[COVER STORY] Trans Woman Power: Ms. Jaya Jacobo

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Celebrating the transformative power of being her true self, Ms. Jaya Jacobo sets the tone for dialogues on trans womanhood.

2020 is the year of a brave new world, one that is at once afflicted and triumphant, delightful and dangerous, ever-transitioning landscapes of strife, serenity, and beauty. 

In this landscape, we find Dr. Jaya Jacobo, quarantined in her residence in Quezon City in the midst of the pandemic. Through a digital living room, we talk to her about womanhood, art, resistance, Bicol, and the world.

 Prior to doing full-time research at the University of the Philippines, she was a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, teaching literature and gender studies for a decade and a half.

She is also co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology, BKL/ Bikol Bakla Anthology of Gay/Trans/Queer Writing.

Genesis of a woman

Dr. Jacobo – Ate Jaya to many of us – is a proud trans woman born and raised in Naga City.

Her truth manifested itself early on. “I’d always thought of myself as a girl,” she says. “Even when I was a kid, I really thought that I was a girl, and acted like one. I look at my birthday pictures when I was one, two, three and I recall the sentiment I had in those moments. Clearly do I remember that yes, I thought and felt like a real girl.

Growing up in Naga and its predominantly binary culture was a challenge.

“What does a girl do when she is meant to conform to a set of binary expectations by her family or society? It’s very cruel, you know? Even as the people around you see that you are affirming yourself and your truth, but they know how you were “born,” so to speak, they will do everything to make you conform to that ‘destiny,’ that particular ‘biological’ destiny.” 

This cruelty, however, was tempered by love: “I was surrounded by beautiful, powerful, intelligent women,” she says. “They did their best to love me for who I am.”

School was a place for blossoming and discovery of the self. 

“I studied in Naga Parochial School: an all-boys school but was very much characterized by femininity as well,” she says. 

“There were lots of feminine boys in my school,” she quips, “and it was only natural for them to act as they wanted. Nakatulong iyon, iyong paglaki sa loob ng NPS. ‘It’s okay to be this way,’ I thought to myself. “

“Homosociality, or homosexuality for that matter,” she continues, “gave me a particular vocabulary, to become myself.”

“Well, that wasn’t me, but gayness gave me some form of protection. Kabaklaan (gayness) gifted me with the image and appearance of naturalness and normalcy,” she says of that youthful time.

“In Naga Parochial School and in Ateneo de Naga (high school), I formed friendships. found best friends, and I guess, boyfriends, for that mater.” 

“The latter taught me a lot about the value between same sex, or if I may revise that, I valued the love between two boys: one feminine, the other masculine.” 

“So, it was still binary, but there was room for femininity.”

Jaya Jacobo in Naga Parochial School, October, 1987. Photo: Teresita Raro.

It was much later that she maximized her feminine potential. 

“The transition came quite late in my life. 2017, or 2018? There’s a linearity to this narrative, but not all trans women go through this linearity that I’ve been talking about, for example, from homosexuality to queerness to being trans.” 

Jaya in New York. Photo: Dom Olinares.

“I studied in New York, and through the word ‘queer’ and the lives that it meant, I was able to understand and enjoy them in the city.”

“It was the kind of freedom that a queer person feels when she/he/they liberate/s themselves from a certain context of binary identity.”

“In NYC, I was able to explore the notion of nonbinarity; it enabled me to embrace both the masculine and the feminine. I had always avoided masculinity, it always seemed foreign to me, but abroad, I was able to embrace that aspect of me as well.”

Kanya-kanya naman kasi siyang journey, (everybody’s journey is unique)” she adds. “Iyong ibang sisters natin, bata pa lang may courage na sila to be themselves, because they lived in a different context (some of our sisters, living in a different context, had the courage to be themselves at a very young age).”

“That particularity encouraged them in many ways, affirmed them.”

Career Woman

Surrounded by maestras (teachers), with her mother and aunts being public school teachers themselves, Dr. Jacobo imbibed excellence early on. 

“When I was growing up, womanhood and brilliance were synonymous,” she shares. “That’s what I embodied as a young intellectual: I wanted to be a woman in education.”

Trained as a poet, her sympathies have widened over the years, but she has remained faithful to poetry. Her first poetry volume will be published by Savage Mind Press.

I have yet to decide on the title, but the collection is a revision of the Ibalon epic written mostly from the perspective of the male warrior conquering the land. I attempt its reversal in a series of songs by intoning the voice of serpent woman Oriol. Decolonizing the terms of representation of woman as well as the language of affection attributed to her, I am performing this decolonial gesture as a trans woman,” she reveals.

This project is on top of her other undertakings: an anthology of her film criticism for the past 15 years, a study on queer readings of popular music, and a monograph on the history of gender-nonconformity through vernacularity.

