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Chess teacher Melisa welcoming kids at the door
Chess teacher Melisa welcoming kids at the door
Johanna Chiefo

BUENOS AIRES - The July winter vacation was coming to a close and José’s decision was maturing: he would simply tear down what remained of the “closet” he'd slowly been coming out of. So on July 30, José arrived at the elementary school that he works at in Buenos Aires as "Melisa," and became the city's first ever transgender teacher.

Weeks earlier he had met with school administrators to inform them of his decision: “I have an obligation to be coherent with my deepest sentiments that are leading me to take this step in my life, a life that will never be lived to the fullest if I don’t show the essence of my own being. And my being is profoundly feminine.”

Why now? Melisa feels that it is time to be herself in the workplace. Also, on May 9, the Senate passed a law on gender identity that allows individuals to adapt their national ID documents and birth certificates based on a gender choice.

Melisa has been a teacher for the past 22 years, specializing in optional chess workshops. Watch footage and interview of Melisa here She teaches 12 different classes in different public schools around the city, with students from second to fifth grade.

Her students have always known her as José; now she is Melisa. Thin, very tall and with dazzling finger nails, she is proud of the acceptance she got from her daughters (aged 21 and 16) and the rest of her family, who confirmed their own suspicions after seeing Melisa dressed as a woman in photos that Melisa had decided to show them.

But that was only the beginning of the process. What would the parents of her students say?

Enrique Samar, principle at one of the schools Melisa teaches at, said that the majority have accepted the decision. Only one mother decided to pull her son from the chess workshop.

Haydeé Torinchik, a family psychologist, says that the school erred by leaving communication with the children essentially up to the parents. “You have to work from their heads, find out what they know and what they imagine, and answer questions in an adult way based on that," Torinchik said. "Melisa is not hurting anyone, she is saying the truth, and the truth is respect.”

Laying groundwork with long nails

According to Melisa, the change was not a radical departure, because she was already preparing the terrain: she started to wear her nails long and wear jewelry, plucked her eyebrows and started training her voice.

“Teacher, men don’t wear their nails long,” students told her during the transition. Some of the changes appear to have been completely accepted, but seeing her in heels and a skirt still provokes surprise. “You’re pretty, teacher!” and “Why did you change now and not earlier?” were some of the comments.

Sergio Provenzano, director of studies in Sex Education and Gender Studies of the University of Buenos Aires, said that children understand better than adults, because they are able to look at the changes without prejudices.

Melisa openly said that she has more than 200 skirts at home, and that you just don’t see transsexuals of her age walking around the city. In what seems to have been an intimate conversation, Soledad Acuña, the under-secretary of diversity in school told her: “You are the first out of 50,000 teachers. Somebody had to open this door, and it was up to you.”

Melisa grew up in a a very repressed environment, and never felt totally happy. “Eight years ago I accepted myself for what I am: a person with masculine genitals who feels like a woman. And at last I could sleep peacefully,” she said.

In the next couple of days she will arrange to get a new national ID card. For some people she is still José, for others she is Melisa -- ending up with an androgynous image that she doesn’t really connect with.

“She should be respected," says Provenzano, the Gender Studies department director. "According to the current law, a person has the right to choose his or her own sexuality and gender. And to the extent that something is legitimate, it is incontrovertible.”

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Geopolitics

Women, Life, Freedom: Iranian Protesters Find Their Voice

In the aftermath of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the morality police mid-September for not wearing her hijab properly, many Iranians have taken the streets in nationwide protests. Independent Egyptian media Mada Masr spoke to one of the protesters.

Students of Amirkabir University in Tehran protest against the Islamic Republic in September 2022.

Lina Attalah

On September 16, protests erupted across Iran when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after being arrested and beaten by morality police for her supposedly unsuitable attire. The protests, witnesses recount, have touched on all aspects of rights in Iran, civil, political, personal, social and economic.

Mada Masr spoke to a protester who was in the prime of her youth during the 2009 Green Movement protests. Speaking on condition of anonymity due to possible security retaliation, she walked us through what she has seen over the past week in the heart of Tehran, and how she sees the legacy of resistance street politics in Iran across history.

MADA MASR: Describe to us what you are seeing these days on the streets of Tehran.

ANONYMOUS PROTESTER: People like me, we are emotional because we remember 2009. The location of the protests is the same: Keshavarz Boulevard in the middle of Tehran. The last time Tehranis took to these streets was in 2009, one of the last protests of the Green Movement. Since then, the center of Tehran hasn’t seen any mass protests, and most of these streets have changed, with new urban planning meant to make them more controllable.

Remembering 2009 triggers many things, such as street strategies, tactics and the way we could find each other in the middle of the chaos. But this is us now, almost at the back. Up front, there are many younger people, especially girls. They are extremely brave, fearless and smart.

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