When I wrote an article on the murder of transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude last February for VICE magazine, the original draft ended up being way too long, and my wonderful editor Jacob Z. Gross did an amazing job of working with me to cut it down. There was one section I regretted losing, one that emphasized local perspectives on Laude's death and especially featured members of the local LGBT community. So I'm posting it here, along with more pictures I took for the story that did not appear in the article.
“When Jennifer died, I heard people say, ‘She deserved it because she is selfish’,” said Jaja Torres, a self-identified bakla. Jennifer is regularly called bakla even by people close to her even though she identified exclusively as a woman, and friends and family occasionally call her by her legal name.
Yet supportive locals, Laude’s lawyers, and her loved ones, are all quickly getting used to the idea that Jennifer is neither gay nor bakla, but a woman.
“We didn’t know the terms until Jennifer died,” Julie Sionzon, an openly lesbian local LGBT advocate said. “This is all new to us.”
Coming to terms with Jennifer’s transgender identity has meant the recognition especially among LGBT members here that unlike in the past, when betings of sex workers would have been considered justified had police determined she was trans, Jennifer did not deserve to be the victim of violence even if she was not assigned female at birth.
Such a recognition is far from universal, even among the people in the West Tapinac neighborhood right outside the former base where Jennifer lived, who are eager to talk but decline to be named. A man who himself admits that he regularly “hangs out” with gays and trans women, implying that he is a closeted gay man, insists that investigators have not done enough to find other suspects in the case.
“I heard there was a lot of money missing and Barbie did it,” the man said, repeating a popular theory that it was Jennifer’s friend who killed her and stole her money that night.
An employee at a local bar told me that they make more in one night when U.S. soldiers are in town than they do for an entire month. A mother said that she was able to raise four kids while running a corner store because of the generosity of American soldiers. Even as both attempt to empathize with Jennifer, the return of business from the U.S. is a greater priority for them and many others than justice for their countrywoman, much less the larger issues of American military presence as a threat to Philippine sovereignty.
“She is only one person,” a local taxi driver told me. “People are killed in the Philippines every day. Why should we have to suffer for her sake?”
Though the fact that Jennifer is transgender has activated members of the local LGBT community into taking a public stand. People like Sionzon and Torres are willing to speak out, as is Elvira Carreon, a 70-year-old retiree affectionately known in the community as Daddy, and in the course of a twenty-minute conversation identified as both a lesbian and a man, so I will refer to them using gender-neutral pronouns, the only ones that exist in Tagalog.
Carreon worked for the Olongapo City Health Department for 41 years as a contact tracer. This meant that whenever sex workers—who were regularly screened while the Subic Naval Base operated—were found to have contracted a sexually-transmitted disease, it was Carreon’s job to figure out who the sex worker had been exposed to, in order to contain a possible outbreak among service members and other sex workers.
Carreon recalled that there have been at least three servicemen who have been prosecuted for murder during her time, though they said that those men were tried in the U.S. and she didn’t know what happened in their cases. But they also confirmed that it was regular, mundane practice to pay off women who were beaten by American servicemen.
“Also, in more serious cases, the U.S. was usually able to pay off families,” Carreon said suggestively yet declined to be specific, “and everything happened off the record.”
The long history of American military involvement both in the Subic area and the Philippines in general has had lasting and complicated effects, ones that locals find hard to reduce to the stark decisions that come with legal judgments, to convict or acquit, to welcome or expel.
Torres summed up this ambivalence. “I want justice for Jennifer because it is right, and we are the same kind.” Here Torres used the Tagalog word kabaro, which literally means, “wearing the same clothes.”
“At the same time, I can’t blame people for wanting the Americans to come back,” Torres added. “There are too many poor people in the Philippines.”
As an Amerasian who has not seen his American serviceman father since he was a toddler, Torres is living proof of the lasting effects of American military presence in the Philippines. His mother is in prison for drug dealing charges that he says are false, and he doesn’t have a steady job.
Sionzon is optimistic that justice can prevail in the Laude case. By speaking out, she hopes that people will become aware of the injustices committed against Filipinos.
“The Americans can’t go on treating us so unfairly.”
Yet Torres expresses skepticism that Pemberton will eventually be convicted. He cites the enormous power of the United States, and his belief that the local and national government are secretly on the American side. At the same time, he too like Sionzon sees a glimmer of hope.
“Maybe if we make enough noise the world will notice,” he said.