Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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Stumped by Charice and Jake Zyrus 15 Jul 2019

Charice Pempengco                                                        Jake Zyrus

The way I like to introduce this discussion is to ask: "Who is the better vocalist between Charice Pempengco and Jake Zyrus?" I would recommend that, in making the determination, you watch on YouTube the videos of the renditions of To Love You More/All By Myself by Charice, and Diamond by Jake.
A far higher percentage of the people I have engaged, have adjudged Charice the better singer. But it is not that straightforward. Charice and Jake are one and the same person. Oh, this, too, is contentious.
More accurately, Jake is a transgender (trans, for short) man. He was born female in the Philippines in 1992 and named Charice by her parents, the Pempengcos. But in 2017, Jake publicly announced that he had "transitioned" from female Charice to become male Jake Zyrus.
Charice was an exceptionally talented vocalist. One of her fans on YouTube described her as "the greatest singer of the universe." Celine Dion, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Ne-Yo are a few of several music superstars and celebrities who expressed amazement at Charice's talent on stage. Hollywood and music impresario, David Foster, described Charice as the person who, after a global talent hunt, he found to be able to "do justice" to the high-pitch song All By Myself, which he had previously worked on with Celine.
Charice started participating in singing competitions at age seven, after her mother discovered her talent three years earlier. Her rise to stardom was meteoric. Her first international studio album, which was released in 2010 and titled 'Charice', climbed to number eight on 'Billboard 200'. She was the first Asian artist to reach top 10 on the chart.

Charice performed duets with popular artistes, including Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, and Andrea Bocelli. She performed twice in 2009 at Barack Obama's pre-inaugural balls. In 2010-2011, she starred in the popular US television show, 'Glee'. In 2012, she released her Hollywood film after she had starred in a 20th Century Fox's movie. By age 25, when Jake publicly announced his new gender identity, he had a networth of over $16 million.

Although the YouTube video of Charice's live performance of To Love You More/All By Myself was recorded in 2011, it was this past April I got to know about her when I stumbled on the video. I returned to watch it, several times a day, time and again. I was simply spellbound by her talent. Then in late May, I thought I should check the comments below the video. There were over 3,000 of them, but no sooner had I started reading the comments than they started to suggest something major had happened to her. "I hope she is not dead," I thought. Without immediate answer from riffling through the comments, I decided to google her name. I quickly got information that she was no more. She is now a transgender man. Charice is now Jake Zyrus.  

Many artistes become more popular in death. But the "demise" of Charice was atypical. Having yet attempted to interrogate my startling discovery, I very quickly returned to YouTube to check out Jake. In no time at all, I concluded he was not a match for Charice. Neither her controversial gender transition nor Jake's talent has been able to overshadow Charice. Her fans have continued to return to watch the video, leaving such comments like she remains "ever green" and keeping her a "YouTube star."

It was mind-boggling to imagine what Jake had forsaken, and the social prejudice he would face, for transitioning from female to male. But his self-perception, I believe, was far more important to him than the fame of Charice and stronger than the fear of rejection he must have felt.

“My soul is male," Jake declared in an interview with Oprah in 2014 prior to his gender transition. After identifying as male, he said he sees Charice as a "sister", and that it would be ridiculous to compare himself to her. He also admits that it is unlikely, at least in the immediate term, that he would match the popularity and success of Charice.

It is difficult to know how many people are transgender in the world. This is because those who publicly declare their transgender identities often face discriminations and are targets of hate crimes. However, there were 1.4 million adults living as transgender in the United States in 2016, according to US federal and state data.

Trans people say their "real" identity is contradicted by the sex they were biologically assigned at birth. To live to their "true" identity, some of them would change their names, clothing or hair. Some may simply request that they be addressed with the opposite pronouns, like "she" instead of "he." (Indeed, gender identities are becoming more diverse with some going as far as rejecting the gender binary by using gender-neutral pronouns like "them" and "they".) Others try to resolve their identity crisis by undergoing psychotherapy. And, like Charice did, some trans people undergo gender reassignment through surgery and hormonal treatment. Jake had his breasts cut off and took shots of testosterone.

Because of the drastic procedure that Charice underwent, and without prejudice to her profound description of her new identity, it still may be worthwhile to ask why her gender assignment at birth was  incompatible with who she felt she was. Was she socialized into changing her gender identity?

