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By Claudia Deschamps

HOUSTON, TX -- Much has been said about the former Olympic athlete who recently appeared on the cover of a glamour magazine as her true self. Now with the story and video series of Bruce Jenner's transformation to Caitlyn, the serious coverage regarding what it's like to be transgender has shed light into a reality few people dared to talk about.

“I don’t know why he wasted so many years, but it’s a lot of things. And maybe that’s why he didn’t come out of the closet at all – because he was married and he had children, you know?” says Elia Chino, speculating as to why Caitlyn took as long as she did to become her own person.

Elia knows too well the intricacies of burying an old self and becoming the woman she was meant to be. Elia is the “Caitlyn” no paparazzi ever chased. She is the founder and executive director of a Houston-based HIV counseling and testing non-profit organization, the Fundación Latinoamericana de Acción Social, also known as FLAS.

Born and raised in Michoacán, Mexico, the little boy known as “Elías” felt early on that “he” was in fact a “she;” she just knew she was different. Thirsty for educational opportunities, Elías emigrated to the United States and 20 years ago founded FLAS.

Like most transgender individuals, Elia is the “Caitlyn” no paparazzi ever chased.

But her transformation did not materialize in Elías's mind until “she” saw "himself" on television.

“My decision came after I was watching an interview on television. I told myself, that’s not me. That’s when I decided to change,” says Elia.

The metamorphosis occurred in a long, complicated and heart-wrenching 15-year process. Unlike Caitlyn, whose family has openly supported the change, for Elia, burying her old self meant burying family members and close colleagues.

Related: In Post-Caitlyn World, More Acceptance of Transgender People Expected: Survey

“There was so much rejection from co-workers. I never expected that I wouldn’t have the support that I was supposed to have,” says Elia.

Several of them, unable to tolerate the transformation, left the organization. But perhaps what hurt the most were his mother's words when he was still Elías.

“If you alter your body when undergoing the transformation, you will go straight to hell!” said the mom.

Far from the depths of hell, Elia has reached heights few transgender individuals have. She has become a staple in the community and a constant presence in conferences and events. Today, FLAS has several offices in the Houston area, and aside from offering HIV prevention services, it also provides same-sex relationship and substance abuse counseling.

Referring to Caitlyn’s willingness to share her story with the masses, Elia believes that social barriers are been broken.

“For the transgender community, I think it is positive," she says. "The issue has been raised due to Caitlyn’s notoriety. There is a lot of awareness in the community and worldwide. I think there will be more acceptance.”

In the future, what Elia also hopes is that policy makers and the medical community will join forces to provide services that will deter transgender individuals from seeking hormone therapies outside of the realm of medicine.

“Many times” Elia says, “the lack of money makes transgender women seek treatment from sources that are unreliable and unsafe.”

Leaving Elías behind was not easy. But for Elia, accepting and loving the woman she has become is the fuel that powers her desire to help others.

“I love the way I am because this is who I am. I know that I wasn’t really Elías.”

Learn more about Fundación Latinoamericana de Acción Social (FLAS)

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