It’s complicated

The hard part was supposed to be transitioning to life as a woman. But as this writer finds, the greatest challenge facing one transgender Latino woman is reconciling her transforming body with her wife, her family, and her faith.

By Rosa Ramirez

Paige A. Ricks

"God doesn't make mistakes," says Lucia: "He does everything for a purpose."

One rainy Sunday in November, Lucia Pérez walks across the parking lot of the First Baptist Church of Concord. She closes her rainbow umbrella and shakes the hand of the man who greets her in the house of God.

“Que Dios la bendiga hermana.” May God bless you, sister. The church greeter, a Mexican immigrant, doesn’t know about Lucia’s gender transition.

Spanish-speaking men, women and children fill every bench. Lucia, a forty-seven-year-old immigrant from Nicaragua, takes a seat near the rear of the church.

One woman, who looks to be about sixty, tells the churchgoers, “Hoy cumplo quince años de haber nacido de nuevo.” Today is the fifteenth anniversary since I was born again. This acknowledgment of spiritual rebirth, a standard practice in Baptist ceremony, prompts a crescendo of claps. The church members sing in Spanish.

Lucia, too, celebrates the church-goer’s pious devotion. Her voice, quiet yet coarse, like that of a man whispering, praises Jesucristo.

The pastor begins to speak about salvation. “There are no psychologists out there who can help you, brothers and sisters. If you have a problem, bring it to God,” he preaches in Spanish. Lucia claps. With her eyes shut, she bobs her head up and down. Faith in Jesus Christ has helped her through the rocky parts of her spiritual journey.

Lucia is seeking peace and community on this chilly morning—except that to feel she’s welcomed at this church, Lucia and her wife, Yadira, told the pastor that Lucia is a hermaphrodite and a virgin. People wouldn’t turn their backs on a single woman with such a medical condition, they thought.

Although this transgender Latina hides her gender transition from church members, she’s open with God.

For many years, Lucia preferred talking to her clinical therapist. She could tell the therapist things she would never tell God—such as that she tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion. Or that her first sexual experience, back when Lucia was Javier Pérez, was with a man. In those days, it was difficult to accept that God had given her a man’s body and a woman’s desires.

Although she struggled for decades to understand how this could have occurred, she was never angry at God. These days Lucia visits her therapist every Friday and goes to church on Sundays because she has grown to feel that God, too, understands her.

“Nothing happens without God letting it,” Lucia now likes to say. “And God doesn’t make mistakes. God is perfect. He does everything for a purpose.”

Many of Lucia’s transgender friends are more skeptical about their churches. Some have come from traditional Mexican homes with strict Catholic upbringings. They were taught that being gay-not to mention being transgender-was a sin. Some of these women came to believe that one could know God without going to church.

But Lucia, who has accepted Jesus as her lord and savior, asked God on this Sunday to help her.

“I don’t tell God about my condition. God knows my condition morethan I’ll ever know,” Lucia says. “I ask him to help me live with it because it’s not easy … when you live in a homophobic world.”

There is something else, too.

“I’ve also asked him to help me look more feminine,” she says.

Lucia’s Looks

But Lucia isn’t leaving that entirely up to God.

Two years ago, she began taking hormones. The cocktail of anti-andro-gens and female hormones is making her skin softer. Her body is growing breasts. She runs regularly to develop a sleek and slender look.

Her face is pale, her eyes dark. Her cheeks are rosy. But still, her jawline and five o’clock shadow are strong.

“Many people have told me I look half male, half female,” Lucia says.

While she would like to do it, she’s unlikely to have surgery to change her sexual organs. The cost of a sex reassignment procedure runs in the tens of thousands of dollars-well out of reach. But a change of genitals isn’t critical. Lucia would be thrilled if she simply looked feminine, like her friend Jessenia Yépez, a transgender woman from Guanajuato, Mexico.

Yépez is slender and looks even leaner in her shiny, tight black pants and high heels. Her skin is smooth and tan. “Look at those legs, those curves,” Lucia says one day as she stares at Yépez.

Lucia laments waiting decades to make the gender transition. Her bodywould surely look more like Yépez’s if she’d started her change earlier. Her face, too, would have softer, more female features, she tells herself.

Yépez, who is half Lucia’s age, gives her tips on where to buy clothes, especially bras, now that Lucia is starting to develop.

Lucia avoids wearing sundresses, blouses, polyester hip-huggers, high heels, miniskirts, clingy dresses, hoop earrings, fake eyelashes, mascara, and hot pink lipstick like some of her transgender Latina friends.

She wants to wear them. Her wife, Yadira, won’t let her.

Yadira worries that someone will try to hurt Lucia. Wait until your woman’s body is more developed, Yadira tells her.

