The Transgender Minor Who Hopes to Be Carnival Queen

Lola is one of the 10 applicants who qualified for the bid to be called carnival queen at the gala on 13 February, and the only trans minor candidate to be nominated in the event's history. Elvira Urquijo/EFE

The costumes tend to weigh in the hundreds of pounds but Lola Rodríguez is used to feeling an unusual burden of responsibility for a 16-year-old. Lola is bidding to be selected as Las Palmas carnival queen 2015 in her native Canary Islands, despite the fact that, legally, she is a man.

Lola is not the first transgender woman to take part in the pageant on the island of Gran Canaria, where carnival virtually stops all other activity in its tracks for two weeks in February. But she is the first trans minor to be a candidate. "I have always loved carnival and felt it very intensely, so I am living a dream," the slim, dark-haired schoolgirl says, during her presentation before the media when her candidacy was announced. "It gives me the chance to inform society about diversity so it was too wonderful an opportunity to let it pass me by."

Lola admits she has been unusually lucky. She has loving parents who listened to what she was telling them about her identity almost as soon as she had learned how to speak. Some of her teachers helped her along the way too. Lola says she has always been a girl but she was given the wrong body. Maisi, her mother, recalls the day that her four-year-old son said in the bath that he was a girl and wanted to behave like one. Maisi and her husband, Miguel, were happy to let their child dress in his mother's clothes at home and get dolls for Christmas. But at school and in the street, young Lola maintained the appearance of a boy. "I was afraid because I didn't really understand what was happening to me, and I was afraid that people would reject me. But at the same time, pretending to be somebody different was painful; it was as if I had to disguise myself every time I went out."

At the age of 11, she met some people who had had similar experiences. She realised she was transgender. She told everyone that she was Lola. "At secondary school, it was difficult at first. There was no information on this kind of issue for the children in our classes so it was something completely unknown and I experienced a certain amount of rejection," she recalls. "In Spain there is still a problem in terms of educating people in these matters. It remains taboo and something to be hidden." Having overcome her own difficulties, Lola wants to be as visible an example to others as possible. "For me, being transsexual is just something normal and very positive. It breaks my heart to see people suffer discrimination."

Pablo Almodóvar of the Canary Islands Gamá LGBT association, one of the groups sponsoring Lola's carnival queen bid, agrees that the transgender experience remains something of a final frontier in the fight for minority rights and freedoms in Spain. In 2005, under the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the country became the third in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. In the last Pew Research Center "Global Views on Morality" survey (2013), only 6% of Spaniards described homosexuality as morally unacceptable, the lowest figure out of the 40 nations analysed. "But for transsexuals, there is a greater level of invisibility; there is still a lot being kept in the closet," says Almodóvar, who adds that the Canaries, with its "transgressive" carnival-related traditions of drag queen contests and a major focus on gay tourism is more LGBT-friendly than other parts of Spain.

That publicly embracing a different gender identity can still be a painful and lonely process is borne out by the experience of Diego Neria Lejárraga, a Spaniard from Plasencia, who, in January, was granted a private audience with the pope. Lejárraga, who had gender reassignment surgery to turn his body into that of a man eight years ago at the age of 40, says he was rejected by many of his fellow townsfolk, including Catholic clergymen. He refuses to divulge specific details of his papal encounter, but told a radio station on his return from Rome that meeting Pope Francis had been a "gift from heaven" and that he had found "a friend, a man who is all goodness".

Before facing adult issues of legal identity and access to surgery, under-18s have to cope with the hormones released by their own bodies during puberty, with potentially devastating effects on their appearance and sexual identity. Lola aspires to lead a campaign to help other transgender minors access the hormone-blocking treatment she was given. "That was a very positive step that everyone needs when they have a body which is wrong for them and the changes start." At 13, she was prescribed anti-androgens but in many other parts of Spain different laws mean that would not have been possible. In Galicia only adults can be prescribed these drugs, while other regional health authorities set the minimum age at 16.

The effects of the drugs are reversible. If someone like Lola were to stop taking them, her male hormones would kick back in. As well as an endocrinologist, a psychiatrist has to sign off on the treatment after evaluating the extent of the minor's discomfort with the gender they were born with and the behaviour patterns that conform to the sex with which the child identifies. "It's a crime that this treatment is not available to minors in other regions, just plain evil," says Miguel, Lola's father. "It doesn't hurt anybody and it's not even expensive. It is just a question of ideology, of ignorance and, I would say, a lack of empathy. If this happened to the daughter of one of those politicians who are against this treatment, I am sure he wouldn't think the same."

The amount of publicity Lola is attracting concerns Miguel, a social worker, but is outweighed by pride in having a daughter who is using her platform as a contestant to help others who are less fortunate. "I am astonished at how brave she is, appearing before the media and saying that a society without discrimination is everyone's responsibility."

Lola's outfit for carnival is being designed by the young deaf designer Isaac Martínez with the backing of Gran Canaria Accesible, a public initiative aimed at making the island a world leader in integration and inclusivity for the disabled and other minorities. And the name of the dress? "It's called Life is Beautiful," says the would-be carnival queen's father. "Just like Lola."