The Secret Life of Jean Ruiz

By: Claudia E. Irizarry Aponte

December 11, 2013

        It’s a crisp Saturday afternoon at the beginning of December, and Jean Ruiz[1] is uncertain about a lot of things. She’s not sure of her future as a cinematographer, and would much rather be a writer or a model; she’s not sure of what her life will look like five or ten years from now, but she envisions herself living somewhere in Europe, perhaps England or Sweden. But Ruiz knows one thing for certain: she doesn’t want to be a boy anymore.

        For as long as she can remember, she has lived with a condition called gender dysphoria, which the American Psychological Association defines as “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.”

        Ruiz explains it in a very different way: she says she doesn’t like to think of it as an illness, because it’s “not a flaw, it’s just something that happens.” However, she does accept that it embarks discontent with one’s assigned gender, although she admits it has a lot to do with how society treats men and women. For example, during middle school, she says she could never relate to typical “guy to guy” behavior like roughhousing, boy-teasing, etc. “Most of the time I would just think to myself, ‘this wouldn’t be happening to me if I were a girl.’”

        Jean Ruiz is a 19 year old student of cinematography at the Center of Cinematography for Arts and Television (CCAT) from Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico. She lives with her Mom, a nurse finishing her studies to become a pharmacist, and older sister, a college student majoring in Pedagogy. She describes her relationship with her family as “disconnected”, and although her father is not officially divorced from her mother and does not live with them anymore, she considers her true family to be her mother and her sister.

        “It’s not that I have a bad relationship with him, it’s just that he’s very square-minded. A lot of things would go south if I tell him [bout my identity] and that’s why I’m not around often.”

        The Kinsey Institute estimates that about one in every 30,000 men is clinically diagnosed as being transgender, and much like homosexuality, it is manifested from the early stages of development and childhood. For Ruiz, the first realization that something was “wrong” with her (a feeling she describes as “guilt”) came when she was around ten years old. It was at that age when she first told her mom about her condition. “Her first reaction was, she told me to stay away from the Internet,” she says with a laugh. “When I told her later [last year] she was more supportive.”

        Coming to terms with her identity was a matter of instinct for Ruiz. She felt denial for some time, but once she learned that gender dysphoria existed she felt identified “word for word”. She met a trans woman online and felt inspired, and she realized that it’s possible to live life that way.

        Inspired by this woman, Ruiz set out a personal goal for herself: to live throughout 2013, as much as possible, as a girl. The Internet has made this challenge a lot easier for her. When I ask her if she’s active in any certain online community, or if she’s encountered one that has helped her, she beams and says that Tumblr, a popular blogging site, has helped her quite a lot. Ruiz says that what’s great about the Internet is that she can be herself.

        She has herself listed as female in her all of her public online profiles, including Facebook.  “Anywhere I go, I say I’m a girl. And I’m treated like a girl.”

        Intrigued by this last statement, I ask her what’s different about being treated “as a boy” versus being treated “as a girl”. She answers quickly that as a girl, she holds a certain power over people. For instance, she says, people are a lot nicer in the way they communicate. “On the Internet with guys, it’s just all ‘sup?’ and ‘bye’, but when I say I’m a girl, people say ‘goodnight’ and ‘sweet dreams’. Although I think it’s because they want to get in my pants,” she says, as she explodes in a fit of giggles, and covers her face.

        She also says that women have the power to control someone’s language, specifically men when they curse. “It’s so stupid, there will be a lot of guys in an all-boy group cursing and making dumb jokes and as soon as a girl walks in, they stop.” She noticed this change in behavior from observing the males in her classrooms throughout middle school and high school, and encountered it yet again in online chat rooms. Even in high school, the boys in her classroom treated her differently, like they would treat a girl. “They probably thought I was very weird, which is probably why they did it”

        While Ruiz has found substantial support online, there is very little available to her in the “real world”. There are scarce sources of counseling and psychosocial therapy available to LGBTT teens and young adults in Puerto Rico, and ever fewer available to transgenders; on top of that, the overwhelming majority of these centers are located in the metropolitan area and San Juan.

        Roberto Rivera, an active member of the UPRM Gay-Straight Alliance, attributes the lack of resources for trans people to an unspoken transphobia within the LGBTT community. He says that the LGBTT rights movement has focused “too much” on gays, bisexuals, and lesbians and not enough on transsexuals and transgenders. “It’s a group that is silenced because it is so small. They intimidate the general community because they have the capacity to behave as men or as women at the same time. Society and institutions don’t like that, because it’s not common.’”

        For now, Ruiz is looking towards the future. She plans of going through a full transition, which includes gender reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy. She says she is not intimidated by the surgery at all, which she has seen online “countless times.” One of her main fears post-transition is receiving shame from friends and family, but she says, “I’m already living through my biggest fear: being stuck at a phase for years in which I’m unhappy with myself.”

        Ruiz glances at a black and white portrait on her screen or a girl with short black hair with long bangs that barely graze her eyes. “I just think she’s so beautiful. If you look at her she looks pretty obviously female. But if you focus on her features in a certain way, she could pass as a man. She’s androgynous. I think she’s so beautiful. I would love to be that girl.”

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[1] Name has been changed

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