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Episode 44

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Finding the Words

Micah has spent a life pushing against the borders of a category most everyone takes for granted: gender.

You can read a Spanish transcript of the episode, it’s useful if you’re learning the language with this podcast.

Or you can also read an English translation.


Translation by Patrick Moseley

[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

[Micah]: When you look at a person, how many seconds, or milliseconds, does it take for you to make a mental picture of that person, right? Immediately, the first thing that you notice: is it a man or a woman.

[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Micah’s voice. He’s 31 years old. And what he describes is something that the vast majority of people understand without much reflection. But, what happens when someone doesn’t fit in? When you look at someone and you don’t know if it’s a man or a woman?

[Micah]: When people don’t understand, they feel uncomfortable…

[Daniel]: Let’s start with this detail: Micah wasn’t always his name. He was born with another name, a woman’s name. He was born in a Jewish family, in Mexico, in a very conservative community, where everyone knew each other. Everything was very traditional, and the gender roles were very clear. But for Micah nothing was very clear. Since he has memory, he remembers what he felt while looking at himself in the mirror. Something didn’t fit in. And he wasn’t the only one that noticed.

[Micah]: I mean, it was always like…I don’t know, I remember that one time I was with my brother, in a presentation or something like that, and there were two girls behind us, you know, whispering, right?

[Daniel]: Micah was only 10 years old, and his younger brother seven. But he heard this murmuring and he understood perfectly what he was thinking. His presence alone made people uncomfortable.

[Micah]: And I tell my brother, hey, they are going to ask me if I am a boy or a girl.

[Daniel]: And that’s what happened. But in a more subtle way: the girls asked him what his name was and, to tease them, he picked a very ambiguous name: he told them that his name was Dani, his brother’s name.

[Micah]: So they stared at me with a face of…well that doesn’t tell me anything. After, both of us left and we burst out laughing.

[Daniel]: The conventional world doesn’t allow for many subtleties to define gender. There are men and there are women. But Micah lived, or wanted to live, in a space that wasn’t so easy to define.

[Micah]: I hadn’t found my comfort zone yet, but from what I could do, I wore the clothes I wanted, like jeans and t-shirts. Nothing too tight, nothing too baggy, I don’t know…

[Daniel]:  That generated a lot of comments from his family, from people that were close to him. Comments that insinuated a rejection of his appearance:

[Micah]: Like, “Hey don’t wear that, you look too ugly” or comments like “why don’t you let your hair grow?” You would look very pretty,” right?

[Daniel]: How would you explain yourself before?

[Micah]: The thing is, you don’t explain it to yourself. You know that something makes you feel uncomfortable, but you assume that the rest of the world is also uncomfortable like you or it’s something that you have to accept, like deal with it, for the rest of your life and that’s the way it is, and that there is no other option.

[Daniel]: In 2004, when Micah was 18 years old, he left Mexico to the United States, and went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to go to college. His idea was to escape, to start again. But it wasn’t easy. In fact, during the first years of his studies, when he went back home to visit his parents, there were always comments…

[Micah]: negative comments…about my appearance, that I looked more masculine, about what type of friends I was hanging with…things like that… I mean they already suspected and even more so when I went to college and I started expressing myself a little more…and if the subject would come out, it would be in a negative way…there was a lot of backlash…

[Daniel]: While his parents were uncomfortable, Micah continued to search for something, to help define and understand himself.

[Micah]: When I arrived at the university, I didn’t know what LGBT was, to start with. And there was a LGBT center and I was like: what is that, right? What is the T for, what is trans? I didn’t know many people who were trans in the university, there was a gay community but that’s it.

[Daniel]: But Micah, he had that clear, he didn’t identify as gay. Since college he defined himself as asexual. What made him uncomfortable was to identify as a man or a woman. The concept “trans” intrigued him and he started to do more research. But he understood it initially as a binary concept, even narrow…

[Micah]: That you are a woman that identifies as a man and that you want to be a man and what that means and vice versa. And like I would say: I don’t feel that way, but like I don’t want to be the other, then, I am not trans.

[Daniel]: Micah was born a woman, and he didn’t feel good. But that didn’t mean that he wanted to be a man. Indeed, during that time, he fell in love for the first time — with a woman. And a few weeks before he was about to graduate and about to move to San Francisco, someone told him about a conference called Philly TransHealth Conference, the biggest conference in the United States that dealt with topics about health for transgender and transsexual people.

In the conference, Micah met people that had a broader definition about what trans means: it wasn’t only a matter of feeling like a man that was born a woman or vice versa. For them, being trans meant simply not identifying with the sex or gender that you were born with. Period. Here, he realized that…

[Micah]: The spectrum is as varied as the individuals.

