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He fought for transgender rights in Colombia. Now he worries as a U.S. citizen

Published Nov. 5, 2018

For 19-year-old Manuel Jose Plazas Martinez, the process of changing his official records went beyond the usual hurdles that can keep a transgender person from moving ahead in life.

A native of Colombia, he sued his former government over his birth certificate, a case that went all the way to that country's highest court and cemented his rights as a transgender man.

The effort, undertaken while he was still a student at St. Petersburg High, helped usher in a new law in Colombia, and enabled Martinez to change his gender here as a citizen in the United States.

The process was personal and complicated — as are his feelings today as a young transgender man living in the era of President Donald Trump. Like the 1.4 million other Americans who identify as transgender, Martinez considers himself at risk as the Trump administration weighs restricting his rights by defining gender solely as biological, and determined by genitalia at birth.

"I just went through all of this struggle with a different legal system, and at the same time, a lot of what is happening in the country where I live really bothers me," Martinez said. "I'm afraid of what could happen now, after everything we've already been through."

Martinez, who goes by "Manolo," was born in Bogotá, Colombia, but grew up in Pinellas County. He moved to St. Petersburg with his mom when he was 2 years old.

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He came out to her about being transgender when he was 15. Martinez was nervous, even though his mom had always been his biggest supporter. Being Colombian meant he grew up in the conservative Catholic faith. His mother, Clara Martinez, is a devout follower.

"I think her religion helped her come to terms with it faster, honestly," Martinez said about coming out.

Clara Martinez said her son's decision doesn't change her faith. She'd raised him on her own and said she would support him no matter what.

"My God is generous, loving and caring," she said.

The day after he came out, she took him to buy new clothes to fit his identity. Then she called his guidance counselor at St. Petersburg High and set up meetings with all his teachers. She printed out packets of information for them on the sensitivities of working with a transgender teen. Then she brought her son to Metro Wellness and Community Centers in St. Petersburg for therapy and support.

That was the easy part. Next came the arduous process of changing Martinez's name and gender in all government documents.

With family still in Colombia, Martinez and his mother decided to go about changing his birth certificate, which would make it easier for him to change all other documents in the U.S. Martinez was 16 at the time, still a minor, which complicated things. The Colombian government denied multiple requests to change his name and gender. The family's plea made it all the way to the Supreme Court of Colombia.

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"A law had been passed in 2015 that supported transgender rights for adults, but you had to be 18," Clara Martinez said. "We decided to sue as the government was not respecting his rights."

After being denied so many times, and submitting letters, videos and photos about himself and his identity, Martinez and his mom were shocked when a Supreme Court judge ruled in their favor. His case led to the passage of a law that opened up the opportunity for transgender minors with family support to change their birth certificates.

To legally change a name on records in the U.S., a person needs a court order. The laws vary by state, but the process is fairly standard.

To change gender, a person must obtain a letter from their doctor stating they are undergoing treatment for a gender change, and begin by changing documents at a Social Security office. Next, they should go to the department of motor vehicles with the same letter from a doctor. But changing the sex on a birth certificate also varies on the state.

In Florida, applicants can change a birth certificate with the same doctor's note as used at other government offices.

Martinez's case is unique in many aspects. But what's rare is the support he had from his family right away, said Lucas Wehle, director of trans services at Metro Wellness and Community Centers in Tampa Bay.

"So many of the trans youth we see are — or end up — homeless, and don't have the same kind of support Manolo has had from his mother and grandmother," Wehle said. "We're talking about a greatly marginalized group of people, who are at risk of having the few rights they do have stripped away by what Trump is proposing."

The New York Times reported last month that the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to redefine the legal definition of sex under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in education programs that receive government financial assistance.

"Sex means a person's status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth," read a government memo obtained by the Times. "The sex listed on a person's birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person's sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence."

The news has Martinez and his mother hoping that all the effort to change his birth certificate and gender weren't done in vain, and won't be revoked in the U.S.

Wehle also worries that the proposed policy, if implemented, could lead to more violence committed against trans people.

Last year was the deadliest on record in terms of violence committed against transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 29 transgender people were killed in the U.S. So far in 2018, there are 22 known deaths from violence.

"There will be more suffering because of it," Wehle said. "It will only get worse."

When Martinez got the news about his birth certificate, he was 17 and a senior at St. Petersburg High. His college plans were put on hold due to the legal issues. He couldn't apply for federal student aid without knowing what gender his birth certificate would say.

Now, he's a U.S. citizen and studying at St. Petersburg College. He hopes to get a degree in psychology. He takes testosterone and is growing a beard. He says he's finally comfortable in his own skin.

"The primary reason we did all this is so I don't have to constantly 'come out' when a substitute teacher reads my name or sees my gender on a piece of paper," Martinez said. "Now, I'm pursuing my dreams. Life is way easier."

Clara Martinez says she's watched her son grow into the person he was always meant to be during this time.

"As a kid, he was so insecure. Now he's happy," she said. But she worries about his future. "Thank God he was born in Colombia," she said, as opposed to the U.S., where she fears it could be much harder in the future for her son to just be himself.

"This doesn't just affect me and my son, but families across this country."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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