As the queer community grows and expands across neighborhoods and international borders, it encompasses a diverse group of people from a multiplicity of backgrounds and gender identities. And yet, with this growth comes varying and sometimes dissonant opinions inside what is sometimes portrayed as a singular allied front. While the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage represents one version of equality, other voices within the community continue to bring focus to the many other issues queer people face every day. Gender identity and expression in particular have been central in many of these conversations.

Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ documentary Mala Mala takes this on with an almost encyclopedic approach to the various expressions of gender identity in Puerto Rico. All the characters have a uniquely self-made way of identifying themselves, giving us a kaleidoscopic view into the lives of those who live within, along and on top of the margins. Two characters that perhaps provide the most contrast in the film are activist Ivana Fred and beauty shop owner Soraya Santiago Solla. The two have a clear generational difference — Soraya is 68 and Ivana is clearly her junior — but it’s their ideological differences that create one of the most interesting moments in the film.

Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, Directors ‘Mala Mala.’ Photo By: Payola Isabel

Born in 1947 in San Juan, Soraya was diagnosed at an early age with what she refers to as a very serious condition called gender dysphoria. “The physical, the mental and the spiritual did not fit,” she says. “I was a total incongruity because I had a gender identity that, as per my understanding of myself, wasn’t right.” At the behest of doctors in Puerto Rico and with the financial support of her family, Soraya traveled to New York in 1975 to have gender reassignment surgery. “I told my mother that I wanted to be a woman if only for just a day of my life and then I could die,” she recalls. “But life has been so generous with me that I’ve been given forty years of womanhood. That is, I’ve been a woman for more than half of my life.” Soraya documented her story via a book that was recently published called Hecha a mano.

“Your wanting to be a beauty queen is different from being a woman.”

For Soraya there is a big difference between herself and people she refers to as “dolls,” “beauty queens,” and “performers.” She doesn’t believe that people who are spectrum or in the process of transitioning should call themselves “women” or even “transsexuals.” She references the entirely new set of legal documents she was granted by the Puerto Rican government upon her return from surgery, and firmly asserts that she is a heterosexual woman and therefore a true “transsexual.” “My goal was to be a unique and real person,” she says, and she ascribes veracity to a scientific and medical understanding of gender that is based on the genitals. “So these women today who don’t contemplate changing their sex, these nenas, who people encourage and celebrate and who can do whatever they want with their lives, some will become women, yes,” Soraya states, “but others will never get there because they don’t feel it. They have breasts, they look beautiful, but internally, in their essence it’s not the same. Your wanting to be a beauty queen is different from being a woman.”

“Not everyone has money to have an operation… I can’t minimize that person because they have the most important thing which is their essence.”

Ivana Fred, however, views sexuality less systemically. For fifteen years Ivana has worked closely with the transgender community in Puerto Rico by doing community outreach via organizations that provide health services and HIV prevention, particularly to those who are involved in the sex industry. Ivana is also a well-known public figure, and will often act as spokesperson in government and media forums. Long-limbed, soft-skinned and curvaceous, Ivana is well aware of the importance of the body as way to manifest gender; she works hard at her appearance and wants to show it off. She takes what she calls a “logical” and “realistic” approach to her understanding of anatomy and creation of self. She believes a transsexual to be anyone who perceives incongruence between their biological sex and what they see in the mirror, whether or not they have gone under the knife. “I can’t forget my reality,” Ivana says, “which is that I am a transsexual because a biological woman doesn’t have to have gender reassignment surgery, doesn’t have to take hormones, doesn’t have to change her name or have to incur any of the things that a transsexual does.”

By endorsing a panoptic view of transsexuality, Ivana aims to be more inclusive. This perspective takes into account the very real financial limitations that come with transitioning and that can create a type of gender-hierarchy based on hetero-normative qualifiers. “Not everyone has the money to have an operation,” Ivana states, “not everyone has money to buy hormones or to change their appearance so that’s why I can’t minimize that person because they have the most important thing which is their essence.”

“It’s what you project… because there are women who have their proper genitalia, their vagina, and they don’t feel like women.”

Here’s where the two women begin to share commonalities: they both believe in feminine essence as the catalytic starting point. Personally, I’ve always been curious about feminine essence because, though I am biologically a woman, I’ve never felt I’ve had it. In the past, due to my shame and in wanting to please my family, I thought I could acquire it somehow. So I asked both Soraya and Ivana to tell me what their own personal definition of “essence” is.

“It’s what you project,” Soraya explains, “that’s what you want to be, it’s what you manifest: That you are a woman and a woman that goes beyond genitalia because there are women who have their proper genitalia, their vagina, and they don’t feel like women. In my essence, I felt and feel and I continue to learn how to be a woman.” Ivana’s interpretation of essence differs from Soraya’s in that she rejects an essence that pre-ascribes a constructed and binary identity such as “man” and “woman.” “I can say that I feel feminine and can express being a woman,” Ivana points out, “and so my essence is that of a transsexual that consigns to the feminine.” This calls into question the very notion of an inherent gender. For Ivana, being able to call herself a transsexual, whether she’s had reassignment surgery or not, is very important. “If I call myself a woman then I’m feeling shame and I’m discriminating against myself, which is something I vehemently oppose.”

Soraya and Ivana’s scene in Mala Mala presents these two perspectives and evokes the changing times. Once upon a time not presenting as the sex you were assigned at birth meant you wanted to be the Other. Nowadays, biological sex is perceived as merely a reference point. What is clear from the film and in talking to both of these women is the range of thoughts and opinions that have been shaped by history and experience. This is a great asset for the community because it encourages us to be better listeners, to be patient and understanding, and to not judge each other and ourselves too harshly. That last one is the hardest one of all.


Read our review of the documentary, Mala Mala.

Mala Mala is playing at the IFC Center in NYC through July 14, 2015.