyer added.
Villaceran agreed, saying pageant organisers gave transgender applicants “false hope,” and if they really wanted to welcome them, then it should have offered alternatives to the requirement of legal documents bearing their lived identity.
Fontanos called on Miss Universe Philippines to own up to what La Torre had suffered through. “You cannot get away with this just because you do this behind closed doors and you’re just a small group of people deciding it’s OK to discriminate against this person,” she said. “The whole world is watching. You cannot do this with impunity.”
VICE World News sent multiple requests to Miss Universe Philippines and its top officers Supsup-Lee, Gaffud and Tayag, for a response to La Torre’s allegations, but they have yet to reply. In a statement to VICE World News, the global Miss Universe Organization said it was looking into La Torre’s allegations and evaluating its rules concerning transgender aspirants.
“The Miss Universe Organization has been and remains a staunch ally of the LGTBQIA+ community. Nearly a decade ago, we made the groundbreaking decision to allow transgender women to participate in our competitions provided their gender was legally recognized within their countries and they had undergone gender affirmation surgery,” the statement read.
“We are doing a full investigation into the details of this case and evaluating our rules going forward.”
Beauty pageants are as much a part of Filipino culture as boxing, basketball, and karaoke. Cultural observers often joke that the only things proven to bring the country to a halt were boxer Manny Pacquiao’s fights and beauty pageants.
With four title holders so far and several runners-up, the Philippines is among the franchise’s top performers. Each time a Filipino Miss Universe comes home, or even a runner-up, their arrival turns into an unofficial holiday as they are paraded around Manila atop extravagant floats to wave to adoring crowds.
The Filipino LGBTQ community are among pageants’ most avid fans. It’s their posts on social media and their presence at pressers, parades, and coronation nights that bring the fanfare and euphoria surrounding beauty pageants.
Being part of a prestigious beauty pageant bears layers of significance for transgender women, Villaceran said. “One of the powers of the Miss Universe pageant is that it presents a particular ideal of who can be considered as a woman, and an ideal woman.”
For La Torre, this reverence meant that to win or even just compete in Miss Universe Philippines would have been a form of vindication for Filipino transgender people.
An openly bisexual woman, Beatrice Luigi Gomez, eventually won this year’s Miss Universe Philippines title, a first for the pageant and the country. However, none of the contestants who made it to the pageant were transgender. Keylyn Trajano, another trans woman who tried out this year, told her Instagram followers that she did not make the cut. She did not respond to VICE World News’ interview requests.
Although the Philippines is perceived to be relatively tolerant of LGBTQ persons, there’s still little in the way of institutional recognition and protection. For years, the Philippine Congress has been debating whether to pass a law to criminalize discrimination based on people’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). But there’s been strong opposition to the so-called SOGIESC Equality Bill, particularly from religious groups in the majority Christian country, and the measure remains pending.
“Do they know how dehumanizing it is to strip naked and lie down to be inspected just for a medical certificate? I feel like I ruined my own dignity by letting someone touch me.”
Because of the prejudice they endure in absence of protective legislation, the Filipino transgender community is yearning to be “represented in a way that elevates our lives,” La Torre said, adding that the Miss Universe pageant would be a powerful way to achieve that.
But instead of empowering her, the experience left La Torre feeling duped and humiliated.
“Do they know how dehumanizing it is to strip naked and lie down to be inspected just for a medical certificate? I feel like I ruined my own dignity by letting someone touch me,” she said.
For Fontanos, it’s a matter of recognizing that trans women are women.
“If a trans woman has not undergone surgery and has a penis but wants to compete in Miss Universe, she should still be allowed to do so because her penis doesn’t define her womanhood,” the LGBTQ rights advocate said.
“It’s not just about me,” La Torre said. “When transgender women see me [in the pageant], it will empower them, and [they will] regain the dignity that’s been lost because of the treatment society gives us.”
Follow JC Gotinga on Twitter.