ORANI, Bataan: Geraldine Roman blows kisses to curious crowds and serenades them with a love song as she proudly campaigns to be the first transgender lawmaker in the mainly Catholic Philippines.
The 49-year-old member of a powerful political family has a strong chance to win a seat in the House of Representatives, in what would be a remarkable breakthrough for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Conservative church dogma is a dominant force in Philippine politics: Divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage are illegal, while there are no openly gay politicians at the national level and an LGBT party has long struggled for influence.
Roman had been mocked and abused on the campaign trail in recent weeks but, after living as a woman for more than two decades, she refuses to be cowed.
“My life has not been a secret,” she said. “I grew up here. People know me. [Gender] only becomes an issue when you try to keep it a secret. It’s nothing bad. I never hurt anyone in the process. I’m so happy so why should I be ashamed?”
Roman said she grew up being teased by classmates but her late father, a powerful politician, taught her to be confident.
She speaks three European languages, holds two master’s degrees and worked in Spain as senior editor of the Spanish News Agency, before returning four years ago to care for her ailing father.
Roman underwent sex realignment surgery, and legally changed her name and gender, in the 1990s. She has been involved in a relationship with a man for the past 18 years.
Roman hopes winning on Monday will help in the fight for gender equality.
“My loyalty is to the first district of Bataan,” she said.
“But that somebody of my condition is going to enter Congress for the first time is a statement that even transgender people can serve our country and should not be discriminated against.”
It will be a long battle.
On the most basic front, a law was passed in 2001 making it impossible for transgender Filipinos to change their name and sex.
In 2010, the election commission also barred the Ang Ladlad party, which represents the LGBT community, from contesting the polls, accusing it of “immorality which offends religious beliefs.”
Roman belongs to the ruling Liberal Party.
If elected, she intends to back an anti-discrimination bill that has been languishing for 16 years that would give the LGBT community rights, such as equal treatment in the workplace, hotels and schools.
Roman will also campaign to make changing gender legal.
“I am living proof that such a law will allow transgender people to pursue happiness and become productive citizens,” she said.
Roman, a Catholic, has a simple message for critics who believe she does not belong in politics: “If Jesus Christ was alive today, he would not approve of discrimination. I firmly believe that.”