For now, Lucia is focused on minimizing her broad shoulders—the result of pumping iron when she lived as Javier. It amuses her today that she tried hard in her twenties to look and act like a man. Lucia wore steeltoe boots. She watched movies starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I did a good job imitating guys.”

Yadira and Victor

Lucia’s tiny living room is immaculate. Yadira doesn’t like anything out of place. They talk about the attractive actors on the telenovelas; they have similar taste in men.

They love each other. They will be in each other’s lives for a very long time, Yadira and Lucia tell each other. Their romantic love ended the day Lucia came out to Yadira about her true gender, but their respect for each other grew. They’ve decided to stay together in part so that their children could have both parents at home. If one were to fall in love, they agree, they’d revisit the living arrangements.

Today it’s Lucia’s turn to prepare breakfast. Yadira walks over to Lucia; she gently ties her red-striped apron. Lucia takes eggs from the refrigerator. Now that Lucia is a woman, Yadira jokes, she gets to have another pair of hands to cook and do the dishes.

But Lucia’s transition has been hard on Yadira. Sometimes she still calls her Javier. Sometimes she cries because she misses the man she married. “He will always be the father of my children,” Yadira likes to say.

They talk about things that bother their nine-year old son, Jonathan. Boys at his school pick on him during lunch. They hit him. They badger him: “Hey, why does your dad dress like a woman?”

Only one boy at school will invite him to birthday parties. It hurts Jonathan. Their younger son, Daniel, five, is still too young to understand.

Yadira watches while Lucia cooks two eggs in a pool of hot oil. Yadira is frustrated. Jonathan has been acting up again. The other day, Jonathan hit Daniel. He called him a maricón, a derogatory Spanish word used to insult gay men.

Yadira wants to move her children to a different school, one near the suburban home of their new family friend, Victor Camacho. Yadira is close to Victor, though she insists their relationship is platonic. But that’s not why she wants to move. She wants her children to start fresh at a school where no one knows about Lucia’s gender transition.

Being open about Lucia’s transition to her church, Latino community, and family hasn’t been easy or really possible. So the three have come up with a version of their family structure that no one in those circles will question.

At church, Victor and Yadira told the pastor that Lucia is a hermaphrodite, and that they are married. The children, they say, are theirs.

Victor is a beefy guy from Mexico. He describes himself as deeply religious and somewhat traditional. On weekends, he lets Yadira, the children, and Lucia stay at his small Concord studio—making space on the couch, on the floor, or wherever they can find a place. On Sundays, he drives them to church. Victor believes that Lucia’s gender transition is part of a plan only God can understand.

Since Lucia’s transition, Victor has become the man of the house. He fixes her broken doors, paints peeled walls, and takes Yadira to the supermarket. After church, he takes the family, including Lucia, to eat carnitas.

One day, Jonathan asked Victor, “Can you be my dad?”

Lucia hopes that Yadira can one day find love with a caring man like Victor. But there is no replacing a father, Lucia says. She brings her fist to her chest. Her eyes are focused and unblinking.

“A father’s love will never change.”

You are my Son

Lucia’s gender transition has been the family’s elephant in the room.

“Because in my family, and in our culture, there’s such a negative view of homosexuals, if I came out as a homosexual, it would be a disgrace to my family,” Lucia explains.

Lucia has spoken to only one brother about her gender. The brother, who grew up in San Francisco, was supportive. Earlier last year, Lucia phoned her mother in Nicaragua. It wasn’t an easy conversation.

“I have to tell you something,” she remembers saying to her mother. “Something that is really complicated.”

Soy transsexual,” Lucia told her. I am transsexual.

Que es eso?” her mother answered. What is that?

She told her mother that she felt like a girl all her life and that she was coming to terms with that now.

“My mom was very quiet. I never had a conversation with my momwhere she was quiet. I figured she was crying.”

After a few seconds, she heard a tender voice.

Pues tu eres mi hijo y yo te quiero mucho,” her mother told Lucia. Well, you are my son and I love you very much.

Blood Red Roses

An organization in San Francisco’s Mission District, El/La Para TransLatinas, understands the barriers that Lucia and other transgender Latinas face. There are special challenges involving documentation, Latino culture, black market hormones, HIV testing, and bashing from many groups, even from the broader gay community.

The organization helps people like Lucia learn about their rights through weekly workshops on topics ranging from health to spirituality, faith, and espiritismo—the belief that good and evil spirits have an effect on health, luck, and love. How to avoid violent attacks is another major topic.

Alexandra Byerly, the program coordinator for El/La Para TransLatinas, speaks to the group about violence against transgender people during a workshop.

