Salute to Madame, the first transgender cop in PNP
MANILA, Philippines – The flag ceremony just ended at Camp Karingal in Quezon City. Hundreds of cops from Metro Manila had flocked to the cement-walled camp, forming a sea of blue on its concrete field.
As the formation broke apart, she stood out: Her hair a flash of red, trimmed clean at the back and grown long at the front. Brows thickened with the shading of a deep brown eyeliner. Lips painted light pink. An hourglass figure dressed in a blue coat and pants – the uniform of men.
Her sugary perfume pierces the air. She appears snobby with her sharpened features, but a greeting is enough to prompt a soft smile.
You hear other cops call her "Madame" as they give a salute. It is a title she has earned after walking a decades-old tightrope of discrimination.
Meet Police Senior Inspector Rene Balmaceda, the first transgender policewoman in the Philippine National Police (PNP).
Growing up gay in the province
One of Balmaceda's first memories was longing to be a girl – or at least the stereotypical girl.
Born the youngest son to farmers in the coastal town of Viga, Catanduanes, she had little hope for this desire. The problem was not so much the acceptance of her family, but poverty.
Her parents knew immediately their son was gay just by his animated voice and delicate movements. While other lads played basketball, their child twirled the baton. They did not mind.
However, they simply could not afford blooming perfumes or shampoos packed in glossy bottles their son had wanted.
"Dahil barrio mahirap lang (kami), wala kang pambili ng ganon. Unang una sabon ko nga noon eh Perla lang. Shampoo ko no'n yung piniga sa niyog," Balmaceda told Rappler in an interview.
(Because we lived in a barrio, we didn't have money to purchase them. My soap then was Perla. My shampoo was just squeezed out of a coconut)
Even though the boy wanted to try blouses and dresses, the young Balmaceda also had to wear boys' uniforms, as ordered by the school. Inside, Balmaceda's classmates couldn't lay a finger on her, as her eldest brother and sister were cops.
Inevitably, there were insults slipping by here and there. Her family even sometimes had to diss her for being feminine in front of strangers and neighbors. Young Balmaceda guarded herself with understanding.
"Siyempre iba ang utak ng mga taga-barrio, ang iba naman uneducated. Kaya ba't mo papansinin?…Ba't ka naman magagalit 'di ba?" she said. (The thinking is different in the countryside, the others are uneducated. So why would you listen to them? Why would you be angered?)
She studied dentistry, but before she could take the board exam, Balmaceda's sister filled up her application for the PNP Academy without her knowing it. To her sister’s joy, Balmaceda took the exams and earned a spot in the country's premier police school.
She took the tests after being awed by policewomen’s "aura." Inside the police academy, she would learn that the "aura" she yearned for would be forged through years of suffering.
Inside PNP Academy
Balmaceda made no effort to act masculine inside the patriarchal PNP Academy.
"Hindi na kailangang sabihin kasi before pa lang ako, applicant, pass the word na ako doon," she shared. (I didn't need to tell anyone, because before as an applicant, word already spread about me.)
In classes, she studied the same books and faced the same teachers as her batch mates. But outside, where academy seniors rule their militaristic life, she suffered the most for being an openly gay man.
Balmaceda faced double the amount of drills and punishments her upperclassmen had imposed on her classmates.
Speaking to Rappler on the condition of anonymity, an upperclassman of Balmaceda confessed to be one of those who delivered the blows.
Their goal, the Rappler source said, was to make it so hard for her inside that she would quit. (READ: PNP Academy beatings: Tradition turning into tragedy)
"This (the PNP Academy) is a man's world," Balmaceda's upperclassman told Rappler. "Dalawa lang naman kasi ang pinipilian mo kung mag-aapply ka eh, male and female, so saan siya belong?" (There are only two to choose from, male and female, so where does she belong?)
The discrimination, Balmaceda's fellow alumna said, applied only to effeminate men. Masculine women, or "tomboys," were even preferred because "brusko sila eh (they are rowdy)." She added, "Hindi sila palamya-lamya (they are not frail)."
Balmaceda proved herself. She took all the doubled hits, ran the extended routes, slept last, got up first, and did it again. Seeing her suffer daily, Balmaceda’s mistahs (classmates) asked her to resign out of pity. She did not. Not once did the thought slip her mind.
"Nasa isip ko, hindi ako aalis dito hangga't hindi ako patay (I was thinking I won't leave until I died)," she said.
She slowly gained the respect of her upperclassmen before graduating in 2001.
"To define determination, I think of her to be very, very determined in spite of everything," Balmaceda's upperclassman shared.
PNP policies homophobic?
With current systems and conventions in place, many other gay men and transgender individuals remain exposed to discrimination.
The PNP does not explicitly ban homophobia among its ranks.
In the PNP Ethical Doctrine Manual, there is no mention of gender equality. "Spiritual belief" and "gentlemanliness," meanwhile, have dedicated bullets.
"The PNP members are traditionally religious and God-loving persons. They attend religious services together with the members of their family…PNP members are upright in character, gentle in manners, dignified in appearance, and sincere in their concern to fellowmen," the items read.
This comes in the context of a predominantly Catholic country, where many Christians oppose the passage of a gender equality bill.
Philippine laws, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, also do not allow transgender individuals to change their identification from one sex to another, even with a sex-change operation.
"While [a transgender individual] may have succeeded in altering his body and appearance through the intervention of modern surgery, no law authorizes the change of entry as to sex in the civil registry for that reason. Thus, there is no legal basis for his petition for the correction or change of the entries in his birth certificate," the High Court said in a decision penned by then Associate Justice Renato Corona in 2007.
This means that despite Rene Balmaceda identifying herself as a woman, despite cops around her, even the PNP chief, already calling her so, the PNP still sees her as a man.
She started calling herself a woman in 2017 after she grew breasts and a rounder bottom. It was a transition more than a big event.
The organization not seeing the same doesn't appear to pain her, because as long as her duty time ends, she can be herself.
The explicit support can only be spotted in the National Police Commission (Napolcom), the agency which administers the PNP, in allowing persons of any gender to join the police service.
"There shall be no discrimination on account of gender, religion, ethnic origin or political affiliation," said the Napolcom’s Memorandum Circular 2005-02 about recruiting cops.
This order, however, only covers recruitment. The treatment of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) members after acceptance is left to the discretion of their superiors and colleagues.
Lessons from the field
Now, Rene Balmaceda heads the administration office of the Quezon City police Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit, sorting and signing papers on high-profile probes.
In more than 15 years of service, she has bounced between becoming an administrative cop to an operative.
Asked which role she prefers, she shyly grabbed the pageant answer of "both." But it's obvious that she wants to go back to the field.
Unexpectedly, being a transgender woman turned out to be beneficial in operations, specifically in undercover missions.
"Walang naniniwalang pulis ako kasi bakla ako," she said. (Nobody believes that I am a police because I am gay.)
Asked where she wishes to be assigned next, she simply said,
"Kahit saan (wherever)."
She still has 14 years before hitting the mandatory retirement age of 56.
Decades have passed, and the boy's dream has come true. Rene Balmaceda never became a girl. She was meant to be a woman. – Rappler.com