It was the 11th of October 2014—when the body of a trans woman named Jennifer Laude was found in a motel in Olongapo City. Evidence of strangulation was seen in the body, with her neck blackened and her head drowned in the toilet. US Marine Class Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was 19 at the time, was found guilty of homicide, sentenced with 6-12 years imprisonment and charged for damages to the family of the victim, but prison time was reduced to ten years in 2016. On September 2, 2020, Branch 74 of Olongapo Regional Trial Court, granted Pemberton release for completing prison time based on the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) and in pursuant of the absolute pardon granted by President Rodrigo Duterte. Pemberton’s release sparked outrage, as representatives from plaintiff’s party slams the administration. It also brought back the trauma from Laude’s murder, and might have possibly sparked another wave of brutality against the transgender community in the Philippines who have already been living precarious lives under President Duterte’s hyper-macho regime.
Jennifer, born on 04 November 1987 was having a drink with a friend named Barbie Gelviro in a bistro called Ambyanz Disco located in Olongapo where they happened to meet a ‘white foreigner’ who invited them to go to a ‘short time’ hotel named Celzone Lodge. With Gelviro having her own companion, Laude went with the foreigner alone. The white man was later identified as Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, a US marine soldier in active duty. Unbeknownst to Laude, that night was her last. She died by asphyxiation by drowning at the hands of the American soldier.
Upon Laude’s death, Pemberton was arrested by the United States Navy on board and was then detained in Camp Aguinaldo; the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) under the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), despite the Laude family’s demand that Pemberton be jailed in an ordinary jail. Throughout the trial, Pemberton admitted that he had fought with Laude when he discovered that the latter had male genitalia, but denied killing her. On December 1st of 2015, Pemberton was found guilty of homicide. Julita Laude, Jennifer’s mother wasn’t happy; claiming that Pemberton was indeed guilty of murder, thus, must deserve a higher sentence. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who formerly represented the Laudes during the trial as ex pro-bono human rights lawyer, expressed support to the President’s grant of pardon to Pemberton; claiming that the president did not erase the conviction but only the punishment, and that Pemberton is still a killer.
This event created arguments as to whether the President’s decision to immediately release Lance Cpl. Pemberton is justifiable or not, especially within the trans community in the Philippines.
What the community would say
In these exclusive interviews, we asked several members of the Trans community on what their reactions are on the release of US Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton.
“Disappointed but not surprised,” was Crystal Santos’ initial reaction. The 22 year-old health representative from Valenzuela City believes that it only shows “how appalling our justice system works in a country where [trangender and transsexual] people were treated as a second class citizen of its own motherland country.”
“The progress in securing equal rights to the LGBT community in the Philippines have been in a downward trajectory since time immemorial. The community have become a laughing stock for many yet tolerance have never been replaced by acceptance.”—Crystal Santos
To her, “the progress in securing equal rights to the LGBT community in the Philippines has been in a downward trajectory since time immemorial. The community has become a laughing stock for many yet tolerance has never been replaced by acceptance.”
When asked on what possible laws might be used to prevent another killing, and possibly protect Trans rights, she said, “it doesn’t matter what law may be applied to these cases when in fact, laws in the Philippines are mere facade to maintain order, while the head of the nation has been disregarding laws including international law, all for self-interest of a narcissistic leader.”
Anne Dy, a student from Antipolo City, was upset upon knowing Pemberton’s release. “I am mad about what happened. Pemberton is a killer and his immediate release only gives injustice to what happened to Miss Laude,” she said.
“As a transwoman who only wants to live peacefully, I feel unsafe because it can happen again. Not just to trans people, not just to an LGBTQIA+ individual, but to all Filipinos out there. This is an obvious step back on our progress for making the community a safe space for everyone.”—Anne Dy
Dy further explained why the release of the US Marine can imply the lack of security within and outside the queer community. “As a transwoman who only wants to live peacefully, I feel unsafe because it can happen again. Not just to trans people, not just to an LGBTQIA+ individual, but to all Filipinos out there. This is an obvious step backward on our progress in making the community a safe space for everyone.”
“Nakagagalit, nakalulungkot,” were Caye Reyes’ first response when asked about her thoughts on the issue. “Si Jennifer kasi, maaaring maging kapatid natin, pinsan, kaibigan, anak,” she went on. (“I am mad. It’s saddening. Jennifer might be our sibling, cousin, friend, child.”)
The 19 year-old student from Sta. Mesa, Manila claimed that Pemberton’s release is not acceptable. According to Reyes, “Ang pangyayaring ito ay isa sa patunay na hindi patas ang batas. Hindi deserve ni Pemberton ang lumaya.” (“This just shows how unfair the law is. Pemberton didn’t deserve to be freed.”)
