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.

The family of Malena at the Pride March — Photo: Yariel Valdés González

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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