Malta has the most progressive transgender legislation in the world, and eight-year-old Willa Naylor was instrumental in completely transforming it.
The government passed the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act last year, which recognises a person’s gender and their right to officially change it.
Willa’s journey began eight years ago. She was born Will but never felt comfortable as a boy.
“I remember that there was these pink sparkly shoes and I was put into them,” she said.
“My mother’s friend was with us and she said it wasn’t good for a boy to say that he wants pink shoes.”
Her mother Bex Naylor said Willa chose girls’ toys and clothing as soon as she could walk and talk.
“I thought I was raising a boy so I would tell her, ‘oh no pick the boys’ things’, and I feel bad about it now but we just didn’t really understand,” she said.
“She couldn’t socialise with kids, she spent years at school not even speaking to other children.
“Doctors were telling me she had selective muteness.
“She didn’t want to leave the house, she was anxious all the time.
“We had a lot of years of not knowing what the problem was.”
‘That’s who I’ll always be’
Mrs Naylor’s daughter started to try on her clothes, playing with hair clips and doing other “girl things” at four years of age.
“I started to really try and get a bit strict at that time, trying to put my foot down, trying to see if that would help,” she said.
“And it went away for a little while and then we were thinking of moving and she said, ‘The new bedroom, will there be dresses for a five-year-old?’
“And I said, ‘Oh I thought that might have gone away?’
“And she said, ‘No, that’s me mummy. That’s who I’ll always be.'”That was the moment Mrs Naylor and her husband James realised they were raising a transgender child.
“It wasn’t easy at first because it’s saying goodbye to what you thought was the situation,” she said.
“You thought you had a little boy. That’s hard at first. I think it’s hard for a lot of parents.
“It is kind of a grieving process. You have to let go of what you thought it was and all the little pet names.
“I would often say ‘son’, like an endearment, and it’s all those little things that have to go.
“And it was hard, but then we saw how happy she was.”
‘I felt like I was killing my child’
However, Willa could only be a girl inside their home.
She still had to present as a male at school because the legislation at the time did not allow for gender change.
“That was a bit of a struggle with the school at first because they didn’t have policies in place,” Mrs Naylor said.
“When we went there and we said to them, ‘Will presents as a girl, Will feels she’s a girl’, it was, I might as well have brought a Martian down.
“They didn’t know what to do. It was a completely new thing.
“They wanted support from doctors and things like that, and we did that.”
But the school’s hands were tied. They needed government policy to change and so the Naylor family started campaigning.
“We met with ministers in the end and actually the minister that was in charge of putting through this new legislation granted [Willa] permission to go to school as a girl,” Mrs Naylor said.
“There has been children in this country that get to be themselves on the weekend and then put on the uniform of the other gender on Monday morning.
“That’s awful. I felt like I was killing my child every time I had to do that, put on that boy’s uniform during that time.”
‘I’ve made it easier for them’
Malta passed the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act last year. It means a person’s gender, and their right to change it, is recognised under Maltese law.
They also introduced guidelines for schools to help other transgender children.
Willa says the Maltese community has accepted her decision, and is now free to be herself.
“That feels good that I’ve changed the whole of Malta because then other kids in Malta will have it good for them and they won’t have to go through trouble. I’ve made it easier for them,” she said.
The Maltese Government has drawn up a two-year action plan to continue its push to protect the LGBTIQ community.
By Connie Agius