"Babae ako!" Iyah Mina uttered in exultation. At the 2018 CinemaOne Originals Festival, the comedienne became the first ever trans woman to win such a title, thanks to her raw and unfeigned performance in Mamu; and A Mother Too. For many queer people across the country, it was a feat that was considered unattainable until it actually happened.
In her acceptance speech, Iyah tearfully expressed her thanks to writer-director Rod Singh, who was the nucleus behind the production. In a YouTube video that documented the moment, Rod can be seen in the audience for about three seconds, letting out cheers for the newly-minted Best Actress.
That was four years ago, and since then, Rod's work as a storyteller has never stopped. Fueling the UP Film graduate is the unsobered hope that queer people, especially trans women like her, can someday live out their fantasies in a society that dims their realities. A project of hers that's set to hit mainstream screens is Drag Den Philippines, a competition show inspired by her own experiences of participating in the artform.
Cinema has always been an avenue for the LGBQTIA+ community to escape this oftentimes cruel world, but the filmmaker implores her audiences to not stop there. For Rod, the movies and TV shows we watch can be catalysts to a "real world" where acceptance, kindness, and love aren't just the morals at the end of fictional stories. There's a battle to be won outside the screens, and for direk, hope is an imperative part in winning it.
Ahead, read more about Rod, her personal journey with her SOGIE, and how she aims to empower people like her with her films.
Preview Pride: Rod Singh on the Hope Queer Cinema Gives Its Audiences
Please state your gender identity, sexual orientation, and preferred pronouns.
"I'm Rod Singh, I am a trans woman, and my pronouns are she/her"
When did you first come into terms with your SOGIE? What was your experience like coming out?
"As a trans person, it took me different years. The first one was when I was in Grade 2... Alam ko na by then that [I was] queer, but I suppressed it until nung nag-second year high school ako. By this time kasi, yung attraction ko sa boys became sexual, while yung attraction ko sa girls felt really different... Kaya when I had my first sexual contact with a guy, I felt whole, and slowly became more expressive with my queerness.
"Pagdating ng senior year, this [was] the time that I [was] openly out sa school. I didn’t come out like how movies portrayed it. It felt like I just went out of my glass closet by not denying [that I was] queer. I still [avoided] questions about my sexuality [back] then, pero mas na-express ko na [yung] femininity ko at pagiging flamboyant. College [was when] I officially accepted [queerness] and this [was] because I joined UP Babaylan (the longest-existing LGBTQ org in UP since 1992), and eventually became the org's president.
"Yung acceptance ko sa sarili ko ay hindi lang basta tinanggap ko internally. I also expressed it externally by being more vocal about my sexuality, especially to my family, who [are] very accepting.
"For many years, I thought that I [was] secured with my SOGIE. But during the start [of the] pandemic, I realized a lot of things. This time, I realized that I should fully free myself and live my truth. After detransitioning two times, I finally earned the courage to transition and started to openly identify as a trans woman."
When did you start getting into filmmaking? How has this career helped you express your most authentic self?
"When I took up BA Film at UP Diliman, dito ko talaga na-realize yung power ng pelikula para baguhin ang mga pananaw at kultura ng tao. Nakita ko na pwede itong maging platform ng advocacies ko, especially LGBTQIA+ [rights]. Kaya lahat ng ginawa kong short film nung college ay puro LGBTQIA+-themed, na ang goal ay makita ang mga kwento [ng mga] karanasan naming mga Pilipinong LGBTQIA+ na hindi pa napapanood o naririnig ng mga tao.
"Hindi ko lang din lubos akalain na ang pagpepelikula ang magtutulak sakin para makilala at yakapin pa ang sarili ko. My first feature Mamu: and A Mother Too (2018) helped me to come into terms with my transness. When I was writing the script, ang iniisip ko lang ay para ito sa trans community. Dahil ayoko nga tanggapin na trans ako [noon], syempre ang sinasabi ko sa mga tao ay dahil kwento naman ito ng mga trans na sinulat ko lang.
"Pero ang totoo talaga, inisip ko talaga na ito sana ang mundong gagalawan ko 'pag nag-out na akong trans. Hindi lang bunga ng creativity ang pagkakabuo ng pelikula ko. Bunga ito ng mga hidden fantasies and desires ko as a closeted trans woman."
How do you think your films helps uplift the queer community? How does your work celebrate or highlight them?
"It has always been my vision as a filmmaker to make my queer audience see their experiences in my storylines, [and to make them] proud of these characters as good representations of our community. More importantly, [I want them] to hope. I believe that hope is an essential element in any fight, and in this case, our fight as a community for equality.