On many instances, she was editor of queer and trans anthologies. I was part of BKL/Bikol Bakla, the landmark anthology she co-edited with Paul Sumayao.

With Mikee Inton-Campbell and Brenda Alegre, she is currently collecting works for Trans Pilipinas, an anthology of writings by trans folx in the Philippines and their diaspora.

She also edited a Bikol Studies journal issue, one that is dedicated to a significant feminine/feminist figure, Nora Aunor. 

One of the major highlights of her career is teaching an undergraduate course on gender studies in Ateneo de Manila, where she introduced concepts of queerness, nonbinarity, and transness to a wonderfully diverse group of students that included junior and senior artists and philosophers, who identified as gender non-conforming folx and allies.

Jaya with her Gender Studies class. Photo: Kim Bernardino.

“I’ve taught a lot of courses in the past fifteen years, but that class was most instructive to me because that was where I introduced myself as a trans professor,” she shares. 

“It was liberating! It felt like teaching for the first time: teaching my truth. I was professing with conviction!” From there, she took a break from university teaching and did full-time research at the University of the Philippines.

Of her research, she says, “I am involved with GlobalGRACE Gender and Cultures of Equality. It’s a global arts and community network funded by the UK government.

It is based at Goldsmiths (the University of London), and with partner NGOs in the UK, Bangladesh, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.

The network’s key concern is gender equality, and each country focuses on a particular multitude and how this particular population engages inequality through art.

As examples: women in factory work in Sylhet campaigning for labor rights through photography, sex workers in Cape Town activating the movement toward the legalization of their labor through participatory theater, migrants in Chiapas documenting their lives through their own museum, men in a favela community in Rio de Janeiro coming to terms with masculinity and violence through dance, and LGBTQ youth in Metro Manila and San Pablo (Laguna) articulating their sufferance and solidarity through writing.

“I am engaged in these workshops as a research fellow, or an ethnographer, if one likes.”

Jaya with her colleagues in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: GlobalGRACE.

In her fieldwork in Brazil where she met, interviewed, and lived with LGBTQ artists and activists last year in an effort to know how they organize and create in an environment burdened with a long history of transphobia, she had a major milestone in life. 

“I realized the apotheosis of my womanhood in Brazil. It happened there. I found there my community. I found my best friend, Mariah. She taught me a lot: how she became her own woman, despite and against a context of violence, how she became an artist and thinker of the trans condition. “


Jaya with Mariah Rafaela Silva, a professor in Brazil, and one of Jaya's closest friends. Photo: Jaya Jacobo.

“She introduced me to other sisters, and they took me in, welcoming me into the everyday life of the movement. I gained a more profound understanding of trans solidarity because of that inclusion. I was dreaming of a better future with them, and I am also dreaming of the same set of conditions here at home”, she adds.

Imperialism and colonialism needed those simplistic structures so that domination and subjugation could work in a certain way.

“They’ve inspired me so much on what could be established by our own community here… ultimately, there is much to learn from these sisters on how art and activism are much intimately entangled with transness itself. 

I was amazed at how imperative it was for them as trans folx to produce art that is activist in orientation, critical of histories and systems of oppression which make trans people suffer, and recalcitrant not only in the message but almost always through avant-garde form.”

Jaya with her colleagues at an activity centered around dance. Photo: GlobalGRACE.
On decolonization

As a visible and veritable force in the trans community and the academe, Ms. Jacobo also advocates the decolonization of gender and how we think about it: “The bakla/bayot/agi/binabayi… these embrace various forms of gender identifications and presentations.”

This diversity was erased by the advent of colonial thought. “These figures of gender nonconformity are there, they’re part of our history, kaya lang, they were effaced from our consciousness because of certain imperial and colonial paradigms, na binary lang, di ba? Imperialism and colonialism needed those simplistic structures so that domination and subjugation could work in a certain way.”

“If bakla folx are just allowed to actualize themselves without prejudice and persecution, we’d be fine,” she adds.

“We wouldn’t need these categories of the homosexual or the queer, even the trans, kasi, nandoon na iyon lahat sa ”bakla,’ but as far as the local context is concerned. Kawawa tayo: inaapi, dinadalahira, pinagtatawanan.” 

These terms, globally circulated as they are as affirming and disseminating images of affirmation, give gender nonconforming folx an opportunity to imagine themselves anew. “

“Ganunpaman, nagkakasabay-sabay silang lahat. For me, I am bakla, trans, woman, queer, and I do not disavow my homosexual and gay ‘origins.'”

Of faith and philosophy

Jaya shares that she grew up with friends who are priests and nuns, and has friends in the Catholic church.

“All of them,” she says, “gave me a picture of the Church as nurturing and loving.”

