In This Episode
Transgender people are currently fighting for their lives against an administration and a religious right that seems hellbent on denying their existence and equality. For many leaders of the movement, this is irony at its finest, because transgender people were once considered sacred in many pre-colonized societies. This week, we talk to advocate and model Geena Rocero about the gender non-conforming spiritual history of the Philippines to illustrate how trans people were once accepted and revered. Then, we catch up with the activist Raquel Willis about how she harnesses ancestral power in the Movement for Black Trans Lives.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, This Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. You could be forgiven for believing an assumption that’s taken hold in the mainstream, that transgender people are, quote, “a new phenomenon.” After all, it’s only been recently that society even somewhat allowed for transgender people to be front and center. There was the groundbreaking role played by Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, or the ballroom scenes depicted on Pose. There were the seminal books and the famous speech at the women’s march by the activist, writer and director Janet Mock. During that speech, she called the nation to stand up for trans rights.
[clip of Janet Mock] So we are here. We are here not merely to gather, but to move. Right? And our movements, our movements require us to do more than just show up and say the right words. It requires us to break out of our comfort zones and be confrontational. It requires us to defend one another.
Phillip Picardi: Then there’s the work of Tourmaline, an earlier guest on this very podcast, who uplifted the life and work of Marsha P. Johnson, a Stonewall legend. And there have been the many ongoing, arduous legal battles and protests demanding equal rights for trans people, a fight that has met a formidable and hateful opponent in the Trump administration and its conservative Christian base. Perhaps this wave of representation and activism has caused you too to believe that transgender folks have just arrived or that their movement is new to the LGBTQ community. But of course, you would be wrong. In fact, once upon a time, in a world before Christ, before Christianity, before colonization, gender nonconforming people not only existed all over our world, they thrived. That’s an important history I’ve learned from Geena Rocero, a model, activist and producer who’s been uplifting the rich spiritual culture of her homeland, the Philippines. In 2014, Geena exploded onto the international stage when, during her TED talk, she publicly disclosed that she’s transgender for the very first time.
[clip of Geena Rocero] I could no longer live my truth for and by myself. I want to do my best to help others live their truth without shame and terror. My deepest truth allowed me to accept who I am. Will you?
Phillip Picardi: As Geena embarked on a partnership with the U.N. to elevate the voices of trans people worldwide, she found that her life’s work and mission was also a deep ancestral and spiritual calling.
Phillip Picardi: Geena Rocero, welcome to Unholier Than Thou. It’s an honor to have you.
Geena Rocero: Oh, thank you for having me. Yes, finally.
Phillip Picardi: I know it has been a while that we’ve been planning—plotting—this episode, so I’m grateful that you’re here. But before we dove into all of that, I’m wondering if you can give us the Cliff’s Notes of Geena Rocero’s rise to fame.
Geena Rocero: Well, many things. Let’s focus here. [laughs] You know, obviously born and raised in the Philippines and then moved to New York City in 2005 with a dream of wanting to be a model. But at the time, you know, being an out and proud trans model wasn’t allowed. So I was in the closet. I was living stealth. My model agency did not know that I was trans. I was, you know, in stealth, and for many years, for close to eight years. And in 2014, I made the decision after many years of living that life, I’ve had enough. So I did a TED talk. I came out on the big TED conference stage and that went viral. And then from that moment on, I, you know, started traveling the world, launch an advocacy Gender Proud and a production company, and started producing trans gender-nonconforming projects. And then last year, I was announced as the first trans Asian Playboy playmate. And this year I became the first transgender person part of Playboy Playmates of the Year.
Phillip Picardi: Wow. Well, it’s been such a journey. And also it’s been so nice to witness you on this journey, because not only do you show up in all of the ways that are so important for the culture and for visibility, but I’ve also seen you, I mean, I could turn around at any given protest in New York City and you were right there in the in the thick of it, you know what I mean?
Geena Rocero: Got to. Whatever moment where we could, you know, just share the space and be in that moment. Yes. Anywhere I could offer, you know, the perspective in the space. And obviously to be with Chosen Family is always a thing that I treasure.
Phillip Picardi: You know, you once told me that your upbringing in the Philippines felt like a, quote “walking contradiction.” Can you explain why that is?
