Breaking Barriers: Rep. Geraldine Roman On Public Service And Overcoming Challenges
“Homosexual people have a right to be in a family,” stated Pope Francis in a clip released from his upcoming documentary, Francesco. “They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it.” These groundbreaking words expressed by the head of the Catholic Church resonated profoundly with the congresswoman for Bataan’s first district, Representative Geraldine Roman. “With his statement, the Pope is teaching us that one is truly Christian not by being more right or righteous, but by being kinder and more compassionate,” she shares. “The underlying message is not about doctrine but about love for fellow human beings, including LGBTQ persons.”
Following in the political footsteps of her parents, both former congressmen, Roman ran in 2016 and won by an impressive 67 per cent, making history by becoming the first-ever transgender person elected to the Congress of the Philippines. The elegant and sophisticated congresswoman is devoutly Catholic and proudly transgender. Although traditionally irreconcilable, Roman found solace in her church and faith very early on in her journey.
“The understanding of transgender is very recent. So, at the time, I just knew that I enjoyed doing things that others considered as feminine,” she shares of her childhood. “Deep inside, you’re more inclined to certain things and yet, the expectations of others are in the opposite direction. Then you realise that ‘Hey, my mind and my heart don’t seem to belong to this’. At first, I did not really accept myself. That’s the truth because I tried to fit in and meet the expectations of my parents and my family. Every child craves acceptance, and every child wants to belong.”
When her body started to mature during her high school years, the discord between her internal and external self suddenly became a source of trauma. “The difficulty was so great I had to share it with my father.” Her supportive father took her to a psychiatrist who encouraged her to accept who she was, but it was truly the Jesuit community of Ateneo who comforted her. “They would tell me: ‘Hey, God loves you just the way you are. He created you this way. He has a purpose for you.’ So, that was the moment when I started living my truth.”
After her years at the University of the Philippines, which she describes as giving her a feeling of “belonging” with other members of the LBGTQ+ community, she received a scholarship to study journalism at the University of the Basque Country in Spain. “I actually started to blossom fully as a woman there,” Roman says. “I had always used the men’s restroom in the Philippines, but the first time I had to use a public toilet in Spain, I was in El Corte Ingles and was stopped from entering the men’s room. ‘No, no señorita, es por alla [No, no Miss, it’s over there],’ I was told. It was then I realised that ‘Wow, I’m a woman.’”
Encouraged by her friends and with the full support of her family, Roman decided to have sex reassignment surgery in New York in 1996. Before the procedure, she consulted with her high school counsellor, Brother James Dunne. “He told me, ‘Geraldine, the body is just a shell. If you think that by modifying that on the outside you can become a happier or more loving, more generous person, go ahead. Because God looks at the heart and not what you have in between the legs.’”
After the operation, her father stayed by her side until she woke, presenting her with a bouquet of white roses. “When I was wheeled into my room, he set up a small altar with estampitas of my favourite saints. This was how supportive my father was.”
Roman’s story is unique, not because of her journey of transition but because it shows how boundless love can empower the ones you hold most dear. “The love of our family is really important. It sparked a difference for me. I see other people with the same kind of conditions as I have and they are not as fortunate as I am. Being rejected by their loved ones has affected their life and decisions, leading in the most extreme cases to delinquency. I am grateful to have a family that truly accepts me.” Two years later, Roman fell in love. “I never even thought love would be something I could experience due to my condition, but when I met Alberto [Lopez], that all changed.” Uncertain about how he would react when told about her circumstances, she was encouraged by her mother to share the whole truth. “So, I told him: ‘Hey, I was born this way and then I had the operation.’ He kept quiet for a moment, and then he told me: ‘You know what, I don’t care about your past. What’s important to me is our present and future together because I love you. And that’s it.’” More than two decades later, they are still together and are planning their union after the pandemic.
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“In our relationship we’ve had our share of arguments and fights,” Roman shares. “Problems as well, especially when I started in politics. We survived. My father always told me, ‘Love is a conscious decision that you will accept, care and respect the other person.’” She adds, “As long as these things are present, there is love.”
Be yourselves. Don’t be ashamed of who you truly are and be your best selves. It all begins with being true to one’s self. Authenticity. Once, you learn to truly love yourself, you’ll be very happy.
— Rep. Geraldine Roman, 1st District of Bataan
It comes as no surprise that when her father fell gravely ill in 2012, she left her life in Madrid to be at his side. What was intended to be a short stay eventually became the beginning of her new life as a politician. Once again inspired by her father to live a life with purpose, Roman started out by helping her mother in Congress, eventually following suit and running for office. “In the last months of my father’s life, we had many deep conversations. He once asked me what was the meaning of my life,” she shares. “And I said, ‘I work, I save money, I shop, I travel and enjoy my life in Spain.’ He looked at me and said, ‘As long as your life revolves around yourself. As long as it’s centred on just you. Your life will have no true meaning.’ That’s when I decided to join public service.”
As one of the principal authors of the unanimously passed Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill, Roman is often championed as the leader in the LBGTQ+ movement; however, she would like everyone to also look beyond the rainbow flag. Her platform, EQUALITY, is in fact an acronym for her advocacies: Education, Environmental Quality, Universal Healthcare, Agriculture, Livelihood, Infrastructure, Transparency and the Youth. “Equality means giving all Filipinos equal rights, equitable opportunities and chances to improve their lives, to become happier citizens of this country regardless of their personal circumstances,” she declares.
“I’m a firm believer in social justice. I believe those who have less in life should have more cause and more protection from the government. Otherwise, we’ll just be a third-world country forever. We also have to teach people to become more responsible, by empowering them through education and healthcare.” She is currently trying to push the Hospital Standardization Act which aims to provide a set of strict standards by hospital category throughout the nation so that everyone can expect a minimum quality of care. She is also an ardent supporter of TESDA livelihood programmes as well as eco-tourism.
Very close to her heart are farmer’s rights and agrarian reform. “For people who have nothing at all in life, except for the hope of owning a small piece of land, this is a life-changing moment for them. It means hope for the future of their children, that they can finally employ what they know, which is farming. It allows them to have a dignified life.” She hopes to elevate the status of farmers through cooperatives and concerted efforts of the government. “In Europe, when you are a farmer, it means you are able to afford a decent life. Unlike here in the Philippines, when you are a farmer, you are automatically equated with being poor. That shouldn’t be the case.”
The pandemic has made her work much more challenging. “I usually lobby my advocacies and bills person to person, and this is no longer possible,” Roman explains. “It has also taken a toll on my mental and emotional health. As a public servant, I am so affected by the multitude of problems our country must face. From the big issues to the small ones, how do we begin to solve them?” She explains that while working from home, she is even more accessible to her constituents and is constantly receiving pleas for help. “I’ve come to realise that being able to help people is a privilege. One that I don’t take lightly.”
On a personal note, Roman has not seen her partner, Lopez, who is in Madrid for almost a year. “We video call every night at 9pm, and maybe, hopefully, at Christmas we’ll see each other. However, I don’t want to take the risk,” she tearfully shares. “I couldn’t bear it if he got sick and I couldn’t care for him.”
In some kind of beautiful irony, it is the very people that seek her help, that give her the strength to push forward. “I am deeply inspired by so many people who meet the challenges of their lives, trying to break free from the shackles of poverty, and doing it bravely without giving up. They are truly amazing.”
- Photography Jerry Aquino