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Gabriela Mansilla, Luana’s mother, says there were always clear differences in her twins. Manuel, Luana’s birth name, wore shirts on his head, apparently imitating long hair. He liked dolls. Princesses and mermaids were his favorite movie characters.
Among his first words: “I girl.”
In those first years slight differences can be seen in pictures of the boys. They are often dressed in identical outfits, but Manuel’s gaze is softer, his head more tilted.
By the time he was 2, Manuel was rejecting pants and insisting on wearing dresses. The struggles were so exhausting that sometimes Mansilla simply consented.
“People in the neighborhood would call me ‘the crazy lady who dresses up her kid,'” said Mansilla, 41.
When the boys were 3, a team of psychologists and doctors prescribed a regimen of “male reinforcement” for Manuel. He would be allowed to play only with male toys like action figures and wear boys’ clothes. The color pink was prohibited, as were cartoons with female protagonists.
While there is widespread agreement in medical circles that some children are simply born with such tendencies, there is little consensus on the best way to deal with the behavior.
Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who has researched the topic extensively, argues that it’s better for children to accept their birth sex — if for no other reason than to avoid having to contemplate a painful and traumatic sex change. Bailey says long-term studies of boys with female tendencies show that when parents reinforce that they are boys, most turn out to be gay men who accept their gender.
“I feel for parents in this situation and I’m glad that societies are changing to become more tolerant of transgender people,” said Bailey. “But the advocacy here has lost sight of what we know about kids like this.”
But other child specialists, along with transgender advocates, argue that nobody but the individual can decide.
“Somehow we are supposed to prove our gender, but nobody else has to prove their gender,” said Mara Kiesling, the executive director of National Center of Transgender Equality, based in Washington. “It’s not a choice. Kids just know who they are.”
Sabrina Gabrielle Melo Bolke, an Argentine transgender woman who has befriended the family, says she has warned Luana that she will have to make tough choices about hormone therapy when she is a teenager, and ultimately whether to have a sex change.
Still, Bolke, who says she always knew she was female but couldn’t act on it until she was an adult, believes the early gender change will help Luana growing up.
“I wish I would have had the same chance,” she said.