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Kaye Candaza: A Pinay’s fight for trans rights

Kaye Candaza: A Pinay’s fight for trans rights

Kaye Candaza Pinay transwoman LGBTQ advocate

After experiencing forced corrective surgery, domestic abuse, to workplace discrimination, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ activist Kaye Candaza is tirelessly fighting for equal rights.


When Kaye was five, she would stealthily pick one of her mom’s lipstick tubes on top of the shelf inside her parent’s bedroom and quickly tuck it inside her pocket when nobody was around. At school, she would dab a little on her lips, cheeks and eyelids. Be- fore coming home, she would wash her face clean.

Born in Masbate, the fifth of nine siblings already knew that she was different. That she was not what she was born to be. But in the eyes of

the world, especially her father’s, she was born a “boy”, a son, his Junior. He made her understand that any visible “pilantik” of her fingers, any signs of effeminate gestures would result in harsh punishments.

Domestic abuse and bullying

Kaye would sometimes forget to wash her made-up face. Her father would beat her, dunk her in a drum full of water or tie her to get rid of her girlie ways. “My mother couldn’t do anything. He was the boss of the family. There was no way she could stop him from punishing me when he caught me wearing lipstick,” relates Kaye Candaza, 39, during our Zoom interview from her house in Amsterdam.

“My father decided my gender and had me undergo a corrective surgery to “close” my vagina.”

Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist
Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist

The beating continued until she was 6. When her grandmother saw the bruises on the arms and legs of her granddaughter, she took her in. “Despite being conservative, my grandmother embraced me for who I was. Living on the farm with her was one of the happiest times of my life. She had cows. We would cross
a river to go to school. My aunts would send me beautiful dresses and make up.”

But beyond the protective shield of her grandmother, she was left on her own to face the outside world like homophobic teachers who would make derisive comments, making fun of her looks, her hair, her walk.

“Although bullying was common, I felt that the community where I grew up embraced me. I bonded with my queer classmates, supportive friends and teachers. But we cannot dismiss conservatism in the church, my neighbors, at school. The imposition of gender binary on us is harsh. We normalize bullying as part of life. It was traumatizing but I got the hang of it.”

Intersex people
Source: UNHR

Female all along

At 13, Kaye started taking feminizing hormonal pills to look more babae and beautiful, to develop breasts, have softer skin and curvy hips. It was during this time when Kaye made a big discovery about herself. When one of her aunts revealed that, “You were really born a girl,” Kaye was shocked and intrigued.

She found out that she was born intersex, with both male and female anatomy and genitals that could belong to either a girl or a boy. Kaye was furious but felt vindicated at the same time. She was a girl all along! The seemingly invisible scar from the corrective surgery on her female genital was her proof.

“My father decided my gender and had me undergo a corrective surgery to “close” my vagina. I confronted him but he told me that the damage had been done. That I was a ́man ́.”

When she came to Europe years later, she would have the surgery corrected back to her female organ. “It is now fabulous down there,” jokes Kaye, adding in a serious tone, “the decision should not come from the parents, the doctors nor the society. There are people who don’t have any idea that they are intersex. When parents decide for their kids, it is a decision that exposes the children to suffer the consequences in the future because, one day their kids might grow up different outside the gender binary.“

Kaye hadn’t seen her father for a long time since their confrontation, until they met by accident on one of her visits to Masbate. “He hugged me and cried. He told me, ̈Palangga ta ikaw, I love you.”

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Fighting for trans rights

Kaye joined the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philip- pines (STRAP), an organization that advocates, supports and fights discrimination against transpinays’ (transgender/transexual Filipinas). STRAP opened her eyes to activism. “I joined protests against school uniform policies. It’s not only about policymaking, but also advocacy. We held dialogues with progressive- minded politicians and parents of trans kids.”

Kay was 16 when her grand- mother died. She moved to Manila to live with her aunts. In Manila, she frequented beauty salons and the parloristas became her mentors. “Most of them were runaways from different provinces. I realized we had a common experience. They helped me find my voice.”

There, she discovered her interest in hairdressing and make-up. Instead of becoming a nurse, which she initially took up in college to keep up with the string of nurses in her family, she went on to enroll in hairstyling and make-up classes at Ricky Reyes and David Saloon’s beauty schools.

