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MANILA, Philippines – Ianne Gamboa made herstory in 2018 as the first trans woman valedictorian of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) since the university’s inception in 1904. Five years later, in 2023, she added another feather to her cap: passing the 2023 Bar exams.
Gamboa was part of the 3,812 examinees who passed the Bar exams announced by the Supreme Court on December 5. Speaking to Rappler, Gamboa said she was nervous when 2023 Bar chair Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando said the passing rate was only 36.77% because she might not be part of the list of passers.
But when she saw her name on the list, Gamboa said she, her mother, and siblings started to cry. “We all cried and I am very grateful that I am included as one of the Bar passers.”
Gamboa currently works as a legal assistant at the Office of the Solicitor General. Since she is a working student, Gamboa said she had to manage her time to finish all her tasks at work and to attend to her law education.
In the last four years she was in law school, she said she did not get proper sleep due to the demands of her work and school. Instead of resting or going on vacation, she spent her holidays and free time studying, Gamboa told Rappler. She also sacrificed several family gatherings and bonding with her loved ones due to law school.
But all of these sacrifices were worth it as she passed on her first try what is considered to be the hardest licensure exams in the country.
Doubts at first
While finishing her undergraduate degree, Bachelor of Arts in English, Gamboa said she did not really think of going to law school. Her closest encounter to a law subject during her undergraduate, she said, was her politics and governance with Philippine Constitution subject.
It was her father, Police Chief Master Sergeant Paul Gamboa, who brought her book for that subject. After finishing as one of PUP’s batch valedictorians, it was also her father who asked her to pursue law.
While Gamboa and the rest of her family awaited the results at home, her father was waiting alone inside the SC courtyard. Coincidentally, he was assigned to guard the release of Bar results in SC so he learned about his daughter’s achievement while on duty.
“Masayang-masaya, masayang pamasko po. Magandang pamasko po ito sa pamilya namin (I’m really happy, this is a joyous gift for us. This is a great gift to our family),” Gamboa’s father told reporters on December 5.
But before entering law school, Gamboa said she had qualms. She said she did not want to be a burden to her family if she enters law school so she thought about it further. Gamboa said she said to herself she needed to be a working student so as not to burden her family.
Before entering Jose Rizal University’s law school, she first enrolled under the University of the Philippines’ paralegal training program to know if she really wanted to become a lawyer. There, she realized that she and lawyering were destined for each other.
Another sign that she got were consistent rejections. Despite her stellar academic background, she was rejected by different government agencies she applied to, pushing her to enter law school. Eventually, she landed a job at the OSG.
Entering a male-dominated field
Lawyering is traditionally a male-dominated field. Since 1901, male justices have dominated the Philippine Supreme Court, with only 18 female associate justices having been appointed. Among the 27 chief justices, only one is female – former chief justice Teresita de Castro — two, if Maria Lourdes Sereno is counted. She was ousted in May 2018 after the SC en banc approved a quo warranto petition to remove her on the basis of an invalid appointment. (READ: Supreme Court ousts Chief Justice Sereno)
If this is the case for women, how about for members of the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) community, especially for trans people? Gamboa’s experience is proof that Philippine society is not entirely accepting of queer people in general.
Gamboa told Rappler her law school experience was like a “microcosm of our society.” She meant her law school reflected how society in general treats people like her, as individuals have varying perspectives.
“Mayroon talagang mga professors na they will intentionally misgender me and mayroon din namang mga professors na they would make me feel that I belong to the study of law, that I deserve my spot in law school,” the new lawyer told Rappler.
(There were professors who will intentionally misgender me, and there were those who would make me feel that I belong to the study of law, that I deserve my spot in law school.)
Aside from misgendering or using the pronouns she does not subscribe to, she did not experience discrimination against her gender identity in general while studying law. But Gamboa said she brushed this aside and stayed focused on her goal, adding that she did not let her emotions distract her from her vision.
