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MANILA, Philippines – 28-year-old Gretchen Diez from Navotas City stands 5 feet and 6 inches.
Her favorite color is white, prefers matte lipstick in the morning, then switches to glossy at night. She idolizes Miriam Defensor Santiago and Boy Abunda. Her motto: “God will put you back together right in front of the people that broke you.”
She was the transgender who was dragged, harassed, and arrested after entering a Cubao mall toilet. Gretchen just needed to pee.
It was 1 pm on Tuesday, August 13, when a janitress blocked her from using the women’s restroom. Gretchen initially just walked away but she felt anger rising and turned on her heel. She spoke again to the janitress, asked to repeat what she said earlier, aimed her phone’s camera, then tapped record.
The janitress retaliated by grabbing her wrist with one hand, her elbow with the other, and dragging her across the mall, down through the fire exit, and inside a decrepit office where a lady guard waited. They wouldn’t let her out.
While detained, Gretchen went live on Facebook, allowing thousands to watch as she was insulted by the janitress.
“Huwag ka kasing nagsi-CR sa babae. Hindi ka naman babae (This wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t go to the women’s bathroom. You are not a woman).”
“Tandaan mo, meron ka pa ring uten (Remember, you still have a penis).”
“Bakit ka nagla-live? Hindi ka artistahin (Why are you going live? You’re not pretty enough to be a star).”
Gretchen asked why she was being kept against her will but nobody answered, prompting her to fire off text messages to her friends to phone the cops. She knew she was being illegally held, and told the mall staff she would like an audience with the police.
Surprising Gretchen, the mall staffers obliged and called for a police car to bring them to the Cubao police station.
Gretchen wanted to complain. She knew Quezon City banned discrimination. She stepped out of the van, ready to recite her testimony. Instead of listening, the cops arrested her.
Following a tidal wave of public pressure, she has since been released, complete with receiving a letter of apology from the janitress and her bosses. Overnight, Gretchen became the new face of the local LGBTQ+ movement.
The last time a transgender held the title was just 5 years ago, when 26-year-old Jennifer Laude was found dead inside a motel room, beaten black and blue by an American marine.
Gretchen’s schedule recently has been filled with a series of hearings. Mayors asked about what happened at the mall, and where the anti-discrimination ordinance failed her. Senators asked what she was.
It was August 18, a hot Sunday, when we met in a Manila cafe. People peeked from their seats when she stepped in: bronze hair, sky-high heels, donning a rose-printed black dress.
Gretchen spotted me idling in front of the counter. I led her to our table at the back of the coffee shop. After brief introductions, it was time for her Q and A.
Born and baptized as Greg Martin, Gretchen Diez hated gays.
He hated that they sat and stood as women did, keeping their legs close or crossed as they took their seats inside jeepneys.
He hated that they wore makeup, their faces caked with foundation and pressed powder, their lashes curled and eyelids colored with neon shadows.
He hated how they sashayed down the streets, necklaces and bangles adorning their necks and wrists.
He hated how they were – as the world taught him then – different. An unwelcome kind.
But he kept a secret: he was one of them. He felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body.
His family was his consolation. He was the firstborn among 3 siblings, the respected kuya to a boy and a girl, 3 and 6 years respectively, younger than him. His mama loved him, but he knew he was papa’s boy.
“Nahahalata naman nila sa kilos ko, kasi ‘di ako nagtago,” Gretchen recalled. (They already noticed it from my movements. I did not try to hide it.)
The young Greg had his own fantasies different from the rest of the boys. While they ran after each other in the streets, he played dress-up with the girls and worked as a woman in an imagined office. There was the clerk and the boss, with Greg toting his mother’s shoulder bag that contained a ballpen, a notebook, face powder, and a black plastic gun.
In his mind, he imagined Destiny’s Child playing and the camera panning. Then he posed as a Charlie’s Angel.
On other days of summertime, Greg hitched rides on tricycles from their Navotas home to his grandmother’s in Caloocan. In the sala lay the make-believe runway known only to him and his two best friends – Ogie (now Olga) and Chito (now Maureen).
When grandma left for the market and the church, the boys pulled out speakers and burned CDs. Draped in blankets fashioned into gowns, the three lip-synced and did a dance extravaganza with chart-toppers Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston. At those times, they were most themselves.
“‘Yun na ‘yung happiness namin dati ng mga bata (That was the happiness we knew as children),” Gretchen said.
Other children were not as kind at school.
Boy Greg said he spoke and moved softly because he was raised only by his mother. In other versions of his origin story, it was his aunt. He tried to act more like the other boys, and was cautious about how he spoke, walked, sat, stood, laughed, and how he hurt.
But he sensed people already knew. Instead of hiding, he climbed to the top.
He aced his classes and snatched awards for English and Science. In his high school senior year, he took leadership positions in various organizations – English Club, Science Club, Drama Club, Student Council, and even the school paper. He was a scholar.
“I wanted my achievements to be bigger than my insecurities. I wanted my academic recognition to be bigger than my gender preference or my gender identity,” Gretchen said.
Then he fell in love.
His name was Jason, a high school classmate during Greg’s senior year. At the mention of his name, Gretchen smiled the widest during the interview.