[Daniel]: There are people that consider that being trans is a medical condition that they were born with. They treated it, and that’s it…they turn, together with cardiac problems, for instance, in part because of the person’s medical history.  

[Micah]: And there were people that said, well I am female to male…And that’s it, I am a man and I act as a man in my life. There are people that are very out and proud and they don’t care, and they identify as trans-man, trans-woman. And then, there are the people that are not-binary. It gets complicated…

[Daniel]:  Listening to this phrase, that definition, it was a revelation. There was suddenly a word that described his experience. It was like he found himself.

How would you explain, “I found myself”?

[Micah]: It is like you find a concept and a terminology, which describes all of your experience, that you felt something all of your life and that you cannot explain. You don’t even know what it is; you don’t know that it’s there. And suddenly, there is a word that can explain this phenomenon that has been bothering you all your life.

[Daniel]: The term that he found is “not-binary” or “undetermined”. But translating this concept to your daily life…let’s say, it has its challenges. People have prejudices, obviously. They are afraid of what they don’t understand. And Micah knew this since he was young.

But besides that, at a basic level, if he defined himself as not-binary, Micah had to find a new way to talk about himself.

Above everything, in Spanish, the language Micah was raised with.

[Micah]: In Spanish, a neutral pronoun doesn’t exist. When you talk you need to give yourself a gender. It is very difficult to talk without saying: estoy cansado, estoy cansada. Like you say, tengo cansancio…and then it sounds weird. And all of that time you are thinking how to say this and that.

[Daniel]:  And then it gets tiring speaking in Spanish. Micah, in the beginning of his transition, would approach it like this:

[Micah]: I wouldn’t say the end of the words. I would say: estoy cansad…

And then you sound like you don’t know how to talk or something, or I spoke in English, and instead of saying the verb estoy cansado o cansada…I would say estoy muy tired.

[Daniel]: When Micah moved to the United States, he could express himself more easily, because in English one speaks of oneself without using a specific gender. But it was also in this language –English– that Micah initially learned, read about, and absorbed all of these new concepts about non-binary gender.

And it was also in the U.S. that Micah found another way to transition, when he found out about the possibility of having surgery.

[Micah]: that it was something that was done…that people did it and that I could pay someone to do that, for me, like I immediately said, “I had to have it.”

When I decided to do the surgery, I said “OK, this is something that I will do for me.” I was 24 years old. I had the money to do it. But I also felt an obligation to tell my parents…

[Daniel]: The conversation wasn’t easy and he found resistance from his parents, even more from his mother. For a while, there was an estrangement, but Micah was convinced that was what he had to do, independently from his family’s reaction.

[Micah]: for me, it was something important and yes, it changed my life. I mean, it’s like the best decision I’ve made in my life…

[Daniel]: So, after the hormones and the surgeries, Micah started to look and feel more comfortable.

But Micah wanted to go beyond the physical transition. Legally, Micah was still a woman. And changing that wasn’t going to be easy.

[Micah]: In legal matters there are no ambiguities, in legal terms; well there are only two genders…masculine and feminine. There are only two small boxes, and in all of the forms that you fill out you have to choose one.

[Daniel]: Every time Micah confronted this in a visa application, a job application, in any legal document, he had to ask himself…

[Micah]: And what about me? Where do I fit in all this? What will I do?

[Daniel]: A third box, that of an undetermined sex, exists in countries like Germany, but not in the United States nor in Mexico, at the time, the countries that Micah moves around.

So what does a person like Micah do?

We’ll be back after the break…

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[Daniel]: We’re back at Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Micah started thinking about the future, in his practical life…

[Micah]: Well I have a partner, and my partner is a woman and during that time I was legally an F, a female, right? And if we would get married legally, valid or not, there remains some sort of ambiguity in the law because it is something that is in flux, the case of gay marriage. There you fall in legal gray areas.

[Daniel]: I spoke with Micah in 2015, months before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. So, at that time of our interview, topics like adoption, medical insurance, taxes, and inheritance were completely uncertain. So Micah realized that continuing to fight for ambiguity, in the legal sphere, was going to cost him too much.

[Micah]: And I said, what happens if I change my gender to male, and I marry my partner in a heterosexual marriage and there are no problems anymore.

[Daniel]: Micah’s marriage would be valid. If Micah and his partner were to adopt kids, it’s valid; if they had biological kids, it’s valid; if they had joint bank accounts, it’s valid. No one would question them. So Micah chose to change his sex legally for practical reasons.

And he wanted to do it in the country he was born.

[Micah]: Well because my birth certificate is from México. And I said, when I do that, I can change everything in the United States. I started to do some research. I contacted a lawyer and I asked.

[Daniel]: Not even Kafka would have imagined the bureaucratic journey that awaited Micah.

