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In the 1990s, in the rural province of Pangasinan, 125 miles north of Manila, Angel thought of herself as bakla, an indigenous identity that Filipinos think of as third-gender, distinct from either boys or girls.Angel offered details of her childhood as she walked through the main call center floor, an open space with a low drop ceiling, bathed dimly in fluorescent light.
“The wages help enable and produce that identity.” Angel did not grow up thinking she would be a call center worker, just as she didn’t grow up thinking she was trans.
Security is tight in call centers, since companies are worried about protecting client data, but after a few minutes, Angel returned and motioned for me to come through.
In the Philippines, transgender women get no recognition from the national government, let alone legal protections.
And because customers only hear them on the phone, those who would balk at being served by a trans woman are none the wiser.
Since women are often perceived as more comforting than men, presenting as women on the phone can actually advance call center workers’ careers.
And it was actually on the phone that she was first perceived as a woman, by American customers calling from abroad.“I have a feminine voice,” Angel said, “so customers kept calling me ma’am during training.” That was when Angel’s supervisor started allowing her to use a female alias, first Madison, which rhymes with her legal name, and then eventually Angel, the name she now uses both in and out of work.
That first experience of being affirmed and treated seamlessly as a woman by American customers profoundly influenced her desire to identify as a woman in the rest of her life.“I realized how much I enjoyed being feminine,” Angel said.
Angel walked confidently to the elevator bays and greeted several co-workers, including a woman she manages.
At the reception desk, Angel asked me to wait on a tan faux-leather bench where some trainees were chatting jovially in Tagalog about getting their IDs, while Angel spoke to her compliance officer to get clearance for me to go inside.
Call centers emerged in the country in the mid-2000s, and eventually displaced India as the industry’s global leader.
Companies like IBM, JPMorgan, and e Bay have set up customer service operations in the Philippines; as descendants of American colonization, Filipinos often speak English with lighter accents and have greater access to American culture than Indians, who were colonized by the British.
“Even when I was a kid, my family really knew that I’m bakla.