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I Can Defend Myself: a Trans Teenager's Family Clears a Path for Trans Youth

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"Just think: that baby that you covered when they were cold or fed when they were hungry, that is the same one that's telling you they're trans, or gay. Don't forget. Don't be afraid, parents. Everybody's different." - Ofelia Barba, Trans Rights Advocate, mother, and Downey resident

This is What it Is
Ofelia Barba didn't know what to do to make her child happy. So when a daycare worker in Downey suggested that she take her child to a counselor, Ofelia was relieved. Ofelia's child loved to play with dolls and dress up as a girl, but was biologically born a boy. This behavior disconcerted the daycare center so much that it prompted them to request that Ofelia take her family to a therapist. Time and again, the challenges facing this family would generate an opportunity for them to get support, but also showed how sometimes it was the outside world that was not ready to do the right thing.

"I was going to take the family in and get awareness about what was going on," said Ofelia, a South Gate native and current Downey resident. Visiting a counselor would help the family name what was going on with Zoey and get them support, Ofelia hoped. As she said, visiting the counselor "...was going to clear it up, or de una vez, make it straight. This is what it is."

Zoey celebrating her 12th birthday with her family. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.
Zoey celebrating her 12th birthday with her family. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.

For her family, Zoey playing dress up had become normalized, but not easy. From the age of two, Zoey said, "I knew I was a girl."

"You know your kid," said Ofelia, alluding to how she knew in her heart that her child was different, yet she did not have the words to articulate the situation. As Zoey got older, however, many of her classmates and some in her family began to reject and punish her behavior.

Ofelia pointed to a spot near their bookcase. "She would sit in that corner and not interact with us. She was always crying, clingy, always sad. But now look at her! She's a monster."

Zoey, now 14, laughed at this. She's in high school, and when I met them in their home, she was resplendent in an ombré black and platinum hair color. "No, I'm just kidding," said Ofelia. "That's just de cariño." It was a long journey for both of them to laugh like that. While some people in the transgender community are currently given media attention for who they are, millions of families, children, and individual lives remain hidden. Ofelia and Zoey know this is especially true for working-class families, like them.

The mother and daughter duo have become one of the most outspoken activists for trans youth and families. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.
The mother and daughter duo have become one of the most outspoken activists for trans youth and families. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.

Sitting at her dining room table, Zoey and I ate chips and pastries while Ofelia explained their first dealings with therapy. "Luckily, the counselor that we found understood about LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer] kids," Ofelia said. At the time, the counselor couldn't diagnose Zoey with Gender Dysphoria because she was still too young. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), gender dysphoria is described as "people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with." Nonetheless, this kind of diagnosis was so helpful to Ofelia who scoured the web, libraries, and psychological diagnoses texts for advice. Though it was only a few years ago, help was scarce. Transgender issues were still largely taboo, especially as they affected families and children. In addition, Ofelia notes that she found even less information that was culturally-specific. "For Hispanics, our cultura, there was barely any resources."

Ofelia had grown up with people in her life who suffered from mental illnesses, so she was comfortable doing mental health research in texts such as the DSM. Zoey's gender identification was not and is not a mental illness, but it was still included in a handbook made for such circumstances. The medical field is still catching up with the ways people express gender and sexuality and how best to care for them. Ofelia's previous experience with mental health issues provided a point of entry toward helping Zoey and finding support for the family.

Ofelia did, however, find some hope in several documentaries on other transgender children, but immediately observed a few pointed differences. "Those families had a lot of money, two parents." She noted that those families on televisions were also affluent and white. "How was I going to do it? Basically a single parent, on one income?"

It became increasingly clear to Ofelia that she would have to make the way for Zoey and herself as well as for many families like theirs. Since then, the world has changed rapidly for LGBTQ folks and in tandem, Zoey's world, too. Ofelia pursued support from several organizations that she sought out on the web. For example, Ofelia named Transforming Family at Children's Hospital as a program that helped them a great deal that also sponsors a bilingual group. Most recently, Ofelia and Zoey also participated in the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's program and documentary Somos Loud to raise awareness around Latino LGBTQ issues.

Yo Puedo Defenderme: I Can Defend Myself
When you look through the Instagram account @raising_zoey for a documentary about their journey, they look like the coolest, most accepting Latino family ever. Watch their conversation on YouTube via the Transgender Law Center and your heart will melt. Tragically, many families, not just Latinos, react with hyper masculinity and homophobia when it comes to relating to their LGBTQ children and community members, leading to harmful reactions ranging from outright rejection to deadly violence. What was it that allowed this family to be so loving and supportive? Fourteen years of persistence.

Zoey's father and older brother had a hard time fully understanding and accepting Zoey as a transgender girl. During that time, "Going in the doll aisle was really stressful," said Zoey. Imagine all the hot pink and tutus, Zoey and her mom timidly picking out a doll for a fake cousin to cover up why they were really there. "I knew I was going to get looks because I was presenting as a boy." Zoey's father could accept Zoey being gay, but presenting as a girl was not acceptable. One day, her father went so far as to throw away all her dolls and even some of Ofelia's high heels. Zoey said the bullying and rejection "...turned into hate to myself. I was hating myself every time I played with the dolls."

