ARELAS: Support for trans children and their families. Interview with Cristina Palacios, president of ARELAS
ARELAS: Support for trans children and their families
Interview with Cristina Palacios
By Xabier Villares
Translated by Lucy Planet
Photo credits: ARELAS
Mrs Palacios, give us some background information about yourself: where are you from and where do you reside? What is your profession and since when have you been the president of ARELAS? What was that process like?
My name is Cristina Palacios, I was born in Barcelona and for the past eleven years I have been living in a small town called Outeiro de Rei which belongs to the Lugo province, in Galicia, Spain. Although I am a social worker, for the past ten years I have been working almost exclusively giving lectures, hosting talks and leading workshops on a wide range of topics such as: social healthcare schemes, what leisure is like for dependant people, equality and gender violence, the lives of trans children and teenagers, sexual diversity and how these play within families.
I began my journey as an activist by becoming a founding associate for Chrysallis Galicia six years ago and now, I am the founder of ARELAS, which I started a little bit over five years ago.
How many trans minors are there in Galicia? And how many are you currently helping through ARELAS? How many have you been able to help in total in these past five years?
It is almost impossible to know how many trans minors there are in Galicia or in any part of the world. This is either because most of them are not aware of what they are because they lack the information to identify what they feel (no one has ever explained to them the existence of transexuality or the possibility of identifying with it), or because, having communicated this with their families, they have been unable to embody their identity freely and have had to continue living with the gender they have been assigned.
There are studies that state that 1 in a 1000 children will be trans, but this number feels quite low to all the entities, like ours, who work with trans minors because there are plenty of schools which have recognised various cases within their students.
With ARELAS we have been able to inform, help and/or accompany more than 400 trans minors in the past 5 years. Most of them without support from their families.
How would you describe the current situation regarding the inclusion of trans rights into Spanish legislation?
Very slow and uneven. Spain is always behind when it comes to basic human rights. Regarding trans people rights, more specifically minors, the difference in legislation between autonomous regions where they are born -and even different cities within the same region- is abysmal. In contrast we have the Comunidad Valenciana which has passed a bill that strays away from pathologization (meaning that someone who is trans will not have to provide any supporting documents signed by healthcare professionals stating that they suffer from some type of gender dysphoria, because this is not always the case). On the other hand, in Galicia, pathologization is the preferred lens to view and understand transexuality through, and depending on if you were born in Coruña or Lugo the difference in access to certain healthcare rights is huge.
Therefore, the most urgent matter is the push for a nation-wide Gender Recognition Act that unifies rights and criteria, that recognises the right to self-determination of trans identities and eliminates pathologization, so trans people are able to live freely without the intervention of third parties who diagnose and supervise their experiences, the same way that the rest of the people do. Bills like this offer visibility and tools that make facing difficulties and special needs much easier, especially for a historically abused and stigmatised group. However, passing the bill does not guarantee the end of their rights being violated. That is why it is important to have a chapter with sanctions.
Quite a controversy arose last June surrounding the leading party. PSOE’s (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) point of view, made public with a document titled “Arguments against theories that deny women’s identity”. Amongst other issues, the “Right to freely determine one’s sexual identity” was quoted as a right without “juridical rationality”. How did this resonate within your organisation and how did the trans collective respond?
It is slightly absurd to see PSOE questioning people’s right to freely determine their sexual identity when it is a right that they themselves have claimed and further approved with other legislation. The core of this issue lies at a lack of understanding by certain leaders of the party. They argue that this right cannot be recognised because there is a slight chance of, for example, having a man argue that he feels like he is a woman so he can go to a female prison. As if there weren’t professionals, judges among these, who could recognise if this is the case and therefore penalise those that aren’t. They also argue that transexuality is a neoliberal whim, a consequence of queer theories. However, the existence of trans minors that do not know of neoliberal whims or queer theories, but do certainly know about the daily struggle they face to become who they are, completely dismantles these ridiculous claims.
One would hope that politicians would step down from their pedestal and listen to the reality of so many people who have been deprived, for so many years, of their right to live and develop freely according to their identity (a right recognised by PSOE in article 11 of the bill 26/2015 from the 28th of July, on modification of the protection scheme for infants and adolescents).
Indeed, this argument presented by PSOE against the rights of trans people was reported by ARELAS in mass and social media. Alongside other trans organisations, we decided not to attend any event hosted by this party until any amendment or explicit support of the right to free determination of identity had been expressed. The only local council governed by PSOE who did as such was the one in Santiago de Compostela, which is why we attended a Pride event to which we had been invited.
Generally speaking, how does the government react to your petitions? Do you receive much attention and priority?
Normally, authorities and aspiring candidates only show their interest around the time of election and what is supposed to be a meeting to get to know the demands from the trans collective turns out to be a publicity stunt for their electoral campaign. The demands that they include in their electoral programmes are almost never fulfilled. Trans people are not a priority for any political party.
What is the situation with the pending approval of the LGTBI and the Trans Recognition act, both of which are currently in the Ministry of Equality’s agenda?
I am unaware of what stage of the process the LGBTI Bill is in due to the lack of information that trans families and trans organisations like ours have been given. Regarding the Trans State bill, monthly meetings are being held by the Ministry of Equality along with trans entities and families to work on a rough version of the future bill.
And what about Spanish society? Do you believe that Spain is a country where people respect trans identities?
