Saturday, April 05, 2008

'It's Me In A Different Way'

By Jeff Kass, Rocky Mountain News
Photos by Matt McClain, Rocky Mountain News
Originally published 12:30 a.m., March 1, 2008
Updated 03:13 a.m., March 1, 2008

On the first day of eighth grade, Melaina Marquez wore a polo shirt, wedge shoes and denim skirt with ruffles.

The year before, that outfit would have been out of the question. At that point, Melaina was a boy known as Manuel.

Melaina, now 15, is considered to be transgender: a person who does not identify with the sex based on his or her genitalia. She decided to tell her story after news reports last month about a 7-year-old Douglas County girl who attended school last year as a boy.

At age 2, Melaina recalls playing with Barbies and her favorite toy, a kitchenette. When she played house in pre-school, "I would always want to be the mom."

Melaina says she never struggled with her identity. But her mother, Michelle Benzor-Marquez, cannot say the same.

When Melaina was around 8 years old, she was allowed to wear light-colored lip gloss and a little blush, but only at home. Melaina's hair grew longer, little by little, but her mom had the stylist chop it off one day in sixth grade. Melaina cried the whole 20 miles to her grandmother's home.

Benzor-Marquez hoped Melaina was gay because she figured the world could better handle that than transgender.

"I know people think it's wrong to be transgender," said Melaina, who on a recent day was dressed in black jeans and a black and gold striped blouse with decorative bow. "But God made everyone different in his own way, and you can't change that. It's not a choice."

As many as 3 million

Statistics on transgender people are generally unreliable, according to advocates. Many people are scared or embarrassed to come forward and may not know about the term transgender, which came into common usage only about a decade ago.

The National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., says it can only estimate from information that has been "cobbled together" that there may be from 1 million to 3 million people in the United States who take steps to live as the opposite sex.

Some advocates believe more transgender people are coming out. TransYouth Family Allies, which has counseled the Douglas County family, says it worked with roughly 15 families nationally last year. So far this year, the number is already more than 30, it reports.

It is not unusual for a youngster to deal with issues of sexual identity, according to experts. Trinidad (CO) sex change surgeon Marci Bowers said about 95 percent of those she has operated on told her they remember identifying with the opposite sex as young as 4 or 5 years old.

"They (the kids) are hard-wired that way," Bowers said. "Don't get caught up on the genitalia. It's the child's internal concept of their self-identity. They know who they are."

From Manuel to Melaina

In fall 2006, the Bill Reed Middle School psychologist had a meeting with Benzor-Marquez. Melaina, known then as Manuel, was being teased and harassed.

"I had to come out and say, 'My daughter is transgender,' " Benzor-Marquez recalled.

This was the first time she ever said the word - and the first step toward fully acknowledging her daughter's situation.

She then told the principal that Melaina would be living as a girl "in the future."

"His eyes got really big. He was scared. It was unknown to him," she recalled.

But he was supportive, and asked, "What can we do about this?"

Benzor-Marquez didn't know herself.

"I'll keep you posted," she said.

Melaina had about 10 sessions with a therapist, who is an expert in transgender issues. By the spring of 2007, the therapist agreed that Melaina was transgender - and psychologically balanced.

Melaina wanted to display her new identity immediately. But mom wanted to go slow. They had to check school policy and prepare answers for those who had questions.

That summer, Benzor-Marquez did her transgender homework, while Melaina grew her hair out, worked on her makeup, and prepared her wardrobe.

There was also the question of a name. Mom wanted to keep the first initial the same. She also wanted something ethnic to reflect their Mexican heritage. Benzor-Marquez's mom mentioned a Greek name, Melaina.

That worked for Benzor-Marquez.

"I named you the first time you were born," she said. "I'm picking it the second time."

Support at school

Before Melaina started eighth grade as a girl in 2007, her mom met with school employees, from secretaries on up, about Melaina's situation. During the first week of classes, someone on staff kept an eye out for her. "We wanted her to be safe and have fun and be a kid," Benzor- Marquez added.

The first day back went fine, Melaina said. Soon after, "the question" arose: "Did you have a sex change?"

If it is the most obvious question for transgender people, it is also the most bothersome.

"Nobody else has to answer that question," said Trans-Youth Family Allies executive director Kim Pearson.

Plus, U.S. standards of medical care generally have called for sex change operations only for people at least 18 years old, according to some advocates.

Now in ninth grade at Mountain View High School in Loveland, Melaina knows a lot of people and has a small circle of close friends. She is also on the girls track team.

Like the Douglas County girl, Melaina uses unisex bathrooms on campus, although she would prefer the girls' restroom. Melaina's counselor is there for her five days a week.

Benzor-Marquez said Melaina's friends have been supportive, encouraging her to ask boys out.

But Melaina also has been harassed and hurt, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not.

One classmate - she says he didn't mean for her to hear - said, "She's an it." Then there was another guy at the bus stop. He was a bit more vocal.

"She's still a guy!" he declared.

She recently had a date with boy to see the movie Beowulf. Her stepfather chaperoned. The date was teased when classmates found out he went with her, Melaina said.

Yet she counts her transition as "100 percent successful."

Mom doesn't go that far. Benzor-Marquez feels that Melaina may have become accustomed to the small but steady stream of comments and questions directed at her, and view them as normal.

But Benzor-Marquez said that parental support, working closely with school officials and being honest with classmates are among the keys to a smooth transition.

That honesty is apparent in how Melaina approaches a guy she likes.

"Have you ever heard the term transgender?" she will say. "I used to be a boy before, but now I'm female."

The response, typically, is hardly what she wants to hear.

"They'll be freaked out for a week or so, then say, 'Can we just be friends?' " Melaina said.

She has not given up. But she also reflects that she may not have a boyfriend throughout high school.

"It hurts to a point," she added. "But you either like me, or you don't."

At one point, Melaina's mother pulls a passport-sized picture out of her wallet. It could be any dark-haired boy at 21/2-years- old, dressed in khakis and a striped dress shirt.

"It's still me," Melaina said. "I don't find it gross or wrong. It's me in a different way."


TC said...

I wish reporters would get over the Barbie dolls. I swear, every article about a transperson's childhood mentions them. It's like Mattel paid for product placement or something.

Monica Roberts said...

I feel ya on that, but I can't talk.

O own eight Barbies and will be adding the AKA Barbie to my collection. ;)

Rebecca said...

It's so nice to keep hearing these stories in the press - I'm really glad you make a point of keeping posting them.

That said, though, it makes me a bit sad that I seem to have been in the last generation of transpeople who were institutionally barred from transitioning during high school. If only progress had come five years sooner...

Monica Roberts said...

Imagine how I felt in the 70's

Ry said...

I hate the barbies because I played with them as a kid. How's a guy supposed to feel knowing that his history resembles an MtF more than the FtM he is? Press'd probably have a field day pointing out how I'm really a girl.