By Michael Roderick
Staff Writer

From Time Magazine covers and Emmy Award nominations, to best-selling novels and countless public appearances, trans* individuals have become much more visible in the public spotlight of American popular culture recently. With trans* women of color such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock rising so rapidly and equality issues finally being discussed in the legislature, court system and public eye, it would seem that situations are finally improving for trans* individuals across the world. Or are they really?

In the midst of all of the publicity surrounding groundbreaking “firsts” for trans* entertainers and activists, it is simple to miss some of the news that gets filtered through our mainstream media outlets. Very little coverage has been given to the case of a transgender woman from the Philippines who was found murdered in a hotel bathroom just last month. The accused in this case is a 19-year-old U.S. Marine who was stationed in the Philippines as part of a joint training exercise between the two nations. This incident has many questioning whether certain aspects of this international partnership should be allowed to continue.

The deceased, a 26-year-old transgender woman named Jennifer Laude, met the accused Marine on the night of October 11, mere hours before she was found strangled and drowned with her head resting on the toilet. PFC Joseph Scott Pemberton has been named as the suspect in the killing of Ms. Laude and will face charges in a Philippine Court. However, the U.S. troops are in the Philippines under a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was signed by the two nations in 1999.

This agreement, which has been highly scrutinized by many progressive Philippine groups over the years, allows for the United States Armed Forces to request that the Philippines waive their right to prosecute U.S. military personnel. If the Philippine government wishes to retain their right of jurisdiction over a crime, such as the murder of Jennifer Laude, there are very specific political and judicial hoops to jump through in order to be in compliance with the VFA.

First off, despite recognizing the Philippine jurisdiction, the VFA stipulates that the legal proceedings must be complete within a year, and during that time the accused is to stay in U.S. custody. On top of that, when a case is decided in Philippine court, the U.S. has “an unspecified amount of time to appeal.” The murder of Jennifer Laude has many progressive groups, LGBT advocates and anti-imperialists once again calling for the Philippine government to end the VFA with the United States, as they believe this case is starkly reminiscent of the Subic Rape Case which took place in the Philippines almost 10 years ago.

In 2005, U.S. Marine Daniel Smith was convicted of rape and sentenced to 40 years in a Philippine prison. This was the first and last time that a member of the U.S. military was convicted in the Philippine court system. Shortly after the conviction, the powerful American political machine quickly got to work to usurp power and jurisdiction away from the Philippines. Smith served only 25 days before the United States pressured the Philippines into releasing Smith back into U.S. custody for his appeals.

A few short years later, when the victim finally refused to keep reliving the situation in court appearances and withdrew her testimony, Smith was acquitted in appellate court. While the VFA’s article on Criminal Jurisdiction is supposed to ensure justice for the victims as well as protecting the rights of the accused, many believe that the results of the Subic Case undermined Philippine sovereignty and recalled memories of U.S. colonization.

With this situation as the backdrop for the forthcoming trial of Joseph Pemberton, there is no wonder that there are renewed calls for the ending VFA and for the United States to leave of the Philippines for good.

Unfortunately, a lot of the talk surrounding this particular case revolves around political diplomacy as the United States and the Philippines are trying to work out agreements that would allow more military access for U.S. forces in the future. A Marine Corps Times article discussed the situation and broke it down to military strategy:

“In the short term, the homicide will get a lot of local attention, and U.S. forces will have to act carefully. But in the long run, the slaying won’t destroy the relationship between the two countries – both are concerned about China, and they have to rely on each other to satisfy their interests.”

The callous nature in which these experts discuss this situation should be a wakeup call to anyone who thinks that the United States is hoping for justice for Jennifer Laude and her family. The same article goes on to quote former Marine Officer Dakota Wood who is currently an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Wood stated that the “larger story in the background is China, and the Philippines realizes that it can’t do much on its own against a big bully.”

There are many individuals, both in the Philippines and here in the United States, who believe that the “larger story” here should not be military interests in the South Pacific, but rather the death of a woman at the hands of visiting military personnel. The story here should be about the lack of respect for sovereign laws, the historical lack of respect for the criminal justice system in the Philippines and most importantly, the lack of respect for human life.

In a time when our country prides itself on inclusion and equality, things in which the United States aspires to lead the world, we have seen more reported murders of trans* individuals than at any other point in history. Transgender Europe, who has been keeping track of the reported killings of trans* people across the globe, has revealed that in the past 12 months 226 trans* individuals have been killed – the most of any 12 month period on record.

Just a couple of days from now, on November 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance will be observed in over 20 countries across the world. It is my hope that with more visibility of trans* activists in entertainment, politics and advocacy we may finally be able to bring the discussion of transphobia to the forefront. The murders of trans* individuals, particularly trans* women of color, have risen every year since 2008, yet these issues never seem to be at the top of any politician’s list. We must remember that trans* lives matter, all lives matter and that must be respected by everyone, civilian or service member, both here and abroad.

Image by J. Tewell

Note from the author: There is a lot of variation when it comes to gender and gender identity. ‘Trans*’ is an all-inclusive term used for individuals whose gender identity falls outside of the cis-gender binary. Identities are too diverse to be categorized into small boxes, so the LGBT community has adopted the umbrella term ‘Trans*’ in order to be inclusive of all.