Warning: This article contains images that some readers may find disturbing
On the 11th of October last year, the US Marines stationed aboard the USS Peleliu got their first night of liberty after their Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship docked in Subic Bay, on the Philippine island of Luzon, for joint military exercises. Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, a 19-year-old former professional boxer from New Bedford, Massachusetts, eagerly disembarked with his battle buddies Bennett Dahl, Daniel Pulido, and Jairn Rose. They headed for the Harbor Point mall in nearby Olongapo, part of the former American Subic Bay naval base, which closed, in 1992, after a massive volcanic eruption that coincided with a wave of Philippine nationalist sentiment. The group ate a late lunch and shopped at the mall before heading for the narrow streets and looser rules of Magsaysay Drive, half a mile outside the former base.
At Ambyanz Night Life, the men found what some of them had been looking for that night. The club was a frequent hangout for sex workers known as Pocahontases—a riff on pok-pok, a Tagalog term for slut, which also alludes to the former colonizers who often patronize them. The most dogged of these women—those who quickly latch on to the arms of the men pouring off the ships—are usually transgender, but the foreign soldiers rarely learn that. "Filipinos are more used to us, so they can sometimes tell," one trans Pocahontas told me. "Sometimes they try to expose us to the foreign men. So we run."
At the top of the club's blue-lit staircase, whose walls were lined with mirrors hung askew, Pemberton met Jennifer Laude, a statuesque trans woman with heavy-lidded eyes who had been a Pocahontas on and off for about six years. Laude was out that night with a group of her trans sex-worker friends for the first time in months since becoming engaged to her German boyfriend, Marc Sueselbeck. Laude had planned to already be with her fiancé in Duisburg, a town near Düsseldorf, but Germany had denied her an entry visa. Though Laude didn't need the money the way she used to—Sueselbeck sent her a regular allowance—the thrill of competition was part of what it meant to hang out with her friends. According to her roommate Jamille, if she was out she thought she might as well take customers, "just for fun." The women had been working since the soldiers went on liberty that afternoon, and by 10:45, when Laude met Pemberton, she'd already been with three clients. "Jennifer was exhausted," said another friend, Charis. "We work as hard as we can when the soldiers are here."
Within a few minutes of meeting, Pemberton and Laude left for the Celzone Lodge, a motel across the street, accompanied by Laude's friend Barbie Gelviro. "She never went with a guy alone," Gelviro said. "She always asked one of us to come with her so we knew where she was." At the motel, Pemberton and Laude booked some time in Room 1, right next to the reception desk. The room, with walls painted the color of a mango's flesh, was not much more than a bed to do business on and a television to drown out the noise. Gelviro stayed with the couple for a minute to help negotiate a rate. Laude suggested 5,000 pesos, but Pemberton only wanted to pay 1,000 (about $25). Laude, nervous that Pemberton might discover the girls were trans because Gelviro didn't have implants, quickly agreed to the lower rate and rushed her friend out of the room. "Please safe my friend," Gelviro told Pemberton in stilted English as she left.
On her way downstairs, Gelviro met a man checked into Room 5, two floors above Laude. She flirted with him, and asked him whether he wanted her to join him for an hour or so. He knew he'd be expected to pay; men in Olongapo assume as much when a girl is forward on a Saturday night. They made an arrangement and went back to his room, where she took off her clothes, except for her tight underwear. Then she turned off the light.
About 30 minutes after the group had arrived at the motel, Pemberton casually walked out of his room alone, leaving the door slightly ajar behind him. He seemed unperturbed as he passed the front desk and walked down the steps into the night. His curfew was rapidly approaching, and he and his shipmates needed to return together. Dahl, Pulido, and Rose were frantically looking for him, but to no avail. Pulido eventually made the call to take a cab back to the ship without Pemberton. They arrived at 12:10, and the supervising officer, Corporal Christopher Miller, chewed them out for being late. He got even angrier when he saw that Pemberton wasn't with them. Pemberton showed up in the middle of the conversation, and the soldiers explained that they were late because they were looking for one another. Miller, who would have known full well the kinds of activities the group could get into when they went off ship, chose not to discipline them that night and dismissed them for bed.
As they were about to go to sleep, Pemberton approached Rose and asked to talk to him in private. They walked over to the front of the ship, far from human ears, with only the ocean and the sky to listen. Pemberton told Rose that he had met two girls at Ambyanz and gone to a motel with them. After one of them left, the girl he was still with started to undress. Pemberton said that he saw "it" had a dick.
