Ladyboys are like hobbits; they have big feet. Although, and fortunately, not usually hairy.
My dearest and truest friend, my distant confidante and beloved adopted sister, Andie, is sitting on the brown vinyl sofa in my rented condo in Pasig. She has delicately hoisted the hem of her long floral skirt with one hand and with the other she is holding one of her slippers — flipflops in Filipino — against her leg.
‘Ugh,’ she says. ‘You see? My feet are longer than half the length of my shin.’
She drops the slipper and the hem and takes to regarding her feet with evident distaste, elbow on knee, chin cupped in her hand. She wiggles her toes.
‘I could possibly cut them off,’ she muses. ‘I should cut them off.’
She nods decisively. ‘I’ll cut them off.’
‘But I can’t.’ She seems displeased with herself and scowls.
‘You cut them off,’ she says, fixing me with her hypnotic gaze.
‘What?’ I exclaim, unable to stand the suspense. ‘Cut what off?’
‘My toes. Cut off my toes.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, I can’t cut your toes off!’
‘Well at least then I’d be able to get a pair of bloody shoes that fit,’ she snaps in exasperation. ‘Have you any idea how depressing it is? Going to a shoe-shop is a suicidal experience. I’m a size 11, dammit. Nobody here stocks bigger than a 10.’
‘Andie, you have beautiful feet.’ It’s true; they are long and fine, like a mermaid’s tailfin. But they are big, it’s also true.
‘Huh. I’m reduced to wearing men’s slippers. It’s so depressing.’ She looks at me. ‘Sure you won’t? Cut them off I mean?’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘I’ll do it myself then.’
Oh, she won’t. But this exchange is so redolent of Andie and of how things are for her.
New Year’s Eve
It is New Year’s Eve 2015 and we have decided to spend it together, because I have recently become single and she has been for years. (‘June 2011. That’s the last time I had a man inside me.’) But this is strictly a non-sexual experience. ‘It would be incest,’ she says and in a way she’s right, though our brother-sister status is an invention. We friend-zoned each other very early on in our relationship, which began online, and we are both happy with that.
Perhaps we are too frightened to see what would happen were we to make love. Maybe we would unleash cataclysmic forces that would rend asunder a seam in the fabric of space and time that should never be rent. Maybe we just ain’t got the poop to deal with that. Or maybe we are just experienced enough to know that if we were to fall into bed together, it would change our relationship forever; it would be a gamble. After all, it might not work. We might fall apart again and where, then, would be this beautiful friendship?
(One night, after too much beer, I reflexively give her a pat between the shoulders and immediately realise my mistake as she tenses. She reminds me in the morning, not to chastise me, but just to let me know it’s OK, she’s not offended… but I had remembered anyway and made a mental note to self: be careful in future.)
Andie is 5’7, elegant and statuesque, though she describes herself, with typical Andie humour, as ‘big and mean’. She fusses about her weight constantly and, after months of her going on, in our long online chats that would often last till morning for her, about her size, I had expected to meet a whale. Nothing could be be further from the truth: Andie is delicate and graceful and flowing; a dolphin, maybe, but not a whale.
‘You’re not fat,’ I tell her.
‘Look at my stomach? Look at it.’
‘You could maybe get more exercise but you’re not fat, Andie. Come on.’
It’s true. Typically, Filipina women have small boobs and fish tummies. A completely different standard of physical beauty applies here; the Western model is just inappropriate.
‘You have a typical Filipina body,’ I tell her. ‘Just scaled up a bit.’ It’s true and I mean this because most Pinays could pass under my armpit, but it backfires.
‘See? Big and mean. Told you.’
Andie is constantly depressed by the fact that nobody — well, apart from me and her mother — takes her seriously. She’s a musician, a singer and composer, a painter and a graphic artist; and all of these with great ability. She has enormous talent and works hard. She’s a fine and dedicated artist and in any fair society she would be taken as such. But here, ladyboys may be tolerated, just, but they are never, ever, to be taken seriously.
