Me Girl – Translation
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OK, here’s the episode.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Gabriela Mansilla]: OK, well, my name is Gabriela Mansilla. I’m 45 years old.
[Daniel]: Gabriela is from Merlo, a city about 50 minutes outside of Buenos Aires, and today’s story starts about ten years ago, in the neighborhood where she lived with her partner and her fraternal twin sons, Manuel and Elías.
[Gabriela]: Yes, I remember it because across the street… You see my house with the rod iron fence? Across from there, there was a girl.
[Daniel]: At the time, her sons —who were a little under two years old— were learning to walk, and Gabriela remembers that one of them —Manuel— did something out of the ordinary, something Elías didn’t do. He took her hand and…
[Gabriela]: He brought me up to the fence and pointed at the girl across the street.
[Daniel]: He did it several times.
[Gabriela]: All the time. I would say to him: “The little girl, yes, what a pretty girl.”
[Daniel]: It stood out to Gabriela that Manuel kept going on about that girl so much, but at the time, all she thought was…
[Gabriela]: “He has a girlfriend. He likes her.” See! “He likes the girl across the street. Look, he likes the girl. He has a crush on that girl.” Wow.
[Daniel]: A few months later, when Manuel was starting to say a few words, they were at the fence again, looking at the girl, when Manuel said something, almost babbling.
[Gabriela]: “A… a… a… Me, girl. Me, princess”.
[Daniel]: At that time, Gabriela didn’t think it was important.
[Gabriela]: I didn’t pay attention to it. What do I know? I took it for… like a game. And it was… it was like he’d said any other thing.
[Daniel]: It would be a long time before Gabriela understood that sentence her son said. It’s meaning would change their family dynamic; it would change Gabriela herself, forcing her to confront her deepest prejudices.
Argentinian journalists Aneris Casassus and Patricia Serrano investigated this story. Here’s Aneris.
[Aneris Casassus]: We’re going to go back to the scene Daniel described later on, but first we want to tell you about Gabriela, about her life. It was a Tuesday, on a holiday in Argentina, when we arrived at Gabriela’s house in Merlo. Gabriela lives in a neighborhood with unpaved roads and small houses, a quiet neighborhood where you can hear dogs barking and birds singing. A neighborhood where everyone knows each other.
In the mid-2000s, Gabriela was 32. She owned a store that sold cleaning supplies. Every day she would walk the 20 blocks from her house, and she didn’t have any bigger plans in mind.
[Gabriela]: Uh, and no. I didn’t have any plans for the future. You see that there are people who say: “Well, I’m going to do such-and-such thing.” No, my plan was to survive.
[Aneris]: She hadn’t finished high school. She didn’t have a degree or a profession.
[Gabriela]: Or anything I could grab ahold of to say: “Well, look, I project myself forward.”
[Aneris]: She had never wanted to be a mom.
[Gabriela]: I hadn’t felt it. I didn’t have the need. I didn’t want to. I thought being a mom would come with a lot of responsibility, a lot of time out of my life. And I had to be totally willing to do it. And I wasn’t.
[Aneris]: No, she wasn’t willing at all. In fact, Gabriela was so sure that being a mother would be a full-time job that she ended a relationship over it. Her partner at the time wanted kids, but she wasn’t ready. They parted ways.
But everything changed in 2006 when she met Guillermo.
[Gabriela]: It was very magical, you know? It was crazy because as soon as I met him, within weeks, I started feeling the need to be a mom. It was a sensation, a feeling that was being born in me, and, uh, I also felt that it was going to be with that person.
[Aneris]: It wasn’t long before she was pregnant.
[Gabriela]: I was immensely happy. The problem was when they did the first sonogram, and they told me that there were two of them. A… a sort of panic took hold of me, you know? Finding out it was two. I fought with the sonographer. I didn’t believe him. I got up, and I left. A type of sobbing fit took hold of me. I didn’t know how I was going to handle a twin pregnancy. No. I couldn’t. No. It caused me a lot of anguish, knowing that I was going to have two babies.
[Aneris]: It was too much for her: not long before she thought she was never going to be a mother, and now she was pregnant with twins. On top of that, it wasn’t going to be an easy pregnancy.
[Gabriela]: First they told me that they were in different amniotic sacs. They weren’t identical twins.
[Aneris]: That has a rather technical name: it’s called a monochorionic diamniotic twin pregnancy, which means…
[Gabriela]: That they are in different amniotic sacs, like any pair of fraternal twins, but they only had one placenta, like identical twins, right? It was like a… it was already an atypical pregnancy.
[Aneris]: But by the fourth month, with another sonogram, they learned the babies’ sex.
[Gabriela]: And then, yes, the sonographer told me: “You’re going to have two boys.” First I was really happy because I didn’t want women because I had had a very hard time as a girl, you know? With gender inequality as it is. Imagine it, 30 years back.
[Aneris]: Just as they left the sonogram, while they were walking home, they decided on the names: Manuel and Elías Federico. And right away, Gabriela started imagining what everything would be like.
[Gabriela]: I had a world for a boy: a soccer ball, blue, pants, girlfriends, lots of girlfriends.
[Aneris]: One would be an electrician. The other would be a mechanic. They would go to technical school together, and they would be inseparable friends.
Those dreams helped Gabriela get through her pregnancy, which wasn’t easy at all. She had to get constant injections, take medications, and be lying down almost the entire time since she was under the constant threat of a miscarriage. She spent most of that time alone, in bed, imagining her babies. Her partner worked all day, and so did her mother and her siblings.
