Ro Sibaja, a 28-year-old living in Newnan, Georgia, has feared his wedding day ever since he was a child.
He wasn’t having any second thoughts about the love he held for his partner, Amber Haney. They’ve been together for six years; they’ve shared a joint bank account for four years, around the time when they moved in together. “It’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in,” Sibaja says. “She’s kind and beautiful, and most definitely my other half.” But his mom didn’t invite her church friends to her child’s wedding last June, nor did she choose to attend. That’s because Sibaja’s mother is devout and interprets the Old Testament’s portion of the Bible literally, Sibaja is one of the estimated 700,000 transgender individuals living in the United States.
When Sibaja was three years old, his family moved from Costa Rica to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he grew up. Sibaja says that growing up in the South made him acutely aware of his Hispanic heritage. From the moment he got off the school bus and walked into his house, he says it was “like hopping the border and arriving in Costa Rica.” Their house perpetually smelled of freshly made flour tortillas, frijoles, and arroz. Univision was always buzzing on their television; English was rarely spoken in the household.
Yet outside of the home, the going wasn’t as easy for Sibaja. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s 2015 report on LGBTQ youth reports that students in Southern states are more likely to experience bullying in school than anywhere else in the country. That was certainly Sibaja’s experience. “Dressing like a boy, coming from an immigrant family, and being poor made me an easy target for kids at school to be bullied often,” Sibaja says. Once, in fifth grade, some classmates peered over the restroom stall to watch Sibaja pee; they were hedging bets on whether he urinated standing up or sitting down. He never told his parents.
During his childhood, before every Sunday service at Sibaja’s predominantly Hispanic Baptist church, his mother dressed him up in lacy petticoats, satin gloves, shiny shoes with bows, and flowery pastel dresses. He was his parents’ only child who was assigned female at birth, the youngest of four boys — all, except Sibaja, were born male. “My mom was so proud to finally have a girl and wanted to show me off to everyone. But, I was just never that for her,” he says.
But despite his efforts to act and dress as femininely as possible, Sibaja couldn’t play that role 100 percent of the time. When he was about 14, he decided to cut his brown hair much shorter. That was enough to lead his mom to believe her child wasn’t straight. One late afternoon, when Sibaja was 15, he found his mom waiting for him outside the bathroom as he’d taken a shower. She wanted her son to confirm her hunch. After a while, Sibaja finally confessed: “Yes, I like girls!” In response, mother began throwing holy water at child, shouting scripture in Spanish. “You have to be straight for the Lord!” she screamed while chasing after her son, who was still holding up his towel.
Sibaja says that, in Costa Rican culture, it’s unsavory for anyone to come out or parade being gay or transgender. “If you’re gay, you might go off and do your gay thing, but you keep it to yourself,” he says. Still, he knew that, while he liked girls, he never felt like one.
“My mom was so proud to finally have a girl and wanted to show me off to everyone. But, I was just never that for her.”
Growing up in a conservative Costa Rican family in North Carolina didn’t leave Sibaja much room to understand his gender identity. A 2015 poll conducted by GLAAD found that Southerners feel significantly more discomfort about their LGBT families, friends, and neighbors than other regions in the country.
Only once was Sibaja’s mom willing to break her cultural norms: for his Quinceañera, the Latino coming-of-age birthday celebration that’s steeped in religion. She allowed her son to have a Star Wars-themed party. Instead of a traditional ornately laced dress with a skirt and a sparkly rhinestone-encrusted tiara, he wore a vintage Star Wars T-shirt. Since Sibaja and his mom share the same birthday, she even took a turn to whack at the Death Star piñata. “I have a fun, goofy picture of her holding the piñata while candy was falling all over her head,” he says. “It’s my favorite picture of her.”
Sibaja experienced panic attacks on a weekly basis during his teenage years. His anxiety was so severe that it often made him feel dizzy and sick to his stomach; the heart palpitations made him vomit frequently. He also spent a great deal of time in church searching for support, and wound up forcing himself to adopt a more feminine disposition, in order to adhere to what he thought God wanted. At 14, his parents finally took him to a psychiatrist, who prescribed him a buffet of antidepressants and psychotropic medications to stave off suicidal thoughts. Attempting to cope, he swallowed more than his prescribed dosage. He tried to commit suicide that way twice — at 14, and then again at 15.
“When you don’t know your place in this world, it makes you feel alone,” Sibaja says. “And when everyone else seems to be understanding something socially and making friends and dating people, and doing these things so easily, and for some reason you can’t, it’s lonely.”
He’s not alone in this feeling. The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force conducted a survey in 2015 that estimated that 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide at some point in their lives — a rate nearly nine times than the average among cisgender people.
In 2015, Sibaja started hormone therapy. He hated that he was wrecking his body after a decade of extreme binding: the process of flattening one’s breast tissue to create a male-appearing chest. If the process is not done safely, it can scar skin, hurt mobility, and cause fluid build-up in lungs or even broken ribs; Sibaja was already beginning to develop breathing problems.