Geena Rocero: It really was. Let me see. So growing up in the Philippines, especially as a young, effeminate trans girl ,that existing within the culture of this super hyper conservative Catholic culture, with that also comes this culture of very mainstream transgender beauty pageants, where it’s a considered a common thing to see., you know, in our culture. You see pageants, the city, town, to a pageant that’s broadcasted on national television where the whole family is watching, to a pageant in inside the 20m000 Coliseum, to a pageant where a, trans pageant where it’s a made up back of a truck stage. You know, so it exists in all layers of places in the Philippines, whether you’re in the city or like in the little provinces, in the mountain villages next to a rice field, there’s trans pageants that happens all the time. But usually these pageants that happens throughout the year happens during the most conservative Catholic tradition.
Phillip Picardi: Wait a minute. So you’re saying that in a country that is renowned worldwide for being extremely Catholic, not just like run-of-the-mill Sunday, Catholic, but extremely Catholic like the Philippines is, you’re telling me that there are also almost athletic devotion to transgender beauty pageants?
Geena Rocero: Yes.
Phillip Picardi: Like the Super Bowl kind of a thing?
Geena Rocero: Oh, it is. I mean, some have said that beauty pageants, specifically trans beauty pageants, should be the national sport of the Philippines. [laughs] We love our pageants. Like we’re so devote—I mean, we won, passionate fans, but also so much of the queens that have won Miss Universe also came from the Philippines. So we’re really super devoted when it comes to pageants, but specifically trans pageant is part of our culture.
Phillip Picardi: That is really something. So how do these transgender beauty pageants coexist with the Catholic Church having such a tight grip on all of the local communities in the Philippines? It’s just not an issue?
Geena Rocero: Well, absolutely not. You know, it’s, so here’s a little, you know, every time I’m told and shared this story, people, the first—especially from a Western context—people would always say, oh, you mean trans people are accepted in the Philippines? Oh, you mean you know, it’s accepted as part of the culture? It’s really not. So because it’s part of this mainstream cultural celebration for the people that’s in part of sort of the organizing committee, that includes a church, usually that includes the city officials, it’s part of the government, it’s part of the budget from the governments—but what happens for this is usually for them it’s part of an entertainment.
Phillip Picardi: So, yeah, in other words, trans folks are made a spectacle of, but they’re not necessarily accepted and protected under the law, or accepted by general society once the pageant is over.
Geena Rocero: Yeah, the way I’m explaining it to people is that in the Philippines is trans people are culturally visible, but not politically recognized.
Phillip Picardi: I understand that.
Geena Rocero: Meaning there are no rights. Yeah, there are no rights for trans people in the Philippines. There are no anti-discrimination protections, there are no gender recognition policy, access to health, I mean, the most basic thing of access to hormones. I mean, I speak to the local trans community in the Philippines all the time and there’s you know, you could count in your hand, you know, how many endocrinologists and medical establishments that supports trans people, in a country would close 105 million population.
Phillip Picardi: And it’s interesting because I know that, you know, your introduction to the pageants was seeing them on TV. And I remember you telling me that you looked at your mom and said, I want to do that, I think that’s me. Right?
Geena Rocero: Yeah, I think that was important right? Here in the context when we say representation here in the U.S., we always think that, oh, it just started happening. Right? We’re always grappling with, especially specifically trans representation in the U.S., it’s just in the recent times that you see more of mainstream images of trans people in shows and everything. For us, it’s been happening since the early ’80s the advent of TV. And so that’s how mainstream it is. And the fact that I could pinpoint that to my mom, that I want to be like them. And even obviously at the time, the word transgender did not exist, so I was just able to pinpoint to my mom, I want to be like them.
Phillip Picardi: And then mom said, what?
Geena Rocero: And my mom said, OK, you know? It’s, I think because when I started doing that, it’s been there’s many things that’s been happening in the way of expressing myself. For example, certainly got to the point when I was five years old where I would always wear the t shirt on my head, or the towel and just got to, you know, with always parade on our neighborhood in a little alley where I grew up, and my mom asked me, why do you always do that? Why do you always put the t shirt in your head? And I said, Mom, I’m a girl, this is my hair. So I’ve been, in a way, self-identifying that’s leading up to that point when I was able to pinpoint to my mom about the transgender beauty pageant. So I didn’t come as a big surprise. And, you know, my mom didn’t scold me. She just, it just felt like a natural thing for her to, to see.