Her sister, Silvia, had had two babies die from a blood-clotting disease that they hadn’t detected, and Gabriela was afraid that it was genetic, so she didn’t prepare anything.
[Gabriela]: I didn’t buy clothes. I didn’t have a bag put together. The truth is that until I saw them alive here at home with me, I wasn’t preparing anything at all, you know? I had that fear that something bad would happen to them.
[Aneris]: But being afraid didn’t mean that she wouldn’t keep on imagining them.
[Gabriela]: I imagined them, and I didn’t just imagine them, but I was preparing for them too —because I spent so many months on bed rest— I prepared two notebooks, one for each, planning things out. Yes, I put a lot of love into planning, not my life, but theirs. And from that moment, I started giving them strength so… so they could live.
[Aneris]: Even though they were born before their due date, in an emergency delivery, everything turned out alright. The twins were born by C-section at 35 weeks, on July 3rd, 2007. They took them to neonatal incubators but they recovered quickly and after nine days, they were home.
But going back home wasn’t easy at all. Her partner was very absent.
[Gabriela]: I guess he was overwhelmed. He didn’t take on that paternal role. At —I don’t know— they were less than a month old when he started abandoning us. Saying he couldn’t do it. He would leave. He would take three, four days to come back.
[Aneris]: We tried to talk to Guillermo to get his version of events, but we couldn’t find him.
Things between Gabriela and Guillermo were getting worse and worse. He worked all day and, when he was home, they fought. And after a fight, he would leave the house for days.
Because of her difficult pregnancy, Gabriela had closed the shop, so she didn’t have any more income, and she depended on what her partner gave her.
[Gabriela]: If he left, diapers left, milk left. I had no other choice other than to go looking for him.
[Aneris]: Or put up with it, or forgive him for his frequent mistreatment. Her whole family worked, and they could only go visit her for a while. She felt alone and overwhelmed. She could only think one day at a time.
[Gabriela]: You know that phrase “I poured my life.” It’s true. Because I set my life aside. I stopped being Gabriela. I was mom. “The mom of.” Manuel’s mom and Elías’s mom. And that was the only way it could be. It was much harder than what… than anything I could imagine.
[Aneris]: Aside from the normal juggling she had to do on her own with two babies, there was one —Manuel— who cried all the time. And she couldn’t get him to stop crying, no matter what.
[Gabriela]: He never got tired. He never stopped crying. He… he took all my attention, you know? The demand was incredible. But, well, I thought I had one baby one way and another baby another. It’s the most common thing, to me. But by… a year in it became a lot worse.
[Aneris]: There was one thing about Manuel in particular that caught her attention.
[Gabriela]: He had sad eyes. Everyone could tell he had sad eyes. And at one and a half years, his hair started falling out, right? He had bald spots on his head, four —I remember— four bald spots the size of a 50-cent coin. And on top of that, there were the night terrors. I say night terrors because they were heartrending screams.
[Aneris]: Gabriela was afraid that he was sick. because it was clear something was wrong. Especially compared to Elías, who was very calm.
[Gabriela]: The difference was very noticeable. My mom would come and tell me, “Something is going on.” It was… See, when you can’t figure it out but it’s evident that something is going on with him.
[Aneris]: She consulted her pediatrician, and they sent him to a pediatric neurologist. They did tests, but nothing. One on hand, it was a relief knowing that he didn’t have anything, but at the same time, she continued to bear the anguish of not having an explanation for what was happening to her son. For the hair falling out, Gabriela took him to a dermatologist…
[Gabriela]: Who asked me if someone in the family had died, I remember. She asked me a ton of questions: if I had moved, if I had been separated, or if something happened with the father, if…
[Aneris]: Because it seemed there was no other explanation for what was going on, other than that it was emotional. Because on top of the hair, the constant crying, the night terrors, Manuel…
[Gabriela]: Started hitting himself… the fits, you know? Because he would grab onto the rungs of the crib and hit his head against the rungs of the crib.
[Aneris]: When the dermatologist told her that it was emotional, Gabriela didn’t understand.
[Gabriela]: What do you mean emotional, at a year and a half. There I got a… I said: “His hair is going to fall out. I don’t know. He’s going to be bald if fails a year at school, you know?” I don’t know. Whatever happens to him, his hair is going to fall out like this. I said: “No, it can’t be.”
[Aneris]: The situation started to affect everyone, but especially Elías.
[Gabriela]: He was very afraid. I remember that Elías would stay very quiet during the screaming. When he started to get older, he would cover his head with the sheet. It was very uncomfortable for Elías. Elías started getting sad too because there was a child who was screaming for help and… and it affected all of us, all of us as a family.
[Aneris]: And no one knew how to help him. It was all crying and crisis until Manuel started talking… when he was 20 months. That was when he grabbed his mom by the hand, brought her to the fence, pointed to the neighbor across the street and said that phrase we already heard.
[Gabriela]: “A… a… a… Me, girl. Me, princess.”
[Aneris]: And even though Gabriela didn’t think it was that important at the time, this became a recurring topic. He would say it several times.
Before he turned three, Manuel started getting dressed alone. When the twins were born, Gabriela and Guillermo had painted their room sky blue and almost all of their clothes were blue or sky blue. So, Manuel set out to find other colors in his mom’s closet. He looked in there desperately for shirts and skirts.
