The Philippines may be a conservative, deeply religious country, but it is also a progressive one. While the international spotlight was fixed firmly on incoming President Rodrigo Duterte – aka "Duterte Harry" or "The Punisher" – Geraldine Roman stepped out of the shadows to steal many of the global headlines.

Roman went from a little-known local politician to the subject of an international media frenzy after the 49-year-old became the first transgender politician in the Philippines to win a congressional seat with an impressive 62% share of the vote. She is now the representative for the first district of northern Bataan province.

Now heralded as an international icon for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community both nationally and abroad, Roman is forthright about her experience.

Born to a political family in Manila in 1967, Roman spent some of her formative years in Orani, Bataan, located some 200km from the capital where her grandparents used to live. "I grew up knowing something was wrong in that I was uncomfortable with my own body, but nobody told me what that was," Roman told IBTimes UK. "I just so happened to be born with the anatomy of a boy, but with the psyche – you know the mind, my heart, my feelings were that of a woman."

In a country where religion continues to play a pivotal role, divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage are illegal, and the law prevents transgender Filipinos from changing their name and sex. Roman pinpointed puberty as a particularly difficult episode in her life as her body started to develop "in a different direction from what you really feel you are."

A deeply religious person, Roman highlights her faith as a source of inspiration and she sought counsel from Jesuits in Manila about ethics and morality before she underwent sex reassignment surgery in New York, aged 26.

"They told me: 'Geraldine, the body's just a shell," she recollects. "If you think that by modifying the outside you can become a more loving, more generous and a happier person then go ahead because the most important thing is the heart. God looks at the heart and does not look at what you have in between your legs.'"

Geraldine Roman
Geraldine Roman greets supporters during a campaign trip to the town of Orani, Bataan province, north of Manila Ted Aljbe/ AFP

Awakening goodness to overcome political obstacles

Despite receiving religious backing, Roman's political opponents sought to devalue her political and human worth over the course of the campaign trail by using her gender against her. "They would mock me, they would insult me during their meetings and during their caucuses ... they would call me sinner, they would brand me unfit to serve and they would deal with the cliches about gay people," she reveals.

"They would say: 'He's just a limp-wristed, ignorant person. What could he possibly do in Congress? He is just the son of former politicians and he is just capitalising on the fact that he comes from a political family.'" These were just some of the insults she had to endure.

But the pragmatic politician, who holds two master's degrees and speaks five languages, realised early on that embarking on a path towards dialogue rather than division would coincide with her victory. "How did I counteract these insults? I explained and told them about my life story in the hope that it would inspire many people.

"I would tell them: 'I'm telling you this because I'm sure that at one point in your life, you must have suffered [from] discrimination. Maybe not on the basis of gender, but another thing such as your educational attainment or economic standing in life or your age or your skin colour, your religion.

"I sent a beautiful message and I always remembered what my father used to tell me: When you speak to people, you always try to awaken the goodness that there is in their heart and you won't go wrong."

Roman's victory comes hot on the heels of Sadiq Khan's election as Mayor of London following a Conservative strategy that was criticised by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi as an "appalling dog-whistle campaign" which ultimately "lost us the election, our reputation & credibility on issues of race and religion".

While the two politicians endured very different discriminatory attacks, Roman questioned the pursuit of political triumph by awakening "hatred, bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, disrespect. How could you possibly win these things with that approach?"

A win for the LGBT community

Roman's victory has been hailed far and wide with social media users the world over taking to Twitter and Facebook to celebrate the election of the Philippines' first transgender politician to the House of Representatives. Some labelled her a hero while others said it gave them hope, but what does her win mean for the LGBT community?

"What I want to tell my brothers and sisters in the LGBT community is this: the mere fact that somebody of my condition is able to enter Congress is already a statement in itself. It's that we can serve our country, we can enter government and that we should not be discriminated against.

"Now the challenge for me is that I have to prove that I have the capacity to serve and I can deliver and that I can perform well, because if it is all just about my gender and nothing about my performance, then it's so shallow. It'll just be perpetuating the notion that it's only a show and we have nothing to offer.

"The ideal situation is where we don't have to speak about gender. I think if you ask each and every LGBT member, nobody wants to go around saying: 'Hey I'm [a] lesbian' or 'hey I'm gay, I'm bisexual, I'm transgender.'

"We want to lead normal lives, we just want to be part of society, we don't want more rights and definitely we don't want less rights. We just want to be integrated in society and the path I'm taking ... it's a door that is being opened to the LGBT community."

Despite becoming somewhat of an icon for the LGBT community, Roman said her first priority is to serve her people – the very same ones who elected her as their representative and shot her into the international media spotlight.

"I have to be truthful to you and to everyone," says Roman. "First and foremost my loyalty is to my constituents of the first district of Bataan. They were the ones who voted for me. We have to thank them because they were very open-minded and I have to serve them well. Their socio-economic welfare is at the top of my list, it's my priority."