There are a few factors of interest. Charice had a troubled childhood. Her parents were divorced when she was quite young. She and her mother were briefly homeless afterwards, due to poverty. At age six, Charice was sexually molested by her uncle. While she was 19, her father was fatally stabbed in a grocery store and she seriously grieved his death.

Charice grew up, perhaps, too fast. Her mother pushed her very hard in helping to develop her talent. As Jake recalls in his memoir, I am Jake (2018), "Of all the songs in the world, it's Regine Velasquez's version of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' that I hate most. Mommy was training me through it one day, and I just couldn't reach the high notes." Charice's mother would compare her singing with established professionals and declare her "inferior." Jake also recalls an instance when his mother grabbed Charice by her hair and threw her down a short flight of stairs because she could not hold a high note.    

His mother was not selfless in driving little Charice. "When my mother learned that I could earn money from singing, she forgot I was just a child," writes Jake. Charice entered competitions in order to support her mother with the prize money.

Furthermore, according to Jake, his mother began to intimate Charice at a very young age with her heterosexual relationship woes. Charice would later as a young adult declare she was a lesbian.

However, my casual analysis of the many statements made by Jake has led me to conclude Charice became free-spirited, even as Jake now is. Both personalities appear impulsive. Asked how he came about his name, Jake said he "just felt it." "I came up with so many names. There was Christian, there was Kyle. But when I kept saying, 'Jake, Jake' in front of the mirror, I just thought that it was the name for me."

He even said: "I knew that Charice wasn't the right name for me." And when asked about his outlook for his music career, Jake responded: "I'm just letting everything happen to me." Such free-spiritedness would hardly resolve one's gender identity crisis to convention, especially if one arrived into stardom and Hollywood at a young age.

Nevertheless, scientists say a person's gender identity, which is the "inner sense" of being male, female, or both, doesn't always match their biology. Unlike cisgender – a term for people who feel their gender identity matches their biology – transgender people say they were assigned a sex that wasn't true to their true self.

Studies have found that gender identity is associated with the brain structure, i.e. the volume and density of brain neurons. Jiang-Ning Zhou et al (1995), found trans women's brain structures to be similar to cisgender women's and unlike cisgender men's. Zhou and his team similarly found transgender men's brain structures to be similar to cisgender men's even when controlling for hormone use. Swaab (2004), Gooren (2006), Garcia-Falgueras (2008), and Rametti (2010) confirmed the earlier research finding that gender identity is influenced by the structure of the brain.

Some other studies have also found that both androphilic and gynephilic transgender women's brain function and responses are like cisgender women's and unlike cisgender men's; while Rametti (2011) found that "trans men have male-like white matter patterns (even before using hormones), regardless of sexual orientation."

However, transgender people may be diagnosed as having gender identity disorder (GID), if their gender identity causes them distress or disability. Therefore, GID is listed in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases by the World Health Organisation, and the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, according to Wikipedia.

That gender identity conflict could naturally occur, or it may be a disease, raises serious concerns. This is in light of the social backlash to revealing one's gender identity conflict. The more so, if one were to take a precarious but bold step to physically resolve the conflict, through transitioning.

A popular Filipino television presenter derisively compared Jake's gender transition to "climate change." Worse still, Jake's challenges are compounded. They encompass social prejudice and career drawback. Although he says he would not compare himself to Charice, his career would nevertheless be a constant reminder of who he was and how greater a singer Charice was, compared to him.

But even closer home in Africa and the wider developing world, it is unimaginable the frustration of the people who are not able to afford any kind of therapeutic treatment or surgery to resolve their gender identity crisis. Indeed, the expertise for the medical interventions would be largely non-existent in most of the countries.

Perhaps, Jake – and those struggling with their gender identity crisis – are indeed lucky it was Charice that came ahead of him. She lives on as a powerful validation for transgender people.

But suppose she had a normal childhood. Suppose she was not as talented as she was. And suppose she was much older before arriving in the ultra-liberal world of music and Hollywood stardom. It could have been a different story, or no story at all. Scientific knowledge of the transgender phenomenon begs for more insight, especially psycho-social studies of the phenomenon.