In my experience yes, especially young people. The older the person the larger the rejection, usually. The amount of prejudice, stereotypes and negative perspectives on transexuality associated with exclusion, marginalisation and prostitution makes acepting someone who isn’t cisgender all that more diffcult. However, because I have the opportunity to visit dozens of primary schools each year, I am able to get up close with the unquestionable reality and it is that, children and adolescents, having received reliable information, empathise a lot and celebrate diversity.
Would you say the debates surrounding these issues, particularly within the feminist movement, are enganging with the public at all?
Not at all, most of the people feel far away from this false debate and deem it absurd.
And in Galicia, what’s the situation in terms of politics and social affairs? Would you say this region is in favor or against these changes compared with the rest of the nation?
In my opinion, Galician people are more open to accepting diversity than we imagine. Politicians, however, are a whole other story. We need to remember that the ruling party in this region has a total majority and has no interest in the LGBTI movement at all, let alone the trans collective in particular. This political party, PP (Partido Popular), in the same way as others, has passed bills against discrimination towards LGBTI people because of societal and collective pressures, not by their own initiative.
Tell us about your fight for the de-pathologisation of something as natural as transexuality. What is this current situation in Galicia?
The fight that I embarked on six years ago is entirely linked to the fact that my daughter is transexual. The day I realised that my daughter Sara had less rights than my son Gabriel, just because she didn’t identify with her gender assigned at birth, I decided to do something about it. It also has to do with the fact that every time that I asked for my daughter to be respected as the girl she is, there was a conflict because according to everybody “it is the first case that we have come across”. Such lack of knowledge, especially from the professional adults my daughter had to surround herself with. What began as a claim in the media for the recognition of my daughter’s rights ended up becoming a collective fight for trans rights.
Even though there is still a long way to go, during these past six years there has been an increase in visibility, social awareness has been raised regarding trans rights and that is unstoppable. In 2016, the Consellería de Educación (the Department of Education in Galicia) approved an educational protocol driven by ARELAS, which works as a tool for accompanying trans minors through their years in education which guarantees that they will be named and referred by their gender and chosen name. We have managed to get the Public Health Service to offer access to medical treatments such as oocyte cryopreservation to trans minors; also they can request surgeries once they are adults. We have achieved the first name and sex changes of trans minors in Galicia without the requisites that adults are required. We have managed to get trans minors to be included in the sports teams that they want to and deserve to be in according to their identity and, above all, we have managed to get many pupils and teaching staff to begin learning more about sexual diversity.
Focusing on the transexual population that you work with, in what mental health conditions are they when they reach you?
Something that I see constantly is that the longer they take to transition (often because their families have taken long to understand them) the worst their mental health is. Most of those who are 14-15 years or older, who have spent a long time trying to find a name for what they feel and trying to be accepted, arrive with diagnoses and treatments for anxiety and depression. It is undeniable that growing up in a place of discomfort, loneliness and family rejection is not easy.
However, those who have been listened to and accompanied from younger ages (which allows for the development of sexual characteristics to be intercepted early), usually grow up without any psychological consequence that has to do with transexuality.
Do you feel like the majority of families accept them and help them?
Unfortunately not. In ARELAS we usually work with young trans people who aren’t respected or accompanied by their families. This was made very clear during lockdown where those who suffer from rejection from their families had to live with people 24/7 who, not only did not respect their identities, but also ridiculed them and deemed their suffering trivial.
You can find examples of this in these articles about kids that we accompanied in ARELAS (articles in Spanish and Galician language):
What impact do you believe these relationships with their family members has on the mental health of these people?
A large impact. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re talking about very young people who are growing up feeling like they aren’t fulfilling their families expectations, who they sometimes look up to. On occasion, when they manifest their disagreement with the identity they have been asigned, rejection and threats appear, creating truly worrying situations of child abuse.
All of this can provoque changes in the person’s behaviour because of their frustration, low self-esteem, apathy and/or depression which can also detonate antisocial conducts, scholastic failure, eating disorders and in the worst cases, suicide atempts.
How does ARELAS help transexual citizens and their families?
Giving information, guidance, advice and accompanying the trans minors in all aspects of their life: education, social life, sports, legal issues, health issues and leisure.
One of the schemes that we have developed the most in ARELAS is the accompanying of trans minors that don’t receive support from their families. We put them in contact with other young ones who are in the same situation using a WhatsApp group, creating a network where they can support each other.
What would you like to say to parents or relatives of trans people who have difficulty accepting their children?
That diversity makes us a better society with more freedom. And that they shouldn’t hesitate to support and love their children infinitely because the most important thing is their wellbeing and happiness. It is understandable to feel fear and worry when thinking about their future but, looking the other way will only raise an unhappy child who will most likely suffer in their adulthood. It is essential that they don’t look at transexuality as a problem but rather as an opportunity to dismantle ideas that we do not question but that aren’t always right. It is difficult to exit one’s comfort zone but it will be, without a doubt, a great opportunity to learn a lot and to grow as individuals and as a family.
What do you believe we, the general public, can do to help with the integration of transexual people?
Take a more open and positive approach to diversity. Understand that respecting our neighbours, recognising the cries of minorities and the right to equal opportunities are non-negotiable issues. We need a society that is better educated and informed from a place of truth, using stories from people who are affected, not from the hegemonic majorities. We cannot progress when there is such a negative, excluding and stigmatising imaginary of the collective. The day that a trans life is worth the same as a cis life we will be able to start talking about the inclusion of the trans collective.
Cristina Palacios, founding partner and president of ARELAS, an association of families of trans children in Galicia. Mother of the first minor trans to legally change her name in Galicia. Promoter of the Gender Identity Education Protocol of the Ministry of Education. Promoter of the Galician Law on Gender Identity.
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