“Religion, through its music and art, played a significant part in my formation as a queer person.”

“I was part of the choir and in that collective, I was affirmed as a voice (a soprano).  This figure singing to God like an angel, is affirming,” she shares.

Her connection with the divine feminine, is as important. The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary for her remains strong. “I cannot turn my back on Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia! I’m a devotee!”

However, a turning point occurred in university, when she took up theology. “I just could not reconcile how John Paul II divorced the homosexual from the homosexual act.

“That was crucial moment in my faith. How is that possible? How are the things done by the homosexual sinful?”

She elaborates, ” why is the Church proposing the redemption of the figure through the abandonment of the acts which constitute his/her desire? That was a predicament for me, an absolute denial of the personhood of the homosexual subject… reminding us of certain colonial precepts on indigenous gender and sexuality,” she shares.

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On visibility, activism, and the pandemic

In these extraordinary times, with the pandemic ravaging countries, economies and communities, Jaya shares the challenges faced and the efforts made by the trans community. 

“My community is the trans community, and I engage with it locally and globally. During this pandemic, I’ve found myself reaching out to sisters, just to know how they’re doing. We’ve been talking about what is to be done for each other, especially sisters who have lost jobs and opportunities”, she shares. 

“Even before the pandemic, let’s face it, trans women have already been the most vulnerable when it comes to employment. Even though we are highly qualified, we are denied work because of how we look, and what we are. Trans women turn to sex work, pageantry, fashion, professions which affirm their beauty, as performers or agents of beauty. These opportunities were severely affected by social isolation, so we find ways to look after each other.”

The AIDS Society of the Philippines in partnership with organizations such as the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines is raising funds to help our trans sisters in need. Here’s how you can donate.

She also underscores the importance of setting the community’s sights beyond the boxes relegated to them by society.

“It’s important for trans women to solidify their place in these industries, however I am dreaming of more sisters imagining other possibilities, to become teachers, lawyers, nurses, doctors, and be free from limits we ourselves might have internalized because of prejudice. And it’s happening. I know of many trans women in various professions. Ang kulang pa rin talaga, solidarity! We need to unite and mobilize.”

The power of transformation is a gift to the trans woman; dialectically, such transformative power is also her gift to the world. If one is in that space, one can only be inspired to create art.

All around the world and on our very own native soil, sisters are coming together to uplift each other in these trying times. 

“Our sisters in Malaysia were able to raise funds to address specific needs of the community, assisting them socio-economically, helping them out pay for their rent, buy groceries and medicine. In Brazil, where I did my fieldwork, our friends are addressing the conditions of black trans women in the favelas,” she says. 

“I see efforts being made in Bikol, Cebu, Zamboanga, sisters looking after each other, kaya lang mula sa sari-sarili nilang bulsa. We need a stronger voice then, so that funders can can provide funds for such emergencies.”

Jaya in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 2020. Photo: Gino Dizon

She also tells us of more initiatives in Brazil: “There are shelters for trans and gender-nonconforming people who were abandoned by their own families. One sees how important such a structure is in the context of the pandemic, as well as policies drawn up by the state to respond to the contagion.”

Speaking about the challenges faced by trans and gender-diverse individuals and how these can be dealt with, Jaya says that it must begin within.

“There are many ways to combat prejudice,” she says. “Politics begins with the self. The fact that a gender diverse person is able to admit to herself that “I am different,” resolving to live life as such, is a political act.”

On being one’s self as a form of activism, she says, “the moment one embraces one’s truth and decides to fight for it. You come out of your door and make yourself visible as a bakla or lesbian… it can be difficult, but visibility is key.”

She also shares that that visibility may sometimes be dangerous.

“People will hurt you, through their gaze, their language, anything that can be done within the human capacity toward violence. To walk the streets and enter an edifice as I am, a woman, is already radical.”

“To do it all by yourself is not enough, though.”

“At some point, one yearns to seek out a community and forge solidarities. I needed to find my tribe and my sisters and brothers within. My siblings,” she says. “in religious terms, ‘brethren’. A very binary term, you see,” she adds with a chuckle. 

One needs to find one’s self, and then a community. Alongside your tribe and allies, one fights for important causes.

Jaya Jacobo during the second National LGBTQ Writers' Workshop by GlobalGRACE-UP, 2019. Photo: GlobalGRACE Philippines
A gift to the world

In the midst of the chaos and agony brought about by the pandemic, the pride and power represented by and present in Jaya is a beacon of light that points the way. 

“Being trans is already creative, and if I may say, artistic, in itself,” she says. 

“The power of transformation is a gift to the trans woman; dialectically, such transformative power is also her gift to the world. If one is in that space, one can only be inspired to create art.”

Cover photo and featured image shot by Gino Dizon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 2020.
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