Justin Santiago, 66, the first trans man in Puerto Rico to change his name and gender on his birth certificate, remembers the long-ago incident that led to years of pain he hopes other teens don’t have to endure.
During biology class in the mountain town of Barranquitas, Santiago would sit at his desk, take a wooden pencil, grab a sheet of paper and write love letters to his teacher.
She had a voluptuous body, Santiago recalled, and wore her curly blonde hair tied back. He wrote the letters hoping that one day she would reciprocate his feelings. Every time Santiago wrote a love letter he would leave it in the teacher's mailbox and hope for the best.
One day, the school counselor asked him to visit her office. She told him that leaving such notes was wrong.
“Because she is my teacher?” Santiago asked.
“No, because she is a woman, like you,” the counselor replied.
“But I’m a man,” said Santiago, then 15 and a trans youth.
The incident led to years of conversion therapy — an unscientific practice that seeks to change people’s sexual orientation and gender identity through psychological techniques, causing guilt and shame.
“They broke me and turned me into a sick person,” Santiago said. The treatment involved prescribing him psychiatric drugs that led to other dependencies, he said, with no one ever held accountable.
On May 6, a Puerto Rico Senate committee killed Senate Bill 184, which would have banned conversion therapies in Puerto Rico. The failure to advance the bill was a blow to LGBTQ advocates like Santiago, who had told his story before the Committee on Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction.
Though former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló had signed a 2019 executive order banning conversion therapies in the U.S. territory, the bill’s sponsors wanted the ban codified into law, to prevent a future anti-LGBTQ+ rights governor from annulling Rosselló’s mandate.
“Don’t hurt your children”
Santiago hopes telling his story serves as a cautionary tale for younger generations. “If my story helps one person not have to experience the torture that I went through, for me that is enough,” he said.
He pleads with parents: “Don't hurt your children.”
After telling his school counselor that he was a man, Santiago was removed from class and he never saw that teacher again. The counselor called his parents, Jesús and Justina, to inform them about Santiago’s notes. To continue studying there, he had to visit a psychiatric center in Río Piedras in the island’s capital. His parents, a farmer and a housewife, traveled by public transportation for nearly 2 hours to get Santiago to his appointments.
Santiago recalled that he had to sit in a chair in front of the desk of his psychiatrist, who constantly questioned him about his gender identity. She had a cross on her wall and sometimes mentioned God.
“I remember that she asked me if I would ever be happy. And I asked her, are you?” Santiago said.
He insisted that all he wanted was to have surgery to make his body look like he felt — a man. But the psychiatrist emphasized that that was not possible.
“She immediately prescribed drugs,” Santiago said.
When Santiago was 18, the psychiatric center gave him a letter with his dead name (the name he was given at birth) written on the envelope.
“Don't open it!” the psychiatrist said, telling him it was for his parents. But he ignored her orders and learned he was being diagnosed with schizophrenia and chronic neurosis. The report also mentioned that Santiago “felt no guilt about the damage he was doing to his parents.”
Santiago, who insisted he wasn’t suffering from mental illness, said he and his family never discussed what happened in those sessions. He stopped using the prescribed medications, but said he became an alcoholic.
Miguel Vázquez-Rivera, a psychologist who has served trans, queer and nonbinary communities for over a decade, says that the use of prescribed medications can lead a person to seek ways to relieve pain through other substances, like tobacco and alcohol.
“The psychiatrists constantly told me that I was going to hurt my parents and my family. It caused me to get sick. I never wanted to hurt them,” Santiago said. “The idea of committing suicide was always in my head, but I did not do it, so I wouldn't hurt my family. That’s why I did not kill myself.”
Santiago doesn't remember psychiatrists telling him that loving a woman was wrong. But they rejected his gender identity as a trans man.
A right to raise children “according to their convictions”
Conservatives like Sen. Joanne Rodríguez-Veve and Rep. Lissie Burgos-Muñiz, of Proyecto Dignidad (The Dignity Party), a Christian-led party founded in 2019, opposed the bill against conversion therapies. Rodríguez-Veve has argued that “parents have a right to raise their children according to their convictions.”
Rodríguez-Veve, who voted against bringing the bill to the Senate floor, was criticized by LGBTQ activists for repeatedly questioning if the legislation would open the door to allowing minors to undergo hormone-blocking processes without parental consent — which was not the case. Rodríguez-Veve did not respond to requests for comment.