From a very young age, Zoey's mother always knew she was a girl, even though she'd been born a boy. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.
From a very young age, Zoey's mother always knew she was a girl, even though she'd been born a boy. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.

One male family member played rough with Zoe as his way of trying to toughen her up, to show her how to be a boy. Ofelia asked him to stop, but he kept up his behavior, creating difficult family visits. This behavior only made things worse for Zoey. Nothing worked; their child was still herself. Things got so bad that her father turned to substance abuse, and even physical violence against Ofelia.

At that point, Ofelia made a difficult but necessary decision. Leaving her husband behind, she took her three children and moved to Lynwood, where Zoey had the most excruciating month of her life. Starting a new school made the bullying worse. The kids in class "...would tell me I couldn't wear my hair a certain way," said Zoey. Worse, she was beaten by groups of children and faced daily harassment by her classmates while teachers ignored the taunting. Finally, at the age of nine, Zoey couldn't take it anymore.
She wrote a letter where she said she wanted to die, which provided Ofelia all the evidence she needed to get Zoey immediate psychological help. She also told the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) about the physical abuse by Zoey's father, which set off a series of difficult, but necessary choices. With her social worker, Ofelia came up with a plan to move back to Downey.

However, her renewed optimism was punctured when she tried to enroll her three children. The Downey Unified School District told Ofelia that there was no room for them, not one slot. When Ofelia pressed on with the enrollment, administrators requested a slew of forms to discourage her from coming back.

"People don't know this about me," she said, "but I can be blunt." Ofelia would not be stopped and obtained a letter from the county office of DCFS, ordering the re-enrollment of Ofelia's children. The school district finally relented. Sadly, when Zoey arrived in her new Downey school, kids and teachers continued to harass her. One teacher even called Zoey "disgusting" and made her stand up in front of her class to swear she'd stop being "ridiculous" for wearing a few blue hair extensions.

Ofelia was prepared to fight back. She met with school administrators and the school district director. "They sat me in the middle of the room in a little kid's chair." Ofelia illustrated the scene using cell phones on the table, showing how they'd physically positioned her in the room to intimidate her.

"Here was the director's desk, here is where other people sat, and here was me." When Ofelia complained about the teacher who'd humiliated Zoey, the district director at the time told her, "What did you expect? Did you not think anyone would complain? Come on now, you knew this would happen."

Ofelia lit up with defiance. "I'll be back and I won't come back alone," she declared at the end of that meeting. She admits that at the time, she "...didn't know who I was going to bring, but yo puedo defenderme." Ofelia knew that her best defense was to speak up. She shares: "What I want parents to know is that you have a right, you have a voice."

Like most teenagers, Zoey enjoys taking selfies. She just happens to be taking them at marches and rallies where she speaks for LBGTQ rights.Photo courtesy of the Barba family.
Like most teenagers, Zoey enjoys taking selfies. She just happens to be taking them at marches and rallies where she speaks for LBGTQ rights.Photo courtesy of the Barba family.

Seeking help, Ofelia furiously emailed chapters of Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), LGBTQ advocates, and dozens of people until finally she reached someone who connected her to James Gilliam and Joey Hernandez at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Los Angeles. With their legal representation, Ofelia fought the district. Three years later, the Downey Unified School District adopted protections for LGBT students, exactly like Los Angeles Unified School District's Project 10 protections, which extended LAUSD's Nondiscrimination Policy and the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. Project 10 aims to "ensure safe, supportive, and welcoming campuses free from discrimination and harassment for sexual minority youth." Essentially, the provisions prohibit discrimination against queer students. Ofelia and her family got what they wanted, in particular, the right for Zoey to express her gender at school without fear of harassment and a lack of consequences for those bullying, whether it was students, teachers, or staff. Finally Ofelia and her family had reached some kind of justice.

"I'm so proud of that," Ofelia beamed. She got up and took all the many folders of legal paperwork and the final decision from the State Board of Education. Thanks to years of hard work and persistence, she said, "No one has to go through this alone."

Fourteen Going on Seventeen
When you open Seventeen Magazine this November, you'll see Zoey on page 104 in the article, "Just Your Average (Transgender) Teen." This is the same girl who attends Trans Lives Matter rallies and speaks through a bullhorn; Zoey, like all young people, is complex and thoughtful. Except she also happens to be a national advocate for trans and queer youth. However, as she blossoms into a young woman, she is also figuring out for herself what that means.

A teenage girl's dream: Zoey makes into Seventeen Magazine. Photo from Barba family scrapbook.
A teenage girl's dream: Zoey makes into Seventeen Magazine. Photo from Barba family scrapbook.

"When I was little, I used to think that being a girl meant wearing pink and having long hair," said Zoey, "really superficial things. I just thought, this is what I am. But today I know that being a woman means being truthful, respectable, honest, caring, that's just the pillars of character." Zoey thanks her mother and sister for showing her that these characteristics belong to people of all genders.

