PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba – It's hard enough being transgender in the United States, but can you imagine how difficult it might be in the Cuban countryside?
Local 10 News' Hatzel Vela sat down with a woman who told about her personal journey and the many obstacles the transgender community faces in a communist country.
Hector Rodriguez started realizing he was different at the age of 5.
"I would put on shorts and look in the mirror," Rodriguez, now Ruby, said in Spanish. "I would notice I'd like the shorts a little tighter."
Baseball wasn't of interest as it was for most Cuban boys. Rodriguez preferred playing with girls and dolls, and was always hiding his true identity from school bullies.
"I left school in eighth grade because I couldn't stand the bullying," Ruby said.
At 17, Rodriguez started working the fields, watering the tobacco plants. Around this time, a friend convinced Rodriguez he should start looking more like a woman.
"Inside, I feel like a woman," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez told his mother what was happening. It wasn't easy, but it was the first major step toward finding himself, really herself, which at first her mother opposed.
"She told me, 'Never dress as a girl,'" Ruby said.
But that's exactly what she wanted to do, and did. Eventually, with support from her mother, Hector became Ruby, purposely dressing more extravagantly so her father and her grandfather would accept her.
"I was no longer scared," she said.
These days two things stand in the way.
"What hurts the most is losing my hair," she said.
Wigs are not the same. She wants to be natural and prefers to cover her bald spot.
"It was something really tough," she said.
Today, her transformation wasn't completely to her liking. A lack of makeup, clothing and wigs certainly stands in the way. Lack of materials aside, tougher even still is her recent move out of the countryside and into the city of Pinar del Rio.
"Despite there being more culture in the city, there are more people who love to criticize," she said.
She's been living in the city for five months and it's not easy. People shout slurs and scream she might have AIDS or that she's a prostitute.
"While I lived here in the countryside, I was queen," Ruby said.
People in the countryside give her more respect. Now she fears she'll be harmed, or, even worse, attacked.
Her interview with Local 10 News took place in her old country home, which is made of wood and has barely any plumbing. It's where she still feels safe.
That's key in the gay world, or in her case, the Cuban transgender world, which is a world apart from the U.S. transgender experience as recently highlighted by Caitlyn Jenner.
Local 10 News first showed Ruby a photo of Bruce Jenner, followed by one of Caitlyn Jenner.
"I'd love to meet him in person and say, 'You were courageous,'" Ruby said.
Local 10 News asked her if she's ever thought about surgery. She has, but thinks she's too old. And living in Cuba in the countryside in a small town, it would be almost inconceivable.
When its come to being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, she feels there are more freedoms in Cuba, but it will still be a long time, she said, before people change their attitudes.
So what about the gay movement in Cuba being in the spotlight because of Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela Castro?
"Sometimes I think everything is just appearances," Ruby said.
But life for this small-town girl continues. The best way she knows is surviving, adapting and changing minds one day at a time.
Viewers can watch the second part of Hatzel Vela's story Wednesday on Local 10 News at 6 p.m.