He’s 11 and he’s been allowed to officially change his name, but not his gender.
‘My name’s Álex. I’m a transsexual boy with a vulva. But it’s the most normal thing in the world.’
This is how Álex introduces himself to the people he meets. His mum, Lola, is very proud of his bravery. Though she jokes that, ‘He doesn’t need to walk around waving a placard either!’ They laugh.
It’s clear from the smiles and affection on display that parents Jordi and Lola and their twins Álex and Sara love each other very much. Their living room is lit by a large window that looks out on to the Collserola mountain range in Barcelona. Chocolates, coffee, a nativity scene, and a Christmas tree complete the cosy tableau.
The latest edition of National Geographic which features a transgender girl on the front cover, has brought a taboo subject into newsagents and homes across the world. In Spain, a recent campaign headed by Nacho Vidal, whose daughter is transgender, has also shone light on the subject.
Last summer, when the family returned to the small town in Cerdanya where they spend their holidays, Álex had some urgent news to share with his friends. ‘I’m not sure if you’ll recognise me,’ he told one of them. ‘Last year I was a girl, but now I’m a transsexual boy with a vulva, and my name is Álex.’ Since then, Álex has repeated the same statement as often as he’s needed to, and he’s done so fearlessly.
Since Álex’s family and friends began accepting him as a boy, Álex has been ‘the happiest kid in the world,’ his mum says. Álex and his twin sister, Sara, knew he was a boy all along.
Álex’s path to acceptance as a boy hasn’t been obstacle free, but it has been easier than it is for many other children in a similar situation. That’s largely thanks to the support of his loving family and friends. Unfortunately, the authorities haven’t been quite so understanding.
Blue for a boy
Since he was three or four, Álex always made a beeline for the boys’ department in clothing stores. He’d say to his mum:
‘Listen, mum. I’ve got a boy’s voice. I’m a boy.’
‘No, you’re a girl,’ she’d reply, still unable to imagine that a toddler might know more about some things than she did.
But children are often the quickest learners, as well as the best teachers. Álex’s twin sister, Sara, was the first to understand. ‘If he says he’s a boy, then he must be a boy,’ she decided.
His parents took a little longer. ‘There’s very little information out there. I knew next to nothing about transsexuality,’ says Lola. But gradually, they realised that Álex didn’t want to wear girls’ clothes or jewellery. He didn’t want to be dressed in pink. The boy wanted to paint his life as blue as the sweater and trousers he’s wearing in these photos.
‘I could see he wasn’t happy,’ says Lola. ‘He always asked for action figures, and he’d cry whenever we tried to make him wear a dress. One time, I told him it was a long t-shirt, not a dress. “I’ll wear it to make you happy, Mum,” he replied.’
Another time, he came home from playing with friends, full of excitement, and said, ‘Ángel told me that if I take a pill and go inside a machine I can become a boy!’
But what Álex needed more than a pill and a machine was a new name. And eventually he got it: Álex.
The importance of a name
His Spanish ID card now has the name Álex Vitó. ‘We’re only the fourth family in Catalonia to have achieved this,’ his mum says proudly. However, his ID still states Álex’s gender as being female, as Álex’s parents were allowed to change his name by common use, but not by gender sense. This is because in Spain a minor may change their name to a commonly-used nickname, but they may not change their gender label if it doesn’t coincide with their sexual organs.
According to Spanish law, if you wish to change your name and gender on your birth certificate you must be of legal age, have Spanish nationality, submit a medical or psychological report, and have spent two years in treatment. Álex obviously doesn’t meet the legal age, let alone some of the other inappropriate and border-line offensive requirements.
Natalia Aventin, mother of a child in a similar situation to Álex, recently convinced the Spanish Supreme Court to rule that the above law is unconstitutional because it discriminates against minors as well as immigrants.
Natalia and the transgender community are waiting for the Constitutional Court to give its ruling which, if favourable, will open the doors to minors being permitted to change their name and gender on official documents.
Changing his name a year ago was a defining moment for Álex. He felt happy and fulfilled at last, and he wasted no time in explaining his new situation to his schoolmates, teachers, family, and friends. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone accepted him and his new name.
Sometimes people forget to use his new name, but Álex understands. ‘It’s okay, Mum,’ he says patiently. Álex had to learn patience during the years he spent waiting for his parents to realise that he’s a boy. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine a mum and dad as sympathetic as Lola and Jordi.
A transgender child’s parents can sometimes be the first hurdle the child must overcome on the way to finding acceptance. But Jordi and Lola’s willingness to learn from their children, and their determination to give them happy lives, have led them to apologise to Álex. ‘I told him I was sorry. I wish I’d seen it earlier,’ Lola reproaches herself. But Álex looks at his mum lovingly, and without a hint of resentment.
‘The only one who never gets it wrong is his sister. I got things wrong a lot at first,’ Lola recalls. ‘His name and the article.’
‘Last summer we went to a wedding. Álex was wearing boys’ clothes – he loves wearing a suit and tie – and he’d taken off his earrings. But when I accidentally called him by his old name, he got upset because there were other kids there his age and they all started asking, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Mummy really put her foot in it that time,’ recalls Lola.
Not long after that wedding, the big day finally arrived. ‘When I turned ten about a year and a half ago,’ Álex remembers, ‘I told my class the news. Everyone understood. They asked me why, and they wanted to know which changing room I would use. I said the boys’ room and they said “ah, ok.”’
