This article is a partnership between The Fuller Project and Tatler.
The children found her first. Playing along the riverbanks in Caloocan City, to the north of Manila, they ran across piles of stones and discarded rubbish to where the woman floated in the muddy shallows. Her long black hair was a watery crown, her face tilted towards the sky. Later that afternoon, the police came and dragged her body onto dry land and marked it as evidence. Her name was Madonna—or Donna—Nierra, her sister announced through her tears. She was 23 years old, and she
was found less than two miles away from home.
As Nierra’s family grieved their daughter, members of the Philippines’ LGBTQ+ community told me that they were feeling something in between terror and despair. Similar murders were happening every few months, they said, their voices wavering over the phone. Several women described an incident almost exactly one year earlier, on September 17, 2019, when Pangasinan residents called police to Patar beach on Luzon’s west coast, where 29-year- old Jessa Remiendo’s body lay in the white sand: her neck “almost completely cut through”. Most trans people I spoke to said they had feared for their lives.
Over the past three years of reporting on gender-based violence in the Philippines, I’ve heard stories like Nierra’s and Remiendo’s again and again: tales that begin with a young woman on a night out, and end with a body in a river, on a beach, in a bathroom. Although both trans men and women experience abuse across the country, human rights groups told me it’s trans women who are particularly vulnerable to violence. Little data exists to illustrate the scale of the problem, but Nierra and Remiendo are two of at least 50 transgender or gender non-binary individuals who have been murdered across the archipelago since 2010, according to Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) initiative that tracks the murders of trans people around the world. The real death toll is likely much higher: When a trans woman is murdered, the Philippine National Police (PNP) logs her gender as male (and vice versa for trans men), while many LGBTQ+ activists say the stigma that continues to shadow homosexuality and queer identities often dissuades family members and friends from speaking out.
“We have so many [people] who tell us there was this trans woman who was found dead in some street, in some province, and there’s nobody who cares about her so that case doesn’t get reported,” said Naomi Fontanos, co-founder and executive director of GANDA Filipinas—a transgender rights organisation based in Manila. “But certainly, we know that there’s violence directed against trans women in the Philippines. And it’s rooted in the same patriarchy that non-trans women experience in their daily life.”
There are vanishingly few protections for trans women and men in the Philippines. A trans woman rarely has the legal right to complain if she is denied an interview on the basis of her sexuality or turned down for a position in a bank or a school (or a restaurant or a shop) because of her looks. If she does find a job, she has a 30 per cent chance of being bullied at work, according to a United Nations study in 2018. She can’t tick “female” when filling out a form or update her birth certificate, and she can’t marry a cisgender man. No data is collected on how likely she is to experience physical or sexual abuse, but she’s twice as likely to contemplate suicide, according to a 2014 report in the The Philippine Journal of Psychology, although even death is unlikely to bring the discrimination to an end. Instead, “dead naming” will commence across social media and in the press, as strangers call her by the name and gender that others assigned her at birth, her true identity framed in inverted commas and undermined.
“Every time I hear terrible news about my trans sisters and trans brothers and trans siblings, it breaks me to pieces,” Amber Gonzales Quiban, 25, told me late last year. “They’re just trying to be the best person that they can be and, yet, because the world is so full of prejudice and hatred, they’re gone in a snap. Just like that, they’re gone.” Quiban has been campaigning tirelessly for transgender rights in the Philippines since 2012, most recently as policy and campaigns director for PANTAY Pilipinas. It’s work she considers her calling, even though it exposes her to further abuse online and often sees her lie awake through the night, scared both for her safety and that of her friends. When we call each other over Facebook messenger, it’s usually at around 11 pm. On the other end of the phone, she sounds determined but worn down.