Transgender grads’ silent protests draw loudest cheers in UP Mindanao commencement rites

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 20 July) – While protests are a tradition during graduation ceremonies in various campuses of the University of the Philippines, little was heard during the 24th commencement exercises at UP Mindanao on Tuesday.

Rey Mart “Malaya” A. Lapiña. Photo courtesy of Alexis Rafael Delola / UP Mindanao

There were chants of “Iskolar ng bayan, ngayon ay lumalaban!” initiated by Bruce Mico Gamad, recipient of Chancellor’s Award for Leadership, after the singing of the UP hymn at the end of the ceremony. But the reaction was minimal.

Two transgenders, however, held silent protests that got the loudest cheers.

Prof. Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz, Ph.D., who teaches literature and creative writing at UP Mindanao, said it is not really a tradition at the campus for students to hold protests during graduation except when there is an issue that resonates among the graduates and the activists are courageous. This year, however, Cruz said “it was disappointing.”

She added: “I was disappointed because there is so much to protest in this bogus Marcos presidency, and the silence with which the graduates greeted it perhaps showed a resignation to the circumstances they find themselves in. A collective sense of defeat. I hope I am wrong.”

Rey Mart “Malaya” Lapiña, a transwoman sporting a classic taper haircut and wearing Barong Tagalog and black pants, walked up the stage to receive her diploma and medal with a miniature placard that said, “Trans rights are human rights.”

She raised the placard as she walked on stage when her name was called, her honors and other awards mentioned, both her parents following her as her fellow graduates cheered.

After Lapiña’s mother placed her medal around her neck, she raised her placard again with her right hand as her left held the folder that contained her diploma. The crowd cheered some more.

She graduated cum laude and awarded with the best thesis in anthropology and dean’s medal for leadership. Her thesis: “Mula Kalsada Hanggang Cybora: Naratibo at Danas ng Mga Prostituted Transpinay sa Lungsod ng Davao sa Panahon ng Pandemya.”

Lapiña later posted on her Facebook page: “Para kina Kitkat Mae Fernin, Jennifer Laude, Ebeng Mayor, at marami pang mga trans individual na biktima ng karahasan at diskriminasyon. Para ito sa mga transpinay at transpinoy na patuloy na nakikibaka para sa pantay na karapatan. Para sa aking mga kapatid na LGBTQIA+++, na hanggang ngayon ay sumisigaw para kilalanin ng lipunan ang kanilang seksuwalidad at kasarian.”

UP Mindanao graduates stage a lightning rally during the 2018 graduation rites. MindaNews file photo by MANMAN DEJETO

In her four years in UP Mindanao, Lapiña had actively led protests and fought for numerous social issues. In 2021, she was the Student Council Chairperson for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS). Under her leadership, she constantly called for the rights of transgender people like herself.

In previous graduations, UP Mindanao had been heteronormative in its dress codes for graduation.

But starting in 2019 the administration allowed graduates to wear under their sablay their barongs, dresses, traditional attires, or any attire that fits their lived identity.

Mimi Rodriguez, a member of Class 2020, marched onstage in a dress. Tuesday’s face-to-face graduation was for Class 2020, Class 2021 and Class 2022 as gatherings were not allowed in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Wearing my dress during the graduation ceremony recognizes my existence as a transwoman,” she said. It was also her way of fighting for the rights of trans people like herself, she added. 

Her grace and confidence could be visibly seen as she walked with a sway. Donning a white dress with a long train and high heels, the people in the audience couldn’t help but be in awe. As Rodriguez walked onstage to receive her diploma, the crowd could be heard enthusiastically clapping and cheering for her.

Mimi Rodriguez, of UP Mindanao Class 2020. Photo courtesy of Alexis Rafael Delola / UP Mindanao

Rodriguez had never been afraid to protest through the way she dressed. On campus, she would often wear clothes that were as fabulous as the dress she wore during the graduation. 

When interviewed online, Rodriguez told MindaNews: “The recognition of students’ SOGIESC during the 24th commencement exercise of UP Mindanao forwards our dreams for an equal and just society. Although this is just a minor step in achieving a society that is free from discrimination and violence, this helps the LGBTQIA+ community especially trans women like me to be confident and ought to be respected.”

She was referring to “sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics.” (MindaNews)