ON OCTOBER 11, 2014, alleged sex worker Jennifer Laude was found semi-naked and dead in a motel room bathroom with black strangulation marks on her neck and her head in the toilet bowl.
Three condom wrappers were found in the room in Olongapo City, Philippines — one bearing the fingerprints of Joseph Pemberton, a 19-year-old US Marine who went with her to the motel.
As a picture emerged of how the beautiful 26-year-old transgender woman was killed, anger spread across the world at a story of violence and desperation that was all too familiar. And the hard-fought court conviction marks a turning point in history.
HORROR AT THE ‘SHORT TIME’ MOTEL
Some have disputed whether Ms Laude was a sex worker. It is not easy for trans women in her conservative country to find work and make a living.
The popular 26-year-old earned money by offering hair and beauty services from her home, and regularly sent money to her beloved family, as well as providing loans to others in her community.
She was engaged to a German man, and dreamt of a better life overseas, but had been turned down for a visa twice.
In the poverty-stricken Philippines, there are around 800,000 sex workers, making up almost one per cent of the population. The transgender women among them typically hide their status in order to ensure western men will pay them for sexual services, but are careful to stay near friends in case of trouble.
Ms Laude met Pemberton at a nightclub and went with him to a “short time” motel, bringing along friend Barbie, who headed to a different room with a companion. Some time later, the motel cashier alerted Barbie that she had seen Pemberton leave and found Jennifer dead in the room.
Her death horrified a community tired of seeing its most disenfranchised members endure repeated violence without consequences for the perpetrator.
“For more than 100 years of the US soldiers in the Philippines, not a single US soldier was ever convicted,” the Laude family’s lawyer Virgie Suarez told news.com.au in New York, where a documentary on Ms Laude’s death this week premiered at the Tribeca film festival. “Charges were never made against them, despite the many reported and unreported violations — killings, rapes, harassments and all that. So it is very difficult.”
‘ KILL THE FILIPINOS, RAPE THE WOMEN. NO CONSEQUENCES’
This time, the prosecutor’s office found probable cause to file a murder charge against Pemberton. There was talk of a plea bargain between the US and Ms Laude’s family, but they weren’t interested in the usual financial settlements.
“That’s something they really hate about this,” Ms Suarez said. “People can easily be bought. There’s always a price. That’s not fair. People are human beings, there should be no price on the head of any person. In that case, the US soldiers, it becomes so easy to them to commit crime. It sounds like Filipinos were being offered on a silver platter. Kill the Filipinos, rape the women. No consequences.”
Pemberton was eventually convicted of homicide, reduced from the more serious charge of murder, and sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in jail, with the decision upheld on appeal in April 2017.
In order to achieve a murder conviction, the prosecution needed to prove cruelty, treachery, and superior force. The judge said superior strength could not be proven, despite the fact that Ms Laude was on hormones and worked in the beauty industry, while Pemberton was trained in combat — with one fellow soldier even demonstrating the strangulation move they had learnt. The judge also took into account the fact he was drunk.
Ms Laude’s failure to disclose the fact she was trans was given as a mitigating factor, with the judge stating that the “mitigating circumstance of passion and obfuscation is present in this case.”
Pemberton said Ms Laude performed oral sex on him and he became angry when he realised she was trans during the act. But evidence submitted in court showed that traces of a lubricant from the condoms found in the hotel room were found on his genitalia and in Ms Laude’s anus.
‘IT’S REALLY LIKE A GLOBAL GENOCIDE’
The young woman’s fiance, Marc Sueselbeck, became an outspoken campaigner for justice for the woman he loved, even scaling the fence of the military camp where Pemberton was taken in an effort to find answers.
He had been trying to obtain a German visa for his partner so they would be together.
Mr Sueselbeck says only Ms Laude and Pemberton really know what happened in that motel room, but he has total love and trust for his late fiancee. It was his involvement as a Westerner that assisted in bringing the case to international attention, with Ms Laude now the subject of PJ Raval’s new documentary Call Her Ganda (her mother’s nickname for her, meaning “Beauty”.)
Raval says he was struck by how Ms Laude’s loved ones managed to achieve some kind of justice for her. “It actually changed the outcome of something and, you know, it changed history,” he told news.com.au. “And even though the conviction is not ideal, the fact a conviction occurred is huge and now there is a precedent set that if people come together and push hard enough, something can be achieved.”
He said Ms Laude was someone who had “plans” and “had ideas about maybe going to Germany, supporting her family in different ways.”
Transgender Filipina activist Naomi Fontanos, who appears in the film, told news.com.au she remembered the moment she saw the news story begin spreading via social media, with initial reports saying a gay man had been killed. As she realised the victim was in fact a trans woman, she felt her heart sink with recognition.
“Being part of the trans movement in the Philippines, we very well know that our lives are replete with discrimination and violence,” she said. “Every November, there is a thing trans communities around the world do, it is called a Transgender Day of Remembrance. And it’s a day that’s set to honour all the trans people in the world who are killed by transphobic violence … I always end up crying … Another Filipina’s going to be on that list.
“The list keeps on growing longer every year. So, to many trans people, it’s really like a global genocide. It’s the murder of a specific population that’s happening at an unprecedented rate. It’s really crazy, in the US in particular, so many black, trans women are killed, and they’re dying every day.
“You need to read their names, you need to remember their stories and so we need to get involved in this we have to tell this story, this story must be told.”
Ms Fontanos believes Ms Laude’s death illuminates the shared experience of many impoverished, marginalised and desperate trans women.
“She was loved, she was adored, she was admired by her friends,” said Ms Fontanos. “She was a go-getter, she wasn’t just sitting around being miserable as a trans person, she was making things happen for her life, working hard and saving money and sending money to her family.
“It’s really the story of a lot of trans people in the Philippines, because in the Philippines if you’re trans, it’s like they need to compensate for being trans. You need to prove to your family that you’re a good person, you can be a responsible adult, so that’s what a lot of trans people do, they work very hard, they work their asses off so they can make enough money and keep their families happy. And Jennifer was exactly that … she actually had dreams.
“In the Philippines, a lot of people are poor, so that cuts across so many centres, but in this particular case, when you’re poor and trans, that’s like multiple burdens already. You don’t have education, you don’t have access to basic services, to work, those are just the barriers she was facing in life.
“If you look back at the history of her life, it was like she was overcoming those barriers. Every time a challenge was placed in front of her, she would overcome it … but this time round, she died.”