By: Sass Rogando Sasot
The Hague, Netherlands
The Never Ending Story was the first film that I ever watched. I must have been 4 or 5. I had re-watched it whenever it was on TV or whenever my brother or my neighbours managed to borrow a Betamax copy. Unlike the boys in our neighbourhood, I didn’t identify with Bastian or Atreyu. I was the Childlike Empress. Oftentimes, when no one was looking, after taking a shower I would brush up my still wet hair then emote my best rendition of: “Bastian, why don’t you do what you dream, Bastian? Call my name! Bastian, please, save us!” Then after childhood gave way to adolescence, I found myself desperately looking for a role model who I could aspire to be when I become a full adult.
From the enchantment of childhood, I woke up to the frustrating reality that I wasn’t like most girls in our neighbourhood. Certainly not like Mary Rose whose perfect long hair undulated cinematically in the air after her mother brushed it with a film of leave-in conditioner. Based on the cis-female icons at that time, Mary Rose had a more expansive future: an Olympian like Lydia de Vega, a UN-level diplomat like Letitia Shahani, an international lawyer like Miriam Defensor-Santiago, or a president like Corazon Aquino. Yet for girls like me, it was difficult to find a popular empowering possibility model. And horrifyingly, 90’s Philippine pop culture celebrated our marginalisation and treated our lives as a comic relief to a struggling Republic. O, how could I forget the torment the song “Georgia” by 3 Days brought to my everyday life as passenger jeepneys played it in full blast in Legarda! Georgia was a novelty song about the trans women who were “modelling” in Makati. It warned people to beware of being fooled by Georgias. The movie Miguel/Michelle promised a redemption arc but delivered a travesty. Helmed by Gil Portes and top-billed by Romnick Sarmienta, Miguel/Michelle was about a Filipina trans woman, working as a nurse in the US, who returned to the Philippines after her sex reassignment surgery. Some critics highly praised it. When I watched it, I cringed in disappointment.
One of the worst scenes of the film was when Michelle convinced a man to stop committing suicide by letting him touch her breasts in order to prove she’s already a woman. Seriously?
Thanks to the internet, I was introduced to more empowering possibility models: the Bond-girl Caroline Cossey; the celebrated Chinese choreographer Jin Xing; the computer scientist Lynn Conway; the ecologist Joan Roughgarden; the economist/historian Dierdre McCloskey; the eloquent travel writer Jan Morris; and the first trans Member of the Parliament, Georgina Beyer. The reach of my aspirations expanded. I’m certain that I will never be a Bond-girl, but I’m sure that I could work hard to contribute something meaningful to my field and be recognised for it like Jin, Roughgarden, Conway, and Morris. It was also through the internet that I was able to watch the Belgian classic Ma Vie En Rose, an affirmative and tastefully done film about a young trans girl struggling to be recognised by her family as a girl. Yet despite these popular images, I longed for something that came from my own culture. Someone I can look up to, women whose life trajectories can persuade me to soar higher than what’s expected of me in society. I met a lot of them when in 2002, I co-founded STRAP, the first trans women support and advocacy group in the Philippines. Pattern breakers, I called them in an article I wrote in 2005 for the now-defunct Filipino LGBT glossy, ICON. A new reality is being constructed by a lot of Filipinas of trans experience whose grace, courage, and determination mightily resist the vicious cycle of discrimination, marginalisation, and internalised trans-prejudice. And from this springs forth a more dignified way of imagining the life of a transpinay, a Filipina trans woman: Destiny Rose.
Destiny Rose is a telenovela by GMA 7, one of the biggest television networks in the Philippines. It stars Ken Chan as Destiny, Katrina Halili as her evil cousin, and Fabio Ide as Gabriel, the love interest. Certainly, its storyline is just like any Philippine telenovela. The masterstroke that makes it different is the combination of kilig and dignidad. It’s the fairytale women like me have been wishing for. Watching it is very cathartic. It made me cry profusely. The first time was when Joey, the young Destiny, told her mother that she’s a girl. And yes, oftentimes, I feel butterflies in my stomach as the romance between Destiny and Gabriele unravels.
Chan’s performance is empathetic, courageous, alive, full of humanity, perfection. It’s aspirational: a heart throbbing – dignity, dignity, dignity! He deserves to win an award for this role — better: trans orgs all over the world should create an award for him and for the entire production team! Miggs Cuaderno as Joey, the young Destiny, reminds me of the brilliant acting of Georges Du Fresne as Ludovic in Ma Vie En Rose. Watching Cuaderno’s portrayal of a trans childhood felt like reading my diary as a child. Manilyn Reynes is the mother a lot of us wish we had. She can move stones to tears. Sheena Halili is the ideal sister. Joko Diaz, Katrina Halili, Jackie Lou Blanco, and Irma Adlawan are so effective in being the thorns in Destiny’s rose. Melissa Mendez is a refreshing voice of conscience, and Michael de Mesa is an adorable fairy gay-godmother who enabled Destiny to unfold as who she is and to fulfil her non-streotypical dream: to become a writer. Who couldn’t fall in love with Fabio Ide? Or be touched by Jeric Gonzales’ kindness? And the theme song captures powerfully and summarises elegantly in an LSS-inducing melody what it means to grow, live, and thrive as a woman like Destiny.
GMA 7 lifted us out of the mud Georgia submerged us into and diverged radically from the sympathetic but misguided approach of Miguel/Michelle. Destiny Rose has touched the core of my womanhood, of my humanity. And as I watch it here in The Hague, I felt tearfully happy being alive to have witnessed a series like this in mainstream Philippine media. It’s one of those differences that can make a difference in someone’s childhood. And I’m very happy that young Filipina trans girls would have something like Destiny Rose that could light a candle in their imagination whenever they are stumbling in the darkness of their everyday life. Destiny Rose is destined to be a classic: a never ending story. BRAVO!
“Once the realm of representation is revolutionised, actuality will not hold out.” – from Hegel’s letter to Niethammer, 1808