[Gabriela]: He was putting on my t-shirts to make it look like he had dress. He would dance in front of the TV —watching Beauty and the Beast— and he danced like Belle in the movie, and sometimes he asked his brother to dance like the prince.
[Aneris]: He seemed to be obsessed with clothes. Once he asked Gabriela for a skirt —or pollera, as we say in Argentina— and she let him borrow one.
[Gabriela]: I remember I tied it to her with a hair tie and he didn’t want to take it off anymore. He wanted to sleep in that skirt, and every time he put it on he would come out and tell me that he was a girl, that he was a princess.
[Aneris]: He was also obsessed with hair. He would put a floor mop that Gabriela had just used to clean the house on his head to make it look like he had long hair. The toys were also an issue.
[Gabriela]: For months we had given him gifts he never used. In fact, you would give him a truck and he would start crying. He would have a meltdown. He played with a few stuffed animals but that was it.
[Aneris]: So, Gabriela —a mom worried about her son’s wellbeing— started coming to conclusions.
[Gabriela]: I had a very feminine son who was showing me, uh, that he wanted to have opposite-gender clothes. I just thought he could end up being gay.
[Aneris]: It was disconcerting for Gabriela, but she did what Manuel asked. She did it for her son. As for Guillermo, the idea that his son might be gay was unacceptable.
[Gabriela]: His dad didn’t want a son that was a puto [literally a male prostitute, used as an anti-gay slur in some regions]either, you know? He exercised this violence with his presence, you know? It was sheer machismo. And Manuel was extremely sensitive at that time. He was looking for his father’s acceptance all the time. All the time.
[Aneris]: Gabriela decided to consult a psychologist in order to understand why her son wanted to be a girl. This psychologist had a very clear point of view on the topic: she tried to correct and reaffirm Manuel’s masculinity.
[Gabriela]: She said I couldn’t let him watch Disney movies. She told me to get rid of anything girly that may be in his reach, right? Anything that this culture considers feminine, to take it away.
[Aneris]: She even asked Gabriela to lock her bedroom so that Manuel wouldn’t have access to her clothes.
Today Gabriela says that sticking to the treatment they offered her was the hardest thing she had to do as a mother. She tried to follow through with it, thinking that they were doing the best thing for her son, but it broke Gabriela’s heart. When she saw that Manuel had slipped away so he could put on one of his mom’s shirts —following the psychologist’s advice— she had to take it off.
[Gabriela]: I felt like instead of taking the shirt off of him, I was tearing off his skin. It was painful to see how this child was suffering because of a shirt.
[Aneris]: One Sunday evening, the phone in Gabriela’s house rang. It was 2010, and the twins were three years old. It was her sister Silvia calling. She asked her to turn on the TV and change the channel to National Geographic. She told her to change the channel right away. She said they were showing a documentary. She told her to watch it. They would about it later. Gabriela and Guillermo turned on the TV.
[Gabriela]: Manuel and Elías were sleeping. We went to watch the documentary, and there was a girl who was eight years old, who said…
[Josie Romero]: Hi, my name is Josie. My birthday is April 16th. I’m a girl and I have a penis.
[Gabriela]: My name is Josie Romero. I’m eight years old. I’m a girl, and I have a penis. And the mom was talking. And the dad was talking. The showed the girl. They talked about everything that was happening to her. And it was as if they were talking about what was happening here in my home. The constant nonconformity, the crying, the anguish, dressing in… in opposite-gender clothes, and everything that Manuel had been doing. She was a transgender girl.
[Aneris]: That was the first time Gabriela heard that word.
[Gabriela]: The sensation was like falling off a cliff, you know? The pit in my stomach. Realizing that the word transgender was what we needed this whole time. Then being able to understand or make out or say, well, maybe this is what’s happening.
[Aneris]: Guillermo started crying and went out to smoke. Gabriela, on the other hand, felt relieved: maybe what was happening to her son had a name. But she also felt guilty. She remembered the treatment the psychologist had recommended to her —banning Disney movies, feminine colors, clothes— and if her son was transgender —this word and concept that was so new to her— what she had done seemed cruel.
[Gabriela]: And I had to go tell her I’m sorry because I hadn’t understood. I ran my fingers through her hair. When I saw her sleeping —she was asleep— I sat on her bed and asked for her forgiveness because really I had heard her but I had never understood what she had meant when she told me: “Me, girl. Me, princess.” And I promised her I would do everything I could, if she wanted to be a princess, I was going to help her be the most beautiful princess in the world.
[Aneris]: What Gabriela wanted most in the world was to help Manuel but she didn’t know how. She was really lost. Now a few things were clear to her. One was that her son Manuel…
[Gabriela]: He wasn’t a boy. He wasn’t gay. He wasn’t sick. None of that. That is, she was a transgender girl. At least I knew what I could hold on to.
[Aneris]: The first thing she did was go to Google and search for information on the internet, but she could only find cases in the United States. There was nothing about “trans kids” in Argentina. She printed what she was able to get and highlighted the things that were mentioned in the articles that were also happening to Manuel. She went to the psychologist with all this information, and to her surprise, the psychologist denied it all. She told her that it was a lie, that transgender kids didn’t exist. Besides…
[Gabriela]: She highlighted what was happening to me as a mother. What was going on in my home that was making my male child say he was a girl. She blamed me for absolutely everything. She didn’t understand. She didn’t know.
