Santi Ceballos has had a long and sometimes painful journey as a gender nonconforming teen.

Santi Ceballos has had a long and sometimes painful journey as a gender nonconforming teen. Photograph: Cassidy Araiza/The Guardian

Sometimes, other kids call Santi “it”.

“It’s sort of like treating me as a different species,” said Santi Ceballos, who goes by they/them pronouns, looking straight into the camera for a video produced by the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance last year. The video was made in an effort to educate others about what it means to be gender nonconforming.

“There’s not only two genders!” Santi continues.

“Just let us be who we want to beeee….”

Today, at 13, they’ve let their wavy, golden-brown hair grow past their shoulders, with thick bangs over eyelashes long enough to graze oversized aviator glasses. Hormone blockers have staved off puberty, leaving Santi’s face round and their skin clear and hairless. Outside of their small condominium in central Tucson, near the University of Arizona campus, Santi wears the classic teenager outfit: an oversized windbreaker and black skinny jeans with ripped knees.

Santi has had a long and sometimes painful journey, says their mother, Carol Brochin, an education professor. She teaches future public school teachers, and has seen what she calls a real lack of empathy and understanding of the issues facing non-binary and transgender kids. “I tell my pre-service teachers, ‘You have to be prepared. The kids are going to transition,’” Brochin says.

Although there’s no official data for Arizona, Brochin estimates there are about 140 families in the Tucson area with kids who identify as non-binary or trans. In 2017, a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Lawestimated that 0.7 % of kids in the US between ages 13 and 17 – about 150,000 teens – identify as transgender.

When Brochin realized her own kid was struggling with identity, she looked for support. In 2017, she enrolled Santi in a popular program outside of Tuscon for kids who identify all over the gender spectrum called Camp Born This Way, designed by a group called The TransParents Project and funded by the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation.

As campers were assigned name badges with preferred pronouns at orientation, Santi asked for a name badge with he/him. They had never met a non-binary person until that day at camp, and the impact was almost immediate. The next day, Santi asked to switch their pronouns to they/them.

“That’s when I came out, kind of,” they said, smiling shyly. Brochin says it’s not uncommon for kids to transition at Camp Born This Way. (She’s now a member of the camp’s steering committee.) “People often talk about it as, like, you come down the mountain and there’s lots of tears and then you have to reenter society,” she says.

Re-entry was not easy for Santi. They came home feeling empowered – and, at the same time, more vulnerable than ever.

A few weeks later, Santi transferred from a traditional public school with uniforms and kids who teased them for playing with the girls but using the boy’s bathroom, to a charter school with a gender neutral restroom and overall more progressive views, such as a focus on social justice and environmental sustainability.

Santi Ceballos, right, stands with mom Carol Brochin and brother Joaquin Ceballos outside their home in Tucson, Arizona.
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 Santi Ceballos, right, stands with mom Carol Brochin and brother Joaquin Ceballos outside their home in Tucson, Arizona. Photograph: Cassidy Araiza/The Guardian

Joaquin, their brother who is 20 months older, changed schools, too. He didn’t like the “busy work” at his old school. But he also wanted to protect Santi. “Because of this,” he says, gesturing up and down dramatically at his sibling sitting next to him. Everyone at the table laughs, including Santi.

Seventh grade was going so much better than sixth, for both kids. But then it came time for sex education. The boys and girls were separated. Santi was told to pick, which was very upsetting to them, and the curriculum included nothing beyond heterosexual basics, thanks to a 1991 Arizona law called No Promo Homo. Arizona was one of seven states in the US with such laws.

Santi’s backslide after that was evident. “It caused a lot of dysmorphia and suicidal ideation,” Brochin recalls. She got Santi counseling and they got better, she says. But she wanted to make a change. So did Santi. In March, a group called Equality Arizona, backed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal, filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that by focusing sex education only on heterosexuality, Arizona was violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiff, along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal, was Santi.

Within days, the state legislature had voted to repeal the law. Governor Doug Ducey immediately signed the repeal – and No Promo Homo was gone.

“It’s incredibly brave of Santi to be involved in a lawsuit to make Arizona schools more inclusive, and they are lucky to have the support of their family in advocating not only for themselves, but for all LGBTQ kids in the state,” said Julie Wilensky, an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Brochin and her family are from Texas, another state with anti-homosexual sex education laws. The family is Mexican American, and Brochin says it was hard enough years ago when she told her parents she was divorcing and coming out as a lesbian. Explaining Santi’s situation was even more fraught. There is no Spanish equivalent to the “they” pronoun used in English to communicate a non-binary identity.

Brochin suspected that Santi (given name: Santiago) was not comfortable in their body from a young age.

“They would do kind of typical things like put on my dresses and my heels and do fashion shows and things like that. But I, being an adult, I think often we confuse gender with sexuality so we think about kind of an adult sexuality lens to think about how our kids express themselves.” She wondered if Santi would grow up to be gay.

“Probably when you were four, I’d say, ‘Do you feel like you are in the wrong body?’” she tells Santi, explaining that she was trying to give them the language then to explore.

Santi wasn’t ready for that conversation. But they do recall that in preschool, “I would always dress up in, like, the Tinkerbell outfit or the Cinderella outfit and put my hair up and the other kids would say, ‘Hey you’re a boy’, and they’d point out the firefighter costume”. They scrunch their face in disgust.

The family lived in San Antonio, Austin, El Paso – and then Tucson, where Santi’s struggles with bullies began in the third grade.

“Every day they’d run away from me at lunch and call me names like stupid, dumb,” they recall. It got worse in middle school, finally erupting in the form of a major meltdown on the way to school shortly after Santi started going by they/them. Transferring schools helped – despite the sex ed episode – and things at the new school are a lot better. Santi is thriving.

They are into art – a beautiful painting of a loteria card with Michelle Obama and the title “La Dama” hangs in the dining room of Brochin’s condo. They also like to knit. But Santi’s current favorite things are the iPhone they got the day after their 13th birthday, and sleepovers with friends.

“Sleepovers were always hard, and now we’re doing sleepovers,” Brochin says.

“Like two every weekend!” Santi interrupts. They are wearing a bracelet with pink and purple beads and alphabet letters that spell out SEXY GOOSE.

“My friend made it for me for my birthday. I love it,” Santi says. “I had another one that said FUNKY BEEOTCH but I can’t find it … I know I left it at Jenna’s house because I remember at 2am, like, throwing it at her face.” Their mom smiles.

“I don’t remember when I stay up past, like, 1:30,” Santi says.

“I always ask them when they get home, ‘What time did you stay up till?’” Joaquin says.

“My record,” Santi replies, grinning, “is not going to bed.”

More change is coming. Because “medicine has not caught up,” Santi will soon need to make a choice. They can’t take hormone blockers forever, meaning they will have to choose – chemically, anyway – to be a man or a woman. Santi says they plan to start using female pronouns in high school.

Brochin is not in a rush. “There’s almost a pressure to transition,” she says. She doesn’t like that, but she is making plans already to change Santi’s birth certificate – a multi-step process.

“This, for me, feels overwhelming,” Brochin says. “And I have all the digital resources and tools and access to everybody I might need access to and I’m tired, right?” But she’s also happy – because Santi is happy. “Finally we can focus on school, because it feels like for years and years and years that was not an option.”

Santi’s not the only one learning, Brochin says. “I feel like Santi has taught our family a lot.”

[“source=theguardian”]