Chile’s transgender youth struggle for recognition
The Chilean legislature has been debating a Gender Identity Law for four years, leaving many in limbo
Daniela Alvarado remembers the day vividly. It was 11 months ago when she took a trip with her 6-year-old son Alan to Chile’s capital, the beginning of a long journey.
“I traveled to Santiago with Alan and returned with Coni,” said Alvarado, 29.
Ana Arjel too holds on to the image of her child’s first public steps as a transgender individual. It was November 11, 2014.
“She said to me: ‘Mama, I want to buy men’s clothes and I also want to cut my hair.’ I felt that I went into the hairdresser with my daughter, and came out with my son … I was proud of the step he was taking,”
The Chilean legislature has been working for four years on the Gender Identity Law (LIG) initiative, which contains more than a dozen articles. There have been contentious debates and many modifications, and the legislature is currently grappling over the integration of minors into the law. As of now, Chileans have to wait until they turn 18 before they can officially change their name and sex with the Civil Registry and Identification Service. Some lawmakers want to do away with the age restriction and a required psychological test given before changes can be made.
As Chile’s legislature debates whether or not they deserve official recognition, the country’s children continue to go down their own path and navigate their transitions as best they can. Constanza lives in the rural village of San Pablo, while Ana and her child Camilo, 14, reside in Puerto Montt, the capital city of the Los Lagos Region.
They are tied by similar experiences, but growing up under different circumstances. Constanza has not hit puberty and doesn’t yet have to confront some of the physical changes tied to gender identity. Camilo, on the other hand, doesn’t have access to hormonal blockers through the public health service and is frequently frustrated by the new challenges he faces.
In 2011 the Chilean Ministry of Health issued decrees regarding the care of transgender people, stipulating that transgender patients should be treated by their chosen name and other treatment guidelines. Armed with these documents, Daniela and Ana have fought for their children’s rights and protections under the law to determine their own sexuality, and have become involved with the national group Organized Movement of Gays, Lesbians, Trans and Heterosexuals. Some of the health professionals they’ve encountered along the way have not only denied any knowledge of the treatment regulations, they’ve claimed to not know what a transgender person is.
The movement works in the Los Lagos region, supporting families like Constanza’s and Camilo’s, and the mothers have formed a social network, communicating daily online to discuss progress on the Gender Identity Law and share other news. Most importantly, they are there for each other, to find and offer support and a message of solidarity, while Chile’s bureaucracy struggles to adapt.
CONSTANZA ULLOA ALVARADO, 6
Daniela Alvarado gets Constanza ready to do her homework while her husband, Jorge Ulloa, looks into the fridge for something to feed their baby at their home in San Pablo in the Los Lagos Region, Chile. Constanza transitioned her gender and changed her name in 2016.
Constanza plays dress up with her cousin, Camila Manzanares.
Very early on, when Constanza was known by her birth name of Alan, she would put clothes on her head to mimic long hair and stomp around the house in her mother’s heels. Daniela first brushed off the behaviors as just a phase, but time passed and Alan kept playing with dolls and dressing up. Daniela sought out information and spoke with an organization advocating for transgender people in Chile. Before traveling to Santiago to meet with Transitar Foundation, Daniela approached her child.
“There came a time where I decided we needed to talk about what was happening. I asked him, and he said: ‘It’s that I’m a little girl, but [I’m scared] you’ll never love me and my dad will never want me again.’ And I said: ‘No, I’m never going to stop loving you, or daddy either.’ And that’s how it all went-fast.”
Jorge Ulloa says it took him a few months to adjust.
“Personally, I had a hard time adapting myself to say Constanza and not Alan. I always said Alan there, Alan here, in the end, I had to get used to it.”
In April, Daniela took Constanza to get her official ID card at the Civil Registry and Identification agency. Until the Gender Identity Act is passed, Daniela must register her child under the birth name of Alan, still considered the legal name, with no mention of her chosen name of Constanza.
“The movement and other activists have tried for many years to explain that the children need this change in the law,” Jorge said. “Trans adults have lived this whole life already, they go through so many years of not having the gender identity that is true to them. They go through so many things, and we don’t want that to keep happening with our children.”
Constanza plays on the swings with her friends in a neighborhood park.
“I worry that people will hurt Coni because of her condition, because people don’t know what it is to be transgender, because of homophobia,” Jorge said. “People who do not accept it, for example, Evangelicals, people who do not believe in this and think it is not of God and marginalize and discriminate against them, that is what I am afraid of-social discrimination.”
Constanza’s parents say they have seen a noticeable change in the demeanor of their child since she transitioned.
“It revolutionized the whole house,” Daniela said. “Before she was a little shy. If I left her sitting somewhere, then there she stayed. She was not heard at home much, and now it’s musicals, and dancing, cartoons, ponies. She has come alive and changed everything.”
CAMILO MANSILLA ARJEL, 14
Guillermo Vidal cuts Camilo Mansilla Arjel’s hair in a salon in Contao, Chile. Camilo, 14, first expressed his transgender identity publicly in 2015.
When Camilo shared that he is transgender with Ana, his mother’s first instinct was to shelter him.
“I foolishly thought that I could protect him from harm by keeping him inside and away from people,” she said. Working with the Organized Movement of Gays, Lesbians, Trans and Heterosexuals helped Ana realize that Camilo needed support.
Camilo eats breakfast with his grandmother, Patricia Arjel, and his sister, Francisca Arjel, at his grandmother’s home in Contao.
“Camilo’s grandmother was very open and looked for information when we told her,” Ana said. “She has helped a lot and is one of the people Camilo trusts the most because she is respectful. Camilo wanted his grandfather to know, but I was worried because he can be crude and very rough. I was surprised by his attitude and how open he was to the situation.”
Camilo’s sister Francisca helps him secure his chest binder.
“The binder is thick and Camilo walks with a bent back because of it. It’s tight and digs into his skin,” Ana said. “The problem is that Camilo has large breasts and the belt squeezes him terribly. Francisca is the only one who puts it on the way he likes. When I do it, I feel like I’m hurting him.”
Camilo has expressed frustration over the physical changes of puberty, and hopes for surgery and hormone therapy.
“If I could help him I would do it, but he has to understand that he has more siblings. His father is the one who generates the resources, and his grandparents also help, but there are four children that we have to provide for,” Ana said.
Camilo takes the bus to his school on a rainy morning.
“I think Camilo is not always able to defend himself or face certain situations because he knows I’ll be there, because I said I’ll always be there to protect him,” Ana said. “I think that’s something that has to change because I’m keeping him locked up. He’s 14, and he should have a life, go out with other kids, play and have a normal child’s life. He goes to school and he comes back, he shuts himself up in his room.”
Camilo’s sister Stefania Arjel talks to her boyfriend while the three of them take a break on the banks of a river in Contao. The treatments Camilo wants aren’t covered by the medical system, and he cannot legally change his name for another four years.
“I think that with respect to politicians, there is an ignorance,” Ana said. “They do not give themselves the time to ask questions and to inform themselves on the subject. The organizations are giving them the information and spreading the word. The politicians lock themselves up in their offices, live in their own world and do not take the time to learn. The children know exactly who they are, since always. The conflict is in the adults. We are the ones always doubting and questioning who they are.”