Phillip Picardi: One of the reasons that the pageants fascinate me—and by the way, the ongoing success of these pageants and they’re in their popularization in a certain way, fascinates me—is because to me it shows a little bit of the resistance to colonialism. It shows how there are remnants of the, I guess, of the rich history and the cultural dynamics of the Philippines that still prevail today. So if we can go back into time, can you explain to me what gender looked like maybe before the Spanish arrived in the Philippines?
Geena Rocero: Absolutely. I mean, it’s such a rich history. And I always say that gender binary and the idea of gender rigid binary is a product of colonization, especially within the context of pre-colonized societies around Asia, in Polynesia and all that society. So in the Philippines specifically, before we were colonized by Spain for, you know, three and more than 300, gender and the idea of gender fluidity has always existed in the Philippines. Philippines is a predominantly, you know, Catholic culture so obviously the power of the priests is, you know, you could really feel, it’s there. But before the spiritual healers and their spiritual leaders in the Philippines are actually called this word called ‘Babaylan’, they were, they played a very central role in society at the time in the Philippines. Philippines is a big archipelago with 7,000-something islands, and so each of those islands have different unit of society and each of those units of society there’s a spiritual leader. And usually this is a Babaylan, and the Babaylan is a gender fluid, feminine goddess where it’s believed that the way to access the divine is through the feminine spirit. And that particular role that exists specifically for a feminine person, because trans gender fluid identities could also inhabit this very powerful role in society. And the idea of a male assigned at birth could be this powerful, effeminate spirit as a leader, as the way to access the divine at the time before, you know, the introduction of Christianity in the Philippines, is something that I carry with me, something that is so embedded in our culture right now. It’s still practiced in many places in the Philippines, outside the capital of the Philippines. So it’s this very rich history of gender fluidity and the way how we understood gender is important to always look at most pre-colonized culture.
Phillip Picardi: So if I’m understanding correctly that the Babaylan were sort of religious spiritual advisers who were called upon by the nobles or sort of the pseudo royalty of the time because they were perceived to be having a deeper connection to God because of their gender variance, is that accurate?
Geena Rocero: That’s accurate. The Babaylan act as a spiritual advisers, spiritual leaders, healers to the Kings and also to, you know, the society. And at the time, you know, gender as the way we’re understanding right now here, it’s not based on what is your genitalia when you were born, you know, Philippine’s pre-colonization, you know, exist as an egalitarian society. Women have the same rights as men. Women at the time could definitely own properties. Women could divorce their husbands. And their little context here, in the Philippines, it’s the only country in the world besides the Vatican City where divorce is outlawed.
Phillip Picardi: Hmm. It’s an important point to make, right? Because it’s another example of what gender justice could look like if we imagined our gender movements. Right? And I’m talking about feminism here being inclusive of gender variance and of trans folks, gender nonconforming folks—how all of us in society would benefit from that inclusion.
Geena Rocero: Absolutely.
Phillip Picardi: And to be clear too, the Babaylan, I understand, we’re also able to be in love, have their own households, all of those things. Is that right?
Geena Rocero: All of those powerful component of you know, one would say it’s such a feminist society, you know, and it may come across as this, you know, a dream world. This is what happened. You know, even right now in the Philippines, you still see women leading societies in the Philippines, like most, Philippines is comprised of many small businesses. When you go to the provinces and outside Manila where you go to the mountain areas, I mean, women still lead societies. Women still are are, you know, the entrepreneurs, they have they have businesses in different areas in the Philippines. So it’s still very much, you know, present right now. Even my mom, my mom was actually the breadwinner growing up. My dad was the stay-at-home, he was the best stay-at-home dad, the best cleaner, the best cook, the best everything. My mom was the breadwinner and it just is. That’s how my mom existed, you know, as a teacher and also having an extra job.
Phillip Picardi: I also understand that the deities that were worshiped in this pre-colonized society, many of them were trans. Is that right?
Geena Rocero: Yeah, it’s a, it’s varied, but certainly the presence of trans and gender-fluid deities are, it’s just part of the normal conversation.
