A day in the life of a professional transgender woman
(The views and opinions expressed in interviews or commentaries are those of the interviewees and contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS)
31 March is International Day of Transgender Visibility, which celebrates the achievements of transgender people as well as raises awareness of the discrimination and challenges the community can face. Employment is an area where there is often discrimination, but there are increasing openings for transgender people in a wide range of professions and management positions.
UNAIDS showcases this progress by catching up with one transgender professional from the Philippines who is breaking the glass ceiling in the corporate world. Born as John Paul Ortega, PeeJay is a transgender woman in her early thirties. She is a manager with Convergys Philippines, which is a leading business process outsourcing company. At work, PeeJay is fondly known as Mandee.
UNAIDS: When did you realize your gender identity?
PeeJay: Even when I was a toddler I had this feeling inside me. I always found it more enjoyable playing with my girl cousins, playing with girl stuff. I was in grade four when I realized that I was different because I started having a crush on a male classmate. I accepted myself back then but I did not tell anyone. When I entered college that was when I was exposed to more possibilities. I grew my hair. I was asked to join a transgender beauty pageant. Even though I was new I won first runner up! I realized that I enjoyed this and I had talents. I started joining different beauty pageants and my Mom accepted me as a gay transitioning into a woman because she saw how well I was doing. I looked presentable and being a woman suited me. Aside from that, joining and winning beauty pageants was a good source of income.
UNAIDS: Please tell us about the work you do?
PeeJay: I am a Compliance and Operational Audit Manager at Convergys Philippines and I support the company’s various clients. I work with top executives in the United States and all over the world. The job allows me to develop in all avenues – as a professional, as well as an individual.
I work in the evenings so my work day begins late. On a typical day, I wake up at 5-6pm, get ready and then drive 30-35 minutes to work. I am able to adapt to this schedule by making sure that my room is very dark. Work starts at 8pm and continues until 5 am. Weekdays are usually just spent working and I only have time for myself and my friends on weekends.
UNAIDS: Do you think transgender women face discrimination when they try to find a job?
PeeJay: Yes, there are still barriers. There are certain requirements on how you should look depending on the specific job. Take my example – I graduated as an industrial psychologist from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. As a fresh graduate, I wanted to become a Human Resource and Recruiting specialist and I applied for a position. During the job interview I was asked if I was willing to cut my hair and change how I looked because as part of my job I would be meeting a lot of people. I was taken aback by that request, because I do not think how you look affects how well you do your job. Neither does your gender identity or sexual orientation. I realized that if this sort of company required that change, I did not want to work there.
Peejay: I chose to look for a job that would not discriminate against me based on what I looked like or who I am. In 2005, the call center industry was a booming industry in the Philippines. There was a lot of buzz about how lucrative the business was and many college graduates were applying for jobs in this industry. I started out at Convergys as a customer service agent and was a consistent top performer and received many incentives and bonuses. I got promoted to be a trainer and then again to my current position, which I have had for five years now.
UNAIDS: Are your co-workers accepting? If so in what ways?
PeeJay: A lot of Filipinos are accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. When I started out as an agent my co-workers were already very accepting. I am a fun loving person who always cracks jokes. I make fun of myself and other people, without hurting their feelings of course, and I think that is why people gravitate towards me.
When I got promoted, that affection my co-workers had for me, changed into respect. They respected me not because of the position I held, but because I proved that I deserved that position. I am authoritative but not demanding. I do not demand respect from colleagues but I feel like I have earned it through my performance and how I treat my work mates.
UNAIDS: From your personal perspective, what is the situation like in the Philippines for transgender women?
PeeJay: I would like to put an emphasis that this is just my perspective, I think a lot of transgender women have the skills and the ability to excel in any field that they want to venture in. We are resilient and we really try to excel in all the endeavours that we take on. If a transgender woman puts her mind to achieving a goal, I firmly believe that she can and she will. However, there is definitely a stereotype. There is a certain thinking that ties transgender women to sex-work especially if they are fond of dressing up, or do so in a sexy manner and put on makeup. I think it is a little unfair because a majority of transgender women are in different professional fields like business, fashion, the arts, and even politics!
UNAIDS: What examples of company policies do you think are helpful for transgender people?
PeeJay: At Convergys, one of our four core values is “Do The Right Thing”. One of the many aspects of doing the right thing is respecting differences. I am a living testament of how well the company is living up to its values. Every employee hired pledges to the company’s Code of Business Conduct and one of the guiding principles is creating and maintaining a safe and inclusive workplace that respects individuals and is free from discrimination. Convergys provides equal opportunity to anyone regardless of age, race, religious beliefs, gender identity or preferences etc. We believe that each individual who has the capability to contribute to the company should have the opportunity to do so. This example should inspire other companies.
PeeJay: At this age, I can honestly say I do not experience discrimination anymore. I have fully transitioned and a lot of people would be shocked to know that I am a transgender woman because it is no longer evident. I am a professional and hold a high position with the biggest private employer here in the Philippines. I think that helps.
But I have been a victim of intimidation and bullying in the past. There was a time in college where I, along with some other friends who were also transitioning, were talking really loudly while eating in the cafeteria. A group of men were annoyed with how noisy we were and came up to us to intimidate us. One of them even threatened to hurt us. Yes, we may have been loud and quite exuberant in our mannerisms but that does not give anyone the right to treat us that way. A lot of young gay and transgender people experience similar incidents – they are bullied and called names. They are frowned upon or laughed at only because of how they look or dress.
UNAIDS: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
PeeJay: I will see, I hope to still be with Convergys, maybe holding a higher position. I see myself continuing to enjoy the things that I love in life like shopping, travelling, meeting new people and just having fun. I also see myself having a life partner and being in a stable relationship – I have been single for a long time now and am in search of true love. I am hoping that in the next five years, he will come along and join me on my beautiful journey as a transgender woman.
UNAIDS: On this occasion, would you like to leave any message for young transgender women out there?
PeeJay: Respect yourself first, it is one of the most important ways to prevent discrimination. Show it by the way you behave in public, how you present yourself, and how you treat others. Then people will respond to you with respect and dignity.