Living with gender dysphoria — a condition of experiencing an emotional and psychological identity that is opposite of one’s gender assigned at birth — had been traumatizing enough after 25 years. After four years of being with Haney, he told her he couldn’t compromise his long-term health and identity any longer. When they first discussed Sibaja’s need to transition, Haney seemed scared. She was worried that the partner she had been creating a life with would suddenly change into a completely different person. But after talking with Sibaja, she realized how awful it had been for him to struggle in the wrong body. She could see that he had no intentions to change who he was, but rather that he was just making his body better fit who he really was.
Sibaja told his mom he was trans during a time that she was just getting comfortable with him being gay. “I made her worst fears come to life, but I don’t think she was that surprised,” Sibaja says. “She prayed that I would change my mind.” She even asked him to hold off his transition until she died. Initially, that was Sibaja’s plan, but it reached a point where looking forward to his mother’s death to claim his identity became unfeasible. “That would be morbid and awful,” he says. “I felt like I had waited long enough.”
Both of Sibaja’s parents are devout Christians, but they approach their faith differently. His dad figured that being trans happened the same way that a kid is born deaf, blind, or with any other genetic difference. He told him that “it’s very possible that you can have a male soul in a female body. God created the soul, it does not matter the body we are housed in.”
Across the country, people who believe in a much more literal reading of religious text tend to hold more of an anti-LGBT mentality, says Andrew Flores, an LGBTQ and public opinion scholar at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.
Flores says people like Sibaja’s parents reflect the deeply personal aspect of religion where people can attend the same church, but have differences in behaviors, actions, or attitudes because they differ in reading the text as literal, figurative, or somewhere in between, which explains why some Christians are more supportive of LGBTQ rights than others. Even though Sibaja’s mom has grown to love Haney over the past six years, as an ardent Baptist she was convinced that witnessing Sibaja’s matrimony would be a sin worthy of punishment in her afterlife. Based on a 2015 report by the Public Religion Research Institute, she’s among the 49 percent of Hispanic Protestants who believe that same-sex marriage violates their article of faith.
“I made her worst fears come to life, but I don’t think she was that surprised. She prayed that I would change my mind.”
In Georgia, about 5,750 Hispanic adults identify as transgender, which accounts for 1 percent of the state’s adult population. Even though Southern states are notorious for being against transgender rights (i.e. so-called “bathroom bills” in places like North Carolina), there has been growing public support for the LGBTQ community over the last couple of decades, Flores says. “Even though we think of the South in its current landscape as being more conservative, it’s not true to say that their attitudes have never progressed,” he says. “They aren’t a stagnant population that’s completely unexposed to the changing culture and growing acceptance in the U.S.’s legal and social structures [for LGBTQ communities].”
A month before the wedding, as Sibaja was leaving his parents’ house after his dad’s birthday dinner, he saw that his mom packed him leftovers. Then, he noticed a small gift bag. He was surprised and a little confused because they were celebrating his dad’s birthday. His mom told him to open the present at home and to be extra careful with the wrappings. Sibaja waited until he pulled up in front of his apartment building. Inside the bag were two pairs of Star Wars tube socks. Then he realized the real reason for the impromptu gift. His mom had written a small note in Spanish: “You have no idea how important you are. Never forget how much I love you. May God’s grace always cover you.” He says that his mom probably couldn’t tell him herself without crying.
Even though her devoutly literal interpretation of the Bible shaped her resistance toward Sibaja’s transition, he knows that his mom is not a hateful person. “I really don’t see it that way. She’s the strong one. I imagine what it’s like for her,” Sibaja says. He thinks about how painful it must have been for her to have a child that challenged her cultural and moral understanding of the world as well as her relationship with God. “To not only open your heart to your child, but also expand your mind to make room for their happiness shows how much she fiercely loves and supports me.”
Now, his mom makes a concerted effort to exclusively call him “Ro” instead of his birth name and uses male pronouns to reference him.
Haney and Sibaja got married on their sixth anniversary last June. His dad attended and was beaming with joy. “I told my mom she was welcome to come if she decided to do so last minute,” Sibaja says.
“In the U.S., the Latino population tends to be a heavily immigrant population and there tends to be a lot of cultural value and importance placed on the role of the family,” Flores explains. “Emphasizing the important role of keeping the family together continues to play a significant factor in how the LGBT rights movement communicates to Latino communities about questions of marriage equality.”
Take for instance how Familia es Familia — the LGBT campaign aimed at creating strong allies with Hispanic communities in the U.S. — emphasizes that “familia” includes supporting LGBT children and family members. “Research shows that Catholic Latinos tend to be even more supportive [of LGBT family] than Latinos from other denominations,” Flores says. Similar to Sibaja’s mom, ingrained conservatism, or anti-LGBT mentalities, can be influenced by how often a Catholic Latino attends church and/or interprets the Bible.
At the ceremony, when Sibaja saw Haney in her sequined white gown, his hands immediately went numb. He started pulsing his fists as though he was preparing to get blood drawn. He thought that, if he even looked like he was shedding a tear, Haney would start bawling at the altar and no one would understand their vows. “We would’ve been a blubbering mess so I kept pulsing my hands until one of my hands started twitching,” he says. Sibaja managed to fight back his tears while they both said their vows, but the whole time he was thinking, “I need my twitchy hand to put that ring on her finger,” he says. “I managed to do it while being awestruck at how stunning she looked.”
After the ceremony, Sibaja walked over to his dad, who told him, “your mom is going to regret not being here.”