Phillip Picardi: And you have a favorite of these deities, I understand.
Geena Rocero: I do, I actually I have the tattoo, you know, it’s more than just my favorite, it’s in a way, it’s the way I access, you know, the spirit and the divine now, in my life. I actually have a tattoo on my left arm, tattooed in our pre-colonized script called Baybayin. But the tattoo says La-ka-pati and Lakapati is the transgender-fluid deity of fertility, golden rice and compassion. .
Phillip Picardi: That is a beautiful thing to be the deity of.
Geena Rocero: I’m just going to be, I’m going to feed you all, [laughter] celebrate me, watch my [laughs]. So it’s a way for me to honor that history, you know, and Lakapati is in me. It’s the way when I’m having a hard time, when the effects of what’s happening right now in the world, you know, it’s literally imprinted in my skin forever. In my body. It’s a tattoo.
Phillip Picardi: Right. It’s almost like you’re able to tap your ancestral power when it feels like we’re living in a world that is designed to really trample trans power.
Geena Rocero: Right.
Phillip Picardi: Another thing that we’ve talked about before is, especially when it comes to language, is the sheer concept of pronouns here in English language, and obviously how important they’ve been, and acknowledging others pronouns has been in the fight for a better understanding of really all, of really gender variance in general. But in the Philippines, you mentioned that gendered pronouns are not a part of the language.
Geena Rocero: So, yeah, in the Philippines, we don’t have ‘he’ or ‘she’ in our language, our main language, Tagalog. We have, you know, it’s depending but around 150 different dialects, languages in the Philippines. But most of those languages does not have he or she. It’s gender neutral. We have this word called sia. So it’s basically acting as ‘them’. You know, some people would use it as that. But certainly we don’t have binary gendered language in the Philippines. We don’t even describe husband and wife, it’s just a spouse, you know, ‘asawa’ in the Philippines. So it’s even that within that context, it’s important. You know, Philippines, our main language, Tagalog is part of this. And I like to also talk about I think last year when Merriam Webster Dictionary announced that ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, right? When they announced as a word of the year and it was hailed as revolutionary. It’s amazing. It’s progressive. It’s important to situate that in that context here in the Western context. But for me, as someone again, born and raised the Philippines that doesn’t have he or she in their language, is gender neutral. It’s not really revolutionary from our perspective.
Phillip Picardi: Right. It seems like a bunch of white people patting themselves on the back. Got it.
Geena Rocero: And that’s important.
Phillip Picardi: Yes.
Geena Rocero: I mean, this is why I offer that perspective. You know?
Phillip Picardi: I appreciate it. It’s important to mention, too, that in the pre-colonized indigenous American society that trans people in many different indigenous tribes all over America played a similar role to what you’re talking about in the Philippines. Right? And that in many different indigenous cultures here in America, two-spirit people were also revered and were held in high esteem. And Christianity, similarly to what happened in the Philippines, Christianity also worked to wipe that out in a race that history from us.
Geena Rocero: And it’s really something.
Phillip Picardi: It is.
Geena Rocero: It’s such, it’s such a, these are the kind of sobering conversations for everyone to have, you know, that in as much as you know, it does complicate the understanding of white supremacy and the product of colonization, it’s important to always unpack this and to always have that global mindset because the products and the effects is still truly felt right now.
Phillip Picardi: Geena, thank you so much for this history lesson, for sharing so much of your experience with us, and also just for being such a joy to talk to. It is truly, always, always, always a pleasure.
Geena Rocero: Thank you so much for having me. I embody Lakapati and I am here sharing with you all. So thank you so much, again, for having me.
Phillip Picardi: A goddess, OK?
Geena Rocero: A definite goddess.
Phillip Picardi: We’ll be right back after this break.
Phillip Picardi: It’s enlightening and even encouraging to hear from Geena about the historical and spiritual roles that gender nonconforming people once played in society. It also makes our current moment one where trans people are fighting for basic dignity and equality all the more frustrating. One of the most prominent activists of the transgender movement is Raquel Willis. She’s a writer speaker and the former executive editor of Out Magazine. I was lucky enough to once called Raquel a coworker, and now she’s a friend. During Pride Month, I got to hear her voice booming across Brooklyn, where 15,000 people had gathered to honor and uplift Black trans people.