[Aneris]: She started looking for other psychologists and doctors to take Manuel to, but they all said the same thing. Again, Gabriela felt frustrated about not finding an answer or someone who could help her handle the situation.
While she was looking for help, things in her family continued to get complicated. Especially with her partner.
She remembers one specific day very clearly. It was July 31st, 2011, the twins had just turned four and she went with them and Guillermo to the house of a friend who had just had a girl. The baby had a doll with pink wool for hair and somehow Manuel got in the baby’s crib.
[Gabriela]: And she stood in front of us with the doll in hand, saying that she wanted a doll. And that made his father burst out in violence, he pulled the doll away in front of everyone. He was ashamed of what his son was doing.
[Aneris]: Guillermo, in a fury, dropped them off at home and went to work. And Gabriela remembers perfectly that that night she was cooking when Manuel goes into the kitchen wearing a red shirt she had taken from Gabriela’s closet and again said very resolutely…
[Gabriela]: “I’m a girl.” And I remember I told her: “No, no, you’re a boy. Stop. “Give me a minute,” because it had been a very violent day for me.
[Aneris]: Gabriela only knew about the concept of being transgender from the documentary. She was looking for a specialist who could help her navigate this. She hadn’t found anyone, and she still wasn’t sure what was happening with Manuel. But that night, something happened that surprised her.
[Gabriela]: She said: “I’m a girl, and my name is Luana.” And then I stopped everything, you know, because even my thoughts were frozen. And I said, “What?” “I’m a girl. My name is Luana, and if you don’t call me Luana I won’t answer.” And I didn’t even know where she had gotten that name, but evidently, she had even already thought of a name and didn’t want me to call her Manuel anymore. And at four years old she stood her ground and told me that she had chosen her own name.
[Aneris]: Gabriela didn’t know what to say.
[Gabriela]: The first thing I manage to say, you know, what any adult comes up with when they don’t have an answer: “Go to your room. We’ll talk later.”
[Aneris]: The next day, when Gabriela called to her, the name Manuel came out.
[Gabriela]: And she didn’t answer. So at first: “Manuel, Manuel, Manuel.” I tried with “Luana”, and she turned and said: “Yes, mom.”
[Aneris]: Since Manuel said that her name was Luana, her mom, her aunt Silvia, and her grandmother, María Esther started to get used to it little by little and they started calling her by the name she had chosen. They called her Lulú, Lu, and Luana. And with that —with just that, her name— the situation at home started to change.
[Gabriela]: And that’s when Luana started sleeping. And that’s when she stopped having night terrors. That’s when her sadness started to subside.
[Daniel]: But it was just the start of a long journey. After the break, Luana starts kindergarten with the name she chose herself.
We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, at just four years old, Luana had managed to be accepted in her house, and to start being called by her new name, but at kindergarten and in the rest of society, that process would be different.
Patricia Serrano continues the story.
[Patricia Serrano]: Luana and Elías started kindergarten at three years old. It was a private school close to their house. Kindergarten had always been difficult for Luana because she wanted to dress like the other girls. They had uniforms: the girls wore skirts, and the boys wore pants. And since they started, obviously everyone there knew her as Manuel. But from the beginning, Manuel wanted to do girly things. For example:
[Gabriela]: She started combing girls’ hair. She was the little boy who combed all the girls’ hair in kindergarten, you know? She also wanted a skirt like the ones all the girls wore, but she had to wear uniform pants and have short hair. And she left kindergarten suffering.
[Patricia]: Gabriela couldn’t please Luana. And she couldn’t put her in a skirt to go to school either.
Little by little at home, Luana started being more and more herself. So she wouldn’t put any more dirty mops on her head, they bought her a party wig, from a costume. Her aunt Silvia bought her her first princess costume, Princess Aurora, and for Children’s Day they bought her the doll she had begged them for. She started sleeping with the doll and with the wig on. She slept soundly, and almost never had night terrors. She started eating better, and her hair stopped falling out. But Luana was only Luana at home.
[Gabriela]: To the whole kindergarten, Luana was a boy.
[Patricia]: And to everyone else too, and they called her Manuel.
[Gabriela]: She couldn’t take that dissociation. She would come home running from kindergarten. She would come in running and she would take her clothes off at the door just so she could put on that party costume, the party wig. It was like the other clothes were burning her. She would grab the pants and tell me: “This bothers me.”
[Patricia]: Gabriela kept on looking for professional help, and she was very frustrated.
[Gabriela]: We had already gone through a lot of psychologists, pediatricians, neurologists —as many as we could— and no one wanted to help us. I mean, no one wanted to help the crazy mom who said she had a trans daughter, when in this country people didn’t talk about being transgender as a child. It didn’t exist.
[Patricia]: Until her sister Silvia, searching on the internet, came across one psychologist’s email: Valeria Paván. She was the coordinator for health with la Comunidad Homosexual Argentina [The Homosexual Community Argentina], the CHA.
They sent her an email, and Valeria agreed to see Gabriela in her office, a few blocks from Plaza de Mayo, in the middle of downtown Buenos Aires, three hours from Gabriela’s house by public transit. Gabriela asked Guillermo to come with her, and they went to see her that night. This is Valeria.
[Valeria Paván]: They told me the whole story and the whole rundown of what they had done in those… those two years. It didn’t stand out much to me.