He told Rose he got so angry that he choked "it" from behind. When the body stopped moving, he dragged it into the bathroom and left. At first Rose thought he was messing around, but Pemberton assured his friend that he was serious.
"I think I killed a he-she," Pemberton said.
At the motel, the bellboy and receptionist, Elias Galamos, waited a few minutes after Pemberton left to go clean up the room. Inside he discovered Laude's limp body, wrapped in the motel's beige blanket and slumped over the toilet bowl. Not knowing whether she was dead or unconscious, Galamos went to find Gelviro upstairs and then ran a block and a half to the local police station. By the time Gelviro cleaned herself up and came to the room, the local police had arrived, followed shortly by a team from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), who seem to have been informed that an American service member might be involved even before Pemberton made his confession to Rose.
Shortly after midnight, police drove Laude's body the half mile to St. Martin Funeral Home. Gelviro texted Laude's middle sister, Michelle, who happened to be out with her own friends at Ambyanz. Together they went to the morgue, and Michelle tearfully identified Laude's body. The police conducted an autopsy before releasing the body to the family the following evening: The cause of death was ruled asphyxia by drowning in the shallow water of the toilet bowl.
Pemberton was immediately identified as the prime suspect: Surveillance footage at the nightclub showed him leaving with Laude, and Gelviro spoke to police at the scene and later picked him out in a photo lineup. "He was the one," Gelviro said as she pointed to Pemberton's picture. "He was in my dreams." Filipino authorities claimed to be building a case against Pemberton, but they didn't bring him in for questioning or receive an affidavit with his account of the night. The Americans, citing their rights under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which regulates US military activity in the country, refused to release him from their custody on the USS Peleliu. Jennifer's mother, Julita, who had boarded a 24-hour bus from the family's home province of Leyte to join her two surviving daughters, Marilou and Michelle, was incensed by the lack of government action. She feared that Pemberton had fled the country while the authorities dithered and kowtowed to American demands.
Pemberton assured his friend that he was serious. "I think I killed a he-she," he said.
The invocation of the VFA and Pemberton's perceived immunity immediately brought long-lingering resentments to the surface for many Filipinos. Only one American service member had ever been tried under the VFA. In 2005, Daniel Smith, a lance corporal in the Marines also stationed in Olongapo, was accused of raping a Filipina named Suzette "Nicole" Nicolas. He had allegedly carried her into a van while she was drunk, assaulted her as several other soldiers watched and cheered him on, and dumped her on a nearby pier. A civilian trial was held, but press was banned from entering the courtroom, and the Americans maintained custody of Smith at the US embassy throughout. In December 2006, Smith was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, but he remained at the embassy as he appealed the case. Although the Supreme Court ruled two years later that US soldiers convicted of a crime should be detained in Philippine facilities, Smith never returned to prison. In April 2009, Nicolas recanted her testimony and left the Philippines for the United States with an American residency visa and a settlement, from Smith, of 100,000 pesos (about $2,260). The appeals court immediately reversed Smith's conviction, and he left the country less than 24 hours later.
Anger at Americans was already heightened on the eve of Laude's murder: The two countries were in the middle of negotiations to approve a deal to allow the US to construct new military facilities and to position defense assets in various locations around the Philippines, including in Olongapo. Transgender activists, ordinarily marginalized even by the left, rallied around the case, demanding justice for Laude by tapping into the rage at the Americans' overreach. Outside the US embassy in Manila, Filipinos called for the eviction of US troops and burned a mock American flag. Naomi Fontanos, co-founder of the transgender-advocacy group GANDA Filipinas, was struck by the organizing power of Laude's case. "Her murder brought together many liberation movements that are all clamoring for justice," she said.
Four days after Laude's death, in the absence of any meaningful reassurance from the government that they were building a case, the family decided to file civil murder charges themselves. Many organizations were eager to provide representation, but the family chose Harry Roque, an activist attorney, and Virginia Suarez, a lawyer aligned with the Movement for National Democracy (KPD), a party that is strongly opposed to the American military presence. Suarez, KPD's secretary general, set about a strategy that used Laude's plight to give a human face to the ways that Filipinos are subjugated by the country's alliance with the United States. "Anyone who looks at this case has to see it not just for itself but for the way the VFA treats Filipinos as second-class citizens in our own country," she said.