One of the most basic ways to respect members of the LGBTQIA+ community is to respect their preferred pronouns because these parts of speech are linked to their identity. A resource material from the University of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center says that when members of the LGBTQIA+ community are referred to with a wrong pronoun, they feel disrespected or invalidated.
The support from some of her professors, especially those who showed respect for her preferred pronouns, gave her strength to remain focused on her goal. Gamboa said she was aware of some people intentionally trying to hurt her by misgendering her because they knew it was her “vulnerable spot.”
In such situations, she said, she always looked back or remembered people in law school like her professors who made her feel she belonged to law school.
Of course, she also draws strength from her family who loves her unconditionally, especially her parents. “It is because my dad, my father [who] taught me to dream this big. Also my mom who supported me throughout my studies since I was in college.”
Now that she is a lawyer, Gamboa said she is really looking forward to practicing the profession, especially given the recent action of the Supreme Court against homophobia that also inspired her.
In a decision released on August 17, the High Court penalized five lawyers for their Facebook posts that contained homophobic remarks. The Court reminded the lawyers that they have the duty to use respectful language, and should respect the courts and its officers, adding that LGBTQIA+ people have constitutional rights, too.
“Members of the legal profession must respect LGBTQIA+ individuals’ freedom to be themselves and express who they are, as part of their constitutionally-guaranteed right of freedom of expression,” the SC said.
Trans woman taking her place in Bar roll
“Shoot for the stars. At least if you failed, you will land on the moon.”
This was Gamboa’s mantra while in law school and during the Bar exams. She had the dream to enter the Bar’s top 10 – not for her, but for the rest of her sisters and brothers in the trans community.
“So during law school and my Bar review, I was really aiming to be included in the Top 10 of the Bar exams…. Kaya ko lang gustong makapasok sa Top 10 is for the trans community. Para makita nila na kaya pala ng isang trans woman makapasok sa Top 10,” Gamboa told Rappler.
(So during my law school and my Bar review, I was really aiming to be included in the Top 10 of the Bar exams. The reason why I wanted to enter the Top 10 is for the trans community. So they can see that a trans woman is capable of entering the Bar’s Top 10.)
Although she did not reach the stars, she indeed landed on the moon and passed the Bar exams on her first try. Her victory is enough to inspire future generations of trans women to take their place in the Bar roll, and maybe, enter the Bar’s Top 10.
“It is now a challenge for the younger generation of trans community na, if hindi ko nakuha ‘yong dream ko na ‘yon, baka someone from the younger generation would achieve it for us, for the trans community. I did it, nakapasa ako, and someone can do better than me.”
(It is now a challenge for the younger generation of the trans community that if I did not fulfill my dream, maybe someone from the younger generation would achieve it for us, for the trans community. I did it, I passed, and someone can do better than me.)
For Gamboa, the victories of trans people, like her achievement, should be celebrated because these add to their visibility and proper representation in the media. She believes that trans women are still perceived as men dressing up as men, as men who wear makeup, wigs – people who still have masculine features and all.
Her passing the Bar now sends a distinct signal to society: trans women can be achievers, too.
“As trans women, we can also be lawyers, doctors, nurses, or even serve in the military or the police, or law enforcement service. Being a lawyer and a trans woman, for me, it sends a signal to the general public. Because in the Philippines, we all know that lawyering is a noble profession and our society gives respect to lawyers,” Gamboa explained.
“I want the public to know that trans women also deserve respect because just like [us], we’re all just human beings and everyone deserves equal respect.”
Gamboa said that as trans women in the Philippines, it’s much harder to achieve their dreams because of discrimination, primarily. However, she said that determination and hard work can bring down even the most sturdy barricades.
“For the younger generation of trans women, I want them to know that you can be who you want to be as long as you are very disciplined and you really work hard for your dreams,” Gamboa said.
“Keep on believing in your dreams and do not get distracted by what society tells you.” – with research from Olive Pallasigue/Rappler.com
Some quotes were translated to English for brevity.
Olive Pallasigue is a Rappler volunteer. She is a fourth year broadcasting student at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines-Open University. Learn more about Rappler’s internship program here.