[Patricia]: In other words, she had a lot of experience with trans people. At the time, Valeria had already worked with about 200 trans people. What did surprise her was how young Luana was, and the fact that her parents recognized her as a girl. That really was strange.
[Valeria]: For the first time in many years on this path, we had found a mom and a dad that had been able to listen to what this girl was trying to explain to them.
[Patricia]: She was surprised that they hadn’t stuck with those corrective therapies that the psychologists they had seen prescribed them. She was surprised they kept doing research. She had never seen that.
Gabriela remembers what Valeria said that day very clearly. The question she asked them: what were they going to do if the evaluation confirmed that Luana was a trans girl?
[Gabriela]: And immediately, I knew what to do. What I didn’t know, was what her… her father was going to do.
[Patricia]: To her surprise, Guillermo, the father, told the doctor that he would accept Launa just as she was.
They ended the appointment, and they decided that they were going to bring Luana so she could meet her. Gabriela left feeling that finally, she had met a professional who agreed with her intuition, who was ready to help her. But she was very afraid, very overwhelmed. One of the things that was most difficult for her was knowing that in Argentina there had never been a case of such a young trans girl. They didn’t have a model to follow. Nothing.
[Gabriela]: We had to do it on our own and be the jumping-off point for something without having any background, nothing. It wasn’t easy, you know? And if what we were doing was right? And if what we were doing was wrong? And who was going to guarantee that my daughter wasn’t going to suffer, that nothing was going to happen to her? What was it going to be like at kindergarten?
[Patricia]: They took it step by step.
First Valeria needed to meet Luana. She told Gabriela that when she brought Luana she should tell her to bring everything she wanted to play with.
[Gabriela]: And Luanita just grabbed a bag and in the bag, she put her party dress, some things to play with, and the wig. Then when Valeria met her, she opened the door and she ran in almost like she didn’t want her to see her. She put on the wig, and she put on the skirt, and right there she introduced herself as Luana.
[Patricia]: To Valeria, it was clear from the first moment.
[Valeria]: As soon as I met her, right away I had no doubts about agreeing with… with the family and starting to… to give Lulú what she was asking us for.
[Patricia]: They started seeing each other once a week.
[Gabriela]: And from there, well, Luana found in Valeria an escape, freedom. She asked Valeria for everything she needed, and she knew that Valeria would step in to… to help her.
[Patricia]: One day in 2011, just before Mother’s Day —in Argentina, they celebrate it in October— Gabriela was with Luana and Elías looking for some clothes for their grandma. The two of them were dressed the same, in blue checkered pants. They were in the store, and when Gabriela turned around, Luana had put on one of the blouses from the store.
[Gabriela]: Which really shocked the girl who was taking care of me, you know? So, I whispered in her ear that it was big on her. And then I made the decision that she wouldn’t be in disguise anymore.
[Patricia]: In other words, Luana needed her own clothes, girl’s clothes. Clothing that fit her. That she liked. What any mom would want to give her daughter. But for Gabriela, this decision was almost a revelation.
[Gabriela]: No, in my opinion, dignity was the last thing I could deny her.
[Patricia]: After buying the gift for their grandma, they want to a children’s clothing store.
[Gabriela]: Then I went in with them and I asked the man for the purple skirt from the window display. Then he says: “Who’s it for.” And I said, “It’s for…” And I looked at Luana, and I didn’t know how to explain it, I said, “It’s for her.” And the man didn’t understand at all.
[Patricia]: Luana put on the skirt and started spinning around in the middle of the store. She was happy. When they got home, Luana was anxious to put the skirt on and show it to her grandma. Gabriela’s mom, María Esther, lives just across the street. She just had to cross the dirt road. It would be the first time Luana would go out dressed as a girl.
[Gabriela]: And as soon as I opened the door, she went behind me and said: “No, no, no, no. If people see me, I’ll hide.” I took her hand and said, “Are you a girl or a boy?” “I’m a girl, mom.” “OK, we’re going to grandma’s house, and we’re going to cross the street with the skirt on because you’re a girl. You’re with me. You don’t… you don’t have to be ashamed.” “And if people come?” “And if people come, if they don’t like it, they don’t have to look at you.” The end.
[Patricia]: It was that simple in the end. Making the decision to become the person she was.
[Gabriela]: So, I took Elías’s hand, and I took Luana’s hand, with her in her skirt. She had a blue shirt with checkers and she had her little skirt and her hair was super short. And with our hands held tight, we crossed the street. It was an immense street because now it was endless. [Laughs] I think it was six steps across, and it was very hard for us to cross. But that made Luana feel safe. We didn’t holding her back anymore.
[Patricia]: Gabriela’s message was clear:
[Gabriela]: Acceptance, safety. No matter what, I’m here. It doesn’t matter what the others say.
[Patricia]: “If you want to go out dressed that way, I support you.”
[Gabriela]: The issue was her father. My daughter wasn’t allowed to go out dressed that way. So, the battles that we were winning didn’t last very long because later he left us.
[Patricia]: Guillermo left the house for good in January 2012, when Elías and Luana were four and a half years old. Eventually, they stopped seeing him entirely. It was a very hard time for Gabriela and her children. But Elías experienced Luana’s transition very naturally.
[Gabriela]: First because he already knew… knew that his brother wanted a doll. He knew his brother was the princess. He knew. For him, it was much easier. It was just a name change; that was it. Elías started noticing that Luana was better, and if Luana was sleeping, so was Elías. In other words, if Luana was calm, the whole house was calm.
