A transsexual’s Christian odyssey

The transgender Spaniard who met Pope Francis last month talks about his journey

Diego Neria met Pope Francis last month after writing him a letter.
Diego Neria met Pope Francis last month after writing him a letter.andy sole

Diego was born a girl. He came into the world 47 years ago in Plasencia, a city of 45,000 people in the western Spanish province of Cáceres, but with a body opposite to the one he has now: incompatible, a rival, an enemy even; the torso of a female in the mind of a male – transsexual.

Eight years ago he decided to undergo surgery. He says the decision prompted insults, and that on one occasion, a priest from his city told him: “You are the daughter of the Devil.” He didn’t go to work that day. Being reborn and being insulted for it meant rethinking his Christian faith, deep rooted in his family.

Sick and tired of the situation, he decided to write a letter to Pope Francis asking if there was still a place for him in the house of the Lord. On December 8, Francis rang him. And on January 23, Diego and his partner traveled to Rome for an audience in the Vatican with the pontiff. “That conversation is private. It is a secret that I will keep forever,” he says smiling at our table in the corner of a café on Plasencia’s main square.

Being reborn as a man and being insulted meant rethinking his Christian faith, deep rooted in his family

Diego Neria Lejárraga first began to notice that his mind was not at one with his body at the age of “seven or eight.” At the age of 11, the head of the private school he attended called him to his office and told him: “You cannot continue here.” And so he left. At age 12, while his body began to develop, he changed school, teachers, and friends. “I have known what I am like from an early age. I played with my Action Man and dressed like boys my age … But I hid my breasts as best I could.”

Very little is known about Spain’s transsexual community, according to a recent study by the country’s State Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals (FELGTB), and it is still largely associated in the public mind with pornography rather than the marginalization it tends to suffer. In the majority of countries where studies have taken place, transsexuals make up between 0.14 percent and 0.26 percent of the population, and on average become aware of their transsexuality at around the age of 11, but rarely tell anybody until they are aged 18.

Diego’s family was supportive when they learned of his condition, although he says there was a brief period when his parents put his behavior down to adolescent “stupidity.” “But it wasn’t,” he says, adding that it still makes him emotional to think about the help he received “almost all the time” from those closest to him. His family was unconditional in its support: his father, an engineer, now retired; his mother, a housewife and part-time journalist for regional newspaper Hoy – which had the scoop on the papal visit – and his sister, a nurse. That said, he says there is “the odd” close family member who sees him as a “curse on the family.”

Diego’s voice broke at the age of 40. “I remember the first croaks: I was so happy!”

But Diego’s real problems have always been out in the world. He says a neighbor approached him once and said: “Let’s see if you’ve got what it takes, because I know you don’t.” His mother, with whom he says he feels a special chemistry, was afraid that her child would be exposed to rejection and ridicule, particularly once he took the decision to undergo surgery. On one occasion she said to him: “Son, as you know, I am ill and won’t be around for long, so I’m just asking you not to undergo surgery while I’m still alive,” a wish that Diego respected. His mother died in 2006, and that was when, at the age of 40, he began the process of gender reassignment at a private clinic in Madrid.

What did it feel like when he started to grow a beard? “It felt great. I went to see the doctor and told him that I wanted more hair. He smiled and told me that I would soon be sick of it.”

Diego’s voice broke at the age of 40. “I remember the first croaks: I was so happy!” The FELGTB says that 88 percent of transsexuals have undergone hormone treatment, many without any medical supervision, while 55.6 percent have undergone minor surgery, and only 15 percent have had genital reconstruction. Diego says that just before his gender reassignment, after a dinner with his former partner in Madrid, he went to use the women’s washroom because the men’s was busy. “A lady came up to me waving a walking stick and said: ‘What are you doing here, you degenerate!’”

After the gender reassignment, everything moved forward quickly. It took just three months to get a new identity card: “It was an incredible moment when I held it in my hand,” he says.

Would he live the same life over again? “No, I have suffered a lot”

He was now officially Diego, and was able to change the name on his utilities contracts. A few days later, he received the first letter addressed to his new name, bought a pair of swimming trunks so that he could swim in a public pool, and “at last” liked himself in the mirror. Would he live the same life over again? “No, I have suffered a lot,” he says.

Diego has become something of a celebrity within Spain’s FELGTB community. In Plasencia, the news about his audience with the pope soon spread, and the city has been inundated by the international media. Diego says these are the best days of his life, and that he now hopes to get married, write a book, and join the Brotherhood of the Macarena, the group from the Seville neighborhood famous for carrying a life-size statue of the Virgin of Hope of Macarena, kept in the church of the same name, during the city’s Easter procession.

What would his mother think of all this? “All this has only been possible thanks to her. I think that the day I die she will receive me with open arms and say to me: ‘How handsome you are, how proud I am, perhaps we should have done this together, and sooner.’”

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