A brief look at pop-culture and politics over the past year might give the illusion that rights for transgender people have progressed, at least in terms of visibility. Earlier this year, Laverne Cox followed up a series of historic firsts by becoming the first transgender person to play a trans series regular on broadcast television in Doubt. In November, Danica Roem became the country's first openly transgender official elected to Virginia legislature. And this month, US District Judge Colleen Kollary-Kotelly ruled that transgender recruits must be accepted into the military by January 1st.
As a country, we have indeed made some major progress in the past year. But it's also important to acknowledge that we have a long way to go. Killings of transgender people are at an all time high, and both our government and Hollywood are lightyears behind when it comes to representation. And while in some places in this country — say, majority white, liberal circles — it's easy to imagine more of the progress that we have seen, in some cultures, embracing and championing change is much easier said than done.
HBO's newest documentary, 15: Quinceañera Story, is a reminder of that. The four-part project, produced by the power couple made up of record producer Tommy Mottola and singer Thalia, spotlights four different teenagers whose quinces will be unconventional. In Tuesday night's premiere, we meet Zoey, a 15-year-old Mexican-American high schooler in Los Angeles who also happens to be trans. Throughout the episode, we follow her as she prepares for the big day. And through the process, we're reminded that growing up trans and part of a tradition-based, patriarchal culture like Latino might come with an additional set of difficulties.
Beneath a bubbly exterior, Zoey is wise far beyond her 15 years. But she's also like many teenage girls: Smiley, endearingly awkward, and obsessed with makeup, boys, and the movie Grease. At the beginning of the episode, Zoey's mother, Ofelia, explains that in Latino culture, a quinceañera is meant to celebrate a young woman's journey into womanhood. And for Zoey, who was assigned male at birth, the meaning of that celebration takes on double meaning. As a Latina myself who grew up in a family and was also surrounded by people who immediately shunned men who weren't super-masculine, I was shocked at how easily Ofealia spoke about Zoey's transition as a kid. In a largely religious culture where the language itself is gender-based and men typically still dominate, it was a relief to see a mother so supportive and encouraging. But Ofealia says that for her, there was one moment where Zoey's identity clicked for her: "The day she told me 'Do you think God made a mistake when he was passing out bodies?'" Ofealia remembers. "She was 5 years old."
Of course that moment brought me to tears. And I wasn't the only one happily surprised by the level of acceptance in Zoey's Latin family. In the episode, we also meet James, a lawyer from the ACLU who helped Zoey successfully make a case against the Los Angeles school system for trans discrimination by her school when she was younger. James has since become Zoey's godfather, or padrino. He tells us that once, he pulled up to the house and saw a pre-transition Zoey playing in the front window with Barbies. "I had to pull myself together emotionally, because as a little boy, my mother saw me once playing with dolls in the front yard at a friend's house," he says. "And she said it's fine for you to play with dolls, but I think you ought to do it in the backyard so people don't see you. So for me to see a mother allowing Zoey to be playing pre-transition there in the open..."
Then, there are the individual traditions that are conventionally a part of quinces that proved to be a little bit tricky for Zoey to navigate as a trans woman. First, there's the presence of The Doll, a gift from her grandmother that, in quinces, symbolizes the last doll a young woman entering womanhood will ever have. When Zoey sees her doll with a large chest poking out from the top of a sweetheart neckline, she pokes at the doll's "boobies" and says "I don't have those!" But she just laughs it off; at just 15, Zoey is used to shrugging her shoulders to the customs of her culture and seeing no problem in simply adapting them for herself.
Next, there's the quinceañera court. Similar to a bridal party at a wedding, in a quince, the birthday girl has a group of female and male friends who are paired together for a grand entrance and some dance numbers. But finding boys to join her court is challenging for Zoey. The idea of dating, she admits, is already hard enough as it is, much less finding teenage boys who will dance with her and her friends. "Every boy at this age is afraid to like me," she says, "because they're afraid they'll be considered gay." She does, in the end, get enough boys to join, and her choreographer — once a young, gay Mexican teenager — gets a little emotional watching them practice. "I didn't grow up with a supportive family," he explains.
Aside from Zoey's courageousness — at just 15, she's already an activist and community role model for trans teens — and her irresistibly endearing personality, one of the best parts about this story is the people in Zoey's life. And not just her mother and James, who are both an example for everyone on how to not question someone's identity. We also meet Zoey's "fairy godmothers." Usually the godmother, or madrina, at a quince supports the soon-to-be-15-year-old not just emotionally, but financially by providing gifts. In Zoey's case, she's supported by several madrinas, who all happen to be trans women. When one of the madrinas, Maria, goes shopping with Zoey to buy her a pastel pink confection of a gown, she gets choked up.
"You're growing into womanhood," she tells Zoey. "For many of us Latinas that didn't get that opportunity this is...it feels like all the years of struggle are all coming as a blessing through you." And then she adds to the camera: "She's a little girl and I want her to feel beautiful, just like any other 14-year-old girl would feel. For me, it adds a cherry on top that she's trans."
In the end, of course, Zoey has a magical day. She waltzes in to her country club-set party with a show-stopping squad — with both girls and boys. Her busty doll has a place front-and-center, and in a Cinderella-esque moment, her padrino James slides a pair of sparkling heels onto her feet; her first official pair of high heels. It all seems like any other Latina teenager's quinceañera, except that her family and us viewers get to see just how much work went into not just ensuring that Zoey was capable of having a quince just like any other little girl, but also, how she could honor her culture's traditions while also creating her own.
As a liberal who works at a feminist website, lives in New York City and is fond of pro-rights hashtags, it can be easy to point fingers at people for not being accepting or progressive. But Zoey's story is a reminder that in the communities where family and tradition rule, it might take more time (and more work!) to catch up. Zoey's story, however, is proof that it can happen. It just might mean being a little flexible when it comes to the word tradition.
15: Quinceañera Story premieres on HBO December 19.