[clip of Raquel Willis] I believe in my power!
crowd: I believe in my power!
[clip of Raquel Willis] I believe in your power!
crowd: I believe in your power!
[clip of Raquel Willis] I believe our power!
crowd: I believe in our power!
[clip of Raquel Willis] I believe in Black trans power!
crowd: I believe in Black trans power!
[clip of Raquel Willis] Thank you.
Phillip Picardi: Raquel’s speech and the thousands gathered there that day was a testament to the progress the movement has made. But for her, it was also a reminder of the many trans women who came before her who weren’t valued when they were alive.
Phillip Picardi: Hey, Raquel.
Raquel Willis: Hi, Phillip.
Phillip Picardi: Thanks for joining me.
Raquel Willis: I’m so glad to be on. I was waiting when you’d have me on.
Phillip Picardi: [laughs] Of course you were. It is it is a belated welcome. It’s funny because we are, I’ve talked to Geena Rocero about the pre-colonized Philippines and the role that trans people played and their society. And it has made me think a lot about the way in which you often talk about drawing on the ancestors. Right? I’ve never heard the phrase the ancestors more than when I had the pleasure of working with you at Out Magazine. And you often pointed to people like Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson, you know, trans women who have led and fought for vision for LGBTQ liberation. And I’m just wondering if you could, how did you tap into this kind of appreciation for your ancestors, and what does that ancestral power mean to you?
Raquel Willis: It really was important for me to, especially when I was coming to terms with my gender identity as a woman, to look to the stories of other trans people in history. And so I started learning about Marcia P. Johnson, of course, a Black trans/gender nonconforming figure in our history, particularly at the Stonewall riots. And so that is also someone I started to think about as a part of this history, this canon of a life, of queer and trans life that I could lean on as guidance and support. I think one of the biggest pitfalls sometimes of growing up queer and trans is the isolation that happens for many of us, this idea that we’re the only ones in the world. But the power that I get from these folks is, it sustains me, it reminds me that what I’m doing isn’t new, how I’m living isn’t new, how I’m identifying in many ways isn’t new, even if we may use different labels today to talk about our experiences.
Phillip Picardi: Right. And it goes to show the very pernicious nature of erasure and the ongoing ramifications of erasure, and what it has done to generations of people. And the potentials that have robbed people of, you know. How many more Marsha P. Johnsons were there that we didn’t get to hear from, and how many Marsha P. Johnson’s never got to fully realize themselves because of the violence that this kind of erasure perpetuates or because of the fear it instills in people, you know? White supremacy, and certainly Christian white supremacy, importing this idea of homophobia and transphobia, was able to suppress so much vibrance. It really robbed the world of so much opportunity.
Raquel Willis: It absolutely did. I mean it’s, not only has it robbed the world of opportunity, but it has been contin—you know, continuously and consistently fueling the violence against Black trans people, Black queer people. When you erase whole communities, whole experiences, it leads to the xenophobia down the road when people can’t remember that history and don’t know that history. And so now particularly, you know, there’s so much conversation about particularly the murders of Black trans women. You know, this year there have been upwards of 27, as reported by the HRC, by Human Rights Campaign. And it’s not disconnected from the erasure of our voices and our experiences throughout history, within media and, of course, within our families and in our communities.
Phillip Picardi: And speaking of, you know, that was kind of the point, right, of the Brooklyn March for Trans Liberation. It was to show that there was a a certain cohort of this movement that was being left behind. And it is a movement that is trying to showcase the stories of people who have been left behind for too long. Right? And you led the crowd there, 15,000 people in a chant of Black trans power, which was really moving to witness. I remember talking to you the day before when you were writing your speech, and you would tell me later that that slogan just kind of, it came to you, not quite in the moment, but it did come to you more or less in the eleventh hour. Right? Where did that come from, and why was it important for people to echo?