Jason was tall, a mestizo, and wore his curly hair “just like Harry Styles.” Imagine him playing basketball after school then dancing in parties, causing all the girls to swoon over him. All the girls except Greg.
Jason flirted with him and called him “babe,” tried to talk to him often, and sometimes when he was exhausted, lay his head on Greg’s shoulder to pretend to sleep. Greg sighed, swerved to his other side, and swatted him.
People started to tease they were a “love team.” And one time, when Greg was alone, he caught himself admitting to growing fond of Jason. As months went by, the teasing tickled more than it stung.
Then one day as they neared graduation, Jason went silent.
Their classmates also suddenly and suspiciously stopped their ribbing. It was a day for PE, and when they were outside the classroom, Jason avoided Greg’s glances.
Greg begged one of his best friends to tell him what had happened. His friend obliged by telling him the story.
Jason was on his way home with the boys when they started talking about their romances. When it was Jason’s turn, he said, “Basta ako, gusto ko si Greg.” (It doesn’t matter. For me, I want Greg.)
The boys laughed, but he fired back. “Bakit? Imposible bang magustuhan ko siya? (Why? Is it impossible for me to fall in love with him?)”
Greg wanted Jason too, but he couldn’t have him. What would the world say?
Frowning at the memory, Gretchen said, “‘Di na kami nagkibuan. Parang awkward na sa aming parehas hanggang sa naka-graduate na kami. ‘Di rin namin napag-usapan.” (We just didn’t talk anymore. It seemed awkward for both of us up until we graduated. We didn’t even get to talk about it.)
“We had the right love at the wrong time,” Gretchen added.
What makes a woman
After graduation, Greg studied communication at the Far Eastern University, where, according to him, public pressure could never muzzle queer flames.
“The gays were everywhere,” Gretchen recalled, smiling as she remembered college days, when youth are said to find their true selves.
Gretchen’s Greg, however, had already found his real self for a long time. Greg let her out and she did.
Gretchen went straight for the spotlight, joining the FEU theater club where she played leading women – KC with her Piolo, Marian with her Dingdong. Darna with her stone.
When the sun set, she labored as a call center agent. She funded each estrogen pill with her per-hour paychecks. The mood swings were an unavoidable side effect – a small price to pay for the drops of satisfaction coming from his gradual transformation into a woman.
Gretchen was pricked each time she found cracks dividing the LGBTQ+ community. A faction asked whether she was feminine enough to merit space in the production marquee. They asked: Why cast a transgender when there were more beautiful transsexuals?
The internal discrimination continues to infect the movement until today. People, usually cisgenders, tend to think sexual reassignment surgery makes a complete transition.
The discussion always pivots back to genitalia. But trans women believe an operation should not dictate how trans a trans is. With or without a dangling organ, they are women.
Gretchen did not dignify her loathers with a response. She let the directors defend her and continued acting on the stage. Each standing ovation was her vindication.
“Maraming nagsasabi, ‘Hindi naman maganda si Gretchen.’ Madami naman talaga sa FEU na mas maganda. Pasado talaga na babaeng babae talaga. And yet, they didn’t get the role,” Gretchen said.
(There were a lot of people who said, “Gretchen is not beautiful.” There truly are a lot of people more beautiful than me. Those who pass as cisgender women. And yet, they didn’t get the role.)
As cherished as her theater days may sound, Gretchen spoke of another art form not just with nostalgia, but with pride: competitive pageantry.
While theater allowed her to escape to the life of another – say, a woman she admired – pageantry lets her be the young woman she wishes to be.
Those who parade on the pageant stage expose themselves to the scrutiny of the audience. No wrinkle, no stretch mark, and no scar goes unnoticed. And even if the judges are pleased with what they see, they can always look the other way after a stutter or a grammatical blunder.
The pressure does not spook Gretchen at all.
She has been competing in pageants since her college days. She began with barangay beauty contests, where stages – if not housed in covered courts – were built in the streets. She recently landed in the top 10 of her first national pageant, Queen of the Philippines 2019. There, she learned that “not everyone can be a winner, but everyone can be a queen.”
Gretchen said it was there where she learned, too, the true meaning of pageantry: “It’s about really showing the best version of you, which is what we should be doing every day, so that people can see the real beauty in it.”
That best version of yourself, she explained, is “showing other people that you deserve something, showing other people that you are worthy of responsibility.”
Now Gretchen wants to break into politics. While much of Philippine politics is pageantry, the rest is uncharted territory for this beauty queen.
Gretchen wants to walk and speak for a community that, according to her, has not been getting what it deserves. A community that has been fighting for equality through the law, but has been told by no less than Senate President Vicente Sotto III: no chance.
How far will this candidate go? – Rappler.com
TOP PHOTO: A QUEEN ARRESTED. Gretchen Diez steps out of the Quezon City Police District Station 7 after she was detained. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler
2ND PHOTO: BOY GREG. Gretchen Diez describes a difficult childhood. Photo courtesy of Diez
3RD PHOTO: THE FIGHT BEGINS. Gretchen Diez files a complaint with the Quezon City Pride Council against the Farmers Plaza mall. Photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler
4TH PHOTO: Q AND A. Gretchen Diez speaks to the press after she meets with Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte on her discrimination case. Photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler