Reflection on the murder of trans Filipina Jennifer Laude by a US Marine


October 17 was the Global Day of Action for Jennifer Laude, a Filipina who was murdered by visiting U.S. military forces in the Philippines.

Jennifer was a 26-year-old transgender woman killed by U.S. Marine, Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton on October 11 in Olongapo City. Mainstream media outlets immediately pulled out old slurs to create sensationalist headlines dehumanizing and blaming Jennifer for her own death. The exhibition of transmisogyny is easily captured in the vault of any internet news search on Jennifer’s death. 

It was evident while reading and watching the coverage that these reporters were still working with style guides referring to Jennifer as “he,” or printing her chosen name in quotes – as secondary. I was wrung dry when still footage of her paled, gray body slumped over a toilet bowl was shown on the evening news, as if she were a marvel to gawk at, her head blurred in a weak attempt to make it more palatable for the viewer. Jennifer’s body (whether slumped over in death, or in an orange bikini) was promptly displayed as tabloid fodder. In contrast, there was a noticeable lag in the release of Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton’s name and image in the media.

Judging from the internet, many thought Jennifer deserved to die. Comments bounced between the immediate transmisogynist hatelines, and the illogical justification of her death as the mere by-product of “economy boosting” U.S. military occupation in poorer nations, like the Philippines. There were also attempts to defend Pemberton as a marine, urging other readers to trust the system in place, and that Pemberton will “get what he deserves.”

Recalling the 2005 Subic rape case of “Nicole”, members of the U.S. military committing crimes in the Philippines with impunity is not new. Nicole’s rapist, Daniel Smith, remains a free man. History has shown Filipinos that American military responsible for various atrocities against Filipinos and Filipinas are simply excused due their American citizenship or military status. Knowing this immediately made me question my role as an American citizen in this process, and I became hyperaware the privileges I carry even as I became part of a public outpouring of grief.

Much of the public saw the grief as unnecessary and trusted whatever process was already in place to seek justice for Jennifer’s murderer. Not many saw that the apprehension was due to the possibility that Pemberton may get away with murder. As a participant in joint-military exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Permberton is shielded from the punishment of his crime through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The legal system, mired with racism and sexism (at minimum) views Jennifer as subordinate to her murderer’s status – Pemberton, a cis man, white, a U.S. citizen, and a marine.  This is where the outrage lies in Jennifer Laude’s death.

Not many of us notice the ways these policies, discussed and signed behind closed doors in meeting rooms between politicians and ambassadors, threaten the lives of women and transgender people on a daily basis. Jennifer’s murder is a prime example of how bilateral agreements that live on paper, like the EDCA and VFA, damage the lives of citizens in the Philippines. One death is already too many. There have been others before Jennifer and Nicole, whose stories aren’t deemed newsworthy, but whose narratives are testimony to the violent dynamic between the Philippines and the United States. Coupled with Western media’s propensity to overlook casualties with brown bodies, it’s no surprise that there is a strong attempt to minimize Jennifer’s death.

The most offensive perspective on Jennifer’s murder is one that compares the loss of her life as the mere effect to the gains of economic benefits the U.S. military injects into the local economy during their station. It is wildly immoral.

We revictimize Jennifer Laude by insisting she was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, and by considering her death an individual act of happenstance. Her murder is the direct result of the EDCA and VFA, without which she would still be alive. The attacks on her character are a result of the violence of transmisogyny. Jennifer’s murder goes beyond an isolated squabble between a U.S. marine and a trans woman–it is the residual effect of the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines where U.S. military elements can act as they will on Philippine soil, without accountability. As a Filipina living in the United States, I know this is a relationship that endangers all transgender people and also women. This is worrisome when U.S. military forces are stationed in hundreds of bases all across the the Philippines.

Until Scott Pemberton is handed to the Philippine legal system for his crime, we cannot assume justice will be served for Jennifer’s murder. Especially for transgender people living in the Philippines, the situation is more dire as they face the frequent discrimination of a largely Roman Catholic country. As a U.S. citizen, Jennifer’s death emboldens me to challenge the way my government continues to endanger transgender people and women all over the world.  It is vital to to hold the government accountable for creating pacts that subject communities of transgender folks and women to abject violence.

With a heavy heart and being thousands of miles away, this is the only way I can help seek justice in Jennifer’s name.  I can hope that this never happens to any transgender person again, and I surrender myself to the fact that Jennifer’s death is not the last.


Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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