[Patricia]: Luana sought her brother’s approval.
[Gabriela]: And if she put on a dress or a skirt, whatever, she would say to Elías: “How do I look, Elías?” And Elías would say: “You’re beautiful, Luana.” In other words, she always had all her brother’s love.
[Patricia]: Little by little, Luana could be herself, not just at home, but also out in the world. But the problem was kindergarten, where she was still Manuel. There she had to dress like a boy. The teachers treated her like a boy. She hated going to school.
[Gabriela]: She would cry at the door, and she didn’t want to go in because they treated her like a boy.
[Patricia]: Which was very difficult for Luana. Little by little she came to understand that what made her different from her other girls was her genitals. And one day Luana…
[Gabriela]: Came to me naked. She had hidden her penis with her little hands, with her tiny fingers. She had made it disappear, and she said: “Look, mom, this is what I want. I don’t want a penis because girls don’t have penises.” I hugged her. I got her dressed, and I hid anything in her reach she could use to cut something. I felt like she was going to cut her penis off, and I was desperate.
[Patricia]: Between Gabriela and Valeria, they tried to get her to understand as best they could.
[Gabriela]: For her to notice that these differences, which were going to be hard for her, like being the only girl with a penis in the school, and instead of worrying about it, to say: “Oh, I’m the only girl with a penis,” to tell her, “How wonderful that you’re the only girl with a penis.”
[Valeria]: What we’re working toward is getting the girl to understand that what’s happening to her isn’t wrong. That she could accept her body, that it was possible to be a girl with a penis, and there was no… there was no problem.
[Patricia]: It was a kind of treatment that went beyond the psychologist’s office. Valeria had gone to speak to the kindergarten’s principal and teachers, and they had agreed what was best for the girl for the next year —when she would return to kindergarten, at almost five years old— was for her to come in as Luana, even though all the registration documents would still identify her as a boy.
Now her uniform would be a skirt like she wanted. She had started letting her hair grow out —it wasn’t falling out anymore— and it was long enough for her to pull back some locks of hair with the hair clips she liked. Gabriela remembers perfectly that first day of kindergarten when she brought her as Luana.
[Gabriela]: We walked there. We had to walk nearly nine blocks to get to the kindergarten. Everything that went through my head. I didn’t want to arrive because I was so afraid that someone would say something. I thought she was going to regret it, that she was going to be embarrassed. I don’t know.
And if you had seen how happy she was when she went in. She even sang the entire national anthem. All of it. She didn’t notice or she refused to see or she ignored everything that was going on around her, because it was all very violent. Not one adult held back their astonishment, their comments, saying whatever they wanted. They were asking: Where’s Manuel? Why is Manuel dressed as a woman? What happened to him? Why are we doing this to him? But Luana went into kindergarten with unparalleled strength. Luana is… is incredible.
[Patricia]: That strength Luana has —that her mom mentions— didn’t mean that everything was easy. There were daily aggressions, like the comments from the parents in kindergarten or people in the street. Questions, often with bad intentions, that were judgmental of Luana or Gabriela. Sometimes the simplest things, like going to the doctor’s office, became difficult.
[Gabriela]: And showing up and saying… giving the document with her ID card or just her ID document, and they say: “Well, where’s Manuel?” “This is her.” “No, Manuel. Oh, it’s for the girl, it’s not for Manuel. Give me the girl’s identification.” “No, Manuel is this girl. She’s a transgender girl.” They didn’t want to see her.
[Patricia]: And she could spend half an hour arguing with the receptionist and explaining the situation. She remembers that one time Luana had a high fever. She brought her and…
[Gabriela]: The doctor started calling out in front of everyone in the waiting room: “Manuel, Manuel.” And I remember that Luana went in, hit the desk with her hand and said: “My name is Luana. My name isn’t Manuel.”
[Patricia]: Getting treatment was difficult for them several times. It was so exhausting to have to explain it that on one occasion Gabriela thought of a solution so she could get her daughter a vaccine.
[Gabriela]: All I said to her was —and I regret it, and I’ll never do it again— I said to Luana: “Can you wear Elías’s clothes? That way, we can go get the vaccine and come back.” And she refused to do it. She said: “No, I’m not going.” The child was the one who was coherent in this story, not the adults. And immediately I understood, and I said: “You’re right. You’re right. How can I ask you to put on your brother’s clothes, so a doctor will treat you with the respect you deserve and give you the vaccines you have to have?”
[Patricia]: At kindergarten, despite the fact that they had formally accepted Luana’s transition, they didn’t give her much help beyond that.
[Gabriela]: They didn’t let us talk to the families. Which meant that everyone made up the story they wanted in their heads, and that was very violent for Luana. There were kids who hit her.
[Patricia]: At the same time, the children’s father stopped paying alimony, and stopped paying for medical coverage and kindergarten. Gabriela, on top of that, didn’t have a job. Her mom started helping her pay for power, gas, and food. They started working on their house’s patio.
[Gabriela]: Getting on a bicycle and delivering pizzas and empanadas.
And for Luana, it was very hard because at first, she believed that her dad had left because she was transgender. And along with Valeria, we took care of… of making it clear to her, you know? That no, that her dad hadn’t left because she was trans, rather her dad had left, and he wasn’t just abandoning Luana but he was also abandoning Elías. They were his children.