It is not the first time that the island’s Legislature has blocked a bill against conversion therapies. When a version of this year’s bill was introduced in 2019, the House of Representatives’ Legal Committee denied that those practices were carried out on the island. At the time, the body was chaired by Rep. María Milagros Charbonier, who resigned last year after being arrested on federal corruption charges and has a long history of spearheading anti-LGBTQ measures.
Since the bill was introduced, conservative and religious public officials have argued that conversion therapies do not exist on the island. Vázquez-Rivera, the psychologist, disagrees. Through his practice, he says he’s seen conversion therapy lead to anxiety, depression, drug abuse, maladaptive behaviors and suicide attempts.
Eunice Avilés, a doctor in psychology with 16 years of experience working with trans communities, insisted that conversion therapies are not always called that, making them harder for officials to identify. Sometimes, they are sold under the guise of “religious counseling sessions.”
“When they insist that who you are (your gender identity) and what you feel is wrong, that damages you from the innermost fiber of your body to the outside,” Avilés said. “That is violence.”
Several LGBTQ+ community members who offered their testimony in the public hearings for the bill said they had been exposed to these practices through religious groups.
“Sin is not homosexuality,” Pedro Julio Serrano, a well-known LGBTQ+ activist, said at the public hearings. “Sin is homophobia.”
Serrano urged Santiago to tell his story. He knew that Santiago would not agree to tell his testimony before the commission without the support of his community. Although conversion therapies had been going on in Puerto Rico for years, the issue is now coming to light, and Santiago would finally have the opportunity to tell his story, Serrano said.
Santiago says he had to prepare himself to tell his story in public. Decades have passed since he was put through conversion therapies, but he does not feel like he has healed.
“My parents would have loved me”
Santiago recalled a visit to his father just a few years ago. He told his dad that he never had identified with the name he was given at birth. He told him he planned to change it and call himself Justin Jesús, in honor of his parents.
His father looked at him for a few seconds and, looking concerned, told him it would be difficult to call him Justin Jesús because he would feel like he was talking to someone else.
“You are my father. You can call me whatever you like,” he replied. Santiago asked for his blessing and told him that he loved him. His dad hugged him and said he loved him, too.
“That conversation didn't last 45 seconds. It took me 62 years to have that conversation with my father,” Santiago said. “This is all those people's fault. My parents would have loved me.”
When his mother died in 2007, Santiago assumed in full his gender identity, decades after the first time he expressed he was a man. During a nine-month period, he began taking hormones, underwent surgery, and changed his name and gender on legal documents.
In 2018, Judge Carmen Consuelo Cerezo of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico declared that the local government’s policy of not allowing trans people to change their birth certificates was unconstitutional.
The timing allowed Santiago to make history as the first trans man to legally change his gender identity in Puerto Rico.
Carmen Padilla, a friend of Santiago for more than 30 years, accompanied him to his double mastectomy. Padilla lived in Boston and came to Puerto Rico for three weeks to help Santiago during the post-operation recovery. “He was prepared for this. I’m very happy that he found himself,” Padilla said.
Serrano, the activist, who has known Santiago for a decade, said that for many years Santiago "manifested himself as a lesbian with masculine experiences," before being able to affirm his gender identity.
When Santiago began to assume his identity as a trans man, he looked “much happier, more dynamic and more assertive,” Serrano said. After Santiago was administered hormones and had surgery, Serrano said he soon saw the effects — hair growth on Santiago's chin, changes in his voice and gait, and a masculine haircut.
“He looked empowered. It was a rebirth,” Serrano said. “He recognized that through his experiences he could become a leader in the trans community.”
Santiago is now an icon of activism in the transmasculine community who has blazed paths for other transgender Puerto Ricans. Younger generations affectionately call him “TransPa."
He and other LGBTQ activists say they will continue to advocate against conversion therapy and push for legislation against it.
As a teenager, Santiago wrote letters to his teacher. Decades later, after his surgery, Santiago wrote a love hymn to himself.
I do not transition; I reaffirm myself from my skin and my own identity
I free myself and vindicate
before an oppressive binary system
that insists on controlling and invalidating my existence
His existence, Santiago says, is “a cry of freedom” that he now shares with the world.