"I want them to hope by showing them how it looks like kapag blurred yung line between our fantasies and our reality. Kasi kapag blurred yung line na yun, yung fantasies nagiging ideals mo sa current reality mo. 'Pag fantasy kasi, may impression na it will never happen. Pero kapag ideals na siya, may hope na sana mangyari itong mga napapanood ko sa reality ko pero hindi mo siya idi-dismiss as imposibleng mangyari.
"Kasi sa true lang, kahit na these things might appear to be a fantasy at first, they will soon realize that it is not a fantasy after all, kasi the film will show them how it happens and how can they make it happen. Maybe a lot of queer people already see my films as fantasy because they believe things like a happily in love trans woman truly loved by a man doesn’t happen in real life.
"But for me, it doesn’t happen yet to a lot of us, but it happens to some of us! Parang yung fantasy of one is a reality for someone. And I personally believe that if it can happen to someone, it can happen to anyone.
"Ang gusto ko lang talaga sabihin ay huwag nating i-dismiss ang mga ideals natin as fantasy kasi 'pag tinanggap na nating hindi ito mangyayari, para na din nating sinabi na ''Wag na tayo lumaban, di naman tayo mananalo.' Nasa gitna pa tayo ng laban at ipapanalo natin to. Manalig."
What can you say is your biggest break yet as a filmmaker?
"My biggest break as a filmmaker, after my first feature film, is Drag Den with Manila Luzon. Fantasy ko lang ito dati, reality ko na siya ngayon. Kaya mahalaga ang hope! Hope can turn our fantasies [into] our realities. And this project will also let my queer audience experience both fantasy and reality again."
What inspires you to keep expressing your truest self despite the pushback from society? How do you, in your own way, fight back against the discrimination LGBTQIA+ people face daily?
"Inspiration ko talaga ang mga batang LGBTQIA+. Kaya ako nagiging matapang at matatag sa pagiging trans at sa pag-gawa ng mga queer-themed films/series [ay] dahil alam ko [na] may isa o dalawang batang bakla ang magkakaroon ng lakas ng loob dahil lang sa nakita nila na nananalo din pala ang LGBTQ sa buhay. Na may nagmamahal at magmamahal sa amin. Na hindi kami tatandang malungkot at mag-isa. Na pwede din kaming maging masaya, tanggap, at malaya.
"'Yung discrimination against LGBTQ, personally ay danas ko rin iyan—hindi nga lang kasing bigat ng sa iba dahil syempre kailangan i-factor in ang privilege. But as a transgender woman, ramdam mo na nasa ilalim ka talaga kung degree ng discrimination based on SOGIE. Andiyan yung dahil mabilis ka ma-'clock' dahil 'di ka passing. Andiyan yung mga catcalls, yung pambabastos, yung di pagpapapasok sa restroom, yung panghihiya sa mga clubs dahil sa dress code.
"Kaya ako, humahanap talaga ako ng kahit anong paraan para makasama sa pakikipaglaban sa discrimination, tulad ng pagiging board member ng Babaylanes Inc, pagiging co-convener ng Pride PH, pakikiisa sa iba’t ibang LGBTQ organizations, pagtanggap ng mga speaking engagements to discuss LGBTQ issues, and, syempre, pag-gawa ng mga makabuluhang pelikula tungkol sa karanasan naming mga LGBTQ.
"In an ideal world, our rights are equally granted and our fight for representation, recognition, and protection is no longer a battle. But while it is a struggle for us today, we remain hopeful to win."
What’s one misconception about the queer community do most non-queer people have that you want to debunk?
"That we will never get our happy ending. Palagi nalang nila yan sinasabi kasi. Kaya kapag nakakapanood sila ng pelikulang may happy ending, sasabihin nila fantasy.
"Kapag nakakilala sila ng mga totoong taong masaya sa pag-ibig, sasabihin nila pineperahan. Sabihin na nating we're living our fantasies, eh ano naman?! Baka talagang magkakaiba lang tayo ng realidad 'di ba?"
What would be your message to your younger self? How about to young queer kids who are still discovering themselves?
"Given the chance to give a message to my younger self, ang sasabihin ko lang talaga ay 'Everything is gonna be alright because you are destined for greater things.'
"Para sa mga young queer kids out there: You will still find this world harsh for people like us. But may the stars above the sky remind you that they shine the brightest when the night is darkest. Just like you, just like us."