(SPOT.ph) Transwoman student Sessy Maravillo traded pants for a skirt as her uniform at school and went viral on Facebook for shedding light on what it means to have gender-neutral uniforms.
In her post, Maravillo thanked Leyte National High School in Tacloban for allowing her to express her gender with her preferred uniform. Her trans community needs to feel comfortable, she said, and the adoption of gender-neutral uniforms is a step towards a more "compassionate society."
"On behalf of being a transwoman, I want to speak for wearing uniform according to the person's gender identity to be allowed or accepted. I hope that in the near future, other schools will also conform to gender-friendly wearing of uniform," Maravillo wrote on her Facebook post in September.
Maravilla's post came a month after LGBTQIA+ activist and actress Mela Habijan lobbied for the Department of Education to reinstate the Gender Responsive Basic Education Policy following several instances of trans students being stopped from coming to class wearing dresses and being told to cut their hair so they can attend their own graduation ceremony
With struggles like this and the return of face-to-face classes, the talk on gender-neutral uniforms is back in the spotlight. Maravillo may have experienced a win at her own school, but it's clear this is not the prevailing narrative in our country. What are the steps being taken to fully enforce this in the Philippines?
Also read: He, She, They: UP Diliman to Follow Students' Gender Identity in Records
What are gender-neutral uniforms?
Gender-neutral uniforms refer to unisex clothing that can be worn by students of any gender identity. Traditional school uniforms are often designed with gender-specific elements, with females by birth expected to wear skirts and males by birth expected to wear pants. Gender-neutral uniforms deviate from this norm by offering all options on the table.
For other schools, gender-neutral uniforms mean something else: it’s not so much about the unisex clothing, but the freedom to choose. This means that students are given the permission to wear what they want from a selection of gender-neutral options like shirts, shorts, and pants. Doing so allows LGBTQIA+ students to express themselves freely without fear of discrimination or harassment.
This is supported by a DepEd order, and a subsequent memorandum affirming the order thanks to Habijan's efforts, which ensures recognition and acceptance of LGBTQIA+ students and teachers in schools nationwide. This memo was seen as a significant step towards promoting inclusivity and recognizing diversity.
Meanwhile, the Commission on Higher Education’s Memorandum 1 s2015 highlights the importance of gender mainstreaming to institutionalize gender equality, gender responsiveness, and gender sensitivity.
While Commission on Higher Education (CHED) said it still couldn't promise more inclusive policies, it said it is committed to “studying the matter thoroughly with the assistance and expertise of the Technical Panel for Gender and Women's Studies composed of prominent feminists in the country.”
Beyond inclusivity, gender-neutral uniforms have the power to recalibrate the student focus towards proper education. The Commission on Human Rights said that DepEd’s Gender Responsive Basic Education Policy will ensure that “education institutions remain learner-friendly and are progressively working towards gender equality in educational outcomes.”
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What's the state of gender-neutral uniforms in the Philippines?
In November 2022, the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Manila also dropped its sex-based guidelines on school uniforms in favor of a gender-neutral policy, claiming to be the first public university to do so. In a move to truly create an all-inclusive environment, Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Manila (PLM) said students with religious beliefs or cultural traditions can be exempt from the rules upon coordination with the student services office.
“This is a simple yet meaningful gesture to demonstrate that PLM is a safe space for academic freedom and gender expression,” PLM president Emmanuel Leyco said in a statement.
Following in PLM’s lead in implementing gender-neutral uniforms are Colegio de Sta. Rita de San Carlos in Negros Occidental, Valencia National High School in Bukidnon, Southern Luzon State University in Quezon.
Just this March, Senator Raffy Tulfo filed a bill pushing for what was dubbed as gender-neutral uniforms in both private and public schools at all levels. Called “Pants for Her Act," it will allow female students to wear pants in addition to or instead of skirts. He said this will also lower their chances of getting mosquito bites and allow them to ride motorcycles as a mode of transportation more comfortably. However, this bill only tackles the female option to wear pants.
For Maravillo, it's not enough to make the LGBTQIA+ students feel safe—they should also feel comfortable.
"We should always remember that forcing clothes on children or students won't make a school better, but a uniform combined with reforms can. I do believe that if our society wants to practice inclusivity, our society must allow the freedom of choice," Maravillo said.
The reality is that it could take time for schools to fully embrace the idea of gender-neutral uniforms, but it’s always a good reminder that we’re getting somewhere thanks to people like Habijan and Maravillo.
Also read: Why the Pope's Support for Same-Sex Unions Matters to LGBT