Veejay Floresca: Between fashion and transition
Last year, when transgender designer Veejay Floresca was denied entry at the Valkyrie for violating the club’s ‘no cross-dressing’ policy, a heated debate about gender identity ensued on media networks. To set the record straight, Veejay made a featured appearance on Aquino & Abunda Tonight, where she called for more awareness and equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. With eyes locked to the camera and with a single breath, she delivered her final clarification.
Transgender women are not gay, declared Floresca, we are women. Although she was born with the body of a man, she does not necessarily identify as male. "At ngayon po, sa harapan ng camera, sinasabi ko babae po ako." (And now, in front of the camera, I’m saying that I am a woman.)
Seeing her on screen, poised and eloquent in her advocacy for the LGBT community, you couldn’t help but be moved. Asserting her womanhood on television was a bold stance. It’s hard to believe that just a decade ago, she had to hide about being a transwoman that and her career depended on her hiding it.
Back in 2006, a young Veejay received a full-scholarship for fashion design at the College of Saint Benilde (CSB), an opportunity that ignited her passion to become a designer. From CSB, she would be catapulted into the fashion industry, as word-of-mouth about her talent spread and referrals came pouring in, even while she was still a student. But the pursuit of her dreams came with stipulations.
“When you’re talking about fashion design, people are very particular with what they see,” said Floresca. “One of my mentors told me that if I will be the person I am today, not everybody would understand it yet. So I had to choose if I’m going to be a successful designer, or just let it go – do the transition.”
In all sincerity, Floresca’s mentor was deeply concerned for her career, which was why he had to give her the hard truth. In the Philippines, where conservative attitudes and religious rigors frown upon the LGBT community, a transgender designer could never be successful.
“He told me that if I really wanted to be respected, or if I really wanted to have a good career as a designer in the Philippines, I need to stop that,” says Floresca, referring to her penchant for donning ladies’ clothes, and her plans for transitioning. Her mentor insisted she dress “professionally.”
Looking back at Floresca’s early press photos, it is evident that she took her mentor’s advice to heart. Wearing mostly men’s attire, her slim frame shrouded by dress shirts, tailored pants and business jackets, as she works away to create clothes emulating the female body—all the designs she herself could not wear. It was a total change of lifestyle, she remarks, and it took a lot of discipline to maintain that image of credibility.
Having chosen her career first, the years that followed would be Floresca’s acceleration into the fashion industry. At 22 years old, she would officially open her fashion business for her growing list of clients. In 2008, she was a finalist for the first season of Project Runway Philippines, garnering her nationwide praise.
In 2010, at 24 years of old, she had opened her first shop in the Philippines, and had a robust client list that included Filipino celebrities. By 2013, she had accumulated international awards, from Japan, China, France and USA, while launching her bridal business, Madore by Veejay Floresca.
Yet no matter how much Floresca’s business thrived, something felt amiss. The right moment for her to transition never came, until she decided to move and take her masters in San Francisco. The stark difference between cultures was overwhelming; in San Francisco, she never had to hold anything back. People were not bothered by her clothes or mannerism, others even loved her for being a trans woman. After spending years putting up a front for her career, and suddenly finding the acceptance she craved for, a sense of clarity dawned on her.
“I don’t want to become a successful designer, [or] be the richest designer, but I’m unhappy because I’m not living myself the way I am,” said Floresca. “That’s not what I want. I want to be happy. I want to be free.”
It is with poignant irony that, having initially prioritized a stable fashion career in the Philippines, she must once again weigh it against her desire to transition. This time, though, there is more at stake. Even after years of support, she feared how her transition would affect her family; and even after all the hard work, she feared compromising her business. But to have it all, she needed to take a leap of faith, and she must make this decision for herself.
“Looking back at that day, April 28, 2013, that was my 28th birthday,” said Floresca, reminiscing the day she began her transition. “I realized that was one of the best decisions of my life.
“I wake up everyday happy and looking forward about life!” says Floresca, describing the events after her transition. She chirps excitedly about meeting new friends, who were also transwomen; about being able to use the ladies’ bathroom, and free invites to clubs; about meeting decent men, who love transwomen, and being offered drinks. When I asked about her first date as transwoman, she giggled lightly at the memory of it.
“It was simple and real,” said Floresca laughing, recalling how she and her date just kept it cool, paying for each other’s coffee and movie tickets. Afterwards, she went straight home to sleep. It was just a normal date, but that was the beauty of it. “I felt that was validation: Just be yourself, and there will be someone out there who will appreciate you for who you are.”
In the aftermath of her appearance on Aquino & Abunda Tonight, Floresca’s proclamation was met with mixed responses. But she remains optimistic about the future; people are becoming more aware of gender and sexuality, as the LGBT community is extending their presence in society.
“I think that’s life. [We] can never please everyone, and we don’t have to,” said Floresca, shrugging off the usual negativity, poised for her next business venture. “I’m the type of person who would rather focus all my energy and attention to the people who respect me, believe in me, and see me as a woman, because that’s who I really am.” – Rappler.com