The coalition of Filipinos sympathetic to Laude continued to grow, but supporters struggled to understand and be sympathetic to her status as a trans woman. The Filipino media and public consistently described Laude as a man or bakla, an indigenous identity that fuses concepts of gender and sexuality. The word bakla is used to describe people who are assigned male at birth and desire men but have many feminine characteristics. Because bakla constitute a socially integrated third gender in the Philippines, many observers didn't recognize Laude's identity as a woman, repeatedly using her given name and identifying her as gay. Even activists were confused and ambivalent. The notion that someone considered male would identify as a woman instead of being content to live as bakla struck many Filipinos as a fundamental lie—an attempt to fool people into believing that a trans woman is someone she is not.
The notion that someone considered male would identify as a woman instead of being content to live as a third-gender person struck many Filipinos as a fundamental lie.
When I first heard about Laude's murder, I felt a kind of identification with her. I also grew up in the Philippines and was assigned male at birth; it wasn't until I left for the United States, at 15, that I decided to become a woman. I have often felt as though I would have been bakla had I stayed behind in the Philippines, not recognizing the possibility of a trans identity. Laude, 13 years younger than I am, was among a generation of trans Filipina women who have led much of their lives online and have been deeply influenced by American media. Although Filipinos did not understand her desire to be recognized as a woman, she learned on her own that it was an option for her and chose to pursue it. "Filipinos generally see people like Jennifer as the most extreme form of bakla," Fontanos told me. "The best thing that has come out of the Laude case has been that it has forced the country to confront the existence of transgender women."
The murder of Jennifer Laude exposed to the Philippines both the reality of trans women and the violence that they face daily. Although trans visibility is on the rise in the United States, violence against trans women remains a crisis here as well. This year alone, at least six trans women have been murdered in the US, in many cases by intimate partners and family members. All but one of them were women of color. Despite the prevalence of trans discrimination, Americans expect their legal system to fairly try these cases. But the behavior of the Americans in the Philippines following Laude's death is not uncharacteristic of the response that these crimes receive at home: blaming the victim, sweeping her death under the rug, and resisting accountability.
The events that followed the family's complaint against Pemberton made many Filipinos even more distrustful of the American military. When Pemberton didn't show up to the first hearing in the civil trial, the Laude family threatened to sue the government for not gaining custody of him and compelling him to appear. "The Philippine government turned down the entire nation when it did not insist on custody," Roque told a Filipino news source. "That is a gross dereliction of duty." The next day, nearly two weeks after Laude's murder, Pemberton was transferred from the Peleliu to Camp Aguinaldo, the general headquarters of the Philippine military, in Quezon City. He was to be held in an air-conditioned 20-foot van that he would share with US military guards. Although the perimeter would be secured by Philippine soldiers, a spokesperson with the Department of Foreign Affairs described the situation as only "joint guarding"; the United States ultimately maintained custody.
It took another month for the government to formally arrest Pemberton. On December 19, the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court, Branch 74, issued an arrest warrant. "It's murder," Emilie de los Santos, the city prosecutor, said after filing the charges. "It was aggravated by treachery, abuse of superior strength, and cruelty." Four days later, Pemberton appeared in public for the first time after Laude's death. He entered a courtroom in Olongapo at 5 AM, through a cut-down portion of a metal fence at the back of the facility. Pemberton did not speak or enter a plea in the case. His lawyers simply motioned for a delay while they appealed to the Department of Justice to dismiss the charges, and he was quickly ferried back to Camp Aguinaldo. The United States continued to deny the Philippines' requests to transfer custody, even after charges had been filed, and the Philippines announced that it would cease trying to retain custody of Pemberton while the trial was ongoing.
The presiding judge, Roline Ginez-Jabalde, accepted the defenses' request for the delay, but the Philippine Department of Justice ruled that the charges were legitimate and Pemberton should stand trial. An initial hearing date was set for February 23, when Pemberton would at least be expected to enter a plea. In the meantime, the prosecution asked the judge to reconsider her ban on press in the courtroom and her decision not to demand Pemberton be put in a Philippine jail. Ginez-Jabalde was a law-school classmate of Pemberton's defense attorney, Rowena Garcia-Flores, but she has refused to recuse herself from the case even after prosecutors said that they saw her conferring privately with Pemberton and Garcia-Flores. In a country where there is no trial by jury, even for criminal cases, Ginez-Jabalde will be the lone decider of Pemberton's fate. Her endorsement of the 60-day delay and February 23 start date may prove consequential, as the prosecutors have only a year to obtain a conviction before Pemberton can go free under the terms of the VFA.
