A world of difference: growing up as a transwoman in the Netherlands and Costa Rica

Pete Wu, March 23, 2018

Puede leer este blog en español aquí.

How does it feel to grow up in a completely different environment as a transwoman? In 2007, all of the Netherlands could peer into the life of Amsterdam model and DJ Valentijn de Hingh (27). She had been regularly followed from the age of seven until seventeen for the movie “Boyhood” by the documentary filmmaker Hetty Nietsch, making her a role model for many transgender people.

In Costa Rica, the childhood of activist Dayana Hernández (34), founder of the NGO Transvida (“Translife”) and Hivos partner, was a lot more anonymous. She grew up without positive role models and explored life as a transgender woman mostly by herself. 

Last September, Pete Wu asked Valentijn and Dayana about the responses to their coming-out process and their transitions, and how movies and media have played an important role in forming their identities. 

“No bed of roses”

This sounds like the dream of every child; the blonde and talkative Valentijn grew up in Lelystad, a relatively safe environment, with progressive parents, an understanding younger brother and kind neighbours. It became clear quite soon that she was different than the other boys: she wanted to play with dolls, and identified with the female characters in Walt Disney movies. “My parents were always easy-going about these things. They would say, ‘We will give Valentijn a Barbie for her birthday.’”

However, for the sweet-sounding, black-haired Dayana, the only safe environment she knew was within her family, most of whom accepted her when she told them that she felt like a girl from the inside. However, life was no bed of roses in the beginning. “They said: ‘we love you, you are family.’ But I realised that I was not the only one beginning a transition; my family had to change with me. It was not easy for them to deal with an environment that makes fun of them as well.”

The outside world is a different story

Even though Dayana’s family accepted her as a girl, the outside world did not. She never felt that she was treated differently – until society told her she was a boy. “I was always feminine, I always played with girls and I was treated that way. But the people around me told me that I was not supposed to cross my legs because ‘men sit with their legs astride.’ I was also not supposed to move my hands or to play with my hair while talking. That was quite difficult for me to hear. I was a child and did not know yet how to explain how I felt, and the grown-ups around me just thought I was confused.”

Valentijn recognises these divisive reactions from the outside world as well. In kindergarten or at home, no one would make an issue about her different behaviour, but during primary school “that was the time when the division between boys and girls became important. Older boys around me told me I was weird and started mocking me. ‘Princess! You are a girl!” they would say when the pushed me into the bushes. And teachers started talking to my parents, telling them, ‘Well, Valentijn is acting very differently to the other boys.’”

At the ballet school where Valentijn danced, she was told that boys had a particular body and a specific role in ballet. “I had a teacher who said stuff like: ‘You have to become strong men.’ That was just not me at all, so I decided to quit.”

Hate crimes against transgender people

So, when Valentijn’s parents read an article in the women’s magazine Libelle about children being counselled from a very young age by people specialised in gender-dysphoric children, they set up an appointment for Valentijn with a psychologist. Her parents were hoping to find an answer there. Valentijn soon learned the term “transgender” and could explain herself to others with it, too.

“Every time I walked into a new class, I told people what was going on in my life. For people outside of my direct environment it was something new, but when you take that new part away, it becomes something you can talk about. Once you could discuss it, people understood somehow.”

Dayana, on the other hand, did not have such progressive parents and an enabling environment. She had to find out about these things mostly by herself. According to her, in Latin America the biggest problem is the lack of information about transgender people. “When I grew up, we didn’t even have internet. I had to find out everything by myself step by step and do what I felt was best. That was tough. I grew up with sadness and insecurities. I became depressed because of my confusion – I have a penis, but I feel like a woman. And all around me I saw and heard about all these hate crimes against transgender women.”

“Never thought that I would end up on the streets”

In addition, Dayana did not have positive role models to look up to. “All the media about transgender people was negative or about discrimination. I remember in the news they would talk about what they called transvestites. The body of a boy was found and they would say that the boy was wearing a dress. All the news we would see was about how dangerous the world is for transgender people. Now, I’m happy with who I am – but I would have liked to have had a role model while I was growing up.”

The only other transgender people who she knew during her high school period were women who worked as prostitutes on the streets. Like many transgender girls in Costa Rica, Dayana had to cope with discrimination in school, and like many other transgender people in disadvantaged environments, she also ended up on the streets as a prostitute. “It is not that we wanted to do, but the discrimination and society forced us to. I cried many times about that. I never thought I would end up selling my body on the street.”

Valentijn also only saw a few positive representations of transgender people in the Dutch media. The only movie Valentijn saw as a child, Ma vie en rose, a French movie about a boy who wanted to be a girl and play the part of Snow White in the school play. At a certain point, the boy’s hair is cut off and his parents are bullied out of the neighbourhood. “That movie was frightening and disturbing to me as a child. It was the first time I saw something that showed transgender children as not normal and that their families could suffer from it. I understood that this was the purpose of the movie, but at the same time I knew that my situation was different. Still, it was always lingering at the back of my mind.”

Proud to be transgender

Both Valentijn and Dayana agree on the fact that things are improving in media representation of transgender people. Still, according to Valentijn, a lot of work needs to be done: “Transparent is a good example; this is a show on television about and by someone with a parent who came out of the closet as a transgender woman at a very late stage in life. Most of the portraits of transgender people are made and framed by artists and storytellers who are not transgender themselves. We have to stay aware of that.”

Dayana: “Nowadays, the media in Costa Rica works as magic: you can google and find information about your body so easily – the documentaries on HBO and Discovery Channel are so educational. And we, at Transvida, use the news channels as a stage to proclaim equal rights for transgender people. I have been on all the channels here!”

And that gives a positive impression, especially for Dayana’s young nieces. “They yell: ‘Auntie, auntie, I saw you on television.’ Young people treat me as a woman now. Sometimes I still see the heads turning when people pass by on the streets, but I can now proudly say that I am transgender. And that is worth everything.

Valentijn de Hingh curated an evening about gender issues in the media during the 2017 Dutch Film Festival, which was made possible in part by Hivos. Hivos fights for equal opportunities and rights for lesbians, homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people in countries such as Costa Rica, where we support the work of Dayana and Transvida.