‘Children understand things more easily sometimes,’ says Lola; although Álex’s 80-year-old grandpa has also accepted his grandchild’s new name and gender unreservedly.
At the registry office, however, they weren’t quite so understanding. At first, they told the family that it wasn’t possible to change the child’s name at all. Later, when the family supplied proof of common use of the name, the registry office was able to implement the name change on Álex’s ID. As far as modifying the gender, however, they insisted that nothing could be done. ‘They just said “no way.” I was devastated.’ Lola was especially upset at the lack of tact of the official who dealt with them.
‘The only one who never gets his name wrong is his sister,’ says Álex’s mum, Lola
Aside from the difficulty of changing Álex’s name, perhaps the primary obstacles that the family has had to overcome have been a lack of information, and the ignorance of some doctors and psychologists when it comes to treating transgender minors like Álex.
After speaking to a psychologist about Álex’s behaviour and attention deficit disorder, Lola thought at first that her child was a lesbian. ‘No, no. Listen to what the kid’s saying. It’s something else,’ another psychologist told her. And so, little by little, the path became clearer. Even so, the therapist suggested, it would probably be better to ‘wait and see how things develop as the child approaches adolescence.’
‘But Álex wouldn’t give up and we could see he was suffering. It was like he was desperate for us to really understand the situation, so we went looking for more information,’ Jordi and Lola explain.
They went to Barcelona’s Hospital Clínic to seek help from the Gender Identity Department (previously named the Gender Disorder Department). What they found there disappointed them.
‘Firstly,’ Jordi explains. ‘They call it gender dysphoria, which we felt was an overly pathological approach. And secondly, they seem unable to differentiate between sexual orientation (which defines the gender you’re attracted to) and identity (whether you feel male, female, or other). Everything outside heteronormative parameters are classified as being wrong.’
Gender dysphoria is the psychiatric analysis assigned to those who feel a mismatch between the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender they feel to be their own. It’s the prevailing term used by authorities to talk about transsexuality. It’s certainly an improvement over the term ‘disorder’, which was in common usage until recently. But many in the transgender community feel dissatisfied with the label.
Jordi shares this sense of dissatisfaction. In fact, he doesn’t agree with this form of classifying people at all. ‘It’s not about a boy who wants to be a girl, or a girl who wants to be a boy, or anything like that. It’s about a transsexual boy or a transsexual girl. And we don’t need a psychologist to tell our child he’s a boy for him to be a boy.’
‘Did you have to go to a psychologist to be told you’re a cis male?’ he asks. ‘Then it shouldn’t be necessary for a transgender child either. And if it’s not a disorder, then my son doesn’t need to visit the psychologist and psychiatrist every six months, which is what they wanted at Hospital Clínic.’
The dissatisfaction with Hospital Clínic is driving families towards the more sympathetic, and less pathologically-minded Tránsit, also based in Barcelona. This publically-funded organisation is relatively new, but its influence is growing quickly. Tránsit provides Álex with hormonal blockers to put the brakes on breast growth. ‘For now though,’ says Lola, ‘Álex accepts the fact that he has a vulva.’
‘A wonderful door’
At first, the trans world was entirely new to Álex’s family. ‘I didn’t know anything about it until our son opened the door, a wonderful door,’ says Lola. They took part in the Gay Pride parade, where they met some fantastic people, including an elderly man who was deeply moved to see Álex so accepted and supported by his friends and family.
But perhaps the organisation which did the most to usher Álex and his family through that ‘wonderful door’ was Chrysallis, Spain’s Asociación de Familiares de Menores Transexuales (Association of Families of Transsexual Minors). This group helps parents through the process of understanding and supporting their transgender children.
Both organisations strive to provide greater awareness of a condition that’s generally associated with the adult or adolescent world, but which affects people of all ages: a condition that’s often made more problematic by ignorance and prejudice. Even people who are aware of the transgender community are often surprised to learn that this includes children.
To raise awareness and collect funds, Chrysallis launched a publicity campaign featuring the adult-film actor and director Nacho Vidal. The name of the campaign – ‘No hay huevos’ – is a Spanish expression with a similar meaning to the phrase ‘you haven’t got the balls’. The humorous campaign plays tribute to the courage that transgender people must display in coming out.
Jordi and Lola saw an advert for Chrysallis in the newspaper. They decided to get in touch with the organisation shortly after hearing about the suicide of Alan, a 17-year-old transgender boy who killed himself on Christmas Eve because of the constant bullying he was experiencing at high school. ‘I cried a lot that year,’ Lola says.
Álex is more fortunate than many transgender children because he’s surrounded by loving and accepting family members and friends. A classmate even leapt to Álex’s defence when a younger pupil told him he shouldn’t be in the boy’s toilet. ‘Yes he should. He’s a boy,’ Álex’s friend replied.
However, Lola acknowledges that she is a little ‘afraid’ about possible bullying when Álex reaches adolescence. ‘The kids have known each other since they were tiny, but children can get cruel when they hit the teenage years. I worry sometimes about what it might be like for Álex then.’
Now that everybody else has come to understand what Álex and his twin sister always knew, he’s more laid back about dressing up as a girl occasionally, for carnival or a school play. ‘First I had to get everyone to understand what I was. But now that they do, I can dress up as a girl, knowing that it’s only a costume.’