Thumbnail by Justin Delas Armas, Andie Moreno, and Glenna Rodriguez

By Gian Angnged and Jaemie Talingdan

May it be within or beyond the walls of the Ateneo, trans individuals face many hurdles blocking them from being able to live out their inner freedom. In this three-part Feature x Probe series, we go from classrooms to graduation ceremonies and even restrooms as we glimpse into the experiences and struggles of trans AHS and ASHS graduates.

Read the first release of this series here:

On Cuts, Clothing, and Culture

Though the ASHS has come a long, long way from a homophobic and transphobic environment, much still needs to be done to make it a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. 

Many teachers in the ASHS have embraced progressive practices that affirm trans students’ gender identities, such as asking for pronouns on the first day of class through get-to-know-you forms and calling trans students by their preferred names. Most members of the ASHS community have also shown respect, acceptance, and willingness to learn about the challenges trans people face and how they could ease this burden on them. In the past few years, students have taken initiatives to establish official and admin-recognized committees in support of such causes—a step closer to making the school a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Ian Bartolome, former Hi-Lites Editor-in-Chief, recalled how such organizations, as well as support from peers, made his ASHS experience feel liberating.

Mas malawak din kasi ‘yung LGBTQ+ community sa Ateneo so I felt that that was also a part of why it was very welcoming,” said Ian. “Plus meron silang LGBT and women empowerment org, which is Lakambini, which is isa sa pinakamalaking factors kung bakit ko pinili ‘yung Ateneo in the first place, kasi merong dedicated safe space for us.”

However, the damage done by a traditionalist upbringing and centuries of patriarchal culture remains evident in repressive policies that hinder trans students from fully expressing their gender identity.

Fruits of a hetero-patriarchal culture

Despite the progressive developments in the ASHS community, trans students’ schooling experiences are still marred with policies that reinforce the gender binary—products of the Ateneo’s traditionalist cultural and historical upbringing.

“Ever since its conception, syempre, Ateneo [has been] known for raising fine young men,” AHS alumna Patch Buenaventura says. 

In her stay in the AHS, she felt that her gender expression should be of a woman, or more womanly than a normal “Ateneo boy”. It was a struggle, she noted, to have her hair cut, as AHS students were prohibited from growing their hair out past ear length.

Fellow AHS alumna Lui Castañeda also remarked that it was unfair and unnecessary to prohibit students assigned male at birth from growing their hair long. One thing she learned after graduating from AHS was how one’s physical attributes have nothing to do with their ability to learn or impart knowledge. Although she recognizes that such rules may exist for disciplinary reasons, she finds them quite “archaic.” 

Kung ang argument ay discipline, there can always be guidelines. There can always be guidelines that do not step on a person’s way to express him or herself,” she said.

Ms. Lui also noted that a big part of how one could be a person for others is how they express themselves. “If the advocacy is for the self to learn, to be men and women for others, how can you effectively do that if you yourself are not ready, if you yourself are not complete, and you haven’t really actualized yourself?” she says.

Like many transgender and gender non-conforming students, Ms. Lui also considers hair length restrictions as an intense source of anxiety and anger during her high school experience.

“For simple things, akala lang kasi nila petty because it’s just hair. But if you reverse it also, it’s just hair, so why can’t you let it go if it will mean so much to me, if it will make me feel good about myself, and if it will inspire me to work and study harder?” she adds. 

Mx. Jolly noted that trans femme students, in particular, were limited from expressing their true selves by the hair-length restrictions. Many secondary schools in the Philippines have strict hair-length restrictions for boys, prescribing a ‘barber’s cut’ or prohibiting them from growing their hair past ear length.

With the ongoing pandemic, haircuts have become the least of students’ concerns, as even going to a salon or barbershop may put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. Despite only being a byproduct of this new setting, the nullification of haircut restrictions on students has allowed many students—especially those who are part of the trans community—to express themselves more freely. 

“My hair was long for a while during quarantine, believe it or not,” Batch 2021 graduate Jolly Torres said. “It was liberating, definitely, na wala nang haircut rule nung nag-online classes na.”

In addition to hair length restrictions, trans students’ schooling experiences are marked by dress codes in formal events and school uniforms.

Most co-ed schools in the Philippines have prescribed uniforms separate for their male and female students, often prohibiting trans students from wearing that of their preferred gender expression.

And while trans students in the ASHS are able to request a full switch to the uniform that matches their gender identity, the process of acquiring a uniform for them is longer and more rigorous. Ian Bartolome shared his complicated experience with the said process.

Nilalagay ko talaga nung nag-o-order ng uniform na parang male uniform, pero ang binibigay pa rin sa’kin noon is a female uniform. And then babalik ko ulit, tapos babalik ulit [sa’kin] kaya super late na ko na nagka-uniform. Around mga October, wala pa [rin] akong uniform kasi pabalik-balik ako sa co-op,” he said.

Coming from a more conservative Catholic junior high school, Ian felt that his gender identity was more affirmed in the ASHS. Despite the hurdles he faced with obtaining sets of men’s uniform, he was still allowed to wear clothing that was consistent with his gender expression.

Kahit mahirap, kahit ang daming processes nung uniform, ganyan ganyan babalik-balik, I was able to wear the men’s uniform pa rin,” he remarked

Though this may be the case for uniforms, the same cannot exactly be said for their prom’s dress code. Despite appeals to allow students to dress however they wish, trans individuals were still restricted from wearing clothing corresponding with their gender identity, as it would be “disorderly” to do so.

