My love-hate relationship with the letter M
The strange choreography of crossing borders as a transgender person
Julie Papango is a clinical laboratory scientist from the Philippines. She has helped set up Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) laboratories in Cambodia, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia and South Sudan. In 2016, Papango immigrated to New York and currently works as a travelling lab scientist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
I have a love/hate relationship with the letter M.
Why? First, it took up a lot of space when I was learning to write in kindergarten. Second, in American Sign Language, you need to clench your fist with your thumb between the ring and the pinky fingers, as if you are keeping a secret, but not really, and rather want to punch someone. On maritime signal flags it is symbolized as a huge white “X” over blue.
On the other hand, it is handy to have as one of your last tiles in Scrabble. With 13 possible two-letter words – the most of any consonant – one can easily rack up additional points to secure a win in a tight game.
In 2009, the letter M became a possible risk to my existence.
I was on my way to Hong Kong for briefings before my anticipated first assignment with MSF in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I was to be supporting tuberculosis laboratories. I thought it would be a great first assignment.
I am a woman of transgender experience. This means I was assigned the letter “M” as my gender marker at birth: male. And having a passport from the Philippines – a mostly Catholic country and one of only two countries in the world to outlaw divorce (the other being the Vatican) – I cannot change my gender marker in my documents in order for it to align with my physical appearance.
So here I was, on my first time overseas. Carrying 20 pounds of luggage and tons of anxiety, I suddenly found myself being escorted to a small room and interrogated by Hong Kong immigration officials.
“What organization are you working with?”
“How many days are you staying?”
“Why don’t you have a return ticket to the Philippines?”
“Do you have friends and family in Hong Kong?”
“How much is in your bank account?”
“Why does your passport say male when you are female?”
“Doctors Without Borders; two days; I am flying to Geneva, then to Bishkek; none; a few thousand pesos.” Then I stopped. With a shaky voice, I said, “I am a transgender woman and I cannot change my gender marker.”
I was kept in that room for 30 minutes and was asked the same questions over and over. Since it was a Sunday, there was no way for them to reach the MSF office, so I was stuck there with my personal documents in my hand and a lump in my throat.
They finally let me leave and apologized. I just kept quiet and tried to stay calm. I later found out I was interrogated because a lot of transgender women pose as tourists to go to Hong Kong and Macau for sex work. At that point I realized there would be risks every time I went through immigration control – just because of the letter M on my passport.
Fast forward to 2012, after I had completed a few assignments with MSF. I found myself applying for an Ethiopian visa in their consulate in Juba, South Sudan. Based on experience, I made sure I looked like the picture in the passport. The process went smoothly, and the visa was attached to my passport. Just in time for me to go to the project and arrange the handover for its closure.
But when the administrator at the consulate was about to release my passport, she noticed the officer changed the gender marker I had circled on the application form.
Though I present female, I had still circled “male,” since that is what is marked on my passport. The officials were confused. I explained to them I am a transgender woman, and I cannot change my legal documents back home. They told me to come back the next day, as they need to consult further if I am allowed to go to Ethiopia. I asked why, and the reason given was I do not have a working visa in South Sudan so they needed to confirm if I can be given a visa to Ethiopia.
We went back and forth for the next three days and finally I was informed they could not allow the visa. The MSF human resources coordinator, a French woman who was very familiar with the labour laws in South Sudan, eloquently explained the situation to them, but with no success. They peeled the visa off my passport. Like in Hong Kong, I did not cry – though I carried the frustration like other hidden scars I accrued for years.
These were two memorable experiences of crossing borders as a transgender woman. I was asked a few times if I am comfortable going to countries like Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan as an international MSF staff member. I always answered I was ready to go to those projects – the bigger question was if those countries were ready for someone who happens to be transgender.
I am not optimistic I will live to see my country allow people to change their gender marker. This is why there’s a diaspora of well-educated transgender people from the Philippines in Europe and North America. It was my catalyst for immigrating to the U.S..
I am also aware I still carry some privilege. I have a good education, access to medical care to be my authentic self and have developed connections both professionally and personally. Most queer and gender non-conforming people are not provided such opportunities. There’s a plethora of stories about queer asylum seekers who are physically and sexually abused, both by their fellow asylum seekers and people in power. These power dynamics are mostly skewed in favour of those who perpetuate inequality.
Access to safe passage is as essential as access to gender-affirming care. This does not discriminate. In many ways a clinical laboratory scientist is as vulnerable as a transgender sex worker in Asia, and queer refugees and asylum seekers in Africa and Latin America. But we also have the capacity to resist systems of oppression and inequity so others can create and choreograph their own stories of humanity while crossing borders.