Mayla Rezende (R) and Sofia Albuquerck pose for photos in Blumenau, Brazil. Reuters
Growing up as identical twins, Mayla and Sofia always did everything together, and their decision to undergo gender confirmation surgery is no exception.
The 19-year-old twins, who grew up in a small town in southeastern Brazil, both say they "never identified as boys." Now, they have made the transition they long dreamed of together, in what their doctor calls a first.
"This is the only reported case in the world" of twins who were presumed to be male at birth undergoing female gender confirmation surgery together, said Dr Jose Carlos Martins of the Transgender Center Brazil, a clinic in the southeastern city of Blumenau.
Martins performed the five-hour surgery on the twins one day apart.
A week later, the euphoric young women smiled, joked and shed tears as they talked about their shared journey in a video-conference interview with AFP.
"I always loved my body, but I didn't like my genitalia," said Mayla Rezende, a brunette who is studying medicine in Argentina. "I would blow dandelion seeds into the air and wish for God to turn me into a girl," she said.
When she saw herself after her surgery, she wept, she said. Her sister, Sofia Albuquerck, is more reserved.
But their camaraderie is clear. They finish each other's sentences while sharing stories of how they supported each other through the bullying, sexual harassment and violence they were subjected to in childhood and adolescence.
'Most transphobic country'
"We live in the most transphobic country in the world," said Albuquerck, a blonde who is studying civil engineering in Sao Paulo.
There were 175 trans people murdered in Brazil last year, the most of any country, according to the National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals (Antra).
Latin America's largest country is known for a strong culture of machismo and overt homophobia, not least on the part of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. The twins were born in Tapira, a town of 4,000 people in the state of Minas Gerais.
They still bear the emotional scars of their difficult childhoods: to this day, they live in fear of abuse. But they always had the support of their family, they said.
"Our parents weren't afraid of what we were, they were afraid that people would mistreat us," said Rezende.
Their grandfather is the one who paid for their surgeries. He auctioned off a property he owned to pay the 100,000-reais ($20,000) bill. Their mother, Mara Lucia da Silva, said it was "a relief" when her twins came out as trans.
"I don't even remember thinking of them as boys. To me, they were always girls," she said. She recalled taking them to doctors and psychologists as children.
"In my heart, I always knew they were girls, and that they were suffering," said the 43-year-old school secretary, who has two other daughters.
"I'm upset with myself for never giving them a doll or a dress, for not making them happier when they were girls," she said. But the twins said their mother was a rock of support.
"Whenever someone did something to us in the street, the first thing we wanted to do was go home and tell our mom, for her to give us a hug," said Rezende.
"She was like a lioness. She always protected us fiercely."
Rezende and Albuquerck — one has their father's surname, the other that of the grandfather who financed their surgeries — were originally planning to go to Thailand for the operation.
But then Rezende found the Transgender Centre, which opened in 2015. Gender confirmation surgery has been covered by Brazil's public health system since 2011. But only five public hospitals perform the procedure, and the waiting list is long.
Going through a private clinic enabled the twins to have the surgery sooner.
"I'm proud to be a trans woman. I've lived in fear of society for too long. Now I'm asking for respect," said Rezende, who keeps a picture of Saint Sebastian, the Christian martyr, with her constantly.
Albuquerck, who is also religious, said that she believes "God created souls, not bodies." "I want to help people see that we're human beings, too," she said.
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