The Aftermath Of A Marine's Conviction In The Death Of A Philippine Trans Woman
Trans sex workers in Olongapo, Philippines still don’t disclose their trans status to clients, even though a U.S. Marine was recently convicted of killing a Filipina sex worker upon discovering she was trans. Since the conviction — for the lesser charge of homicide — locals are eager to reestablish normal relations with U.S. troops. But will sex workers remain vulnerable?
It’s close to midnight in early December on Waterfront Road in Olongapo, Philippines, which stretches along the water’s edge where U.S. military vessels dock. Dimly lit by yellow tungsten lamps, women’s figures in tight clothing — short dresses or body-hugging jeans — walk down the street, shadows covering their faces. The women tend to travel in small groups of two to six, as do larger figures that come into sight less frequently: foreign men, as it turns out, mostly white, a few black. There are rows of tiny lights on the ocean tonight, from a couple of U.S. military ships in the distance.
At the Olongapo Hall of Justice the afternoon before, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton was sentenced to six to twelve years in Philippine prison for killing Jennifer Laude, a trans Filipina sex worker, in October 2014. His sentence was downgraded from the usual 20 to 40 years for homicide under Philippine law, in part because Laude failed to disclose to Pemberton that she was trans.
The courthouse is two miles north of Waterfront Road along Rizal Avenue Extension, which turns into Manila Avenue after a bridge over the Kataklan River, but not before passing a roundabout that leads to Magsaysay Drive. There, in a motel near the end of the block, is where Pemberton choked Laude to unconsciousness, then dunked her head in the shallow water of a toilet until she died.
There’s a hush after crossing the river now, as narrow streets full of people give way to broad avenues and wide sidewalks. This area used to be part of the Subic Naval Base, a major U.S. military facility that was closed in 1992, after a volcano eruption that resulted in widespread damage coincided with a wave of Philippine nationalism. The base was then converted into a tax- and duty-free commercial area called the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, with its U.S.-built facilities repurposed for commercial and business use. U.S. service members used to be able to roam around the area outside the former base during their leisure time, where a large number of bars, massage parlors, and other establishments that catered specifically to their needs awaited them. But since Laude’s death last year, the U.S. military has confined service members to the Freeport, and its long stretch of bars and restaurants, right next to the ocean.
“Why would I tell a man I’m trans? I need to say I’m a real woman or they wouldn’t want me.”
Now, a young woman, with hair halfway down her back, walks alone on Waterfront, in tight jeans and a shirt with quarter-length sleeves. Her figure is slim and taller than most of the girls on the street. At the very end of the road, off to the side, is an area that the city has fitted with fluorescent streetlights but has yet to be developed. “I take my customers there,” the woman says in Tagalog as she gestures toward the darkness beyond the road, “or we do it in their cars.”
Rose Ann claims she’s 17, but her voice hasn’t noticeably dropped. Her skin is dark, her face long and delicate, with a slightly upturned nose that gives her both a distinctive and proud appearance. It’s doubtful that anyone would identify her as any different from other young Filipina girls, except maybe that she’s taller and thinner than the norm.
When asked if she knew Jennifer Laude, Rose Ann says that Laude once told her she was beautiful and asked her to hang out with her crew, but she felt too young and intimidated by sex work. She saw Laude at local hangouts every once in a while, but did not speak to her except for that one time. Rose Ann recalled that single interaction with the beguiling transgender woman who was dark like her after she’d heard from a friend that she died.
Even though Pemberton killed Laude after finding out that she was trans, Rose Ann insists that she needs to keep her transgender status from U.S. service members who pay her for sex.
“Why would I want to tell a man I’m trans?” she asks, aghast. “I need to say I’m a real woman or they wouldn’t want me.”
Other trans sex workers, along with many locals and members of the LGBT community, confirm Rose Ann’s account: Trans sex workers in Olongapo keep their status secret from service members as a matter of course. These workers have operated in Olongapo even after Laude’s death, taking businessmen from Korea, China, and other countries as customers when U.S. ships were prevented from docking there. In the verdict’s aftermath, local officials and residents are eager for U.S. troops to come back and bring money into the city as they once did. The mayor’s office has convened a task force to prevent violent incidents involving trans women and U.S. military service members from occurring in the future, which encourages trans sex workers to disclose their trans status early on. But, because disclosing would inevitably lose them clients, there’s little sign of meaningful change to the conditions that led to Laude’s death at the hands of an U.S. military service member.
For her part, Rose Ann exhibits a confidence beyond even her stated age. She asserts that what happened to Laude won’t happen to her.
“I evaluate their character,” she says, her chin jutting out defiantly as she discusses her customers. “I only go with the gentlemen, and I only give blow jobs. I don’t let them touch me down there.”
But Rose Ann also occasionally goes to motels with customers, where other trans workers have reported finding it more difficult to hide their status, as Laude did the night she died. Rose Ann says she makes sure to be near a phone so she can call in case there’s trouble.
According to a number of other trans women who saw her at the bar the night she and Pemberton met, Laude also took this precaution, and even made sure to bring a friend whenever she had a customer. On being informed of this, Rose Ann expresses a fatalism common in the Philippines, a country that is both deeply Catholic and prone to superstition.
“It was simply Jennifer’s hour,” Rose Ann says. “That was why she died.”
Jennifer’s mother, Julita Laude, does not live in Olongapo, but in the far-flung province of Leyte. She took a ferry and a bus for more than 20 hours to see her daughter’s killer get convicted. She spends a quiet afternoon in her daughter Michelle’s apartment following the verdict, after enduring a battle with Pemberton’s camp the previous night about where the Marine would be detained following his conviction. That fight ended when Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde ordered Pemberton to be housed at a military camp near the capital, separate from other Philippine prisoners but under local guard.
Julita sits on a brown floral-print couch in Michelle’s modest one-bedroom duplex. Despite the conviction, she is far from satisfied, not just because of the short length of Pemberton’s sentence, but also because of the judge’s decision to keep Pemberton away from Philippine jail.
“It’s like if I wore the mask of a younger woman then he killed me when he found out that I am old.”
“We already know he’s a killer, and he still gets special treatment,” she says, her eyes welling up with tears. She also confides that there has been strife between her and Jennifer’s eldest sister, Marilou, over Julita’s decision to use some of the money from Jennifer’s bank account to pay for renovations on her house in Leyte, where she lives with her second husband. She’s concerned about how the money from the judge’s verdict, about 4 million pesos, or around $100,000 – a substantial sum by Philippine standards – would affect her relationships with her children.
Julita’s face shifts from sadness to anger as she recalls another aspect of the case: the judge’s decision that Jennifer’s failure to disclose her trans status was a mitigating factor, which led to Pemberton’s lighter sentence. While Judge Ginez-Jabalde ruled that “[t]here is no lawful aggression that justifies [Pemberton] to defend his honor,” throwing out Pemberton’s claim that he acted in self-defense when he choked Laude, she also wrote, “The mitigating circumstance of passion and obfuscation is present in this case.” The family’s head attorney, Harry Roque, later expressed his anger over this part of the verdict, asserting that Pemberton’s action was “a hate crime against the LGBT community.”