"I knew she was a girl when I saw her with her sisters and she didn't move like a boy, but I never scolded her," Julita Laude told me over a meal at Gerry's Grill at the Harbor Point mall, the same spot where Pemberton and his friends had gone out the night of her daughter's murder. Julita returned to the family's hometown of Matagok, in Leyte, a few weeks after the funeral, held on October 24, but she went back to Olongapo in January to check in on her daughters. Julita's appearance is at odds with her surroundings in Olongapo, a town that caters to a local population deeply influenced by the longtime American presence. While her daughters rarely go out in public without makeup and are wont to dress in foreign brands, Julita wore no makeup or jewelry and donned a simple dark shirt.
According to Julita, Jennifer started dressing in a feminine manner all the time once she hit puberty, wearing tight jeans and women's blouses. After finishing high school, in 2006, she moved to Olongapo to attend college, but her studies were delayed while she sought a school that would allow her to wear women's clothing and grow her hair out. Eventually she enrolled at the Asian Institute of E-Commerce as a human-resources major, but she quickly lost interest.
"She started spending all night on the internet and wouldn't go to her classes," her sister Marilou told me. "I don't know what she was doing, but foreign men started to send her money." After deciding to drop out of school, Laude started working as an assistant at a hair salon, where a British customer named Joop became smitten with her, not realizing that she was trans. During their courtship, Laude came to realize that foreign men tended to view her differently than Filipinos did, seeing her not as third-gender but as a full-fledged woman. Joop continued to pursue Laude even after she explained that she was not a "real woman," identifying herself in a way not uncommon for trans women in the Philippines. Joop was undeterred and supported Laude with money and gifts. But he refused to be seen with her in public, which eventually became unbearable for Laude. Their romance fizzled, and Joop moved away.
By the end of 2007, Laude had saved enough money to get breast implants from a local doctor. She started to support her family, using income made from webcamming, gifts from foreign boyfriends, and local sex work. Around this time, Laude met a Korean businessman who regularly traveled to Olongapo for work. He had a family back in Korea, but he started to date Laude and found himself wanting to build a life with her in the Philippines. Throughout their courtship, Laude claimed to be religious and refused to have sex with him so he wouldn't find out that she was trans. When he pressured her to sleep with him, she pretended to slash her wrists using fake blood, a tactic she may have learned from the Mexican telenovelas she loved to watch. Finally, Laude ended the relationship when the man started talking about leaving his family in Korea and having children with her, never having learned that she was trans.
Julita acknowledged that her daughter's associations with foreign men made her family's life materially better. "We added more and more rooms to our small house because of the money Ganda gave me," she said, referring to Laude by her nickname, the Tagalog word for beauty. Julita lost the roof of the family home during Typhoon Hagupit, last year, and Laude paid for the repairs. She also lent money to other people in the area affected by the storm without asking to be paid back on any kind of timetable.
"She made my life more comfortable, but it's not her money I miss," Julita said. "It's her love. It used to be that, when I was sick, the thought of her made my body lighter. Now I feel heavy, as though I won't recover."
Laude met Sueselbeck, her fiancé, on an online travel board in November 2012. They communicated using just audio on Skype and formed a strong enough bond that Sueselbeck announced within a few days that he had bought a ticket to the Philippines for Christmas. Sueselbeck had still not seen a picture of Laude, and she nervously sent him one right away. "I know it maybe will prevent you ever to talk with me again," she told him, "but I am what people call ladyboy or shemale. But I am just a girl for those people who see. Accept me as the girl I am or don't. It's your choice. But I am me and will be proud of who and what I am if just the right guy shares it with me at my side."
Sueselbeck decided that her trans status didn't matter to him and went ahead with the trip, meeting Laude for the first time in the parking lot at the airport. Their romance was swift, and on December 22, barely a month after their first interaction online, Sueselbeck proposed on a stage at an Olongapo mall in front of hundreds of people, to publicly demonstrate that he was not ashamed that she was trans.