[Patricia]: Because they couldn’t afford it, they had to transfer them to a State school, where they already knew Luana as a trans girl. But her identification still called her Manuel.
Hope that she would be called by her name everywhere came in 2012.
[Journalist 1]: News of the approval of the Gender Identity Law, by the Senate, was received joyfully in Argentina.
[Journalist 2]: The new legislation allows people to change their gender and name without the approval of a judge or doctor.
[Patricia]: The gender identity law allows trans people to be registered on their personal documents with their self-identified name and gender, with no need for a judicial proceeding or pathologizing their condition. In other words, it allows them to correct their birth certificate and get a new DNI [National Identity Document].
Now Luana had the chance to be who she was legally speaking. The law has an article for addressing the cases of persons under the age of 18, like her. Both of the child’s parents or legal guardians have to give their consent. And the minor, along with their lawyer, has to as well.
Gabriela followed all the steps to do it. The attorney for la Comunidad Homosexual Argentina was in charge of finding Guillermo and they got him to show up the day Luana’s DNI form was to be signed.
[Gabriela]: The advisor for minors told us that… no one was going to sign off on a DNI like that for Luana, that she was too young. Luanita was only five years old.
[Patricia]: Because surely this official had never imagined a minor would want an identity change at such a young age. It was the first case in the whole country. So they denied it.
Gabriela was angry, but…
[Gabriela]: I didn’t get stuck in that negative mindset. I couldn’t continue taking her to the doctor’s office with the risk that they wouldn’t treat her. She needed her DNI. And I stood in front of the Casa Rosada…
[Patricia]: The presidential residence.
[Gabriela]: And I decided to write a letter to the Office of the President of the Nation.
[Patricia]: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
[Gabriela]: What do I know, right? I was hopeful. I don’t know. I needed someone to listen to me.
[Patricia]: Along with Valeria Paván, they decided that the request would be more compelling if the case also made it to the media. Though that, of course, entailed a certain amount of risk. They designed a strategy to protect Luana’s identity.
The case was covered for the first time on June 28th, 2013, in the daily newspaper Página 12. The article was signed by Mariana Carbajal, a journalist who closely follows topics related to gender, and the title was “What the Mirror Shows.” The photo illustrating the story showed Luana playing in her room, but you don’t see her face. You don’t see Gabriela’s or Elías’s either.
The story was picked up by other outlets immediately. It became national news, a subject of debate in homes and on tv shows.
[Commentator 1]: To me, it really seems terrible, terrible. Since when does a two-year-old boy give orders to his mother? Because he could have told her that he wanted to be a princess. He could have told her he wanted to go live on the moon. And then what? The mom’s going to go to NASA so she can take him to the moon? Clearly, the mom has wanted Lulú to be a woman since the child was born.
[Commentator 2] The mom has fraternal twins, and maybe she has two boys and she wants to have a boy and a girl, and psychologically you can shape your children with the messages you send.
[Commentator 1]: You’re saying there could have been some kind of manipulation?
[Commentator 2] Yes.
[Commentator 2] The mom wanted a girl. And she got a boy. It’s as clear as two plus two.
[Gabriela]: There was no shortage of professionals who appeared in the media and on the news to say that I was schizophrenic. They diagnosed me as psychotic.
[Patricia]: They said she had Munchausen Syndrome, and that she could even kill her children.
[Gabriela]: People who had never even seen me, never even heard be. They had never met me or Luana.
[Patricia]: What was in question, primarily, was Luana’s young age for changing her gender. But that was never a problem for Valeria.
[Valeria]: The truth is that the realization can come at any point in a person’s life. To me, it seems appropriate to respect an early instance of identity construction. Identity has to do with the self. The self is formed very early in childhood, and we know that all attempts to change or correction a trans person’s perception of self had brought about that person’s destruction.
[Patricia]: It was a difficult time for Gabriela. But it was also a happy time because for the first time, people were talking about trans kids in Argentina, and with so much attention in the media, good things started to happen. The National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism reached out to Gabriela to help her with the DNI request. The National Secretariat for Children, Adolescents, and the Family did as well.
But it wasn’t enough. She wrote a letter to the Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, where Luana’s DNI needed to be corrected. In the media, they wouldn’t talk about anything else. Gabriela was overwhelmed and she was afraid that Elías or Luana would hear what they were saying about their family, so one day she turned off the TV and unplugged the phone and took them skating at a plaza. They needed to disconnect. And when they got back…
[Gabriela]: There were four or five messages from the ministry.
[Patricia]: From the head of the cabinet of the Province of Buenos Aires, Alberto Pérez. Gabriela called him back and they told her that they wanted to contact her…
[Gabriela]: They were going to correct Luana’s birth certificate and Luana was going to have her DNI. And they would be waiting for me the next day at the Government Palace in La Plata.
And I remember I hung up the phone and started screaming. And all I yelled to Luana was: “You did it, Luana! You did it! We did it! We did it, Luana! You’re going to get your DNI?” I mean, it was worth all the pain, the violence, everything I went through, the effort. It was all worth it.
[Patricia]: The Government of the Province of Buenos Aires had decided to correct Luana’s birth certificate, and they had also decided that they wanted to hold a public press conference to announce it. They wanted Gabriela to accept Luana’s ID in front of the cameras. There would national and internal media there. It was an unprecedented event. Luana would become the youngest person in the world to receive a new ID aligning with her gender identity.