Perhaps that is why Andie eschews the term ‘ladyboy’ which is so ubiquitously used by transwomen themselves here. There is certainly a movement to replace the word, but it has little traction. Activists like Sass Rogando Sasot propose ‘transpinay’ but frankly most ladyboys would look at you as if you had two heads if you called them that. Then again ‘transgender’, which has become a misleading term because of its use to describe crossdressing fetishists in the West, is usually taken to mean a post-operative transsexual, one who has had Genital Reconstruction, here.
Andie calls herself a trans woman or a transgender woman and, as always, I agree to her conventions, although I let her know my reservations. Actually, she is transsexual and conforms exactly to Blanchard’s HSTS profile.
It’s how I met her: she posted in a FaceBook group we both frequented, at her frustration with some local inefficiency which I no longer recall. She said it was all done just to frustrate her because she is a transgender woman. I liked her sardonic, wry, self-mocking humour and contacted her. Before long she became my best friend. Sometimes it’s like that with ladyboys; the communication is just visceral, like lightning. But in this case non-sexual, or at least, with the sexuality sublimated.
Scaring the fuck out of the stiffs
‘I’m going to scare the fuck out of all the stiffs in the cemetery,’ she announces, pronouncing it ‘cementery’. ‘I’m going to put on a white dress and perform “Wuthering Heights” there at night.’
‘That’s why I love you.’
‘Uh? Where did that come from?’
‘You don’t think like anyone I ever met before,’ I explain. ‘You’re a true lateral thinker.’
‘What’s that mean?’
Mood swings and genius
Sometimes I think Andie is slightly bipolar; she certainly has mood swings. I have known her in floods of tears over some tiny slight, to hilariously funny, to excoriating herself for responding in kind to someone who insulted her. And she is, I am quite certain, a genius, hugely intelligent and talented. Then I ask, ‘who wouldn’t be bipolar, with so many gifts and yet nobody will take you seriously?’ Andie has attempted suicide three times. It’s not because she’s a sad case; it’s because she’s frustrated.
The Ladyboy lot
Given a social space to be tolerated in, but never one to excel in, that is the ladyboy lot in the Philippines. The macho male culture here is so fragile that it cannot stand the criticism of it that ladyboys, just by existing, imply. ‘We could be men but we’re not, and we won’t be, not to suit you.’ That’s what they say without saying and men, from the conservative straight to the so-called ‘discreet gays’ and ‘bisexuals’ — who are just ladyboys in men’s clothes, as everybody else knows — are terrified of them. That’s why the slights, from looks of contempt, the muttered ‘bakla’ on the street, to the cowardly attack Andie shows me security video of, when a man punched her in the back of the head in a gaming arcade. Why? Because she is a ladyboy who had just whipped his ass in a video-game.
Just as a jihadist cannot tolerate the idea of being killed by a woman — since it would close the doors of his imaginary heaven — Filipino men cannot stand to be bested by a ladyboy.
Discrimination against ladyboys
Such violence is unusual but even though ladyboys are rarely at risk of physical abuse, the undercurrent of discrimination is so prevalent that when it’s not there, when you meet Filipinos who accept trans women, it’s like someone turned the lights on. I see that. I get it. It’s why I hold my friends’ hands, or take their arms, even if they are just that, friends. ‘Fuck with her, deal with me,’ is what I’m saying and few Pinoys will directly challenge a Western man, in public at least.
We decide to go to Eastwood Citywalk for New Year itself and head up there around nine. It’s already busy and, with typical thriftiness, Andie picks out a great value tapsiloguan to eat at, rather than one of the foreign, and far more expensive, restos. There are two kinds of women in the Phils, and it doesn’t matter whether they are trans or genetic: those whose aim in life is to get all of your money spent on them, and those who want to save it. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between. Andie is definitely the latter type; she even frets about getting a taxi when we could ride a jeepney.
‘Oh come on, it’s New Year,’ I say.
‘Watch he doesn’t scam you,’ she replies.