"They're banning me from the Philippines for disrespect and gross arrogance," said Laude's fiancé. "Yet they're protecting the man who murdered my wife just because he's American."
Over the next two years, he spent every vacation day he had in the Philippines, usually visiting once in the summer and once in the winter. Sueselbeck applied for a German visa for Laude in the summer of 2013, but her application was denied "because of the prejudices the German embassy had against her," he said. The couple continually appealed the decision, and on October 1, 2014, ten days before Laude died, Sueselbeck received a call from German authorities informing him that they were ready to give Laude a visa after a pro-forma interview in December. They made plans to get married this spring, and Laude bought a wedding dress. Sueselbeck felt that Laude's insecurity about her true womanhood, which fueled a fear that her life wouldn't actually work out, was the only reason she could have been with Pemberton that night. Nonetheless, he said he bears no resentment toward her.
What Sueselbeck did resent was the difference between how he and Pemberton were treated by the Philippine government. On October 22, Sueselbeck scaled a fence at Camp Aguinaldo and shoved a military officer while trying to determine whether Pemberton was really being held there. Sueselbeck claimed that the camp commander, Brigadier General Arthur Ang, assured him there would be no repercussions, but the military decided to pursue action after US Ambassador Philip Goldberg called the incident "very disappointing." The Bureau of Immigration claimed that Sueselbeck agreed to a "voluntary deportation," which he denied, and placed him on a travel blacklist that prevents him from returning to the Philippines. He had planned to be in the country on March 13, the date on which he and Laude were supposed to get married. "They're banning me from the Philippines for disrespect and gross arrogance, yet they're protecting the man who murdered my wife just because he's American," he said.
"I am only happy about one thing," Sueselbeck told me, speaking of the time right before Laude died. "I know at that point in her life, she was at the maximum happiness."
On the morning of January 14, the Laude family and their lawyers arrived at the Olongapo city courthouse, hoping Judge Ginez-Jabalde would lift the ban on the media and reconsider her decision to allow Pemberton to remain in US custody. The motion was typical of the tenacious Roque, whose gentle movements and soft-spoken manner belie his aggressive focus. He has extensive experience in international human rights law and was the first Asian attorney admitted to practice before the International Criminal Court. "We don't expect her to change her ruling," Roque said, "but the motion is a necessary step before the matter can be heard by the Philippine Supreme Court."
The private prosecutors sat at a long table in front of the judge's bench, between the government's prosecution team and the defense lawyer, Garcia-Flores. While Roque looked over his notes, Suarez and Garcia-Flores exchanged barbs. Both women are diminutive but forthright in manner.
"I've been training in mixed martial arts," Suarez, a fitness buff, said. "I'm learning how to punch and kick people into submission."
"I was a member of the rifle team in college," Garcia-Flores replied, with a wide smile. "Before someone tries to kick me, they'd already be dead."
The hearing itself was swift. Ginez-Jabalde entered and acknowledged all parties without expression, perhaps a response to the prosecution's charges of partiality. She granted Garcia-Flores four additional days to submit her reply and dismissed the group. The continual delays in decision-making have made it difficult for the Laudes' lawyers to prepare their case. Additionally, the court proceeding was conducted in English, as they almost always are in the Philippines. This is another instance in which Pemberton had the advantage as an American. The Laude family has limited English comprehension.
After the hearing ended, Garcia-Flores walked out of the courtroom, continuing to chat with Suarez. When the lawyers reached the flight of stairs that led to the lobby, where media awaited them below, Garcia-Flores delivered her final salvo. "I don't understand why we have to fight," she said, with a short laugh. "Let's just talk about visas."
Garcia-Flores's oblique reference to the Suzette Nicolas case seemed to indicate that the defense's strategy would involve trying to buy off the family of the victim. It is widely speculated that the US only granted Nicolas an American residency visa on the condition that she recant her account of being raped by Smith. Classified American embassy cables published by WikiLeaks in 2011 show that the US pressured the Philippine government to release Smith into their custody during a brief period, after his conviction, when he was held in a Philippine jail. The Americans also deferred granting credentials to the Philippine ambassador to the US and threatened to cancel joint military exercises between the two countries.
The Laudes had the infuriating feeling that the United States was attempting to keep the trial from ever happening while the defense kept Pemberton from speaking to authorities about the case. "We don't need money or visas from the US government," Marilou said. "We don't need our sister to die so we can have a better life."