She went on by saying that because of Pemberton addressing Laude as ‘it’ on numerous occasions, he just invalidated the womanhood of trans women like her. She also described the granting of absolute pardon to the US Marine as turning back from the rule of law, spearheading one’s self-interest, and one’s strife of power. “Kahit ano’ng mangyari, ‘di na maibabalik ang buhay ni Jennifer, ‘di na maibabalik ‘yong panahon na sana ngayon ay kasama pa rin niya ‘yong pamilya niya, kaibigan niya. Nakapagbibigay sana siya ng ngiti pero dahil kay Pemberton, ang mga ngiti [ay] napalitan ng luha.” (“No matter what happens, Jennifer is already dead. She could’ve been alive, and she’s living happily with his family and friends. But because of Pemberton, those smiles are changed with tears.”)
“Ang pangyayaring ito ay isa sa patunay na hindi patas ang batas. Hindi deserve ni Pemberton ang lumaya.”—Caye Reyes
Daryll Ann Surio, a 21 year-old hair and makeup artist from Malolos, Bulacan pointed out that she doesn’t know what the agenda might be behind the US Marine’s release. According to her, “I don’t have any thoughts about this phenomenon because I do not know what the hidden agenda is, contrary to the act that was given by our leader. But the only thing that I can notice about his hegemony, it is full of cowardice, because he cannot stand as real Filipino. It is unfair to all poor Filipino who could easily be brought to jail by the authority.”
“It serve as a threat to the LGBTQIA+ Community to fight our rights because it conclude that we LGBT are the one who are against and opposing to the rights that we are fighting for. This threat to us because instead of being as one, it tends to separate all the LGBTQ to have their own perception in life.”—Daryll Ann Surio
Asked if what policies or laws that can be made to strengthen the rights of the people from the LGBTQIA+ Community, Surio went on by saying that there are already laws and policies to it. “I think we [already] have enough law(s) or policies for us to avoid this crime and in the first place, we all know that this is a sin. So it depends on everyone if we would choose to do it. Another thing is we all know that Pemberton killed Jennifer because she hid her true identity. So it must be lesson for us—if you love someone or even in our everyday life, be yourself, you weren’t born to please anybody.”
30 year-old Jane Laura from Cebu City, who works as a data analyst, shared her sentiments regarding Pemberton’s release. She said that as a transgender woman, what Pemberton really did is really unacceptable. “I think Pemberton’s jail sentence is not enough, he could have been sentenced for more than 10 years,” she claimed. She continued, “The president should reconsider his decision because it seems that the government is way too easy to give pardon to an American who murdered a Filipino transgender woman.”
“This issue will not stop the LGBTQIA+ community to continue on its battle for equality rights.”—Jane Laura
However, when asked if Pemberton’s release is a threat to the fight of the LGBTQIA+ community towards attaining equal rights, she claimed that it is not a threat at all. To her, Jennifer Laude’s murder is already an ‘isolated case.’ “I think Pemberton’s issue is not a threat to the rights that the LGBTQIA+ community has been fighting for. For me, Laude’s case is an isolated case. As far as I know, Pemberton did not mention about his stand for the LGBTQIA+ community. This issue will not stop the LGBTQIA+ community to continue on its battle for equality rights.”
Laura went on by saying that there are already existing laws that protect trans women, and only amendments are needed to be done by the government, like what Surio claimed. “Crimes are everywhere but we can avoid it for example in this case by being honest in the first place. For my fellow sisters in LGBTQIA+ community, I hope this incident will give us learnings and do what is right for ourselves.”
On #TransLivesMatter: The fight is not over
Jennifer Laude’s murder left a trauma to a lot of people especially in the LGBTQIA+ community. This incident only proves that the fight for equality is not ceasing as the movement is not yet emancipated. Laude’s killing should only prompt us to fight for more equality as a means to achieve true justice not only for Laude’s death but those of thousands of nameless trans women who were victims of hate crimes in the Philippines.
In solidarity with trans women and the entire LGBTQIA+ community, we should proclaim that #TransRightsAreHumanRights and #TransLivesMatter. But behind this hashtag activism, let’s not lose sight of the true cause of Pemberton’s release— President Duterte’s decision to grant absolute pardon to the convicted killer. Thus, the queer resistance against Pemberton’s release should move beyond the digital world and materially manifest itself in 2022 election— through our ballots. This incident must be a reminder that queer folks, under the government of President Duterte or of his close allies particularly Sen. Many Pacquiao who called gay people “worse than animal,” will never be safe. President Duterte should also be reminded that trans lives are not his pawns for his political game. And that it is his duty to respect every Filipino regardless of their gender, especially the memories of the dead.
Currently residing in Manila, Liam Atienza is a University student taking up BA International Studies who writes poetry and prose in his spare time and hopes to be a drag artist and diplomat or scholar someday. For leads, you can email him at email@example.com, or in Twitter via @theliamatienza.