Remembering 'Ganda': The tragedy of Jennifer Laude

Those who knew her well called her "Ganda" – beautiful. A Filipino transgender woman, 26-year-old Jennifer Laude* never went a day without makeup. 

But her beauty was not only skin-deep. It's more than just Jennifer's good looks that her loved ones remember and cherish.

"She was full of joy. She was selfless, and did not get on bad terms with anyone," said her friend, Roann Dollete Labrador.

Her sister, Marilou recalled how Jennifer would not hesitate to help out friends who needed financial help. As the family's breadwinner, Jennifer could be counted on to regularly send money to their mother back home in Leyte.

She even offered her home to friends who needed a place to stay, said Marilou.

Her personality charmed not just her friends and family, but also her boyfriend of two years. Jennifer met her German boyfriend online, and they had planned to get married in Thailand. Their partnership was just short of the formal ceremonies; the couple already had engagement rings.

Laude's friends said her efforts to look good was proof that she was confident about her sexuality. She was out and proud, and never feared that she would meet violence by just being who she was.

But one Saturday night, on October 11, "Ganda" was found lifeless: slumped on the floor, her neck covered in injuries, and her head leaning against the toilet bowl in the bathroom of a hotel in Olongapo City.

She was last seen with a young Caucasian male later identified by police authorities to be Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, the primary suspect in her murder.

'Not an excuse for murder'

Laude used makeup and clothes to own her sexuality.  Labrador said Laude would be fully made-up even when she was just inside the house.

"Even when we went to the beach, she'd stop short of dunking her face in the water so she won't ruin her makeup," Labrador recalled.

Marilou said Laude favored clothes that flaunted her assets, but added that she did not need to act differently to grab attention. 

"Itabi man niya ako, lamang na lamang siya sa ganda (Even if you put me side by side with her, [Jennifer] would easily trump me in terms of good looks)," Marilou said.

Her sister said Laude never thought she would be treated violently because of her sexuality.

"Tinatanong namin, di ka ba natatakot na, what if nalaman ng partner mo di ka babae, bugbugin ka? Lately, sinasabi niya, 'Di na ako natatakot maglihim, nilaladlad na, nasasa-kanila na kung natatakot o hindi.'"

But Marilou said one's sexuality should never be an excuse to commit murder.

"Just because you're gay, you'll get killed? We could have accepted it if she were beaten up. Something could have been done, and she would still be with us. How can something be done now, when she's dead?"

The Commission on Human Rights has also started its own independent investigation into the case, noting that the case was a "heinous crime" that applied to a member of a vulnerable sector of society.

'Insensitive, ignorant comments'

Laude's family and friends said they are hurt and angered by the "insensitive, ignorant" comments online.

Aside from digs at Laude's sexuality, some have speculated that she might have been killed because she attempted to steal money from the suspect.

Marilou recalled how she saw a post on Facebook asking users if the suspect in the case should be held accountable. To her surprise, the "No" votes won.

"Tama ba 'yun? Na hindi papanagutin ang suspect? Kung nangyari sa inyong pamilya, quits na lang, thank you na lang? (Is it right for the suspect not to be held accountable? If the case happened to a family member, would you agree to just let it go?)"

Her friends said Laude deserved more from people who did not know her. She would often cheer up her friends just by her expressions and mannerisms. Whenever someone would greet her, Labrador said Laude would automatically strike a pose, to the delight of her friends.

They would also remember Laude for her lighthearted take on otherwise serious things. The most memorable was apparently her recent comment on her own mortality.

About a month ago, Laude had said that she did not want to die old and end up buried under the ground.

The reason? "She said she wanted to look fresh. She did not want to be buried because the worms would make her ugly. 'Bahala na, basta maganda pa rin ako,' sabi niya," Marilou recalled.

The family is now considering cremation. 

Call for justice

Witnesses told police Laude was last seen checking in at Celzone Lodge in Barangay East Tapinac, accompanied by a male white foreigner – later revealed to be a US Marine. Just an hour before, Laude had been with friends at a nearby disco bar.

According to the police report, Laude asked witness Mark Clarence Gelviro, known as "Barbie," to accompany her and the male foreigner to the hotel.

But Laude reportedly asked Gelviro to leave "before the suspect knew that they are gays."

An hour later, Laude was found with visible injuries on the neck, suggesting that she might have been strangled.

When news broke that the murder suspect was a US Marine, some groups were quick to draw parallels to the rape case of Filipina Suzette Nicolas, known as "Nicole," 9 years ago.

Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, and American soldier, was accused of raping Nicolas in 2005. He was tried under Philippine courts but remained in the custody of the United States, even after his conviction as he appealed the guilty verdict of the Makati Regional Trial Court.

This was because of a provision in the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed between the two countries, which allowed US custody of erring officers.

Smith was convicted, but later acquitted after Nicolas recanted her statement. Smith left the Philippines immediately after his acquittal.

The soldier implicated in Laude's death is currently under US custody, but the Philippines has said it wants custody over Pemberton.

Marilou fears Jennifer's killer might get away, saying that their family is up against a strong force.

"Baka ma-quits lang. Iyon kinakatakutan namin. Baka 'yung mga nasa kinauukulan, doon pumanig sa kabila kaysa tulungan ang kababayang pinaslang," she said.

(We fear that [the case] might amount to nothing;  that authorities might support the other side instead of helping their fellow Filipino.)

She also lamented the slow pace of the investigation process. Before charges against Pemberton can be filed, the autopsy reports must first be released – a process that can take two to three weeks.

In the meantime, Marilou vowed to keep fighting to bring the case to justice.

"Kailangang maging matatag kasi hindi basta-basta ang kalaban (We have to remain strong because we're up against an extraordinary foe)."  with reports from Randy Datu/Rappler.com

*Jeffrey Laude in court documents