Melai Lopez felt that she was different even as a child. Growing up, the discussion on SOGIE hasn’t even started yet in the country and the word trans wasn’t even mentioned until much further into Melai’s future.
“So when I was a kid I definitely knew I was different,” she shares. “It manifested of course in my behaviour, in my habits, in my mannerisms. I have two brothers, no sisters. I was markedly different from the two siblings that I have.”
Born and raised in Cagayan de Oro, Melai didn’t meet anyone who shared her experiences until she moved to Manila for college. At Ateneo De Manila University, she encountered a group of friends who called themselves “The Doll House.” She narrates, “It’s basically a group of friends, mostly gay men, but there are also some trans women in the group. I just naturally gravitated towards the trans women.”
This was during the early years of the 2000s, and at the time, no one talked about transitioning or the full spectrum of the LGBTQIA+ community. “Back then, the terminology was ‘being effem’,” she explains. “It was just the other end of the gay spectrum — super gay — and that’s how I saw myself at the time. Being super gay just did not feel like the correct term for what my experience was.”
On a dinner out after a volleyball game, Melai didn’t have anything to wear so she opted to borrow clothes from a friend. She narrates, “all she had was a pair of spaghetti straps and an extra pair of high heels. I was already wearing baby tees and wide legged pants but I never wore anything as feminine as spaghetti strap clothing and I tried it on one night and it really felt very different.”
She calls the moment “an awakening.” It was then that she decided it was something that she wanted to do. “ I slowly transitioned in terms of my clothing and it also helped that I was roommates at the time with another person who was also transitioning,” she adds.
A Supportive Community
Finding your community becomes an important part of one’s feeling of being able to belong somewhere. It was much later during her professional life that Melai was introduced to STRAP, Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines. Through STRAP, Melai was introduced to SOGIE and to the terminologies and it allowed her to “wrap my head around what I was experiencing.”
She claimed her womanhood in 2008. But it didn’t come with its own set of hurdles.
Despite an impressive resume as a project manager and working for the BPO industry, Melai would still face discrimination. She shares two stories:
“In a previous workplace, I was told that if I wanted to be successful — and I was already a project manager at the time — I was told by my boss that if I wanted to be taken seriously I had to dress differently.”
“There was also a time when I was looking for a job and a friend of mine referred me to a company. I had a really brilliant interview. I have to say that was one of the best interviews of my life and when I followed up with my friend, she did hear back from the company and she said, “Why did you go to the interview wearing makeup and the clothes that you usually wear? Did you think you would get hired wearing that?” She knew me and how I presented myself before she referred me to the company. Why would she say that?”
Melai surmised that if that was their only feedback, then her being a trans woman was the only thing that affected the result of her interview.
“The more interesting part of this was that I read up on this company,” she continues, “and it was written in their company’s core values and principles and it said, very explicitly, that they advocated for diversity and inclusion.”