Call Her Ganda: Seeking justice for Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman in the Philippines who was murdered

Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman, was 26 when she was murdered on Oct. 11, 2014. The man accused of killing her is U.S. Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was 19 at the time. Laude was at a disco bar with one of her friends when she met Pemberton, who was not under active military duty, and the two agreed to head over to a nearby hotel. Thirty minutes later, Pemberton left the room. Jennifer was later found dead, her body wrapped in a bedsheet and her head submerged in a toilet. Medical reports showed she had died of asphyxia.

During the Quezon City Pink LGBTQ+ Film Festival, documentarian PJ Raval was invited to join a panel about LGBTQ rights where he met Virgie Suarez, one of the prosecuting attorneys for Laude’s mother, Nanay, which is Tagalog for “mother.” As he learned more about the case through the panel discussion, an audience member suggested his next documentary be about the case.

Raval’s documentary pinpoints several themes while covering the murder of Jennifer Laude. He addresses transgender rights and the violence this community encounters not only in the Philippines but worldwide; he points out the lack of justice and support in the legal system for those who are poor; he also shows the extant colonial relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines despite the fact that the Philippines has been a sovereign and independent nation since 1946.

The film’s narrative is split into two parts. One shows the progress of Laude’s case as it follows Nanay and her two attorneys, who are working pro bono. The other follows Talusan as she interviews people such as Laude’s friends, her fiancé, a trans rights activist and the local people. Scattered throughout several moments in the movie, Raval also adds an international perspective by including social media posts reacting to the Laude case which range from senseless to compassionate.

The Visiting Forces Agreement (1999)

At the center of the Laude debacle lies the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries. A VFA is an arrangement that the U.S. makes in all countries that have U.S. military presence. Its main objective is to enforce an additional layer of protection and rights for American military service members who work abroad.

In the Philippines, the VFA allows local authorities to have primary jurisdiction over cases where U.S. military service members are charged with a crime, but the accused has the right to “reside with United States military authorities” throughout the proceedings. These proceedings need to finish within a year and do not include delays that take place because the accused failed to appear in court. Once a judgment has been passed about the case, the accused military personnel “may not be tried again for the same offense in the Philippines.” Read more via International Examiner