“I met all kinds of transgenders at work and they were curious. It was my chance to educate them on self medicating. I told them about the many times I collapsed because I was not properly informed about the pros and cons of taking hormonal pills.”

As an active member of STRAP, Kaye attended international events and seminars on transgender and transphobia. She met her Dutch boyfriend at one of these conventions. Holding a partnership visa, she moved to Amsterdam in 2011 after years of being in a long distance relationship.

“He would be up for three nights without sleeping, taking drugs or playing video games. He would also try to rape me. When I resisted, he would hit me so hard I lost consciousness.”

Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist

Activist Kaye Candaza

Another country: same abuses

The first few months were relatively happy for Kaye and her boyfriend. Soon however, he became distant and cold. One snowy after- noon in winter, Kaye came home to find her things packed inside a gar- bage bag lying outside their house. She was being kicked out.

“He would be up for three nights without sleeping, taking drugs or playing video games. He would also try to rape me. When I resisted, he would hit me so hard I lost consciousness.”

Six months later, Kaye received a notice from the Immigration Office that she no longer had the right to stay in the Netherlands.

“I was hopping from one place to another so as not to become too much of a burden to my friends. I was homeless for a time before I moved to Maastricht. I had to support my mother’s dialysis and hospitalization but my options were limited so I worked as a sex worker to survive.”

Why didn’t she go home?

“My life was already here in Europe and before coming here, I swore that not until I had my proper gender in my documents would I go back to the Philippines.”

Cycle of oppression

Months later, Kaye met a guy from an online dating site. After two months, he invited her to live with him, promising to fix her papers.

Kaye was hopeful, but it didn’t take long for her to discover that her boyfriend was a drug addict and a violent man.

“He would be up for three nights without sleeping, taking drugs or playing video games. He would also try to rape me. When I resisted, he would hit me so hard I lost consciousness.”

The physical abuses escalated as months dragged on. “One time, he tased me and I collapsed. He panicked because he thought I was dead. He told the paramedics that I had an overdose of hormonal pills. The police came and found the taser and guns.” When Kaye regained consciousness, she told the police what happened. Her boyfriend was taken to the station but was freed the next day.

Kaye was trapped. Her immigration documents weren’t in order yet and she didn’t want to go back to her previous job. Despite the abuses, she stayed on. “There were times that he was nice and sweet to me. I didn’t stop begging him to process my papers until he did. I was finally given a 5-year visa.”

With her papers in order, Kaye worked at an old people center. But her boyfriend was always suspicious that she would leave him. Kaye had already been living in The Netherlands for five years and had applied for naturalization. One day, he asked Kaye to stop working and stay at home, cutting her ties from her Filipino friends and making her financially dependent again.

“I didn’t give a fuck anymore if I became undocumented again. I wanted my freedom back.”

Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist

Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman

“He wanted to control my life. He hacked my iCloud and put spyware on my phone. He nearly killed me in one of our rows. He broke my nose. My face got deformed. He took my phone away and locked me in my room. I begged him to lend me my phone and swore I would not tell anybody about what happened.”

She secretly sent photos of her face to her friend Marlon, who immediately contacted Migrante and Gabriela for help. Then she planned her escape. She looked for her pass- port, searched the key and sneaked out of the house. “I didn’t give a fuck anymore if I became undocumented again. I wanted my freedom back.”

She reported the incident to the police but when she showed them her passport with her real name and gender, “They stared at me mockingly. I felt racialised and misgendered.” During the years of abuse, Kaye had filed four police blotters but nothing came of them.

Workplace discrimination

With her new found freedom, Kaye applied for work at an airline catering company. During the inter- view, she saw the confusion on her HR interviewers’ faces. What locker room would she use? Instead of men’s or women’s she was assigned the one for people with disability.

She would experience harassment at work. “I always had this fear that my colleagues would discover that I was trans. Sometimes I really needed to pee but I couldn’t because it was busy and they would see me. I would try to hold it, putting my health at risk.”

Kaye went to HR once more, only to be told that some Middle Eastern women might feel offended and uncomfortable having her with them in the female restroom. But as it turned out, these women didn’t see any problem at all. “They told HR that I was always welcome to use the women’s locker.”

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HR changed their policy. She was finally allowed to use the women’s locker room. “I felt powerful. I am grateful for the black and Arab women who spoke up for me. We had started the conversation on how to treat bi-cultural trans people. I was lucky because I know that there are some queer employees who are afraid to speak out.”