The food at the tapsiloguan — the name comes from ‘tapa’, beef and ‘itlog’, rice — is good and filling and we wash it down with Red Horse. Then we go cruising. The central square in Eastwood Mall is rammed, you can’t move. There are thousands of people in there and it’s claustrophobic. I can see Andie is struggling a bit and to be honest so am I, so I suggest we retreat. We go back to the same joint for more food — this time pizza, which Andie pronounces ‘peetcha’, and more beer. As before it’s great.
As the midnight hour approaches we go out again to watch the fireworks. Sadly the smirring rain that has been threatening all evening gets worse and we have to shelter under our brollies. Still, as ever, the show is good and all over this vast urban sprawl of Metro Manila, home to over 13 million people, the sky is lit up. It’s like the Somme before going over the top and soon the air is thick with powder smoke.
Brothers and sister
Andie and I peck on cheek, like the brother and sister that we are, and head back towards Eastwood CityWalk plaza, which is still buzzing. The outrageously powerful sound rig in the centre is blasting out insanely loud music. It turns out that they are actually showing a television show but the huge screen, which must be 12 feet wide, is not working, so it’s just the sound feed.
Andie and I have noticed that there are many in the crowd who are clearly not of local origin. They have a vaguely Mediterranean look; she suggests Lebanese but I am dubious; they don’t look Arabic. Eventually we sit at one of the restos where there is space and find ourselves next to a group of these people, two men and a Filipina. While Andie visits the Comfort Room, I stick my nose in and ask, directly, where they come from. Being a journalist gets you that way. Or maybe being that way made me a journalist. I don’t know, now.
‘Iran,’ replies the nearest, who has clearly being enjoying the freedom to drink alcohol he enjoys here.
‘Oh,’ I reply. ‘Where? I was in Iran once.’
This causes raised eyebrows and I explain that it was in 1975. The man’s eyes glazed and it was as if I had mentioned a long lost Shangri-la.
‘Before the revolution?’ he asks, explaining that he and his friend come from Teheran. It is a city I know.
‘Oh,’ he looks at me with new respect. ‘Come, drink, my friend,’ he says, handing over a beer for me while explaining — I presume — to his companion what I had said. He has become my brother, even if just for tonight.
‘Did he know I was trans?’
Later, once Andie has rejoined us, I catch him glancing at her. She notices too.
‘Do you think he knew I was trans?’ she asks, once the party had departed, leaving us amongst the wreckage.
‘No, I think he thought you’re gorgeous,’ I laughed. I know what repressive Islamic societies are like and the sight of a woman like Andie, tall, blonde, beautiful, her head uncovered, is a rare, forbidden pleasure.
‘I think it was because he thought I was trans.’
I’m not going to argue the toss; the deep sense of insecurity that all ladyboys are prone to is too strong to counter, sometimes. One just has to support.
Being a lemon
Andie stays at my condo for two more days and only goes because I have a date and she doesn’t want to be a lemon. During that time our conversation traverses mountains and valleys of intellectual landscape. Andie is a typical artist, like me, interested in everything around her, absorbing like a sponge.
I say it’s not really like that, a first date; I never move to sex so quickly. I won’t be bringing the girl back to the condo. Andie should stay. But she insists it’s time for her to go, that she doesn’t want to ‘be a burden’… but she doesn’t see the truth: she is so easy to live with that I would let her stay as long as she wanted. She just has no abrasive edges. It’s amazing.
A long time ago a woman friend of mine told me that in relationships she wrapped herself around the other person. It is certainly what Andie does.
She accompanies me on my way to meet my date, another ladyboy. We take a tricycle and a van to Megamall, then a coach. I am going across town, to Binondo. Andie alights at the Makati stop, where she can get another coach to Laguna. We don’t kiss; it’s implied.
And then I move on. What is the adventure that might begin now?
This is a chapter from my forthcoming book ‘Travels with a Ladyboy’. It’s not available yet but meantime, why not settle down with a great read featuring transwomen in Paris, The Warm Pink Jelly Express Train?
Also published on Medium.