Nung prom, nilaban talaga siya eh, na parang you can dress however you want to dress, pero hindi raw talaga kasi parang hindi siya mukhang orderly and hindi [raw] siya mukhang maayos,” Ian shared.

Prom is supposed to be a special night—an event almost every high schooler looks forward to. But trans students’ lights were dimmed as they were hampered from expressing their gender identity through clothing. To comply with the policies, Ian resorted to wearing non-gendered clothing. Some of his trans femme friends, on the other hand, were forced to wear suits to experience prom. 

Jolly Torres also mentioned that they did not attend prom, stressing the difference between how trans students and their cis batchmates experienced the event.

“I didn’t go to prom, kasi I felt like there was no point for me to be there, because historically, prom, especially in the U.S., is very gender-[binary-adherent]. Like, you’re a guy, wear [a suit], you’re a girl, wear a dress, so there are strict dress codes, and [we were prohibited from going with] same-sex dates and all that, so I don’t think prom [was] for me at all,” they remarked.

Despite their varied experiences, one thing remains evident in trans students’ narratives: how outdated gender binary-affirming policies have prevented them from fully engaging in their school’s academic and formative environment. 

If there are certain policies and rules that make people feel less themselves, then how would they be able to do more for others? Before students dedicate themselves to the community and become Ateneo’s partners in mission, they must first find who they truly are and who they want to be, guided by their formators and educators in pursuing their actual beings and callings in life. 

In Ateneo, students are always taught to practice cura personalis or the care for the entire being. For a person to be able to do so, they must first be comfortable in their own skin, comfortable in their clothes, cuts, and other extensions of themselves that make up a huge piece of one’s individuality. 

As this Ignatian Year’s theme gives emphasis on seeing all things new in Christ, we are called upon to undergo an internal renewal and come together as one human family to build a more humane, just, and compassionate world where we can accept everyone for their true identities.

Grasping LGBTQ+ oppression at the root

Though not formally prohibited, the use of wooden fans was also reported to have been frowned upon due to its supposed association with femininity, with some teachers even confiscating fans from students. 

“Will it make any less difference of a man na he’s using a wooden fan?” Ms. Patch says. “That time, we had no aircons in our classrooms, so it was hot, and it was practical to use a fan.”

As Ms. Patch puts it: “I respect the fact that [Ateneo is] trying to keep a culture, but until when? Times are changing, and the school rules and regulation should be able to go with the changes, especially sa pag-treat ng mga students and the changing psyche, especially now na more students are educated. There are more avenues for us now to learn about sexual orientation, gender identity, expression of oneself, so it’s high time that Ateneo takes a step back, look at the bigger picture, and identify which rules necessarily can apply to the students now with regard to their expression, to their gender identity, to their SOGIE.”

To chastise a practice most probably done to beat the heat in an un-air conditioned classroom and to consider such as unbecoming of a gentleman is indicative of a wider cultural problem—one that does not exist in the Ateneo alone. 

For centuries, Spanish machismo and conservative Catholic influences have linked being a part of the LGBTQ+ community to immorality, painting previously esteemed gender-fluid religious leaders in a bad light to turn Filipinos against their roots. Despite the many progressive movements in the Philippine Catholic church today, the homophobic and transphobic culture left by this dark history still prevails. And with our education system built on such influences, it’s no secret as to why there is an apparent lack of knowledge of SOGIE among Filipinos.

To combat ignorance on such issues, we must address it from its roots—through education, both in formal and informal settings. Like other existing contemporary issues in the Philippines, lessons on SOGIE and LGBTQ issues are essential in allowing both students and educators to keep up with the times and have a better understanding of this community’s struggles and how we can be of help to them. And although various laws and orders advocating for comprehensive sexuality education do exist, their implementation still remains inadequate. 

Including SOGIE education in the curriculum and in learning resources is not enough, especially if it strays from what most educators grew up to believe. Ensuring LGBTQ youths’ safety in learning environments would also require a cultural shift among authorities and teaching personnel through training and seminars informing school staff of the rights that LGBTQ youth enjoy under domestic and international law, the consequences of bullying and discrimination, and resources and services available for them.

In the DepEd order constituting proper school attire for elementary and secondary students, one of the guiding principles is the fact that “promoting physical hygiene and proper school decorum is part of the teaching-learning process in schools, thus a student’s attire and physical appearance should manifest learnings from this process.” With that said, an institutions’ policies on their dress codes must reflect not only their principles, but also the lessons they wish to impart to their students.

For students to truly manifest their learnings, it is critical that schools make their policies more SOGIE-sensitive. By forcing trans students to present themselves in a manner inconsistent with their gender expression, are we not potentially hindering their personal development? Are we not making their learning environment less welcoming?

For an institution to be truly progressive, the burden of ridding the community of its regressive culture should not rest on its constituents alone. Though there are already rules and regulations protecting members of the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination, the school’s authoritative bodies have yet to move past practices and policies excluding the community from fully participating in the school environment. 

Trans students should not have to compromise their identity and expression—especially in an institution that is supposed to be the place where they belong. This is to be said not only for the ASHS, but also for other Filipino schools that enforce policies that prohibit students from expressing their gender identity.