A law to protect LGBTQ+ rights

In pre-colonial Philippines, gen- der plurality, inclusivity and diversity were widely accepted. The Babaylans (Filipino shaman priest/priest- ess were either men or women) were revered and the cross dressing Asogs (feminized men) were respected. When the colonizers came, gender binary was introduced and imposed. Queerness was considered a sin and an abomination.

“Many people don’t know the extent of violence towards us. In the eyes of society, we are a bunch of happy people. They don’t have any idea how serious discrimination can be, how life-threatening.”

Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist

Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist

While the Philippine society is friendly towards transgenders, there is no law protecting them from the threats of violence and discrimination. They remain vulnerable and prone to abuse and harassment which normally come from family members, classmates, teachers, workmates, healthcare professionals, social service personnel and police officers.

According to a study commissioned by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, one in every three trans experienced violence or was threatened with violence. “Many people don’t know the extent of violence towards us. In the eyes of society, we are a bunch of happy people. They don’t have any idea how serious discrimination can be, how life-threatening. We need laws like SOGIE that are about dignity, respect, equal rights, equal treatment,” relates Kaye.

Officially a woman

Kaye cried profusely when she finally got hold of her Dutch Identity Card. It was her crowning moment, so to speak.”Everything seemed right. I stared at my photo, my gender and my new name: Kaye, which sounds like ́K ́, may Karapatan, may Kakayahan.”

As part of Kaye’s naturalization process, she signed a declaration of permanent conviction that she be- longed to another gender than stated on her birth certificate. She also needed to declare that she under- stood the repercussions of changing her gender identification. When it was approved, she was issued a new birth certificate and identity card bearing her new gender and her new name. All traces of Joseph Jr., the name her parents gave her, the name synonymous with bullying and suffering, were no longer visible in her new legal documents.

“I learned that we really had to be political. Our lives are being used as political debates. We need to elect progressive minded politicians who are pro-minorities.”

Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist
Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist

From then on, Kaye didn’t have to explain herself every time she went to job interviews. There were no more awkward glances and con- fused faces from her interviewers. “They know from the start that I am legal and transpinay, and they accept me. I feel affirmed by society.”

In 2000, then former senator Miriam Defensor Santiago filed a bill against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. A bill has also been filed against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and subsequent bills against sexual discrimination have been re-filed both in the Upper and Lower Houses. In 2017, Senator Risa Hontiveros filed the now much-debated Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill. None had been enacted into law until today despite the massive support from LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ groups.

Kaye laments that those who are vocal against the injustices towards transgenders are being red-tagged, or branded as communists or terrorists, which are punishable by law in the Philippines.

“In STRAP and Ladlad, I learned that we really had to be political. Our lives are being used as political debates. We need to elect progressive minded politicians who are pro-minorities.”

After two failed relationships, Kaye finally found the true love of her life. “It is a Tinderella story,” she jokes. She now works at a luxury goods shop at Schiphol Airport and is a senior member of Transwomen Advocates of the Philippines as well as the head of Filipino LGBT Europe’s Trans & Gender Diverse Committee. She is an active volunteer helping minorities, mostly domestic violence survivors and runaway brides.

“I am lucky to have a strong foundation from childhood or else I could have ended up in the grave. Thanks to my mom, my grandmother and the Babaylan spirit in me. I will continue fighting because humanity is lost once we are isolated and excluded.”

Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist
Kaye Candaza, Filipino transwoman and LGBTQ+ rights activist

In 2022, Kaye appeared in Tulipa, a documentary film that tells the stories of Filipino LGBTQ members living in the Netherlands. The film was shown in major cities around Europe. It was at the film showing organized by The Filipino Expat Magazine, producer Chris Sta Brigida of the Filipino LGBT Europe, and Bahaghari Barcelona, where I met Kaye.

Kaye’s story is just one of the million transgenders who have struggled and are still struggling to survive the cruel reality of being non-binary. Now that their voices are getting louder, Kaye dreams of a world where everybody is equal under the law and nobody is denied their rights to live a safe life.

“I am lucky to have a strong foundation from childhood or else I could have ended up in the grave.

Thanks to my mom, my grandmother and the Babaylan spirit in me. I will continue fighting because humanity is lost once we are isolated and excluded.”

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