"There's so much judgment and so much pressure to look and act like the ideal woman," she said. For example, not asking a boy out before he expresses interest in you. Zoey questions the way her friends and peers coyly wait to be noticed. Zoey has long practiced and fought to express herself to fully believe in that behavior. Again, gender expression is complex.

The mainstream public assumption is that when you present as highly feminine (or high femme), that you're not radical or a feminist. A BUST magazine interview recently mentioned a public discussion between Laverne Cox and social critic bell hooks. At the New School in 2014, hooks asked Cox what she thought about how her "...long blond wigs, dresses, and traditional feminine beauty embody what some feminist women have attempted to reject or avoid." To this, Cox partially responded:
"If I'm embracing a patriarchal gaze with this presentation, it's the way that I've found something that feels empowering...I've never been interested in being invisible and erased."

Zoey lives it up at the Laverne Cox's T Word. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.
Zoey lives it up at the Laverne Cox's T Word. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.

This concept of empowerment resonates with Zoey. She does not leave the house without make up. "I feel pressure to look a certain way. I'm afraid of how other people will look at me and question my femininity." Zoey uses her presentation to ensure that people will not question her gender identity. The pressures to meet standards of feminine beauty and behavior that many teenage girls suffer are only more challenging for transgender teens. Negotiating feminism with presentation adds challenges and a complex texture to Zoey's sense of self. Her older sister figures in to this identity directly.

"My sister is a straight-on feminist and wants to teach me the values of not having to wear make-up." Ofelia related to both of her children. Growing up, Ofelia's generation ironed and starched their jeans, T-shirts, or otherwise felt left out. However, now she supports her oldest daughter's notion of feminism, too.

Zoey counts on the support of her older sister, who helps her take a feminist perspective on being a girl. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.
Zoey counts on the support of her older sister, who helps her take a feminist perspective on being a girl. Photo courtesy of the Barba family.

"We live in a house of very strong women," said Ofelia. She looked at Zoey and said, "What I wish I could teach you was that you shouldn't feel pressured." At 14, Ofelia also never leaving her family's house in South Gate without lipstick. What's changed is that for Zoey, presentation is an act of self-determination and protection.

The women in the Barba family embody the importance of loving families. From being denied entry to the Downey Unified School District to Laverne Cox praising Zoey on The T Word show, the women in this family stand up for the lives of transwomen across the country.

When I met them, Ofelia had just come back from leading a "Know Your Rights" workshops in Bakersfield. This year, Zoey was co-Grand Marshall of the West Hollywood Pride Parade. They were the Inaugural Youth & Family Award Honorees for the Transgender Law Center. A documentary about their journey is also nearing completion. Latino and working class families can find themselves reflected in Zoey and Ofelia's family journey, no longer despairing about the lack of online content to find the help they need. The world is still a dangerous place for trans women.

"Already 22 murders of transwomen of color this year," said Ofelia. Murders of transgender women have reached epic proportions. In the time it took to publish this article, the number had gone up to twenty four. "It's a terrible thing to live with," said Ofelia, "But I live with it. That's why I flank her when we're walking together."

Still only fourteen years old, Zoey looks forward to having a quinceanera in her Downey home.
Still only fourteen years old, Zoey looks forward to having a quinceanera in her Downey home.

Ofelia walks slightly behind Zoey all the time because she "wants to see who's coming at her." No matter what, Ofelia will be there to protect her. She will be at her side every possible step. I see this closeness in the scrapbook they showed me: photos of Zoey at age ten with no makeup at a PFLAG pot luck, or snap shots with activist Bamby Salcedo, and in others with Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles.

"All those parties are nice," Ofelia says, but they stay grounded in the people who love and care for Zoey outside of those fundraisers and celebrations. They are, however, always thinking about their next event.

Outside near the wall of fuchsia bougainvillea, Dante barked, a white Chihuahua sweetly guarded their quiet Downey home. "I'm thinking of having my quinceañera back here," said Zoey. I told her it was the perfect spot, a wide lot with lots of space to dance. If they need a madrina, a godmother of something Zoey might need for school, I told Ofelia I'd happily do it. I'll make as many recuerdos as the family wants.

"With income taxes coming," Ofelia wrote in a text, "that's probably how I'll pay for it." The Barbas are like so many other families who worry how they will pay for those famous quinceañeras.

"What is the last thing you want people to know about being a girl?" I asked Zoey.
"The freedom of expression, that's what I love about being a girl. I love how I can represent myself, even though what's inside you is what really matters. I love that I get to stand up for what I believe in."

Thank you, Barba family, for making the way for the rest of us to stand up, too.

Children's Hospital Los Angeles Center for Transyouth Health and Development
FTM Alliance of Los Angeles
Los Angeles Gender Center
LA Gay & Lesbian Center Transgender Health Program
The Brown BOI Project
Trans Youth Family Allies
The Trevor Project
PFLAG Los Angeles
Gender Justice Los Angeles
LifeWorks Mentoring Program

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