Marilou cited numerous instances in which she felt she had been mistreated and Pemberton had been given priority. When Pemberton had come to the Olongapo city court for his arraignment in December, rows of his friends wearing white uniforms filled the courtroom, while her family had to sit in the back and her cousins were unable to enter because it was too full. Pemberton had his own spacious trailer with air conditioning, while Filipino prisoners were not housed in such cushy conditions.
"What I want is for Pemberton to serve the same sentence as anyone in the Philippines would for this murder," Julita said. "If we allow America to pay us, it's as though Pemberton can kill Jennifer as long as he can pay for her."
If the past is any indication, the just treatment of Filipina trans women in cases against American soldiers may not be forthcoming. Julie Sionzon, who was outside the courtroom after the hearing, has lived in Olongapo for more than 20 years and has worked for a Manila-based television news station for the past eight. As one of the most outspoken lesbian women in Olongapo, she took a specific interest in the Laude case.
While the family was speaking to the local press, Sionzon told me about an experience that reminded her of Laude. In 1989, when she was a 19-year-old field reporter for a local radio station covering the Olongapo police department, a woman came into the station with a swollen lip and a black eye, claiming that a US Marine was responsible. When the man was brought in, he said that he had beaten the woman because she was really a man, citing her flat chest and boyish build. The woman, who had come from the Philippine province of Masbate only a few days before, insisted that she was not a man.
"There were no women police officers at the time, so they asked me to check if she was really a woman," Sionzon said. Sionzon took the woman to the bathroom, where she pretended to examine her body parts, even though she didn't ask the woman to undress, and declared through the partly open door: "She's a woman!"
The American was incensed, but Sionzon stuck to her story. "It's a lie I will never regret telling," she said. The woman then asked Sionzon to interpret for her as she negotiated a settlement with the Marine's commanding officer. He offered $300, and the police encouraged the woman to take it, reminding her that even if she wanted to press charges she didn't have the money to hire a lawyer. Then they informed her that she would only get $100, as $100 was earmarked for the police department, and another $100 was for a local government official.
"I personally witnessed this," Sionzon emphasized. "Then I found out later that this was their standard arrangement—$300, with only $100 going to the victim. And she had to take care of her medical expenses herself." She argued with the police until they agreed to give the woman all the money. Sionzon then escorted the woman to the bus station, where she bought a ticket back to her home province.
On January 23, Laude's family traveled four hours to the Philippine Department of Justice in Manila, where they were met by Roque. Upon arrival, two men led them through a courtyard and a set of hallways to a small room where Barbie Gelviro and Elias Galamos—the key witnesses in the case, sequestered by the state until the trial— were waiting. Julita, Michelle, and Marilou had wanted to meet with the witnesses to thank them for their commitment to testifying for Jennifer. "We're OK, but it's really boring," Gelviro said.
Though the main purpose of the meeting was to visit and thank the witnesses, Roque also used it as an opportunity to go over Gelviro's and Galamos's accounts. Worried that the government would try to turn the witnesses while they were sequestered, he wanted to make sure their stories hadn't changed. Gelviro began her account but hesitated when Roque asked her why Laude and Pemberton decided to go to the Celzone Lodge.
"Am I allowed to say?" Gelviro asked as her hand crept up her delicate face. She had gotten heavier while in witness protection, though it's unlikely she weighed more than a hundred pounds. Observing her fragile frame made the rumor, popular among locals, that she was the true killer seem even more remote.
"Are you OK, Nanay?" Roque asked Julita, using the Tagalog word for mother, noting that what she might hear could offend her Catholic sensibilities.
"I'm fine as long as it's the truth," Julita replied.
Gelviro turned to Roque and told him that Pemberton and Laude had gone to the Celzone Lodge to have sex, but that she had not been present for any financial transaction with Pemberton, countering the sworn testimony she'd apparently given the NCIS. (Gelviro's inconsistency lent some credence to an alternate version of events that a person close to the family told me—that it was Gelviro who had promised Pemberton he could sleep with Laude, tricking her friend into going to the motel with him.) The rest of her account was punctuated with questions and interruptions. She was eager to testify and wanted to know how soon the trial would be.
After Roque went over Galamos's account and found it satisfactory, he left the room, and I stayed behind with the witnesses and the Laude family, along with Gelviro's father, who had been keeping her company in witness protection. Like Julita, he is unperturbed by his daughter's gender, saying that she had been that way ever since she was a kid.