[Micah]: To start of, you need a lawyer to represent you. Secondly, you need two experts that are the medical experts that are going to testify in your favor. What does that mean? It means that I would have to find a doctor and then another doctor that could have no medical license, but that could be a psychologist, who would, who would testify, that I was their client for more than a year and that I completed my transition.

[Daniel]: Micah had to submit a type of lawsuit against the civil registry. Legally, he wasn’t asking to change his birth certificate, but to correct it. Arguing that he was registered as a woman by mistake. It was a legal trick that’s a bit strange, because in the end, this new legal person, Micah, would be born – in quotation marks – already in his twenties.

[Micah]: I had to write a personal life story to present to the doctors. After, the doctors make their judgments, and you obviously have to pay the lawyer’s fees and both experts for their services. And also I had to do a medical exam with the doctor and a hormonal profile. And don’t ask me why they ask for it, because obviously it is irrelevant if you had hormones or not, but they ask for it.

[Daniel]:  All of this legal and medical paperwork lasted months and months. The lawyer prepared the case and put in the paperwork and shortly after, they gave Micah a court date to come in to family court in Mexico City.

[Micah]: You go into a building, downtown in city council, in a neighborhood that I had never gone to. You come in, and it is literally like a hallway with desks. And you know I dressed with a tie to look good…

[Daniel]: Micah presented himself with his lawyer and the medical experts. His lawyer presented the case, and then, the first doctor…

[Micah]: They started interrogating him. No, tell us about the patient, is it true that he is this or that…a lot of questions were focused in the medical transition. Although you don’t need this in theory, there is no specific requirement for the medical transition.

But it was like: The patient already had hormones. He already had the mastectomy, the hysterectomy, and I don’t know…they focused a lot in the hysterectomy and the sterility, that I can’t have biological children. They didn’t ask if I had ovaries, because that is what makes them my biological children, right? Or if I had frozen them, but that doesn’t fit in their minds.

[Daniel]:  And, according to Micah, the judge…

[Micah]: He was very ridiculous, because the questions that he made were like: well, what is gender? Is it a sensation or a perception? Is it something that one feels or one perceives? And I was like well, is he here to be a philosopher or what? A court or a doctor can’t define that.

[Daniel]: The medical expert followed the judge’s arguments. They talked openly for a long time, in an almost abstract way, delving into some of the questions that we have brought up here.

[Micah]: And then he said: But no, this is this and that. Since he is the doctor, he knows what he is talking about, right? Even thought it was almost a question to define my consciousness. But, well, after three questions the judge was satisfied and he left…And me…ask me what they asked me.

[Daniel]: What did they ask you?

[Micah]: Nothing!

[Daniel]: Nothing?

[Micah]: They printed the papers, I signed them, and I didn’t open my mouth.

They didn’t ask me if I wanted this.

[Daniel]: Incredible.

[Micah]: I was there and I signed the papers and that was that.

[Daniel]: But well, was it worth it? Was it really necessary to spend all of that money and energy to make a legal change to have a plasticized paper that says “male”?

[Micah]:  Yes, and I have questioned it. I mean, I was in the middle of this process and I said what the hell am I doing? What I am doing this for? And the only thing that I could say is that I felt like I had to do it.

[Daniel]: Now Micah doesn’t feel too uncomfortable showing his ID. Before, this simple act was always frustrating…stressful…

[Micah]: Because I was embarrassed, I didn’t want to take out my ID, or my passport, and it’s like you hide yourself and say: let’s see if they say anything, if they notice, right? Because you are not that person. Now, whether it reflects my identity perfectly or not, that is another issue.

[Daniel]: Micah, even though he didn’t want to, had to play the game of binary categories and adjust to them. That’s because there is no document, not Mexican or American, that reflects what Micah feels since he was young: that gender is a spectrum that is different for each individual. Well, let’s say, that document doesn’t exist –for now.

 Between 2008 and 2014, approximately 160 people changed their gender using the same long and tedious process that Micah went through. However, because of the approval of a reform by the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District, since November of 2014, this process is obsolete. Now to changing your sex in your birth certificate is only an administrative process.

I emailed Micah, to ask how he’s doing and what’s new in his life. This was his response:

“Maybe I would say that existing outside the binary is a constant negotiation with yourself and the world. Even though it’s been three years since our interview, being trans doesn’t play a central role in my life anymore.”

This story was written by Camila Segura and by be, and edited with the help of Silvia Viñas, Luis Trelles and Martina Castro. The mix and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.

Thanks to Jonathan Gómez and his advice for this story. A version in English was published in the New York Times Magazine. If you go to our website you will find a link to the article.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Mosley, Laura Pérez, Ana Prieto, Barbara Sawhill, Ryan Sweikert, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

Lear more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: Radio Ambulate tells stories of Latin America.

I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.


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