How Filipina Beauty Queens Are Lobbying for Trans Rights

In the first episode of their new documentary series, A Woman's Place, filmmakers explain how transgender beauty queens are lobbying for their rights outside of pageants.
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Still from Beauty Queens Fight for Transgender Rights.

Today, most people can agree that a “woman’s place” is wherever she wants to be. However, in a world predominantly controlled by men, whether in the workplace, in the media, or on the public streets, it’s not so simple. How do women go about asserting themselves in a male-dominated world? How can we carve out the space we want and need for ourselves?

“We wanted to set out with this inaugural series to take a look at what feminism is across the globe.”

Kassidy Brown and Allison Rapson, founders of the media company We Are the XX, have set out to answer those questions. In their documentary series, A Woman’s Place, Brown and Rapson traveled to eight  international locations to ask women how they are making a place for themselves in accordance with their own traditions, views, and definitions of feminism.

Brown and Rapson met at a Women in the World Summit in New York, an event for women to speak about the impact they’re making in their professional fields and local communities. Brown and Rapson felt an immediate connection over their fascination with the stories they heard at the summit, and were both struck by the same questions: Why hadn’t they heard these stories before? Why were most stories about entrepreneurship, innovation, and change from the male perspective?

The two decided they wanted to create a space for women to share their stories and show how women play a role in every movement and revolution across the world. That was the start of We Are the XX, a company devoted to “intelligently capturing the powerful truth of how women live and socialize.” One of the duo’s first projects was A Woman’s Place. “We wanted to set out with this inaugural series to take a look at what feminism is across the globe,” Rapson said. “How it’s expressed in different cultures, how it’s housed in different circumstances, and then find that thread of continuity that can really bring women together.”

Brown and Rapson began their work on the series by looking at global headlines and asking, “What’s the female side of the story?” They reached out to friends who gave them ideas about places to focus on and connected them with women eager to share their stories. Early on they realized that local female officials could help them find women to talk to; some gave interviews themselves.

But interviews weren’t always easy to get. There were a few times when Brown and Rapson found someone they wanted to speak to for the series, but couldn’t actually confirm an interview until they met with the woman in person. “They were a little hesitant to have journalists come in and tell their stories. So we just had to show up and form a relationship so they would trust us,” said Brown about flying into places like Turkey and Egypt without confirmed interviews. “There was a lot of risk-taking there.”

Throughout their travels Brown and Rapson found that, as different as each interview was, the root of each woman’s struggle was the same.

“There are as many definitions of feminism as there are women on the planet. All these women are very different. They live in different places, deal with different issues—their struggles are different, but they also feel the same,” said Rapson. “All women everywhere want access to the full spectrum of human life. The initial issue of ‘What am I fighting for?’ might be different but what we all want is the same.”

Episode 1: Beauty Queens Fight for Transgender Rights

The first episode of the series takes place in the Philippines, where Brown and Rapson interviewed many woman, including Maki Gingoyon, a transgender woman and former beauty pageant contestant. Beauty pageants are a longstanding tradition in the Philippines, and transgender women frequently participate in these events.

“Transgender women are celebrated through these pageants,” said Rapson. “Children come to them as part of a family affair because it’s part of their culture. Unlike how it is in America, these women are very visible and celebrated, and it’s all very supportive.”

Despite this seemingly widespread acceptance, transgender people in the Philippines lack basic rights and protections against discrimination. Transgender women can’t get their government identification changed to match their gender; they can’t use women’s locker rooms.

“It brought up an interesting question,” said Brown. “Is it better to be socially accepted and celebrated, or is it better to actually have your legal rights?”

Brown and Rapson said one particular moment, an interview with a trans woman named Geena Rocero, really helped them realize how important it is for the feminist movement to support trans women. “She talked about how transgender women represent the most vulnerable women. People tend to hurt them the most and ostracize them the most,” said Rapson. “They’re a lot more vulnerable. So they really need to be embraced and be a part of feminism and be a part of that solidarity.”

“When you hear [trans women] talk about things that are affecting them and what’s holding them back, it’s exactly the same as what’s affecting all women,” said Rapson. “They want access, they want support, they want to be able to freely live and express themselves as women.”

I asked Brown and Rapson to explain the name of their company, considering the fact that the XX chromosome pair has been traditionally thought of as the “female chromosome.”

“We were super thoughtful about the name of our company. XX can refer to the chromosomes, but we also wanted it to represent an X in a mathematical equation.” said Rapson. “It stands for the unknown—we are the unknown, as women. We’re trying to make the unknown known by telling women’s stories.” Rapson says the X can also be thought of as a placeholder in written language, as a letter to an unknown recipient might begin with “Dear X.”

Chromosomes aside, Brown and Rapson didn’t waste any time diving into deep and complicated issues for their first episode of A Woman’s Place. Their collection of interviews showcase why trans women should have an equal place in their cultures, womanhood, and feminism.