EXCLUSIVE: Trans Woman And LGBTQIA+ Advocate Heart Diño Is The Non-Conformist Leader We Need
For someone who has had to endure vitriol for most of her adult life, Heart Diño manages to grin and laugh, but her unbreakable gaze and confidence in owning her story suggests that she is more than just a succesfully transitioned transgender woman hoping to share her man-to-woman experience.
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There are worse things she's been called and judged for, she reveals, yet in place of the trauma or shame you might expect from someone who has been subjected to such treatment repeatedly, is pride in who she's become and happiness in her decision to live her life according to her rules.
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"Telling my story or just being here, it says we really have to accept transgender women as women. They’re not less of a woman because they were born without a vagina. I’m just really happy about it," says Heart, once again flashing her smile that's contagious in its sincerity.
You'd be beaming too, if you were Heart.
These days, she's a practicing actuarian in a loving relationship and surrounded by mentors, lifelong friends, and an accepting family. She openly answers questions about legally changing her name, the surgery she's undergone to physically change her sex as well as the other forms of medical treatment she takes to aid in her transition.
Most recently, she was also tapped by international apparel label Levi's to be one of its #IShapeMyWorld campaign ambassadors for International Women's Month.
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Truly, Heart makes it appear that life as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in the Philippines is just fine and dandy, but on the contrary, all of this is just simply the reaping of the seeds she sowed during the most adverse times of her life.
She remembers that that smile wasn't always there.
Not too long ago, Heart was a college student at the Univeristy of the Philippines, Diliman with hopes and dreams and a vision of her future like many of her peers.
But unlike majority of her classmates, she was on a path of self-discovery and self-acceptance, one that involved coming to terms with her desire to become a woman despite being born a biological man. Acknowledging this wasn't the hard part, though; it was coming out to her family and grappling with the potential consequences of being shunned by those closest to her.
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For days and days throughout college, Heart would often leave the house with one outfit, but would bring a different set of clothes to change into, one that was often paired with makeup and an aura of femininity she would shed like clockwork once it was time to head back home to mom and dad.
At the time, her safety net was that her very best friends already knew, and loved her just the same. Heart knew there was hope.
And as the narrative goes, then came the time that Heart finally said no to hiding, and yes to living her life as a woman, despite, well, anything—it was the only way she could achieve authenticity and self-love.
She told her mom and dad and siblings about who she really was, and what she wanted to do about it.
Hearts might have stopped beating and simultaneously beat too fast in the breathless moment, but as it turned out, Heart was one of the lucky ones.
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Though her mother needed some time, she eventually recognized that she had gained another daughter. Heart's siblings practiced calling her ate instead of kuya, while also respectfully granting her wish to be called "she" from then on. Heart's father, on the other hand, is still a work in progress, but Heart is willing to wait it out if it means becoming a living example to patriarchal Philippine society that a father can come to accept a transgender child.
If there's anything Heart has learned from her experiences as a trans woman, it's that patience is needed—not just with oneself, but with others who have yet to be educated about the realities of being transgender and more importantly, the misconceptions attached to it.
Once they—her father and others like him—are better informed, only then can we all begin to move forward.
And so, a little at a time, Heart moved hopped from one life milestone to another, one of her biggest accomplishments being something she never saw coming.
In 2012, Heart made national headlines. It might have been the first time she smiled her signature smile for the first time.
News broke that Heart had become her university's first-ever transgender student council chairperson, and it was groundbreaking.
She ran on the platform of gender equality, a message she was happy to send out to the world with the sole acts of running and campaigning; winning was just the (shocking) cherry on the cake for her.
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Recalling what that time was like for her, she says, "Feeling ko, ang pinakamalaking contribution ng victory ko inside UP and outside, is really the discussion. The discussion of what a transgender [person] really is."
"People started talking about it, and I think that's the best way to really be understood, or at least [spark] curiosity about what a transgender person is," she continues.
After all, when people know more, they fear less; when they understand more, they judge less. Heart's victory and continuous efforts in advocating for the understanding of the plights, struggles, and needs of her fellow LGTBQIA+ members is solid foundation for this.
Today, seven years after she became a flag-bearer for transgender Fiipinos, her fire hasn't dimmed one bit.
If anything, she's become braver and more self-assured.
Although no longer as active in her university's LGTBQIA+ actvities, she continues to fight for the same cause by addressing a much wider audience. From rallying on campus, she's moved on to rallying the nation.
In doing so, she's provided crucial looks into the lives of transgender individuals, opening the public's eyes to their challenges and hopefully, catching the attention of legislators who have the power to turn shifting attitudes towards members of the LGBTQIA+ community into actual, helpful laws that can impact their lives in concrete ways.
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Providing insight to her audience, she cites some issues transgender individuals are often confronted with, but have little to no means to address:
1. The scarcity of appropriate health clinics: Heart uses herself as an example. When she began transitioning to a woman at age 18, she experimented with hormone therapy, only heeding the advice of others who had done it themselves. She didn't exactly seek formal medical advice at first, as there was no one to give it to her, or other young people, hoping to explore the decision of becoming transgender.
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2. The lack of psycho-social support: Becoming a transgender individual does not just require physically changing one's body. One's whole mindset shifts, as they're practically being reborn into the world as a whole new person who will be treated, seen and spoken to differently based on their gender. Hence, the decision to become transgender is also a massive psychological and emotional shift, one that would be made easier if trans people know that support for them is more accessible.
3. The necessity of a language change: If using racial slurs is seriously looked down upon (and at times punishable by law), why can't offensive language used to demean LGBTQIA+ indviduals also be disallowed? Parlorista, pekeng babae, bakla "lang." These terms and more like them are used solely for the purpose to hurt, wound, and diminish the value of a person, and they have to stop.
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4. The need for protection: It's difficult enough for women to be protected from abusers and harrassers, but when it comes to trans women, the experience is magnified to practically infinite levels. Heart explains that if they report an incident of abuse, rare are the times they're taken seriously from the get-go. The instinct is to brand them as having "asked for it," as flirtatious, or even as showing off and wanting that kind of attention.
The list goes on, but Heart manages to paint a pretty thorough picture of the point she's trying to make.
It's a lot to ponder on as International Women's Month is just about to wrap up its first week of celebrations as of this writing, but it just goes to show how much work has yet to be done, how much more there is to learn, and how much more there is to teach.
If, before this, we've all only considered biological women in the context of this yearly celebration, it's okay; Heart has accomplished part of her life's mission if beginning today, we start to include trans women in the picture as they are also women.
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And of course, Heart, though dedicating many of her extra-curricular activites to empowering transgender people, also has a message for men: "They grew up in privilege. They have a lot of privileges in the world, I think it’s about time for them to [share] these privileges and really give back to women and to all genders."
This of course, she says with a smile.
From the point of view of Heart and her fellow transgender individuals, it's really not asking for a lot. It's simply affording human beings dignity and respect—an act that should be given freely, an act that is gender-neutral.
A supporter of and friend to all genders.
A fulfilled partner to a loving man.
Authentic in mind, body, and spirit.
Driven by principles and grounded by values.
True to herself.
This is who Heart Diño is.
Photo courtesy of Levi's