In Colombia, When Your 7-Year-Old Is Transgender

In Bogotá, a transgender girl and her family are, with their openness, helping similar people take their rightful place in society.

Pride in Bogota in 2013
Pride in Bogota in 2013
Yusimí Rodríguez López

BOGOTÁ — Malena was designated a boy at birth, but — as far as she can remember — she has always identified herself as a girl. She is seven years old now, and thanks to support from her family, has begun her gender transition. She has also become a source of support to families of other children who, like herself, want to express their gender identity.

The day a classmate asked her, "Armando, lend me the eraser," she replied: "My name is not Armando." The child switched spontaneously to, "Malena, can you please lend me the eraser?" Malena was six then and had been telling her parents for four years that she was certain she was a girl.

"She was always inclined toward feminine things. She tied towels around her head, looked for my shoes and tried them on. She asked us to call her "she" or "princess'," says Patricia, Malena's 33-year-old mother. Patricia has another two children, a 15-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy. She confesses she had initially hoped her daughter was going through a phase, but when Malena began school, her choices became more evident. "The notebooks, colors, her schoolbag. Everything had to be pink or purple,they had to be girly things.We would explain that we should be buying her boys' things because she was a boy. We still thought this would pass," she says.

How can a girl that age decide the gender with which she identifies? María Gabriela García, a researcher on gender issues and psychology student at the National University of Colombia, says she believes there is a common misconception that there is no "self-determination" mechanism when we are very young. "Things related to gender roles start to become evident when people are three or four years old," she explained. "It is part of a person's identity construction, which begins in the early years of life and continues until we are old."

García assists families of transgender children and teenagers, including Malena's, as part of the activities of the Action and Support Group for Transgender People (GAAT) Foundation.

Mom, why are you doing this to me if I've been a good girl?

A fundamental part of assisting families is to help them shed the guilt they feel for having a transgender child. García says that in many cases, the sense of guilt is absorbed from social interactions, especially with other relatives, and families go through a process similar to mourning, leaving behind hopes and expectations they had nurtured about their children. "Essentially it's the same person," says García. "We tell them, it is still your son or daughter. It's about making concessions over what you had hoped for."

García says Patricia has embraced her daughter's transition well and plays an important role in the family support group. Hearing Patricia say confidently that she has a seven-year-old trans girl, and that it's OK, helps other families embarking on the same process. But Malena's transition was a challenge for Patricia. On one occasion she took Malena to have her hair cut. As her hair locks were falling, the girl cried and asked: "Mom, why are you doing this to me if I've been a good girl?"

"In that moment, I questioned myself as a mother. I wondered why I was punishing my daughter just to follow binary rules," Patricia recalls. Gender binarism establishes the two categories of men and women, masculine and feminine, to classify all people. It also establishes the defining characteristics of each category at any point in time. So-called gender vigilance kicks in when a person shows characteristics that do not fit with the assigned birth sex, and the social context cannot adapt to it.

Malena had to face such vigilance at school. Other children in her class found it normal to call her by her chosen female name, but teachers insisted on her being what she was not — male. "One Christian teacher phoned and told us this was a sin, that she had been born a male and we should raise her as such or she would not enter the Kingdom of God," says Patricia. "I told her not to talk to me about God, as the school was supposedly secular."

Before the beginning of the 2017 school year, Malena's family met with the principal and coordinator at the school. Initially, there were no problems, but the school authorities started putting pressure on the family when they saw Malena's hair growing. One of the teachers would tell her she could not behave like a girl at school, says Patricia. In 2018, the school said it would happily receive Armando — but did not mention Malena. Her identity name was not respected, and Patricia was made to sign a commitment that her daughter would wear a boy's uniform and cut her hair. "The teacher even suggested we should not drive by the school with the child dressed as a girl, as this would harm the school's reputation," she says.

I feel it in my heart.

Then, five parents gathered to say they would not let their children study with Malena and did not want their children turning gay, as if there were a threat of contagion. Patricia says that the school principal gave priority to the other students' needs, and Malena and her siblings were effectively forced to leave that school. But Patricia was not defeated: she had decided her daughter would be schooled with her identity gender, and later found a school where this was not an issue.

Malena's parents complained to the city's Education department over the violation of their child's right to education and to freely develop her personality. The entire process, says Patricia, "was an opportunity for me as a mother, to learn and get rid of prejudices. I used to think the gay and trans business was a whim. When I ask Malena how she knows she is trans, she says "I feel it in my heart". I know feelings cannot be forced."

Patricia takes her children to the family group meetings to show them LGBT people exist, and they are not abnormal. She also makes sure to celebrate Malena's most important moments, like the first day she left her home dressed as a girl, holding her father's hand. On July 3, Malena participated in the LGBT Pride march in Bogotá, wearing a rainbow tutu. "If I hadn't let her be, I don't know how my girl would be now. I can't picture her as depressed, sad and anxious," says Patricia.

Indeed, family rejection and pressures and mockery at school can cause stress and more serious mental issues among transgender people. Says Patricia: "I speak openly of transition because I want Malena to have character, so that she can defend herself the day I am not around."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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