A few minutes later, two new visitors came in, and Marilou introduced them as Jamille and Charis, two of the women who were with Laude the night of the murder. Their last companion that night, Gorgeous, was unable to come because she recently had fistula surgery in her anus. "She was overworking," Charis said diplomatically.
"She's the reporter from America I was texting you about," Marilou said, introducing me. "She's trans too." The three women instantly peppered me with questions. Gelviro, who up to that moment had not said a word to me, led the group with queries about my transition and surgery history. Jamille and Charis, who had been unwilling to speak to the media up to that point, took turns asking me whether I had a boyfriend, whether he knew that I was trans, and when I told him. "Sometimes our boyfriends don't know for months," Charis said. "If ever."
A female officer from witness protection came by a few minutes later and informed us that we should finish the visit. Gelviro had been given shopping privileges at the mall that afternoon, and she invited her friends and me to come with her. The officer told us that we couldn't be with her in public, but we could trail her at a distance as she shopped.
I spent the next 20 minutes following Gelviro around with Jamille and Charis, who asked me more questions about my life. Charis asked whether I only had boyfriends or had clients too. It took a few attempts for me to clarify that I had never done sex work, and that I had no expectations about people I date supporting me financially. I was left with the impression that Charis had never met a trans woman who has not had sex for money.
They'd both had close calls with clients who found out about their status. "Most of the time they just laugh and don't want to have sex," Jamille said. "But sometimes they threaten to beat us and we run."
Jamille focused on my unadorned appearance. "She doesn't even have to try to be a woman," she told Charis as we walked together. "It's because she's had the surgery. No one is going to doubt her."
Unable to speak to Gelviro, we eventually motioned goodbye as she shopped at a Payless shoe store. The girls needed to get ready for a booking that night. Charis wanted to pay for a motel because they hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, but she hesitated because their clients weren't a sure thing.
I told them they could shower and nap at the hotel room where I was staying with my partner; we had two beds. In the cab on the way there, they told me they were meeting some Chinese businessmen at the airport that night. The men didn't know they were trans. "They go away if we tell them," Charis said. They'd both had close calls with clients who found out about their status. "Most of the time they just laugh and don't want to have sex," Jamille said. "But sometimes they threaten to beat us and we run."
Charis joked that Jamille is attracted to Filipino men who, because they see her as bakla rather than a woman, expect her to support them in exchange for their affection. While foreigners pay for the pleasure of Charis and Jamille's company, masculine Filipino men are the ones who expect compensation, because they are thought to be debasing themselves if they admit to engaging in what is perceived as homosexual activity.
The two women talked about feeling lonely and having no one to meet their emotional needs. They have to pay for the company of Filipino men yet are unable to find foreign men who are willing to accept them once they discover their trans status. They admired Laude because she became the exception, which made her death even more unbelievable. "She was the most confident out of all of us," Charis said.
They didn't learn until the morning after Laude's death what had happened to her. Jamille, who was closer to Laude because they were roommates, also found out that Jairn Rose, the friend that Pemberton confessed to, had been her customer that same night. "He was really kind to me," Jamille said. "The weight is still so heavy. I can't believe his friend killed my friend."
Laude had wanted to have sex-reassignment surgery even though her fiancé thought her body was fine the way it was. Jamille and Charis also looked to surgery as the solution to their problems, as it would allow them to live as women without needing to hide any body parts. Yet the procedure, which costs about $10,000, is far beyond the means of these women, who normally earn around $40 per encounter.
As afternoon turned to evening, the two women began preparing for their clients, putting away their casual clothes in favor of skimpy dresses and lightening their skin with makeup. While Charis seemed secure in her femininity, having had one of the men as a customer on a previous visit, Jamille expressed concern that her skin would be too dark and her face too masculine.
"It's not like this is the life we wanted," said Jamille as she lined the borders of her eyes with dark pencil. "But it's the only way we can live."
She went off to go meet a man who didn't know she was trans, taking the same risk that had ended her friend's life. After that man, she planned to meet another, and then another, praying she wouldn't end up unlucky. In the meantime, she hoped that Pemberton would be held accountable for Laude's death. But she knew that he would be tried for murder under American protection and away from media scrutiny—behind closed doors, the way Laude died.