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Image credit: Call Her Ganda

Say Her Name, Call Her Ganda: Why we must remember and honor our transgender sister, Jennifer Laude

March 29, 2019

Jennifer Laude was a twenty-six-year-old transgender Filipina woman from Olongopo, Philippines. Laude was a loving daughter, friend, and partner to the people who were honored to have known her. On October 11, 2014 she was killed in an act of hate by U.S. marine Joseph Pemberton, after finding out she was transgender.

This case, and the trial that came after it, ignited a fire regarding transgender rights and the imperial influence of America in the Philippines. The trial faced delays and failed compliance from the American government to turn in the U.S. marine to the Philippine officials due to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The VFA is an existing example of U.S. imperial control in the Philippines; limiting Philippine courts and protecting all visiting American forces charged for crimes on the islands of the Philippines.

The case of Jennifer Laude was an example of the transphobia existing in our world and the lack of protections Philippine folk have when in contact with the U.S. Call Her Ganda, a 2018 documentary nominated for the GLAAD Media Awards for Best Documentary; it was created by director PJ Raval to share the story of Jennifer Laude. The film covered both the crime and its effects through the lens of Laude’s mother, her transgender sisters, the community of Olongopo and the world navigating through her case. Narrated through the work of Filipino-queer activist Meredith Talusan, the documentary perfectly encapsulated the dangers that Philippine transgender women face and the way in which the American government played into their oppression.

Call Her Ganda actively represented the long struggle to find justice for Jennifer Laude. Her mother Julita Cabillan lost her daughter, who she called “ganda” which means “beautiful” in Tagalog, and faced injustice from both the courts and the public. When the public found out that the U.S. marine killed Laude after finding out she was transgender, the media outpoured with comments victimizing the marine: The pervert got what “IT” had coming. This is justified homicide. Pemberton is the victim. You’re playing with fire when you lie to people about who you are.

The case brought a lot of negative attention onto Laude who deserved more in her passing. The documentary displayed highlights throughout the trial, which included a lot of microaggressive tendencies from the defendant’s legal team and the Philippine media. Laude would be referenced with the incorrect pronouns and her name assigned at birth, further demeaning her gender identity even after she passed away. Her family was accused of taking money bribes to let Pemberton go, which her family denied ever doing. She was accused of being a sex worker, which even if she was, it is not our concern nor does it justify what happened to her. Pemberton claimed in court that what he did was “self-defense” and never admitted to killing Laude, regardless of the in-court testimony from one of his fellow marines who admitted that Pemberton confessed to him the night of the murder. Pemberton reportedly let U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Jairn Michael Rose know that he had choked Laude, dragged her to the restroom where her body was found, referenced Jennifer Laude as an “it”, and stated that he “may have killed a he-she.”

Pemberton was eventually sentenced to serve jail time for homicide for the death of Jennifer Laude; a conviction that was less severe than expected from Laude’s legal team and family. However, justice was served and the case became a precedent for future transgender violence in the Philippines.  

Call Her Ganda gave a spotlight to the intersection of transgender and Filipino identity by honoring our fallen sister Jennifer Laude who was killed in an act of hate. Her death ignited a trial of resistance against the American government’s troubling policies and informed the public that transgender lives are under attack. The documentary reminded us that this could’ve been any one of us if we were in Laude’s position, and ensured that Laude’s legacy would live on as a story of queer resiliency for change and light when our community is engulfed in darkness. Call Her Ganda was a beautiful documentary that paid tribute to her story and served as a reminder of the fight for transgender justice worldwide.

In the words of Jennifer Laude’s close friend who spoke of her in the film: “Her death exposed the truth about gender-based violence. Jennifer Laude did not die in vain.”

Andre Menchavez is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and sophomore at University of Washington studying law, society, and justice. Andre also serves as the youngest ambassador of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in the organization's history. Andre currently serves as a Junior Editor for amp.

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