BUENOS AIRES - The July winter vacation was coming to a close and José’s decision was maturing: he would simply tear down what remained of the “closet” he'd slowly been coming out of. So on July 30, José arrived at the elementary school that he works at in Buenos Aires as "Melisa," and became the city's first ever transgender teacher.
Weeks earlier he had met with school administrators to inform them of his decision: “I have an obligation to be coherent with my deepest sentiments that are leading me to take this step in my life, a life that will never be lived to the fullest if I don’t show the essence of my own being. And my being is profoundly feminine.”
Why now? Melisa feels that it is time to be herself in the workplace. Also, on May 9, the Senate passed a law on gender identity that allows individuals to adapt their national ID documents and birth certificates based on a gender choice.
Melisa has been a teacher for the past 22 years, specializing in optional chess workshops. [Watch footage and interview of Melisa here] She teaches 12 different classes in different public schools around the city, with students from second to fifth grade.
Her students have always known her as José; now she is Melisa. Thin, very tall and with dazzling finger nails, she is proud of the acceptance she got from her daughters (aged 21 and 16) and the rest of her family, who confirmed their own suspicions after seeing Melisa dressed as a woman in photos that Melisa had decided to show them.
But that was only the beginning of the process. What would the parents of her students say?
Enrique Samar, principle at one of the schools Melisa teaches at, said that the majority have accepted the decision. Only one mother decided to pull her son from the chess workshop.
Haydeé Torinchik, a family psychologist, says that the school erred by leaving communication with the children essentially up to the parents. “You have to work from their heads, find out what they know and what they imagine, and answer questions in an adult way based on that," Torinchik said. "Melisa is not hurting anyone, she is saying the truth, and the truth is respect.”
Laying groundwork with long nails
According to Melisa, the change was not a radical departure, because she was already preparing the terrain: she started to wear her nails long and wear jewelry, plucked her eyebrows and started training her voice.
“Teacher, men don’t wear their nails long,” students told her during the transition. Some of the changes appear to have been completely accepted, but seeing her in heels and a skirt still provokes surprise. “You’re pretty, teacher!” and “Why did you change now and not earlier?” were some of the comments.
Sergio Provenzano, director of studies in Sex Education and Gender Studies of the University of Buenos Aires, said that children understand better than adults, because they are able to look at the changes without prejudices.
Melisa openly said that she has more than 200 skirts at home, and that you just don’t see transsexuals of her age walking around the city. In what seems to have been an intimate conversation, Soledad Acuña, the under-secretary of diversity in school told her: “You are the first out of 50,000 teachers. Somebody had to open this door, and it was up to you.”
Melisa grew up in a a very repressed environment, and never felt totally happy. “Eight years ago I accepted myself for what I am: a person with masculine genitals who feels like a woman. And at last I could sleep peacefully,” she said.
In the next couple of days she will arrange to get a new national ID card. For some people she is still José, for others she is Melisa -- ending up with an androgynous image that she doesn’t really connect with.
“She should be respected," says Provenzano, the Gender Studies department director. "According to the current law, a person has the right to choose his or her own sexuality and gender. And to the extent that something is legitimate, it is incontrovertible.”