Muchachas, mañana vamos a recordar a nuestras hermanas,” Byerly says. Girls, tomorrow we’re going to remember our sisters. The jovial back and forth between the women about Mexican superstitions stops. The group suddenly looks dejected.

On the wall hangs an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She’s looking over the entire room. Her brown skin is the color of chocolate. Blood-red roses made out of fabric are sewn on top of yellow rays of light. Against a green backdrop is a simple plea: Somos sus hijos e hijas, no nos olvide. We are your sons and daughters; don’t forget us.

Nearly everyone in the room—transgender Latinas in different stages of the physical transition from male to female—says she knew someone who was a victim of violence.

One woman says she was threatened during a short elevator ride. She was told, “You’re going to die, man.” Another says that strangers shouted insults at her when she walked down the street. The International Transgender Day of Remembrance is the next day. People around the world say prayers for loved ones who’ve been killed.

Tonight, they honor the victims and help bring awareness to the violence. A study with the number of murdered trans people was recently released. They want the public to know.

Name: Ingrid Huayaba Gonzales

Age: 23

Date: January 10, 2010 Location: Lima, PeruCause: She was pushed out of a window and fell from the second floor.

Name: Mariah Malina Qualls

Age: 23 Date: September 2, 2009

Location: San Francisco, California

Cause: She was found beaten to death in a residential hotel.

The number of reported murders of transgender people has gone up, according to data from a project called Transgender Europe. For 2009–10, there were 179 homicides, compared to 162 reported cases for 2008–09. The figures show that Latin America has the highest number of reported cases, with Brazil reporting the most. The numbers are collected from print and online publications, which means that if the murders are not covered in news outlets, they’re not tallied. (It’s impossible, leading researchers have said, to accurately tally the number of murders, because they are often not clearly connected to someone’s transgender status.)

The killings are especially violent: stabbed fourteen times, strangled, mutilated in the face and genitals, shot several times in the head, tortured, thrown off a building and run over by a car, shot in front of her entire class, beaten to death and dumped in the garbage, struck in the head with a brick, raped and thrown out of a moving vehicle, shot by a policeman, shot by a security guard in the heart.

The women know that walking alone at night is not safe, even in San Francisco. At the end of the workshop, the women make plans to head out into the night. Lucia avoids walking alone, especially when she’s wearing women’s clothes.

Like a devoted mother waiting at home, Yadira worries about Lucia.

Si no me llama, me da miedo que le vayan hacer daño,” Yadira says. If she doesn’t call me, I fear that someone may have hurt her.

On the Right Track

Lucia’s stomach is in knots. She pushes her hand against her midsection as she walks into Sephora. The butterflies in her stomach are out of control.

“Hi. How are you? Can I help you find something?” a makeup artist asks.

“I’d like to get some makeup to cover …” Lucia rubs her chin without finishing the sentence. Her voice is barely audible.

The young woman studies Lucia kindly. “Are you planning to shave every day?” the woman asks Lucia.

The high-end makeup store on Powell Street has a handful of customers. A group of women stroll along the aisles of eye shadows and lipsticks. They chat, and one puts her face inches from the mirror to try the products.

Lucia freezes, watching the ease with which they pick things up and put them back. Then the young saleswoman brings out a male makeup artist who introduces himself as Patrick.

Patrick squints at Lucia’s skin. “Do you want to look natural?”

“Yes,” Lucia quickly responds.

“Do you want to cover your shadow?” Patrick is all business. He evidently handles these situations regularly.

“I definitely want to hide it,” Lucia says. Aware that Patrick is inspecting her face, Lucia grows self-conscious. She interlaces her hands.

“Oh, then you’ll want full coverage,” Patrick tells her.

It has been more than two decades since Pérez, Javier, or Lucia, has wornany makeup. The first time was when she was a little boy. She found lip gloss in the schoolyard. She barricaded herself in the bathroom and glided the shiny goo on her lips.

“It’s a big deal. It means a lot to me,” Lucia says. Patrick must have sensed it, because he pulled a picture from the makeup bag hanging across his chest.

“This is what I look like with makeup on,” Patrick says.

In the photo is Patrick in a tight dress. He wears red lipstick, eye shadow, and long, dark eyelashes. His complexion is flawless.

“Oh, wow. That’s you?” says Lucia. “You look real nice.”

Lucia is on the edge of her seat at the makeup counter. Her head is tilted slightly up. Her eyes are shut.

Patrick grabs a triangle-shaped makeup applicator and wets it with liquid cover-up. The corner of the sponge touches Lucia’s serene face. Then, Patrick begins applying powder makeup. With every brushstroke, Lucia looks more feminine.

“You’re definitely transforming,” Patrick says, stepping back for perspective. “You’re not your mother’s little boy anymore.”