Raquel Willis: Yeah, I really wanted something that carried away beyond just the slogan of Black trans lives matter, because at the end of the day, it isn’t just that we matter, it’s that we’re fucking brilliant, amazing, sacred, and powerful. There’s power in our experiences that I don’t think that we quite have had space to name, at least collectively before this moment. I think about the ways that we even just see the world in so many dimensions that I think cis people may never get the chance to. There’s so many connections that we see between our liberation and other folks’ liberation that it would behoove cis folks to understand, it would behoove white folks to understand that they have so much they can learn from our experience, and not just our experience as a struggle, not just the tragedies of the martyrs in our communities, and not even just the resilience, right? I mean, it’s not so much about the power of finding resilience, because, in spite of these external forces, it’s really the power of being able to not just live, but fight for something better, and fight for something better for everyone, not just ourselves. When I think about the ways that says, cis man, you know, and masculine folk in general, are harmed by restrictive ideas of gender. I know that there is a different way for them to even move through the world, and it’s going to be connected to how Black trans people provide a framework forward. When I think about cis women and their struggles within a patriarchal system, it’s Black trans folks that are able to provide a different dimension, able to bring together the issues of race, the issues of gender, many times the issues of access that are tied to capitalism, that I don’t think most people think about all at once unless they have had this particular experience.
Phillip Picardi: Right. It’s obviously such a hard thing to swallow, right, because we talk about this fight for liberation and how the fight for trans liberation is ultimately a fight for our collective liberation. And at the same time, you know, we have a society where it seems like the rights of transgender people all over the world are under attack. And specifically in America, you pointed to the deaths of over 25 trans women so far this year. Last year, when we worked together at Out Magazine, the American Medical Association declared an epidemic of violence against transgender women of color because over 20 women had been reported killed or murdered. And that prompted you to publish the Trans Obituaries Project, which was one of our covers for the Out 100. And you recently won the GLADD Media Award for that very important feature. And first of all, I just want to say congratulations. It was more than well deserved.
Raquel Willis: Thank you. Thank you so much for your encouragement and your support on helping me get it done. You know, it was a tall order some days. There were so many so many things to write, so many moving pieces, but of course, there was so much emotionality that went into that work, that went into interviewing the families and loved ones of the people we lost.
Phillip Picardi: I remember. And I’ve never gotten the chance to ask you this before, so I’m sorry to put you on the spot here, but it feels, I would I feel it would be remiss, you know, in a conversation about faith and spirituality, you know, not to ask you how working on something like that, and obviously working in a movement space that’s fighting for life as a right, as a human right, what it has taught you about the sanctity of life and maybe even your perception of death?
Raquel Willis: Yeah, you know, I think about this work, particularly of elevating the names of Black trans people who’ve been murdered, and the lineage of the work of someone like Ida B Wells who was discussing lynching at the turn of the 20th century. And I think that it’s important. The other piece of that is that I think when we do elevate these names, when we do chant these names, I mean, that is something so tied to African history particularly. The act of chanting is is within the African tradition and so there’s something so powerful about remembering people’s names and lives in that way. When we hear about another Black trans person or trans person in general being killed, in some ways there still that record of our existence. And so I think that it’s important for us to figure out how we elevate people when they die, but of course, don’t strip them of their humanity, and that is hard.
Phillip Picardi: Mmm. Thank you for joining me.
Raquel Willis: Yes.
Phillip Picardi: We did it.
Raquel Willis: We did it.
Phillip Picardi: I really appreciate it. And I love you very much. Thank you.
Raquel Willis: I love you, too. Thank you.
Phillip Picardi: We’re living in a moment when we’re challenged to confront the things we’ve been spoon fed over the years. Now, the things we are taught, the things we believe, and even the people we revere, are seen in a new light. This is a challenge to our belief systems, and that’s a good thing. We’re called to do better for each other. Now is also the time to challenge what we’ve been taught about gender: who assigns it, who dictates its rules, and how its roles shrink or worse, erase, many of us. I know what it’s like to be denied God based on who I am. And while that experience had its fair share of trauma, it also led me to a new path, to find family among friends, celebration in the self, and liberation from all of society’s expectations of what it means to be a man. By straying from the confines of what society and supposedly God wanted me to be, I was able to find who I really am. So I can only imagine our world if we could once again learn to see what people like Geena Rocero and Raquel Willis offer for what it truly is: a blessing.
Phillip Picardi: Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our producers are Adriana Cargill and Elisa Gutierrez, with production support from Alison Falzetta. The theme song is by Taka Asuzawa, and our executive producers are Lyra Smith and Sara Geismer. Thanks for listening.