Gabriela was very unsure about deciding to go in front of the cameras. Since the story had gone public, she had heard horrible things. And until now, no one knew what she looked like. She was still anonymous.
[Gabriela]: Social media blew up with messages like “Kill the puto”, “Kill the putito and the mother”, “The mother should be shot in the head”, “They should give him a beating so he’ll be a man.” It was… it was awful.
[Patricia]: Gabriela talked it over with her mom and her siblings to see what was the best option. They thought about writing a letter on behalf of the family for another person to read at the press conference…
[Gabriela]: But on the other hand, what was I teaching my daughter, you know? We fought so hard, we went so far, for so many years. We went through so much pain. And this was the only big achievement we were getting and what was I teaching her? That… Who was going to accept that ID? Which is Luana’s —my daughter’s— dignity.
[Patricia]: Despite the intense fear she felt, she made the decision.
[Gabriela]: I’m going to face the world and show her I’m proud of her and there’s nothing wrong with her. Because I also understood that by not going, we were staying in hiding., you know?
[Patricia]: On October 9th, 2013, when Luana was six, the cabinet chief officially issued the document to Gabriela.
[Alberto Pérez]: For us, it’s… first, personally, it’s emotional, because I know what this means for you, for the girl and your family. And as officials continuing to put into effect new rights, which we’re lucky to have in our country.
[Patricia]: Gabriela was so excited she could barely speak. As best she could, she said in front of the cameras:
[Gabriela]: This DNI is Luana’s. It is signed by Luana, and it has Luana’s picture. This is her struggle. I just came with her and listened to her when she wanted me to listen.
[Patricia]: The news was heard across Argentina and all over the world. That day, Luana became the first trans minor in the world to be recognized by the State. All the media outlets were trying to get ahold of Gabriela, but she decided not to speak to them. She had already said what mattered.
One of those days, she went out with her kids to catch a bus, and she lost her phone. On it, she had pictures from when they gave her Luana’s DNI. Gabriela felt desperate. Not just because she lost her phone, but also because she thought that if someone found it, saw the photos and recognized her, it wouldn’t be long before they showed up on the internet. And Luana’s identity would be revealed.
So she went to the neighborhood police station to file a report. And she couldn’t imagine the violence she was going to face when she told the whole story to the person who took her report. Everything about Luana, the DNI, the photos, the official…
[Gabriela]: He leans back in this chair, and it’s like the climate starts to change, you know? I felt his aggression at that moment, that man’s violence at that moment because he said, “What a disgrace.” He said he would never allow his daughter to go to the same school as mine because his daughter would be in danger, being in the same bathroom as Luana. He asked me if it was going to get stiff, if I thought my daughter’s penis would get stiff in the future.
[Patricia]: Gabriela would get used to hearing these kinds of questions, and she would learn how to respond to them with sarcasm. In the end, nothing happened with her lost phone. Later, when Gabriela became an activist and public figure, she would have to deal with people like that police officer.
[Gabriela]: Because when they meet Luana they’re thinking about what she does with her penis.
[Patricia]: That shouldn’t matter to anyone else. Just to Luana.
While we interviewed Gabriela in the dining room of her home, every once in a while, you could hear the voices of Luana and Elías in their room playing Fortnite, the hot videogame at the time. Gabriela calls them over to say hi.
They’re skinny. They have the same stature and the same large black eyes. Luana has long, dark, shiny hair down to her waist. Elías has short hair. Luana greets us with an ear to ear smile. She knows we’re journalists and that we’re going to tell her story. Elías seems shy. The two of them run over to their grandma’s house, across the street.
And now the street doesn’t seem so wide.
[Daniel]: Though there are no official figures or statistical reports in Argentina about the condition of trans people; some human rights organizations have conducted their own studies in order to get a real picture of the violence against this population. According to a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in Latin America, the life expectancy of a trans person is less than 35 years, and one of the leading causes of death is homicide.
In these years, Gabriela has completely transformed. She became an activist and mentor for trans kids.
Since her story went public, she has received inquiries from hundreds of families who were going through situations like Luana’s. She founded “Infancias Libres” a non-profit organization to help this community.
She has also published a book about her experience. Its title is Me Girl, Me Princess: Luana, the girl who chose her own name. It’s been reprinted ten times.
The book ends with this:
[Gabriela]: “I want you to be happy, to keep fighting, to never give up, to never take a step backward, to become strong, to be free, to love yourself very much and to continue to be so full of light, because the path is dark and you are the you who can light the way. I love you, mom.”
[Daniel]: Aneris Casassus and Patricia Serrano are journalists, and they live in Buenos Aires.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Victoria Estrada, and by me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Miranda Mazariegos, Rémy Lozano, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas, and Joseph Zárate. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Ambulantes, on Friday we’re going to publish an extra episode to complement the story you’ve just heard. We spoke with Radio Ambulante listeners who don’t identify with the traditional gender categories. Their testimonies reveal what it’s like to be a trans person in Latin America. Be on the lookout.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.
On the next episode of Radio Ambulante. Alberto Fujimori had an ambitious idea….
[Carlos Meléndez]: Since it was a private plane, this private plane goes in a private hanger. And right then the personnel Immigration sent an official to the hanger to process the people there.
When he goes back to his spot, he puts their names in the system, and the Interpol alert comes up.
[Daniel]: To leave his exile in Japan and Return to Peru. But his stay in Chile would begin an unexpected adventure. That story, next week.